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Realtime Worlds: Game over

Rory Cellan-Jones | 08:26 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010

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.

Screengrab from Realtime world gameRealtime 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.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I am presuming this is a cash flow issue more than anything and it shows the problems with betting the farm on a single product and not having a sufficient pipeline for surviving a potential issue. This isn't a sector-specific issue - it's a common business issue. The number of companies I know who utterly depend on one customer relationship for the survival of the business is quite terrifying. For IP-based companies like Realtime Worlds, the single blockbuster game is the same concept.

    Does that mean there's a problem with scale? That the business could only handle one project at a time? Or is it a death knell for the Scots dominance of game development in the UK?

    I foresee the future being in smaller networked games rather than these massive game worlds. That's certainly an opportunity that I'm interested in for our burgeoning tech sector here in Northern Ireland.

  • Comment number 2.

    Tut tut Rory your schadenfreude is showing.

    Personally, I've never seen the reason for 'playing' any computer game, but that does not mean that I do not appreciate that others get something they liken to enjoyment from 'playing' such games.

    The problem with the industry is the gigantic and escalating cost of producing each new game and the consequence gigantic risk with each such new entertainment vehicle. This is also why we do not get many new programs for personal computers. It is all essentially about the mismatch between programming software methodologies not keeping step with the rate of hardware development. There are no more-effective programming methodologies today than there were a decade back - this is why each new title costs so much more and why the risks are so high. It is the same 'arms-race' of the blockbuster film industry but proportionally far more dramatic. These changes are inevitable. Products will become more derivative and similar, much like automobiles - the industry has matured and the customer will have to move from a bespoke car to a mass-market product (programmed and designed where labour is less expensive - i.e. China and India).

  • Comment number 3.

    Games of this magnitude cost millions and so much time to develop. As the saying goes “Don't put all your eggs in one basket”. Unfortunately that is what happens to many gaming companies and when they get it wrong it’s the death of them.

    Even with tax relief this high tech industry will never replace lost manufacturing jobs. The government really knows this! How many 3D artists, animators, or programmers can this country accommodate? Not enough for mass employment.

  • Comment number 4.

    Right, hang on. Having become a bit more settled and grown up I'll be the first to admit that I'm nowhere near as clued up on the latest releases as I used to be a couple of years ago, but this is the first time I've heard of APB. Have I had my head stuck in the sand or has advertising of this game been that bad? If so then perhaps it's no surprise that it's not done so well

  • Comment number 5.

    I played the beta version of this, and they never made any improvements, the game was equally as bad in beta, the forums were full of complaints.

    This is what you get for releasing a below par product with a pay2play model, expecting to rake in the dough early, and improve the game at a later date.

    Maybe this is a warning to companies who try to pull a stunt like this off again, although I do hate to see a company going under, at least they tried something different instead of just make a World of Warcraft clone.

  • Comment number 6.

    Talk about launching without trace. I remember reading of the concept and thinking it sounded quite interesting, but I hadn't the faintest idea it was out.

  • Comment number 7.

    I really enjoyed playing RTW's Crackdown game, it was a fresh-ish take on the GTA formula and worked quite well. Then they made Crackdown2 and somehow managed to completely ruin almost everything that had made the first game great which, let's face it, is a pretty hard thing to do in gaming land (unlike films, "most" game sequels are usually an improvement).
    As for APB, it was a very good effort and they almost got it right, but speaking as a long-time beta tester it was not a game that had lastability. In the MMO market you need your players to come back for more.. that's "how you make the big bucks", with World of Warcraft being the no.1 example of a successful cash cow. Plenty of rewards, lots to do and explore etc.
    By contrast APB has some unique elements but neither myself nor my entire clan felt a desire to play it longer than one or two weeks. There was just no content there to munch on past the basic gameplay. To cap it off the game had difficulty in feeling like a true MMO. No player housing, limited interactivity with your environment.. it just felt like any other online multiplayer game that you get free with most single player experiences.
    To sum up, none of us could see a reason to play APB when you could have x10 the amount of fun with a multiplayer game like BF: Bad Company 2 or similar and not need to pay a monthly fee. They got the APB game mechanics right but missed out on content. So, in most publishers eyes, two failed games is equal to a permanent screw-up.
    Mark
    Editor - ISPreview.co.uk

  • Comment number 8.

