Friday 3 September 2010

APB Post-mortem Breakdown: Alas, Poor Business

APB has continued improving, with patches fixing various bugs, toning down the automatic weapons that were beginning to dominate play a bit, and most recently overhauling the matchmaking system as outlined a few weeks back. Instead of teams and players being offered a mission which they could accept or reject (which led to cherry-picking, mismatched missions when only some potential participants joined and other issues), you now start out in a “Not Ready” state during which you can check mail, stock up on ammo etc., then you hit “O” to flip to being “Ready”, and when everyone on the team is Ready the system automatically puts you into missions. Judging by a couple of sessions since the change this has worked to make things generally more balanced, I haven’t been coming up against ultra-upgraded opponents nearly so often, and where they are present it tries to even things out with numbers. It’s working out well for me, dropping in once or twice a week for a bit of a blast.

Course the actual game changes have been slightly overshadowed by the problems at developer Realtime Worlds resulting in the company entering administration. Despite comment threads full of well reasoned and highly knowledgeable analysis of the problems with APB such as “lol it su><ed”, there might be room for a bit more consideration of what went wrong.

In August 2009 there was a line in the FAQ: “The actual price for the game itself is still under discussion but we’ll keep you up to date. We can confirm that APB will not require a monthly subscription”. My expectation was a Guild Wars-esque model, free play after buying the box, perhaps with expansions or DLC later, probably an item shop of some sort. Good move; many gamers are opposed to any sort of subscription for a game, and it fitted in with APB aiming to be a more fast-paced action game of shorter play sessions rather than extended grinds.

April 2010, full details of the payment model were published with a bombshell: an hourly fee. If subscriptions are off-putting to some gamers, hourly fees are about as popular as Conquistador Coffee’s ill-fated introductory offer of a free dead dog with every jar. Instant turn-off for a lot of people. If you thought you’d be playing a lot there was a subscription option as well, so at least players wouldn’t be running up insane bills if they got hooked, but after the “no subscription required” line it was a let-down. It was a bit like the FAQ had said “We can confirm that APB will not require you to be hit over the head with a cricket bat to play”, and that was later qualified with “… you can opt to be poked in the eye with a stick instead”.

It wasn’t quite as simple as just “give money for game time”; all transactions were done with “RTW points”, so you bought RTW points for cash (200 points for £3.99), then bought game time with RTW points (30 days unlimited play for 400 points, or 20 hours for 280 points). Hardly unusual these days, what with Microsoft Points, Bioware Points, Cryptic Points, Turbine Points, Sony’s Station Cash, Nectar Points, Luncheon Vouchers, Green Shield Stamps etc. In addition, items within the game could be sold by players for either APB$ (the in-game currency earned by completing missions) or these RTW points; the intent was to drive the player market using the customisation tools and offer talented designers the possibility of playing for free. Design an amazing T-shirt, list it for sale for 40 RTW points, and if you sell ten of ’em that’s a month of unlimited play for you. The full announcement also went into detail about how many RTW points it would cost to manufacture items to sell to other players, which, not having first hand experience of the system in beta at that point, all seemed terribly confusing (10 RTW points for a vehicle, 5 RTW points for major clothing, 2 RTW points for minor clothing, yada yada).

So, £35 RRP for the box, which comes with 50 hours of game time and 100 RTW points, then you buy RTW points for cash and spend RTW points on either hourly or unlimited game time. Oh, though game time only counts in the action districts, you can spend as long as you like in the social districts, where you can also design items, which cost RTW points to make, to sell for RTW points, which you can buy game time with. Or you can sell your stuff for APB$, then sell APB$ for RTW points. Or buy RTW points for real cash then buy APB$ with RTW points to buy other stuff. Clear?

OK, I’m deliberately obfuscating there, the basics aren’t that tricky: box comes with 50 hours, once you’ve played for those then either buy more, or unlimited time for a month if you’re going to be playing more than 30 hours. The market in RTW points/APB$ isn’t terribly dissimilar to something like PLEX in EVE, and gives a nice incentive for people to produce and sell desirable items. It’s more off-putting than the “buy game, play game” model of many competing online shooters, though. It didn’t take long for them to backtrack on the RTW point cost for manufacturing items, which simplified things somewhat, but wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of a carefully thought out cost model. UnSubject of Vicarious Existence has a remarkably prescient piece from a month before launch on the pricing.

