Funcom's newest massively multiplayer game The Secret World is almost here. In advance of the game's full launch next week, we caught up with creative director Ragnar Tornquist to see how he and his team were feeling at this late stage of development.
GameSpot: So The Secret World is almost here! What's the last-minute crunch like for the team? What's the mood among the team members?
Ragnar Tornquist: The mood is very, very positive! I think everyone feels that we've made the best game we could possibly make and that our testers are really enjoying it. That's what matters--that players are responding to it and that the team is proud of their work. In fact, everyone I talk to in our development studios in Oslo and Montreal are just anxiously awaiting launch day so that they can start playing for real--not just to test stuff, but to start a proper character that they'll have for years to come.
Crunch has been…crunchy. Lots and lots of long weekends and late nights, but the game is finally done, and we're already ready to get to grips with the postlaunch content.
Obviously, you're at a point where you won't be making any major changes. Looking back, is there anything on your Secret World wish list that you wish had made it in but didn't?
Of course, there are always things you wish you had time for, but the great thing about MMOs is that you never have to cut anything--you just hold it back for later and make it part of a postlaunch patch. Some ideas and content has been cut because it wasn't very good, but most of the things we've wanted to do but haven't had time for, we're still going to do at some point in the near future.
"This type of contemporary fantasy setting is something we've all been fans of for years."
So in the New England areas, you clearly went for a Stephen King/Lovecraft sort of horror. Where else did you find inspiration?
Inspiration has come from a vast number of sources--anything from classical literature and mythology, to pop culture and urban legends, conspiracy theories and cryptozoology. We've drawn inspiration from comics, novels, movies, TV shows…This type of contemporary fantasy setting is something we've all been fans of for years, so it was easy to get into that mood with this game. It's hard to pinpoint just one source of inspiration, because there isn't, but for me, writers like Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon, Warren Ellis, China Mieville--they all contributed to the mood and themes for our game.
When working on a game, you don't always know how successful a particular element will be until you get it into the game and see it play out. Were there any surprises there--any features that surpassed your expectations?
Absolutely. I mean, that's why we have our beta testers, and we've been running betas now for over a year--and based on the feedback we've received, we've changed and modified a lot of things, like the combat and role-playing systems, character creation, some of our missions, user interfaces, and so on. That's really the only way to make an MMO--to have it out there, see how players play, collect the feedback, look at it, and make the right calls. We don't change something just because one or two players complain, but if it's something a lot of people comment on, we'll definitely discuss it and find a solution.
Modern MMOGs work so hard to invite newcomers. How conscious were you about making the game friendly? Did you ever worry about crossing the line into "shallow" or "dumbed down?" What did you do to ensure you fell on the right side of that line?
The Secret World is probably a little bit tougher and a little bit more challenging than some other MMOs--but that's OK. Our players like a challenge, and I think players are smarter and more crafty than they often get credit for. We do try to make the game accessible, of course, and anyone who has ever played an MMO should be able to get to grips with the core mechanics within a few minutes--but the game is no walkover, and players will need to use their heads a bit more. Also, without a class or level system, there's a huge amount of freedom in how you develop your character, and that's a bit of an adjustment--but it also means you're not stuck with the choices you made when you started out.
During the beta phase, combat and animations were two of the negative points that players talked about. What were your reactions--surprise, worry, or something else? Did your priorities change based on player feedback from the beta?
Our priorities didn't really change, since we already knew those were two areas where we needed to improve and do more work. The feedback confirmed our own assessment, but it was still good to see what players wrote and what they suggested. We made a lot of changes based on that feedback and our own internal evaluations--all of them for the better.
"I'm absolutely sure that launch will go smoothly."
So let's just get this out of the way: Funcom doesn't enjoy a reputation for stable game releases. I have no doubt you were conscious of this, and are working to minimize launch difficulties. What kind of resources were put into making The Secret World a smooth experience out of the gate? How confident are you about the upcoming launch, and how confident should players be?
We're extremely confident, and so should players be. Funcom's last launch was the Age of Conan expansion pack--Rise of the Godslayer--and that was a perfectly smooth and stable launch without any technical issues whatsoever. Our technology and knowhow is top-notch, and based on how well our beta weekends have gone, I'm absolutely sure that launch will go smoothly.
Music is one of the most important aspects of both of your previous MMOGs, Anarchy Online and Age of Conan. How much focus did you put on audio and using music to affect the player's emotional state?
We've put a lot of focus on music and audio in the game, and our audio director, Simon Poole, is one of the best in the industry--I've worked with him since Dreamfall, and I wouldn't want to work with anyone else. The music is really important to our game, particularly our dynamic combat music that changes and evolves depending on the situation. Also, every area in the game has a different feel to it, both in terms of music and sound effects, and that's something players will definitely notice and appreciate. Our composer, Marc Canham, is an industry pro, and his soundtrack for The Secret World is fantastic. I can't stop listening to it.
Ultimately, you want your game to stand out in a sea of other games in the genre. Do you feel you've done enough to make The Secret World different enough to peel players away from games like Rift, World of Warcraft, and Star Wars: The Old Republic?
I believe The Secret World is a very, very different game from the ones you mention here, and I think players are going to feel it's a refreshing change from the class-and-level-based MMOs they're used to. We've really strived to give our game a completely different vibe, and I believe The Secret World has soul--it stands out, players respond to it emotionally, and it grabs you in a way that few games do. I don't think it's comparable to anything else out there, in a good way.'