Realtime Worlds: Game over
Shocking news for the British video games industry this week - one of its most innovative firms, created by an industry legend, is in deep trouble.
Realtime Worlds has called in the administrators and the jobs of 200 staff at its Dundee headquarters are under threat. The firm, which was founded by Dave Jones, the creator of Grand Theft Auto, can only survive if the administrators find a buyer pretty quickly.
The news confounds the expectations of analysts and journalists that this could be a world-beating games firm. Just last October Realtime Worlds was named "hottest prospect" by the accountancy firm PWC at a conference on technology investment. And as recently as this June one journalist was foolish enough to claim that APB (All Points Bulletin), the game the company had been working on for many years, was "the future of games".
Okay, that journalist was me, and I have to confess that it's not the first time that my hopes for a great British technology success story have been cruelly dashed. So what went wrong? Was it the troubled economic climate, which has made gamers more cautious with their cash? Was it the lack of tax credits for the UK games industry? Dave Jones was passionate about the need for government help for the industry when I met him at the E3 conference in Los Angeles, but on his return it became clear in the Budget that this was a lost cause.
A Labour politician has already pointed a finger at the tax relief issue as a culprit, while a Dundee academic blamed the general climate for the industry. But the reason Realtime Worlds is looking over the precipice may be simpler - the game on which it staked its future just hasn't worked.
Realtime Worlds pitched up in strength at E3 to show off its pride and joy, just weeks before its premiere. APB was an online game that took players into a lovingly crafted world where they could rampage around in cars and on foot, committing crimes or chasing criminals. It allowed players a measure of creativity unavailable in other online games, rewarding them for their skill as opposed to just the hours they put in. It was described by one of Dave Jones' colleagues as the culmination of everything he'd wanted to do in his career, from Grand Theft Auto onwards.
But, like a lavish Broadway musical or a Hollywood blockbuster, Realtime Worlds needed APB to be a huge hit, and quickly. It tried to impose an embargo on reviews of the game, so that it would have maximum impact when it went on sale at the beginning of July. That strategy appears to have bombed - games sites resented the embargo and the reviews were mixed at best. On the Metacritic site, APB is well down the league of current PC games - typical comments range from: "When all its cylinders are firing, APB can be quite fun, but that enjoyment is blunted by the fact that its action mechanics and driving are both so clunky" to "style over substance".
Reviews like that are not going to bring the sales and subscriptions Realtime Worlds needed to turn APB into the next World of Warcraft. So here's the cruel truth - generous tax relief or a surge in the economy would not have done much to stop this hi-tech shooting star from falling to earth. In games, as in other entertainment industries, you're only as good as your last hit, and the gamers decided APB was just not good enough.