As it turns out, the in-game marketplace is another example of the two halves of the game, the freedom of customisation and the fast-paced PvP, not complementing each other very well. To quote, err, me: “On the Venn diagram of “people who like small group deathmatch shooters” and “people who like composing theme tunes and spending ages making sure their shirt looks right”, APB is great for those in the intersection between the sets, but my suspicion is that’s not a very large segment”. If your main interest is in designing clothes and cars, you do that in the social district which doesn’t count towards your game time anyway, undermining the “play for free” incentive of earning RTW points. To unlock additional clothing and car options (which can then be customised, manufactured and put up for sale if you like) you need earn levels, ranks and rating in the (twitchy, shooty) PvP.

Another problem undermining the creative side of customisation as a viable play style in itself is that the marketplace lists weapons, upgrades, vehicles, clothing, themes and songs. Some of these have an actual, material affect on gameplay (more powerful weapons, faster vehicles), some are purely cosmetic and make no difference at all (clothes). Take a wild stab in the dark at which are more desirable, in a game where the only non-combat options are to hang around a ‘social’ area that largely consists of people standing at auction/design terminals… To round out the issues, the reason given for charging for manufacturing items was: “We believe the quality of the experience would suffer if the Marketplace were inundated with junk. The intent of the nominal Manufacturing charge is to prevent high volume of low quality items from crowding the Marketplace listings.” With the manufacturing charge withdrawn, guess what? If you said “a high volume of low quality items crowd the Marketplace listings”, award yourself five points. If you said “Henri Bergson”, you’re in the wrong quiz.

Actually I’m being a bit unkind again, it’s not that the marketplace is *completely* swamped with junk, it’s just the usual problem of user-generated content, trying to find the decent stuff. The only initial information you have is a very brief text description and a price, so shopping for a new theme tune (a 5 second snippet that plays to opponents when you kill them) you’re presented with a big ol’ list mostly of TV and game themes, popular chart hits and random strange gibberish that other players have come up with, and if you see something that appeals you hit “listen” to determine if it’s a godawful rendition that would shame a 1994-era mobile phone ringtone produced by a marmot tap-dancing on the keypad, or a half-decent effort. Clothes are similar, just the name to start with, if you want to see how an item looks you have to hit a preview option that takes a little while to stream down all the appropriate information, then shows you the item in a little preview window. For me at least it’s all moot anyway, even if I had the patience to work through a load of designs I’m perfectly happy with the clothing options I’ve unlocked for myself and the minor tinkering I’ve done with them, and I’m far more interested in saving up for fast guns and heavy-calibre cars.

Despite my utter lack of creative talent, I’m also making a decent amount of money and RTW points from the marketplace myself, simply from manufacturing basic versions of a couple of the more unusual clothing pieces I’ve unlocked and sticking ’em up for auction cheap. Since launch I’ve earned around 600 RTW points, not enough to retire to the Caribbean just yet, but it’ll cover another 40 hours of game time, if needed. From my perspective the payment model works out absolutely fine, but it does mean I haven’t given Realtime Worlds any money after the initial box purchase, not so great for them.

Talking of money, though, some frankly extraordinary figures emerged as a buyer was sought for APB. Direct quote from the press release:

“The figures reveal 130,000 registered players, with the average player playing for 4 hours each day, APB’s unique business model sees paying players averaging $28 per month, a combination of game time and user to user marketplace trading.”

Now we all know the fun and games of MMOG press release terminology, of “accounts” and “characters” and “registered players” and “active players” and “average revenue per user” and “average revenue per *paying* user” and “number of people who might have looked at our website or maybe mentioned to a friend via instant messaging our game or at least a phrase that sounds a bit like our game”, and that without a full and detailed breakdown of precisely how every word of a press release is defined they’re basically just “Look! Numbers! BIG numbers! Big numbers good!” Even by those standards, I’m struggling to work out what’s going on.