    I think only Pixar have made the 'we only do big releases' model work, and they started off small. Everyone else, even Apple, Disney or EA have their cash generator products that aren't that good but are low cost to make profit to spend on big releases.

    The biggest cost for any media company these days is marketing. Getting column inches and Store frontage is more important (sadly) than producing a quality game.
    The fact that no ones heard of this game is reason the company has failed with this release.

  • Comment number 9.

    Interesting - this is the same company that just a couple of weeks ago was moaning about the Budget and saying they would move abroad.

    Apparently the real issue was that they over spent on development and were relying too heavily on an online title that had pretty bad reviews.

    It shows that if a company is badly run there is nothing much you can do about it. For the company to blame the tax system in this country is passing the buck - it was they that over invested, took too long, and created a weak product, not the taxman!

  • Comment number 10.

    "At 1:17pm on 18 Aug 2010, MJ_ISPreviewCOUK wrote:
    I really enjoyed playing RTW's Crackdown game, it was a fresh-ish take on the GTA formula and worked quite well. Then they made Crackdown2 and somehow managed to completely ruin almost everything that had made the first game great which, let's face it, is a pretty hard thing to do in gaming land (unlike films, "most" game sequels are usually an improvement)."

    Hi Mark...I think you'll find RTW were not directly involved in Crackdown 2...wasn't that developed by a splinter group of RTW staff Ruffian Games?

  • Comment number 11.

    Interesting article but anyone plugged into the gaming sector could have sensed the problems with APB months ago. Initial good response from the gaming press/websites rapidly seemed to cool as the game went into its BETA phase and as Darren mentioned its BETA launch was far from impressive and few changes seemed to have been made. This combined with a rather confusing pay structure (see Hellgate London for examples of confusing payment options alienating users) did it no favours. Seeing its price plummet in the weeks before and after launch on Steam etc was a huge sign of lack of quality in my eyes and the ad campaign for it was limited to the gaming mags (I think PC Gamer ran a few adverts for it).
    Certain misconceptions in this piece and from user comments do worry me though. APB was never going to be another World of Warcraft and the game genres are completely different the only similarity being that they are played online. The idea that APB would “allow players a measure of creativity unavailable in other online games” is just laughable and deserves to be questioned by the reporters lucky enough to attend E3 rather than blind acceptance.
    The idea that putting an embargo on reviews “so it would have maximum impact when it went on sale” is also pure comedy. Those of us who are keen gamers know that a publisher holding a game back from review gives it a 99.99% chance of being utter garbage that they are hoping to rake some money in from unsuspecting fools.
    For me the comments from John_from_Hendon are a terribly downbeat look at the gaming industry reflected in Rorys piece. But you are perhaps unaware of the burgeoning ‘Indy’ scene that is seeing a boom unseen since the late 80’s. On the PC you have digital distribution from sources like Steam, whereas the XBOX 360 has Xbox Arcade (PS3 and Wii have their own version too) which allow talented individuals or small groups to get their work out there into the wide world.
    For every multi-million project like APB that fails there are plenty of small developers putting out games like Braid, World of Goo etc. These are games played by thousands of people and hugely imaginative pieces of work but the BBC blogs just revisit the multimillion blockbusters and ignore the little guys.
    John_from_Hendon download Braid from the Steam network this weekend (I think it will cost you about £7 give or take a little) and give a little game made on a shoestring budget a whirl and maybe the future of the games industry won’t look so bleak (I’d give the same advice to you too Rory!)

  • Comment number 12.

    Hi, i found this blog as i was searching about info on this company going under. I havent been a gamer for a few years, But considering i have a computer repair shop near DUNDEE and worked in a repair shop 800 yards from their premises whilst this game was being made, I have never even heard of it at all. not one person has mentioned APB whatsoever to any of us here. It may well have been an advertising thing , fair enough gamers will no all about it as they did but it wasnt good reviews either. What i do is wish them all well and hope they find a buyer. Save the company and more importantly save the jobs. It is a bad time for 200 skilled jobs to disappear in 1 area. Grand theft auto was the biggest game ever for me growing up. Good luck

  • Comment number 13.

