Creating His ‘Living World in a Box’

Written by David Kushner, Game Pro

Friday July 9th, 2010

Dave Jones, entrepreneurial game designer known for Grand Theft Auto and Lemmings, talks about getting beat up by Scottish gangs as a kid for achieving a high score in Galaga, how GTA originally had dinosaurs roaming its city streets, and his new open-wor

It’s a grim gray day in Dundee, Scotland, an industrial city an hour north of Edinburgh, and Dave Jones is up to his usual tricks: stealing cars. And mugging pedestrians. And, oh, yeah, smashing through a storefront window. “I’m a criminal,” he says, unapologetically, as glass rains down on his car’s hood, “so I can do what I want.”

Fortunately for his wife and kid, the boyish 44-year-old is only wreaking havoc online. He’s in a high-ceilinged conference room at his company, Realtime Worlds, playing All Points Bulletin, his massively multiplayer crime game due this summer. Jones taps at his keyboard as his brawny avatar onscreen swipes some electronics from the broken window of a store. “Video cameras sell well,” he says as he maneuvers his avatar back to his car. “I’ll put these in the trunk and take them to a place where I can sell them.”

With APB pushing nearly a decade in development, players may start breaking down real doors to finally get their paws on Jones’s game. They have reason to riot. Jones, after two decades in the business, occupies the tiny pantheon of certifiable game gods. His quirky first hit, Lemmings, became a chart-topping sensation and pioneered the real-time strategy genre. His next smash, a little game called Grand Theft Auto, pioneered the killer stuff-open-world mayhem, darkly comic urban realism, radio stations, etc.-which gamers now take for granted. Crackdown, his candy-colored, superhero/crime-lord mashup, is spawning its own sequel this summer.

Though themes recur, Jones is pathologically allergic to repeating himself-or anyone else for that matter-which makes APB all the more enticing and ambitious. “For me the ultimate video game is to take elements of Crackdown [and] Grand Theft Auto, with huge open worlds and as many players as possible,” he says. “That kind of stuff excites most players, and I feel APB is the first step.”

APB is the game Jones has been working his entire career to create. His expertise in gangs, gritty cities, and video games goes back to one fateful afternoon in the 1980s. The puckish young brainiac was playing Galaga, the classic arcade shooter, in a fish-and-chip shop in Dundee, elated to be setting the high score.

There was just one problem. Dundee, a rough old whaling town, was teeming with teenage gangs with names like the Huns and the Shams, and the local toughs didn’t take kindly to this carrot-topped geek besting them on their home turf. Just after Jones typed in his initials, the gang chased him out of the shop and beat him silly. “I got my ass kicked for setting the high score in the area,” Jones recalls, with a laugh. “That was just part of growing up.”

But the experience left him with more than bruises. The early arcade machines taught him the importance of immersing players quickly and compellingly. “They taught you what was good and what made you put in more money,” he says. “I tell my guys here [that] we have three to five minutes to capture people’s full attention.”

After a stint making Sinclair ZX81s and ZX Spectrum personal computers at Dundee’s local Timex plant, Jones stayed up all night in his parents’ house to make his first game, an arcade-style action game for the Commodore Amiga called Menace that came out in 1988. The game sold well, but not enough to convince Jones’s professors that this was actually a viable career. “Everybody thought I was crazy,” he says.

Jones quickly proved them wrong in 1991 with Lemmings. In hindsight, the puzzle game-which challenges you to save hapless little creatures from their doom-doesn’t seem to portend GTA or APB. But it boasts Jones’s trademarks: the dark humor, the fast action, and the teeming, artificially intelligent organisms composing what he calls a “living, breathing world.” Or, in essence, a real-time world.

In fact, gamers might be surprised to learn that one of the industry’s most raucous franchises, Grand Theft Auto, started out as a sim. A programmer at Jones’s start-up, DMA Design, had come up with a scrolling demo of a city viewed from the top down. Jones immediately saw an opportunity to bring his dream of the ultimate virtual world to life. “I had this fascination with how alive and dynamic we could make the city from very little memory and very little processing speed,” he says. “How could we make something living inside the machine?”

Jones’s team spent months toying around with the city, filling the streets with dinosaurs (seriously) and then cars. At first, under the working title Race ‘N Chase, gamers actually played the good guy-a cop busting robbers. The cops-and-robbers setup, which would run through the entire GTA franchise as well as Crackdown and APB, appealed to Jones’s core aesthetic-hooking players immediately by casting them into a familiar world. “Cops and robbers is a natural rule set that everybody understands,” he says.

