Here’s one from the Draft archive.  I started writing this in January after APB kicked off its rebirth.  I was in the mood to analyze stuff I guess because I started breaking everything down.  There are some wins and some losses in terms of the overall product.  Final vote would probably be … well just read the notes I guess, hopefully something to take away from all those words.

Also, I didn’t finish the doc but it seems hideously out of date now so I can’t bother.  But I haven’t blogged in ages so its going up as is with this tiny forward and some tiny final thoughts I wrote this morning.

This is what happens when you spend all your free time mastering Scathe in SMC instead of being a responsible internet person and updating your blog no one reads ;).

 

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APB. The infamous APB. After its record setting tank-fest its back on the streets via the luxurious ease of Steam’s Free-to-Play lovin’s and already 3+ mil bored gamers have sidled over to see what’s going on in the city of… the city of…  What was that city called? It’s basically that city from GTA 3 I guess.

Alright, I was one of those bored gamers for 5ish hours so by the internet’s standards-of-authority I probably wrote the design doc. Well, I wish I had because it wouldn’t be what it is. It is a mess. BUT! I almost had fun. Which would lead us to believe its not far off but once we examine the situation more closely I think we’ll agree its already time APB reload… again.

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The Setup:

Me:  I did not play APB’s first incarnation along with almost everyone.  Clearly if even a few of us had it would not have been the shortest lived MMO in history.  I like shooters.  I can but don’t often get sucked in to MMO’s and just wanted to see what worked and what didn’t because the premise of this game is extremely appealing.

APB:  The game opens with a pretty neat cinematic to set the scene.  Enjoy this because it is the absolute end of the storytelling.  Basically the city is overrun with criminals and the mayor is handing out deputy badges to anybody who wants one to go fight them.  “Cops” v. “Robbers”; pick your team.  Pretty straight forward.  There are also some solid intro videos to the two factions.  You won’t see anything like this again.

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The Experience:

I’m just going to bullet point this stuff and save myself the effort of long-form coherent thought…

Building your Avatar:  You have the whole shooting gallery of knobs and dials to fiddle with.  Tons of hair styles, but your allegiance to either faction picks your standard issue t-shirt and sweat pants wardrobe.  I do wish you had 2-3 clothing options, even just different colored shirts in the same palette.  Overall the Designer is slick, but we’ll double back to this down the road.

Man About Town:  You remember the GTA series?  Remember how much fun it was to be the lone anarchist blazing around town running over old ladies and trying to dodge the cops long enough to get the stars you needed to shake them?  Why was that so fun?  Because you were alone.  You were the variety.  You stood out in every way and railed against the crazy system.  But that breaks down the moment 100 other lunatics are bombing around town at the same time.  It doesn’t help that the cars drive worse than they do in GTA.  BUT!  You can’t shoot criminals.  And criminals can’t shoot you.  Unless you’re on opposing missions.  I’m supposed to be a vigilante deployed to stop criminals!  But I can’t!  I can watch helplessly as citizens get mugged, cars get jacked, etc.  This is the real culprit we’ll see creep up time and again in this game.  There is n0 commitment to the immersion this game’s premise advertises.

Note:  I was a noob when I wrote this…  You can create a mission against a spotted criminal/cop performing specific actions by pressing an otherwise unused key when you aim at them while performing an action.  It immediately throws you in a mission against them.  If they were running a smash and grab your job is to return the stolen loot to a drop point.  You get cash for kills and item during this.  They’re slightly more unique missions and either side can call for backup to turn the event into a big fight but the early one on one can be very lopsided if you’re higher level or the target isn’t paying any attention to their surroundings.

I didn’t try throwing a grenade and then activating the mission but I assume that would work to totally catch your opponent with their pants down.  Overall though if you need a break from the usual stuff these can be nice little 1 on 1 refreshers but you’ll spend a lot more time waiting than you would if you queued regularly.

Quests:  The quest system in place gets you in the action quick and keeps you there.  Its very fluid and forces you to run all over town on zany errands.  The auto-group will give you a balanced group of teammates to help or completely shaft you on your mission.

