When Grand Theft Auto III debuted on the Play Station 2, apart from establishing a new genre, it sparked the question, "How fun would this be multiplayer?!" The answer, at least as far as APB was concerned, is: "Not very". APB tried to take the open world formula of GTA's crimefest and make it a massively (not that massive, as it turns out) multiplayer bonanza. What was the outcome of this endeavor? The worst and most expensive flop in video game history. It couldn't have done worse if Kevin Costner had directed it. With one hundred million dollars ($100,000,000!!!) down the drain, what the hell went so wrong?
While the dust has yet to settle, one thing we know for certain is that this was a very flawed game, on every level. A massively multiplayer game has to function on two levels: gameplay and social atmosphere/style. The social aspect ties directly to the style and tone because it's all about what audience the game attracts. If you make a My Little Pony MMO, you have to know that you will be jumping into a legion of six year old girls. This was APB's first big blunder.
APB was not marketed to me (or any adult), not even slightly. In the world of killer tats, tricked out rides and punk hairstyles, I simply can't relate. So almost immediately upon loading the game, I inwardly sighed. Everything in APB was about graffiti and "edginess"; the "thug" lifestyle proudly displayed center stage. And what type of player does this atmosphere attract? You guessed it: spoiled little 12 year old white boys that love saying the words "nigga" and "fag" every sentence. The very nature of "thug" lifestyle implies a high level of teen rebellion, angst and immaturity. For some people, it's an unfortunate phase on the road to becoming a rational adult, but if you played this game for any amount of time, you had to soak in it, stew in it. Everything that turned me off about this game is exactly what attracted the racial-slur spewing, negligent parent-having boys (yes, only boys). And that is a recipe for disaster in any online community.
Why fight it. Meet my new "thug": MountainDew.
Some MMOs have a slow start but gradually open up to a larger world with great character choices and options. Not so with APB. What you saw in the tutorial was what you got for the rest of the game. This included one social district, where you customized your character, car, guns, musical theme, etc., and two action districts, where you did all of your fighting. The world itself was bland and lifeless. The graphics were decent, with cars gleaming pleasantly and parks looking particularly utopian (wasn't this city supposed to be in a state of near-anarchy?). But underneath the nice visuals, there was no sense that the city was anything more than a pretty backdrop for you and a couple dozen (not hundreds or thousands) people to screw around in. Developer Realtime Worlds gave the city no ambiance or personality, instead leaving all of those details to the "human element" (those piss-ant 12 year olds I was talking about earlier).
So APB failed in its first big test. How did it fair in the gameplay arena? The action was not so much Grand Theft Auto (story-based missions against AI opponents) as it was Unreal Tournament (mindless deathmatch against human opponents). You checked in with a handler, hit the button to toggle the "I'm ready to shoot people" status, and then off you went to attack or defend random parts of the city. There are a litany of problems with this approach. First off, there were no NPC enemies in the game. Everything was PvP. That means if you were online during off-peak hours, you ended up fighting the same person (singular) every mission, or worse still, no one at all. I'd spent a good hour total time just driving around randomly, waiting for people to log in so I could fight them. The second problem is that people never turned off their "ready" status, so lots of times, you were the only active player on your team since your teammates were in the bathroom or getting a sandwich or just off doing something more fun while they left their game running. This resulted in very uneven battles that produced a decided lack of fun in both directions. The people with the deficient team hated it because they were overwhelmed and died frequently, while the dominant team had a cakewalk - equally tiresome.
Seriously? I can't even go into the building and pour the gasoline around to light the fire? I have to dump it through the window? Can I please stop playing this game now?
While we're on the topic, let's examine dying in this game. There may be people out there that love to get shot in the head over and over, seeing a black screen while someone's "theme music" plays, taunting them, only to respawn blocks away and repeat the process, but that is certainly not me. In fact, I would venture to say that dying is the most frustrating, unpleasant part of any game, MMO or otherwise. This game handed out death and respawning like candy. Which wouldn't be so bad if you had more options for survival. But APB was very simple: If you had a bigger/better gun and even a modicum of shooter experience, you would kill your lesser-outfitted enemy 80-90% of the time. This meant you had to suffer through dozens of hours of death-respawn-death-respawn cycles before you could scrape together enough money to buy better guns.
Driving was the only other gameplay draw besides shooting, and unfortunately, was just as unexciting. Because of server-side input recognition, you never got the sense that your wheels were even touching the ground as you slip and slide around the city. It wasn't like driving on ice, because at least there, you would have the sensation of driving over (inhospitable) terrain. No, the cars in APB all drove like you'd died and jacked a ghost-car, like you were in a free-camera debug mode with clipping turned off. The only fun aspect of driving was the option to have your teammates lean out the windows and shoot while you drove (or vice versa).
Look, yo, I'm gangsta! Look how cool and gangsta I am!...sigh.
So with two nails in the coffin, APB was always destined for failure. The question was never "if" but "when". That's where pricing comes in. If your game is cheap enough and simple to pay for, you will always get a core contingent of people to stay with you. But APB spat in the faces of their customers by being overpriced and needlessly complicated. $10 a month seems reasonable, given that World of Warcraft is $15, but WoW has a hundred times more complexity, depth, and replayability (and this is coming from someone who dislikes WoW). The truly bizarre part was their pricing scheme beyond the standard monthly fare (taken from http://apb.wikia.com/wiki/FAQ):
Why do I need a slide rule just to figure out how to play my damn game?
APB was not made for most people. The MMO crowd has dozens of better options to choose from, some of them are significantly better and free to boot, such as Dungeons and Dragons Online. It fails as an MMO because there is no progression aside from unlocking clothes, cars and guns. There's no character building at all and that's most of what keeps people playing and paying. Factor in the hyper-annoying adolescents and you have yourself a recipe for worst community in gaming. It also fails as an action game as, again, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of better single and multiplayer options out there (again, that are free after the initial purchase). In reading some of the news that has leaked out, it appears that Realtime Worlds took their success for granted, spending ungodly amounts of money before the game had even launched, assuming that they would have record day-1 sales numbers. According to some estimates, they got 1/10th of what they were expecting, just to break even. Half (or more) of the failure of APB was probably behind the scenes and we will never know the full truth. But what we can state, unequivocally, was that this game deserved to fail. And in the age of "too big to fail" government bailouts, sometimes it's a beautiful thing to witness a perfect cause and effect.