Little Orbit has dealt in kid-friendly licensed games based on popular cartoons like Cartoon Network’s Ben 10 and DreamWorks’ Madagascar, but it’s shifting focus to creating original works. To help make this happen, it’s announcing that it has acquired the massively multiplayer online game APB Reloaded along with GamersFirst, a platform for multiplayer games.
This isn’t a sudden change. The studio has been steering toward this since last year.It has accrued five years of experience with live services, helping developer Hex Entertainment with its ongoing content development for its digital card games like Hex and Shards. And it acquired Unsung Story from developer Playdek, a tactical RPG that ran a successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter but languished without much progress. Now that Little Orbit has acquired it, it has resumed developing the title and plans on releasing it in 2019.
Little Orbit CEO Scott says the company has a couple of reasons to move away from licensed games. One is how much work is involved when working with a licensor. It’s a complex process that involves many steps of approval. Sometimes Little Orbit has to rush development because the script is approved at the last minute.
“You have to play catch-up,” said Scott in a phone call with GamesBeat. “There isn’t the time to iterate and do a really good quality game. You have to hit the date. There’s a lot of pressure. We decided we weren’t going to do that anymore.”
Another aspect is that once a license has expired, the game has to come down. He describes working with Cartoon Network as a really positive experience, but he says it was “heartbreaking” when the studio had to take its Adventure Time games off the market.
“It created a conversation around the collectability of titles, and how it’s possible that licensed games just need to change,” said Scott. “They probably need to change the way they do business. I know for us, and for the fans, when you get something at retail you can put it on the shelf and keep it forever. In the digital space, it’s a bummer, because there comes a time when the license is over and we can’t sell it anymore.”
Now that Little Orbit has shifted gears, Scott says that it has to think about the development process in a whole new way. This is especially true when it comes to a game like APB Reloaded, which is a Grand Theft Auto-esque MMO that features cops-and-robbers gameplay. Players can choose to play as Enforcers or Criminals. It first launched in 2010, and its audience has dwindled because of the lack of new content. Now Little Orbit has to think about providing live services and frequent updates.
“In a way we’re sort of building our own house at this point. If you think of licensing as leasing a place, renting a place, and then you give it up—for me it creates a lot of blue sky where we have the incentive to invest in our own house,” said Scott. “We’ve pivoted a lot of the staff. About half of our staff has turned over in terms of the way we think about this. I think we need to bring on younger, and a different style of staff involved in maintaining an online game, which we just didn’t have previously. It involves a longer development cycle, and it involves a lot of what I would call ongoing development or maintenance development, where you’re constantly iterating and adding and keeping that game fresh and thinking about what’s next.”
In addition to adding new content to the game, Scott has to engage with the existing community as well. Little Orbit will put a code of conduct into place and overhaul the existing banning policy. It’s also going to do a forum cleanup and move it over to a new homepage, though it won’t delete old posts. Instead it wants to “start a new dialogue” and give players a chance to talk to the game’s new developers. The studio is also thinking about setting up a Discord channel to ease communication.
“You go to the forums, there’s been a lot of speculation on either the game dying or, who is crazy enough to take this game over? I guess we’re crazy enough,” said Scott. “In a weird, bizarre way, I think this is the best route for APB. We’re not a big huge faceless company that’s going to grind through the game, or not be accountable. For better or for worse, it’s just me. I’m prepared to be accountable for what we want to do with that game.”
GamersFirst is also going to get a makeover. Scott says that Little Orbit will rebrand the site, but it’s not in a rush to add a ton more titles to the platform. It wants to grow it organically and focus on APB Reloaded first.
It’s a fresh start for APB Reloaded and GamersFirst, but some old faces might be coming back. Scott says that Little Orbit is currently talking to a few of the original APB development team so that they can help fix some of the game’s design flaws. The studio is looking at things like revamping the matchmaking system and rebalancing the Enforcers and Criminals faction system.
“This game has been kind of piloting itself for many years, but it’s fascinating how much they got right,” said Scott. “I really believe they were ahead of their time. They had the 100-person matches way before PUBG or Fortnite. They didn’t have the exact recipe, but they were so close.”