After Scottish games developer Realtime Worlds confirmed it had received a $50m investment to help support its plans for future growth we spoke to CEO Dave Jones to find out more about the studio’s online strategy…
At GDC, a few people suggested that when it comes to games development for online projects if you compare Web 2.0 developers to games developers, our industry can’t invest or react as quickly. What’s your take on that?
That’s been an issue we’ve been looking to address. We have had to build a pipeline that lets you create new content and scenarios and react fast – because we can’t claim to listen to players and then make them wait 12 months before any new content or the first big update. That’s why, as I said, online is expensive – and why we’ve had to raise this money – because one of the key things is to be able to say that, when we go live the new content is ready within three months.
I have to say with new games you’ll always have the best intentions but at the end of the day if you’re going to stick it in a box and forget about it just to get things finished. So we have had to sit back and do things differently, build a bigger team, and spend a lot of money on the infrastructure, pipeline, tools and technology so that when we do go live we can respond and respond fast.
There’s still talk in the industry that ‘normal’ expensive console games are a risky enough, as they are hit driven – but what you describe there sounds like the biggest risk of all…
Sure. But while we’ve been working on APB for three years or so now, the idea began right back at the company’s beginning, so we’ve made sure to pick the idea and the style of the game very, very carefully before committing $50m dollars to it. Especially when we knew it was going to take three years plus to make.
I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s going to be hard for some to get backing on this kind of project – because getting it right is tough, and find the money to pay for it all. But that’s why it’s good to see the investment firms, who as I say love online, really understand it, and want to get involved and know why you have to invest and take your time, and that it is a long term bet.
And if you’ve built that infrastructure once – you’ve then got something in place for game two and game three…
Yes. The five years are always going to be the toughest – after that, if you’ve done everything right, had the right level of funding and not cut corners then absolutely its easier going forward.
Realtime Worlds is at 200 staff. Will that grow further as well now the studios has this investment money to support it?
I think so – there are a number of areas we’re also carefully looking at such as hosting and customer support. We’re working out how much of that we can do internally and how much we can place with another company. And in terms of dev, yes, we’ll keep growing – we’re currently adding one or two people a month. We’ll just keep staffing up as and when needed to do what we do when we go live.
Blizzard has something like 2,000 support staff with a much smaller development team, which is a huge ratio where there’s something like 20 customer service people to every developer. Is Realtime Worlds prepared to reach that kind of size?
Yes, but that’s the easy side – because it’s just scaling with success. That part of a business takes care of itself – it’s how you control it before launch that matters. So there’s currently around 100 working on APB, and obviously that’s expensive before you go live and is what we’re keeping an eye on. But at the same time you can’t skimp on spending during that period, which is also hence why we’ve had to raise this money.
And in terms of launch for APB, what’s the planned business model in terms of subscription and access? You mentioned an advertising firm as being an investor in Realtime Worlds, so I assume there’s a few different options open to you.
Right now, we’re looking at everything – we actually haven’t decided what the business model is just yet, because I feel that’s the right way to do it. We should only decide that after we’ve had a good beta and have listened to what the players are saying. And there are lots of different innovative ways to commercialise an online game, yes, so we’re not going to make that commitment until we’re much closer to launch and people think the value of the game is.
And is there a plan for the launch of the beta yet?
No, not yet – we don’t want to commit to a date just yet. It’s ready when it’s ready.
At GDC you briefly mentioned the partnership with Last.fm for getting music into APB. How did that come about?
Well, when looking at how we can get players involved in customising every aspect of the game, we were asking where we can let them introduce whatever they want – and we did that for every aspect of the game, and it seemed applicable to the music as well. Yeah, we could go out and licence 100 tracks, but as we want players to be able to play the game as they want, have their own themes and characters, choosing music is a big part of that – especially if someone wants to set the tone for a gang, for instance. And projecting that out to other players would be important; you might be driving around in the game, and drive past another car and hear what’s playing on their radio, that’s really exciting and unique.
With Last.fm there’s technology out there that allows us to do just that. It’s part of making sure that when a player enters APB, they can project the image they want to to the rest of the players.
In a lot of games, the style and atmosphere is dictated by music – and in Crackdown you very much dictated the feel of the gameworld through the urban music. How much a priority was it to reverse that tradition for APB?
It’s something I’ve wanted from the beginning – I want people to have a completely unique experience when they go in. And that’s the great thing about online: you’ve no idea, when you login the next day, who you’re going to see or what you might do, and that’s what keeps the experience alive.
My last question is an inevitable one about GTA. The release of the GTAIV is just under two weeks away. I was wondering what your thoughts were on how the franchise has evolved since you’ve not worked on it? And are you looking forward to GTAIV?
I absolutely can’t wait – like everyone else I am reading the forums and finding out about new features. I’m really looking forward to sitting down and playing it – it’s at least 50 hours of gameplay, that’s amazing. Of course I’ve not been involved in the series since the first two, but I think they’ve done an absolutely tremendous job with it given the production values and the cinematics and grown that out of all proportion – that’s just amazing.
It’s interesting that while you said at GDC you think stories should be left to movies and books, the series you created has since gone in that exact direction and is really strong on narrative and has clear, fixed player characters. You created GTA, but aspects of it have gone in a completely different, almost exact opposite, direction to your thinking now…
Definitely. And that’s why with Crackdown I went more to the other direction. What I like is that, if you do want to sit back and have a huge movie-like experience in a game then GTA is the game to have for that. And if you want something that is more pure action, then that was what we designed Crackdown for. So yes, it has gone in a direction different to where I would have taken it, but it’s still an amazing direction they have taken it in and I love it death.