But it didn’t take long to understand that it’s a lot more fun to be the bad guy. The key insight, says former DMAer Brian Baglow, came when they realized it was easier to let players run over pedestrians than avoid them. From there, one idea cascaded to the next. “Wouldn’t it be cool if you run over pedestrians and the ambulance came?” Jones asked. “And when the ambulance guy got out, you could steal his ambulance! It became like a toy box, which is where the idea of the sandbox came from.”

While other games from Elite to The Legend of Zelda tinkered with freeform exploration, Grand Theft Auto-as the game was dubbed by the publisher’s marketing team-broke down the fourth wall like nothing before. “For me, it’s pure escapism-it’s what video games are all about.” Jones says. “I like linear story-based games as well, like Half-Life and Mass Effect, but only video games can create an experience where you feel like you can go anywhere, poke at anything, prod anything-just try stuff and shape your own experiences. For me, having a canvas for a rich, living world is great for building game experiences.”

After completing GTA and GTA2, however, Jones felt he had done all he could do with that franchise, and he was ready to build an even more ambitious game experience of his own. The seeds of APB had been planted. And he knew just the place he wanted to bring it to life: online.

In the real world, Realtime Worlds operates out of an old brick warehouse in the heart of Dundee. Scruffy young guys mill from the billiard table and foosball machine on the ground floor lounge up to the programming suite decorated with tiger posters upstairs. Over 140 artists and programmers hunch at their PCs, handcrafting interiors of APB’s city and tweaking the freckles on the Enforcers. Jones is known for his obsession with details. “Dave is an innovator and a perfectionist,” says Realtime Worlds’ chairperson and chief executive officer, Ian Hetherington, “and he’s kind of demanding to work with. But you get the results.”

The sprawling world in the game, like most of Jones’s dreams, lives online. The spark came when Jones launched Realtime Worlds in 2002. Massively multiplayer games were just taking off, and Jones had become entranced by Dark Age of Camelot. Jones, long compelled by creating a living world in a box, wanted to take his vision to the ultimate end-not just a passing fad of a game, but a truly persistent game world online. Jones wanted to know, “Could you create a game that had longevity? That became APB.”

Though Crackdown was a critical and commercial hit in its own right, Jones now describes it as a “stepping stone” for his company. Realtime Worlds used the game to experiment with some nascent gameplay features-such as dropping in midgame with other players in co-op mode. And since Jones hadn’t stuck around to experience Grand Theft Auto’s shift to 3D with GTAIII, this was his chance to go street view. “We were learning the technology to eventually do an even bigger open-world 3D game,” he says.

APB is built on what Jones calls the three Cs: conflict, creativity, and celebrity. The conflict takes place in San Paro, a sprawling fictional city (roughly an area of 20-by-20 miles in real-world terms). And the warring factions are primal: cops and robbers, or as Jones prefers to put it, Enforcers vs. Criminals. “Cops tend to be pretty boring,” he says. “Enforcers in our games are really, really cool.”

Movies like Heat, Scarface, and The Warriors inspired the team. But Jones didn’t want to rely on cinematics to tell the story, and instead he focused on bringing a cinematic feel to the missions within the game. Just like a great heist flick, players are led down back alleys and over fences, in car and on foot, to pull off missions. “When you look at great movies and sequences, this is what they do,” says Jones. “Everything’s very carefully designed.” A quick video-capture mode also lets players record their runs (just the thing for the inevitable APB machinima DIY videos to come).

The shadow of Grand Theft Auto looms large over APB-too large at times for the Realtime Worlds team. “The simple, easy way out is to call APB a Grand Theft Auto MMO, but that doesn’t do it justice,” says APB Lead Designer E.J. Moreland. Instead the team’s rallying around a different tagline: “This is an online persistent action game,” Moreland says. Oh, yeah, and no hookers. “You won’t see references to prostitutes or anything like that,” Jones says. “It’s not controversy for controversy’s sake.”

In total, the game can accommodate up to 10,000 concurrent players per world, with 100 players competing together at a time. But Jones labored to make sure that matchmaking was no standard (and boring) wait in the lobby. APB uses a unique system that matches players based on their so-called Threat Level, essentially how notorious they are in the game. In some cases, the system might pair a single player with a higher Threat Level against two players with lower ratings to make a more well- balanced match.