130,000 registered players I’m presuming to mean 130,000 box/download sales (or at least 130,000 people who bought the box and then created a game account). I don’t think there’s another way of being a “registered player”, no free trial or anything like that. All fine so far.

“Average player playing for 4 hours each day”? Seriously? *Average*? Bearing in mind the dangers of anecdotal evidence and everything, since launch (about two months) I’ve spent 30 ‘action’ hours in the game, maybe another 10-20 hours footling about in the marketplace and customisation. I saw a comment somewhere from someone who said they’d spent about 180 hours in the game, and thought that was pretty hardcore, but (over two months) that’s still only an average of three hours a day. I know several people who bought the game and have found it’s not really their cup of tea, barely scratching the included time; are there really enough people spending ten plus hours every single day in the game to make the average up? Even if there are, to be honest I’m not sure that’s really a stat you want to be trumpeting; for someone looking to buy the studio it might say “our game is so brilliant people are really hooked on it!”, for a potential new player to a PvP game it says “hey, here’s a basic pop-gun, now why don’t you go and try and shoot that bloke over there who’s spent the last 240 hours honing his skills to being a deadly killing machine, and significantly upgrading his weapon, durability and vehicle in the meantime to be much better than yours!”

There is one game element that might make a bit more sense of it: the Fasionista and Tuner unlocks. These are in-game achievements for spending time in the clothing and car designers respectively, and there are 15 levels for each. The first few levels are awarded every five or ten minutes, building up until each additional level takes an hour; earlier in beta time alone would unlock the first nine levels, then for 10 to 15 you also had to manufacture a certain number of items, so obviously another incentive to people to spend time designing great clothes, then manufacturing them to sell on the marketplace. In reality ten hours AFK, then you made about 600 socks and either destroyed them or listed them on the marketplace, making beta a very exciting place for people keen on picking up sock bargains. Before release the manufacturing requirement was dropped, so it was just a case of spending time in the editor, *even if you were AFK*. Yes, after about 15 minutes the system would flag you as AFK, but still you’d be there in the editor, and still the time would count towards Fashionista/Tuner. Why bother? Well firstly each rank unlocks another piece of clothing or two, so you can kit your character out in that pair of sunglasses you’ve been after, secondly at launch each rank also awarded you in-game currency, the amount increasing each rank, winding up with a pretty substantial amount (maybe APB$ 10,000 for rank 15, I don’t remember precisely). So to make money fast you just created a character, logged in, opened the clothing/car editor and went AFK, until they removed the financial rewards after a couple of weeks. 4 hours per day per player still seems pretty high, but not quite so gobsmackingly insane if a good chunk of it was spent AFK.

Finally, “APB’s unique business model sees paying players averaging $28 per month, a combination of game time and user to user marketplace trading”. Seems a bit strange again. “Paying player” is more usually associated with free-to-play games, denoting the (usually small) percentage of players who actually pay for e.g. cash shop items compared to the larger general user base. If by “paying player” they mean someone who’s bought RTW points on top of the box cost, it looks like a ludicrously high number; one month of unlimited game time is $10, so the *average* paying player is not only covering that, but *another* $18 on RTW points for marketplace trading? I honestly can’t believe that; you can’t buy yourself a massive advantage, as items have rating restrictions (there’s an excellent guide to the various “levels” in APB at Combat Archaeology) and you only unlock character upgrade slots as you go, so a brand new player can’t equip an amazing weapon or car. Better players receive rewards just for playing, and enough of these trickle down through the auction house to make very affordable upgrades for everyone, so there really isn’t much of an advantage to be gained by splashing cash around. Maybe you can give yourself a few percentage points advantage over somebody of a similar rating, say I can only afford a 3% damage boost for my gun and they could buy an 8% upgrade, but I’m really not sure that’s an attractive enough proposition to get people spending an average of $18 a month on. Most curious. As far as I’m aware, though, all APB players at least bought the box/downloaded the game, with a $50 RRP, so if that’s being divided over the two months since launch it could account for (up to) $25 of the $28.

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