Now, what exactly you’re doing on a quest you will probably never know.  This is a huge source of the immersion collapse.   Quests come from “Contacts”.  There are 2-3 of these per zone, but you only ever see them if you need to buy gear, more on them later.  It doesn’t really matter who they are though, you get your missions by cell-phone and the only story explanation is in a tiny tooltip top right of your screen.  However, you don’t need to read this; you’ll get a bright orange waypoint on your HUD to run to.  Any action you need to perform is handled by pressing the generic “Use” key and then watching the progress bar tick by.  When its done, jack a car and speed across town to the next waypoint.  But there’s a wrinkle…

APB Alerts:  This is the meat-n-taters of the game.  After a couple tutorial missions your auto-group may change a few times (again, doesn’t matter much)  you’ll be sent on similar waypoint, use-key, progress bar missions but with an opposing force deployed to prevent you.  This force is an auto-grouped force from the other faction who based on level and threat (threat is a calculation of your performance during missions that can rise and fall as you play) matches up against your auto-group fairly well.

Now how easy/difficult this actually is depends on how many people on both teams care…  Early on my group was horrible.  The one premium player on our team would Rambo in on his own, die a few times, get frustrated and bail.  Which left me, level 5, staring down level 60+ twinked out goons.  Needless to say I didn’t win much…

Later on I got grouped with two other guys who were higher level, had rented better guns and cars, and were excellent at working together.  We’d stick together, use the best car we owned, the best driver drove unless we were in a pinch, and the other two players would gun out the windows from opposite sides to have the best range of fire.  We were glorious and won almost every mission we ran together.

Why people don’t care to run a mission is a problem though.  You’re basically forced to auto-group.  I haven’t figured out how to turn it off.  For obvious reason the game needs you in a group though.  There are no solo missions that I’ve seen and letting people frolick willy-nilly just divides the player base and makes it harder to keep the match-maker balancing opposing teams to square off.  But, if you want to shop at a contact you’re basically walking away from your team, you’re upsetting the matchmaking balance, you’re not earning cash for mission performance, and you’re losing “honor” and “threat” for failing missions.  If you need to check your email at a mail kiosk (more on the stupid kiosk thing later) you’re in the same boat.

Once during a mission I ran out of ammo.  Your ammo is stashed in an invisible “locker.”  I don’t know how to check my locker’s inventory.  I have been playing for 5+ hrs…  Educate the player?  Nah.  In between missions the game refills the ammo you can carry from the locker.  If you’re efficient the ammo lasts forever but if you threw a lot of rounds you’ll deplete the stash more quickly.  The only way to get ammo in your locker is to find the right vending machine that serves your faction.  They’re scattered around town, but aren’t marked on your map or HUD by default.  So, good luck finding one.  I only scored vehicle kills that round because the standard issue side-arm is garbage.  I can’t ever see replacing the base machine gun, its fine.  But the snub-nose revolver is horrendous and there was basically nothing I could do to get out of the hole I was in until I chanced upon an ammo vendor when I respawned one time.

Gunplay:  The gunplay feels kind of dated.  I’d label it suspect at best.  It’s probably most reminiscent of Counter Strike; if you get the  drop you’ll probably win so there is a big emphasis on flanking and getting good position.  Now your enemies respawn nearby so you do need to keep moving from ambush to ambush when you’re on defense.  If you try to camp you’ll get grenaded.  Now its not so bad I gave up, but you die from very few shots so sometimes you feel like you’re at the mercy of an unlucky spray of bullets which can be frustrating.  The game is basically a nonstop shooter.  There are no MMO skill powers.  There is no skill tree.  You know, systems that could have made this very unique and fun…  As such I’d expect more.  There are a few slot upgrades for characters but they’re minor stat boosts (tiny damage soaks, reload speed, etc).

