No game at E3 may have had a longer list of unexpected features than APB, Real Time Worlds' so-called crossing of Grand Theft Auto and an MMO.
APB, which comes from the creators of Crackdown, has been in development for a few years and has bounced publishers to land at EA for its expected early 2010 PC release. But for all the times it's popped up in the press, the many unusual ways it works still came as a surprise during Kotaku's meeting with the game's creators at E3.
The game is set in virtual urban spaces that support 100 players competitively in each, or 300 people in non-gameplay social spaces. Each world or shard of the MMO will support 10,000 players who are divided into those spaces. Within those shards you can be a man or a woman, a criminal or a cop ("enforcer"), doing good or bad in whichever region you choose.
If you want, you'll be able to play the game as if it was a single-player game, minding your business by stealing cars, cleaning graffiti, and taking other missions that a criminal or cop might do. But that won't last. (See the APB trailer here.)
If you're a criminal and someone witnesses a criminal player's wrongdoing — or if a car alarm goes off in a stolen car, perhaps — an APB (All Points Bulletin) alert is activated. In this game's case, that means that a dynamic matchmake occurs. The game searches the in-game region and finds one or more enforcers who are equal in skill to the criminal or criminals perpetrating their crime. It gives them orders to stop that crime. And because what is being balanced is overall skill, it doesn't mean the number of players will be even on both sides. Three lowly cops might be sent after one skilled criminal. Or, if the criminal is really good, E.J. Moreland, APB's lead designer told Kokau, all 50 enforcer players in the game's region might be sent after them.
Customisation options in APB are so deep that the developers have shown spitting images of real people being generated through the editing tools every player will have for customising their look and clothes. (Last year at Game Developers Conference, the character customisation was shown off to impressive effect). Cars can be rigged to sport famous designs. Even the music played from a car can be tuned to pull from the MP3s on your computer. And, if a player drives by playing music you don't have on yours, then APB will tap into Last.fm and generate a similar-sounding song for you to hear instead. Oh, and you can set custom jingles to play when you kill other players' characters.
Moreland explained that APB is being built to be a sandbox of a game, befitting Realtime Worlds founder Dave Jones' past work on the original Grand Theft Autos. It won't be big on developer-made story. "The story is what the players do," he said, "Not what we do."
There was a time when APB was expected to morph into Grand Theft Auto Online, maybe even officially. That's not happening. "I think we're a stronger game for it," Moreland said.
Instead, what gamers will be getting is an MMO that encourages player creativity, a lot of mayhem, and if that APB system works, a city full of cat-and-mouse, cops and robbers scrambling and scrapping across the virtual metropolis.