    Begbies Traynor, Administrator says its intention is to continue trading the company in the hope of finding a buyer that will safeguard the future of the business.
    In June, Realtime Worlds released APB: All Points Bulletin, a multiplayer online action game for the PC. The game was several years in the making, but turned out low-demand. Realtime Worlds had bet its future on APB and Project: MyWorld (social gaming service due for release next year).
    Developers gravitate to Dundee because of nearby Abertay University, which offers 3 of the UK’s 9 Skillset-accredited games courses.
    Realtime Worlds’ collapse comes soon after the coalition government stopped (reversed) Labour plans for a tax break for UK developers; this tax break was aimed at matching similar incentives in Canada, France and Singapore.
    So, I guess the question is: Should the taxbreak have been stopped, or does it make sense to support a developer who needs tax breaks in order to compete (with countries that receive similar incentives)?
    While you ponder this foregoing question: Tax relief could’ve generated new graduate jobs and investment in the UK. The Coalition Government said that it could not afford such a measure in the current climate of austerity. Could not afford? Hmmmm....

  • Comment number 14.

    As a pretty keen PC gamer, I have to say that this game had very poor exposure. I think they may have had an advert on the Steam homepage but thats it. I never buy a game without first reading a plethora of reviews beforehand, as I don't want to end up paying for something that I use for 5 minutes then leave. However, I do not think that this is reflective of the industry changing at all. Instead, I think this just proves that a quality game will sell, and a rubbish one won't. Games like CS:S and Team Fortress 2 have a lasting appeal, with literally thousands of players at any one time. To be honest, I think that the target market for APB were the people who wouldn't normally play a pay-to-play MMO, and maybe less inclined to join one, no matter what the format. Looking at the game, it looked like a glorified version of the GTA 4 online gameplay, which works out a lot cheaper (GTA4 can easily be bought for less than a tenner these days). MMOs need to focus on the social aspect to really be successful, otherwise they may as well be a single player game.

  • Comment number 15.

    Just for interest, if the gaming industry is meant to be the fastest growing industry in the world with some of the most successful companies, why does it need tax breaks?

    Canada always gives tax breaks when it is trying to lure companies over the border from the US, so that is why they are doing it, not to support an impoverished industry.

    But generally speaking, companies should be standing on their own feet, not ours.

    It strikes me that if you are in desperate need of a tax break or huge loan to develop a title, then either you have over budgeted or as a company you are not ready to develop such an expensive title; sell it on to some one who is, or shelve it till you are ready.

    I get fed up of companies in all industries demanding concessions and cheap loans because of impatience, bad management and greed.

  • Comment number 16.

    The issue with APB was the developers did not listen to QA or the beta testers
    they where told again and again that there was an issue with x y and z but did not do anything about it.
    when you're not listening to the people you pay to check these things then you're doomed from the start.

  • Comment number 17.

    As I think I mentioned in reply to your original post about APB, it wasn't very good. Unfortunately I had forgotten that during the hype about it last year, I had pre-ordered it from Amazon, and sure enough it arrived unexpectedly upon it's release.
    As a long time mmorpg player I am used to games being released unfinished and expect a rocky road to begin with as bugs are patched etc. That isn't the problem with APB though, the problem is that it's basic game mechanics are no fun whatsoever. After a couple of days playing the game, I turned it off and haven't felt compelled to play again since.
    How they managed to take the GTA model of gameplay, then create something which is no fun to drive, no fun to shoot-things and no fun to get around, is a mystery perhaps history will solve. As it is, the undrivable car models bounce off chain-link fences as if hitting a concrete wall. Players are able only to climb objects where the level is scripted to allow it. And combat is all the fun of banging your head on a wall.
    Meanwhile the mission interface, dialogue and contacts within the game are uninvolving and provide no sense of immersion. There is nothing here to make players have the sense of belonging necessary to encourage them to pay a monthly fee.
    Finally the 50 hours play for the price of buying the game looks very poor value when you consider that every other game in the marketplace gives one months unlimited play.
    They must have known prior to release that they had a dog on their hands, excited previews in the press, in a flash became derisory reviews. The game should have been held back until it was worth the purchase price, letting it out the door as it stands they have no-one to blame but themselves for their well deserved failure.
    Perhaps in future Rory, if covering a game, you should look past the press junket and check out the hype surrounding the game on it's forums and fan-sites. Whilst you were singing it's illusory praises, beta testers were ringing the alarm bells.