Weapon Rental:  Almost every weapon is a 10 day rental unless you shell out real world currency (to the tune of $30 per gun, yikes, but at that point you own them forever).  And every couple hours, especially with better gear, you could have remade the cash to keep rebuying your weapon of choice.  Requiring you to continually pay for gear is a good way to keep somebody from getting to an end game where they have the best gear and can come back at any time to house the competition.  They’ll need to play somewhat regularly to be able to pay the bills.  Unlocking new gear (and you unlock stuff CONSTANTLY) feels completely arbitrary.  You don’t know what you unlocked, the shops are hard to navigate and there’s no way to get a feel for what a weapon does but to shell out huge sums of cash for it.  When you can only carry two weapons its discouraging.  Needless to say I’ve only ever spent cash on ammo and clothes so far despite my hatred of the snub nose.  I am curious if your upgrades stay in your locker even if your rental expires.

The Designer:  This was the main selling feature of APB when Realtime Worlds was up for sale after the projects initial demise.  Its lush to say the least.  And you unlock new symbols and logos to use in it constantly, which is pretty fun, and almost assures if you take the time nobody will look like you do.  Early on I started unlocking new symbols for the Designer when I was leveling up.  But I couldn’t figure out how to open it.  Nothing obvious in the menu, controls, options, etc.  To the WIKI!  Because by this point I was tired of trying to figure some things out.  Guess what?  It has its own kiosk hell dimension…

Kiosk Menus:  Every MMO needs a few good menus.  But APB commits the sin of thinking the player’s immersion would be shattered if the player simply pressed a key, opened a menu, and changed something.  Instead they’ve opted to create a peaceful zone chock full of all the customization kiosks; “a place for fun,” and “creativity”…  What.  Gang violence =/= fun and creativity.  I just don’t get it.  I guess you could make the arguement that one zone of players humping kiosks is better than pockets of same scattered across the world.  It may work better with the awful grouping problems I mentioned experiencing earlier.  I cannot fathom why this simply isn’t handled straight from the main menu.  I spent a good bit of time in here trying to figure out which kiosks let me customize what gear and there is n0 socialization in this area.  Everyone silently stares at their kiosk menus.  It simply is not succesful and at times borders on tedious and frustrating…

For example; I found there is an auction house that would let me buy and wear clothing I hadn’t yet unlocked.  Cool, I was sick of the newbie t-shirt and wanted something classier than the couple things I had actually unlocked.  Good news!  There’s a kiosk for that.  Buy a sport coat, check.  Wait, I have to check my mail to get it in my locker?  Ok.  Run to Mail Kiosk.  Open email, “You win, blah blah blah.”  Yay.  Run to Designer Kiosk to change my clothes (Just for super clarity, seperate kiosks, all of these).  Wait, no sport coat.  Run back to Mail.  OH  I have to actually click on the item like its an attachment to put it in my locker.  WHY?!  Whatever.  Click.  Run back to Designer.  Equip clothes.  Save.

It’s worth noting you can’t edit items you haven’t unlocked which is a decent solutions for keeping the auction house from totally destroying the progression.

Temp Threat Calculation:  You lose prestige overtime if you do nothing.  This includes being logged out.  This is a pretty good setup.  Even if you’re great at the game, losing a ton of prestige won’t hurt if you rattle off a bunch of wins when you log back in and the matchmaking is fast and relatively fluid so you should have some funish rounds regardless.

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There are more points I wanted to cover in this initally and refine but clearly its languished in draft form forever and I haven’t played this game in ages.  I did eventually unlock a cool truck and then I quit (15ish hours I think).  While a lot of systems functioned well enough to pretty good nothing ‘feels’ very satisfying in here.  Looking back a lot of my gripes were about immersion and having been working on SmashMuck, a very gamey and sports-genre-like product, that’s interesting.

Cops vs Robbers is a really cool premise.  You could set it anywhere and it would hold up but I’m not sure it could ever feel truely immersive unless you went largely the Ultima Online/EVE player driven economy road.  I can imagine building a system to handle it, but it would be way dense and transparency would be an issue.

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