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Here’s an interesting way to turn a free-to-play property back into a pay-to-play franchise.
A massively multiplayer Grand Theft Auto-style game from David Jones, creator of the billion-dollar Grand Theft Auto franchise, looked like a home run on paper. An open world, very slick character customization, and emergent gameplay where any criminal activity immediately flagged a proportional response from legalized vigilantes just couldn’t lose. But APB: All Points Bulletin’s great ideas crashed headfirst into a disastrous execution anchored to a fading dinosaur of a business model — the monthly subscription fee. Before even making it to the three-month mark, Realtime went into administration and turned the APB servers off, effectively killing the game on September 16, 2010.
That’s when freemium game company K2 Network stepped in to resuscitate it. The following April, 16-person subsidiary Reloaded Games pushed APB: Reloaded from beta to live on a new free-to-play system, with the technical issues mostly hammered out. It’s been in the top five most-played MMOs on Steam ever since, with three million players installing it.
Now Reloaded Games wants to push its luck. It’s recently launched a Kickstarter for APB: Vendetta, a vastly different game in a vastly different genre built on vastly different technology, set in the same APB universe.
And it’ll cost $40, or $25 for Kickstarter supporters.
“We have a franchise that has a very specific way to do things,” says Bjorn Book-Larsson, chief executive officer of Reloaded Games. “People have gotten to like the way the current game operates. What we’re proposing is a really cool extension that adds to the game.”
Vendetta’s extension moves away from Reloaded’s third-person MMO confines and into a first-person, class-based arena deathmatch. The broad strokes put it much closer in design to Team Fortress 2. That game went free-to-play several years ago.
The headline feature for Vendetta? High mobility. Book-Larsson and company want to create a game where wall-running, back-flipping, high-speed twitch shooting, and special-move finishers rule the land and players can dual wield a shotgun with a samurai sword if they want … things that are out of reach for their first game. “That level of control is something we can’t do in Reloaded,” says Book-Larsson. “It’s tied to the game engine.” Realtime originally built APB in Unreal 3, versions 2006 and 2008. Together with the high level of customization — the game might have to render 200 completely customized avatars in a given space — Book-Larsson says upgrading it to include an entirely new move set is problematic at best. “We can’t take advantage of a lot of the optimizations.”
“Vendetta allows us throw that out and start fresh.” In fact, a technical exercise into those optimizations — and how they couldn’t be applied to Reloaded — inspired the developers to simply make an entirely new game in the APB universe. While it’s technically possible to go crazy with 50-on-50 player matches, they’ve focused on smaller 3-on-3 and 5-on-5 maps. Players will pick from 12 premade characters in three different archetypes — light and fast Acrobats, heavy, grounded Juggernauts who can smash through objects, and happy medium Mercenaries.
It’s the developers’ first real chance to do something original with the property they turned into a success. They don’t see it as an isolated project, either. Vendetta mirrors the greater APB storyline, taking place just outside the MMO’s city location, and Book-Larsson wants both games to cross over into each other on more than a narrative level.
So instead of grinding for guns, Vendetta hands you a complete loadout and lets you modify it once you earn some in-game currency, and then you can share that mod with the community. Instead of creating a character, you pick one of 12 well-known Reloaded NPCs, though it’s a goal to bring your established Reloaded character in as a playable skin. “We also anticipate we’ll have a more traditional DLC component in Vendetta,” says Book-Larsson, “and if you buy that content, you might get something in Reloaded as well.”
Naturally, he’s hit resistance. The community Book-Larsson hoped would turn out in support of Vendetta split on whether he should do it at all. “One of the premises of Reloaded is that it’s free-to-play, and one of the complaints of those who play it is that it’s free-to-play,” he says. “Now we have people writing in and saying, ‘Why isn’t Vendetta free-to-play?'”
Book-Larsson shakes his head. “It’s very hard to please a community,” he says.
So why isn’t it free-to-play, considering that’s what saved APB in the first place? And why, since Reloaded sits near the top of the Steam popularity list, do they need Kickstarter?
Book-Larsson answers both questions by pointing to Reloaded Games itself. The company has more than doubled to 36 employees thanks to APB, compared to the nearly 300 employees Realtime Worlds needed to create it. Two games would stretch Reloaded’s backend support very, very thin. “We want to set up a separate team for Vendetta,” he says, so Reloaded’s resources and revenues continue to support Reloaded uninterrupted.
“And any advancements we make in the Vendetta engine, we’ll backport into Reloaded,” Book-Larsson adds. Because it might still be in the exploratory phase, but Vendetta is the tip of the APB franchise expansion.
“We have experimented with other genres,” says Book-Larsson, “but we haven’t settled on any. Just for fun, we created a top-down version of Reloaded as a test, going back to the old Grand Theft Auto-style game.” As a mobile app? “Potentially. We’re open to the next couple of extension.”
Eventually, the game that didn’t last three months could become the franchise that reaches into every genre on every platform, all connected and feeding into the central title. That’s Book-Larsson’s vision. “What you’ve done in Reloaded, you can take with you into all these other games.”