A core group consists of four players, but it can grow to as much as a 20-vs.-20 smackdown. Once in the world, gamers can choose to accept missions from the NPCs by hitting the Y key and then go off on quests that take roughly 10 to 15 minutes to complete-these range from retrieving stolen items to arresting marauding clans. Though APB is epic in size, Jones’s team took great pains to keep it familiar and accessible enough so players can boot up and dive in. Controls stick to the standard WASD layout, with the F key dedicated for all actions.

Jones puts unprecedented creativity in the APB players’ hands. Since the game is about warring clans, refining your identity isn’t just a gratuitous add-on; it’s central to boosting your status in the game. To change your appearance, you visit an area in San Paro called the Social District.

The persona studio lets you modify your avatar but in a strikingly more nuanced way than standard mohawks and muscle shirts. Sliders and palettes give you millions of iterations to design, from the muscularity of your avatar to the constellations of blemishes and moles. Slap a scar down over, say, your right eye and your retina reddens with just the right corresponding streak of blood.

Clothing is just as detailed, letting you create, for example, symbol designs that can run on your T-shirts and jeans-as well as your tattoos and license plates. Jones, an admitted car nut who bought his first Ferrari after making millions on Lemmings, has put as many modification tools into vehicle design, all the way down to the music you blast out of your window.

This, of course, is the guy who brought us a host of radio stations to choose from in GTA, and APB goes even further-letting you both import and even create your own tunes. In high style, gamers can code or choose their own death theme music to push at other players when they get fragged. “When you kill someone, they have to hear your song,” says Realtime Worlds Audio Director Roland Peddie, with an evil laugh. APB could very well spawn an entire subculture of gamers who futz around with the avatar creator like fans took to the creature creator in Spore. “Some players may just want to play the customization game,” says Jones.

The third C of the game is Celebrity-an ego-stroking reward system designed to canonize accomplished criminals and Enforcers. Earn enough respect and APB erects statues in your likeness around the city. Newspapers even chronicle your exploits. “We’re going to take a player’s celebrity status and push it outside the game,” says Realtime World’s community lead, Chris Collins. This begs the question: How level will the playing field be? Won’t hardcore gamers simply rule the scene? The answer is: Not quite, because the game recognizes players not only for kills but other skills, like designing graffitti and clothing.

Despite all of APB’s innovation, nagging questions remain. Most pressingly, perhaps, is how the game will make money. Though Realtime Worlds has yet to reveal the business model, Jones promises players won’t have to commit to any kind of monthly subscription fee or utilize a traditional microtransaction system. Instead, Jones says he’s trying to make the business model “as flexible as possible and as innovative as the game itself.”

Realtime Worlds doesn’t rule out the possibility of a console version. “We believe this is the kind of game that will work really well on consoles,” says Jones. “For me, the launch of APB is telling everybody we have the back-story broken down, and criminals are moving in as well, so make your clans, start to establish yourselves, and get ready, equipped, and tooled up, because some part of the game is going to change.'”

This initial launch of San Paro is just the beginning of what will be a burgeoning APB universe. Jones sees it not just as a game but a platform-one that appears now but stays for years as new games and customizations evolve within the world. He describes this initial release as episode one. “For me an online game becomes like an online platform,” says Jones, “and what you deliver into that is a tailored experience for subsets of the audience. The game we built may not work for everyone. We’re finding ways to cater to every kind of audience, and technology is getting to the point where we can do that now.”

Realtime Worlds plans to rollout different rulesets and districts within the game based on player feedback. “A lot of online games pick one ruleset for 1,000 players, but we can be flexible and reactive,” he says, “so if players say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this in APB?’ we can respond with, ‘Hey, we’ll give that a try.'” Jones talks of launching a Chaos district, for example, designed to let players wreak as much havoc as possible.

As another long day of coding in Dundee comes to a close, Jones’s other legacy is readily apparent: the tight-knit community of local game development companies (Denki, Cobra Mobile, Tag, Ruffian) that spawned from his first company, DMA. Dundee is now considered a hotbed of game design, with the government and universities supporting the scene. As the ultimate tribute to Jones’s impact on the city, the local museum now features a display celebrating Jones’s games, including original art from Lemmings.

But Jones isn’t resting on his pixelated laurels. Before he goes, he drops a clue about his next project, currently under wraps. “It’s a completely online game, something I’ve been working on longer than APB, actually,” he says. Just don’t expect it to be an APB clone. “It’s something completely different,” he promises. Gamers expect nothing less.