  • Comment number 18.

    There are clearly many contributing factors such as marketing problems leading to lack of proper exposure, and ultimately lack of money. That firm feared bad publicity because they didn't have enough money to make a good product from the onset, despite having a brilliant concept of it.

    I guess another side to this is media bias, which evidently can make or break you. In the real world, image is everything, and that's why some big corporations spend mega bucks on their image. If you can afford that, you better have a damn good product!

  • Comment number 19.

    I wonder how many people around the world outside of the UK actually want to spend their time pretending to be a criminal.

  • Comment number 20.

    @19

    Based on sales of the Grand Theft Auto series i'd say a hell of a lot

  • Comment number 21.

    Having played APB for about a dozen hours in total I decided I would be giving it a break. The problem was despite the amazing visual customization of your character with homemade decals on clothes, cars and as tattoos I realised it was all attractive fluff around a fairly simple game core of rush to objective and the hold it. With whoever got there first having the advantage. The tactics you could employ even with a team of intelligent players using voice comms were basic in the extreme. This got very old and being able to give your car a kick ass paint job didn't make any difference.

  • Comment number 22.

    Reminds me about Daikatana.

    A games developer leads a successful groundbreaking game, assumes that he is a genius, forms a business to make his games, business fails because his games are not that good and he overspends massively.

  • Comment number 23.

    i remember the gaming press hailing this as the second coming in online gaming, but the fact that it took too long to make and no advertising killed this off. they should of cut thier loses. i mean how many games has RTW made, 2 that i can think of and for an exclusive developer (microsoft) thats poor. RARE has made more games than that for the 360 (all tho argubly just as bad). they stayed exclusive to microsoft but were still a third party developer which put them right up the creek without a paddle.
    Now thier in trouble and not even microsoft want to bail them out.

  • Comment number 24.

    I purchased APB mostly because a friend had, and the idea of charging around a virtual city together appealed.

    It became apparent to both of us pretty quick that the game failed to deliver on certain core promises (like it being based on skill and not time invested). It was also incredibly frustrating and the games community was one of the rudest and unpleasant I've seen in an online game, and I play World of Warcraft!

    Sad to hear of a company that was atleast attempting innovation, going under so quickly. But then as others have mentioned, when you put all your eggs in a wonky basket, what do you expect?

  • Comment number 25.

    "Hastings":
    Video game shelf-life is generally measured in months, not years. Very few companies in the video game industry can lean on the profit from a single cashcow franchise to fund further development, which is the usual practice in the software industry.

    (It was hoped that MMOs would allow for this sort of cashflow. In practice people attach much more closely to an MMO where they're paying monthly for the right to play the same game than they do to something like Microsoft Office where they pay for upgraded versions of the same product.)

    For everyone else, if your game isn't a chart-topper then it essentially represents a loss of money which you're going to need to get back somehow, and generally that means a tax break. It boils down to a knock-on effect of the cost of video game development nowadays - Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft all protect the technical details of their consoles religiously, and they make you pay through the nose for development tools.

    (Remember when they announced WiiWare as a service heavily focused on the hobby programmer, and then it swiftly turned into just another way for big companies to distribute content which isn't expansive enough to make into a full game?)

  • Comment number 26.

    Great character customization, but as others have already pointed out, really stale core gameplay--it simply wasn't a fun game to play. I heard about the game well in advance from gaming blogs and there was a fair amount of hype generated, but the game itself just leaves a lot to be desired. It's tough for the employees and their families, I was looking forward to this game and hoping it would succeed.


    John Keeler

 

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