After getting a guided tour of The Secret World's premier dungeon at this year's Electronic Arts Studio Showcase, we were left with more questions than answers. To help shed some light on The Secret World's secrets, we caught up with Ragnar Tornquist, senior producer and creative director at developer Funcom (Age of Conan). Tornquist talked us through everything from character progression to social media integration to surviving in the massively multiplayer online marketplace. As for a release date, well, that's one secret we've yet to crack.
GameSpot: Making a massively multiplayer online game without leveling must be a challenge. In what ways will players feel a sense of progression, and how will experienced Secret World players prove their superiority to less-seasoned adventurers?
Ragnar Tornquist: Progression is vitally important in a role-playing game, and particularly in a massively multiplayer role-playing game. You're spending hundreds, potentially thousands, of hours in our game, and you want to feel that your character is growing and learning and becoming more powerful and versatile. Without levels, of course, we need other progression mechanics, and in The Secret World there are plenty.
First off, players will earn points in order to purchase powers. You get experience from everything you do: missions, PVP, monster slaying, crafting, lore, and achievements--everything. There are over five hundred completely unique powers in the game--at launch. We will add more postlaunch, and while you don't necessarily need all of these powers, the more you have, the more flexibility and choice you'll have. And The Secret World is all about choice. Powers are generally grouped by weapon type, and weapons have different properties, strengths and weaknesses, and unique characteristics. Having access to a wide variety of powers and, consequently, weapons makes you a more versatile and flexible player, and you'll be able to take on more of the content in the game. Players build decks consisting of seven active and seven passive powers, and the way these are combined and the interplay between both the active and passive powers is key to the role-playing and combat mechanics in The Secret World.
Secondly, gear--from loot, trading, crafting, rewards--is hugely important in our game. How you equip your character, and how you equip your character for a certain deck of powers, is crucial in having the optimal character build for any given situation. The player character has a number of slots, including magical amulets and trinkets, as well as occult implants called "chakras," that affect the player's stats, and a large portion of the character progression in the game comes from gear.
Clothing, of course, does not have stats--you can look the way you want to look, all the time--but since a lot of the clothing choices and outfits in the game are unlocked through missions and achievements, players will be able to show off their accomplishments by wearing these clothes; be it a stylish Soviet-era uniform gained by completing a dungeon, or a Stetson hat given as a reward for finishing a challenging mission, players can choose themselves what to brag about, how, and when.
In addition, players will increase in skill within weapon categories, meaning that someone who just starts out with a shotgun will not be as strong or versatile as someone who's been playing with a shotgun for dozens of hours. All players will also increase in rank within their secret societies, climbing the conspiratorial ladders from the basement up. These ranks open up new content and access to secrets, as well as things like vendors and unique items, and special missions that bring players deeper into the ancient mysteries and conspiracies of the secret world, and the ongoing conflict between the three factions.
There are other ways to progress--and to show off your progress--in The Secret World, and we'll reveal more as we get closer to launch.
GS: Music has always been an important part of Funcom's games. How is music being used to intensify the player experience in The Secret World?
RT: Both music and audio in general play a huge role in The Secret World, and we're benefiting from having a highly experienced audio director on our team (Simon Poole, who was responsible for Dreamfall: The Longest Journey) and a fantastic composer (Marc Canham) together with some very talented sound designers. Music in particular is being used as a tool to build atmosphere and tension, when needed. In fact, we've implemented a really powerful and unique combat music AI that analyzes the environment you're in, as well as every encounter with a monster, and modifies the music to fit the encounter.
Let's say you're moving through an area with a lot of roaming monsters. The AI will pick up on this and start what's called "tension music," creating an atmosphere of impending danger, which immediately segues into combat music--completely seamlessly--if you're spotted and attacked. During combat, if you're fighting a single undead creature, we might stick with low-intensity combat music, or perhaps even just sound effects, while battling a crowd of undead would up the tempo and intensity of the music. Fighting stronger bosses kicks the music up to a whole new level of intensity, and you'll really be able to tell when you're in trouble: the drums kick in, the volume rises, and your adrenaline with it. It's a really effective tool to illustrate game mechanics through music, and it's also an intriguing and original feature that I think players will appreciate.
In addition to the combat music, of course, we have tons of orchestral and contemporary music befitting each locale in the game--from New England to Egypt, from London to Seoul, from hellish dimensions to secret Soviet research facilities. Every location has a different sound to it, with unique music and effects that bring everything together.
GS: What challenges have arisen in trying to fit various cultural myths together? Have you had to abandon any potential story tangents or references because they didn't fit with your overall vision, or because they seemed to contradict other story threads?
RT: The writing team has spent the last five years doing tons of reading and research into every conceivable myth, legend, and historical event, and tying all that research together with our own extensive backstory and plot. Of course, while "everything is true," not everything fits our vision, and we have left quite a few things out of the mix--for now. The game will grow and expand after launch, and it might be that we'll pick up some abandoned pieces down the line.
But, in general, we've made sure that everything we use in the game follows one coherent vision and direction, and when there are contradictions, those contradictions are intended and essential. You can't have a conspiracy without diverging points of view, conflicting theories about what really happened, and the different secret societies in The Secret World have opposing philosophies, which are reflected in a player's story mission. There is so much depth and texture to our story, drawn from so many myths, legends, and history--both real and invented--I look forward to seeing the discussions and theories it will spawn after launch.
GS: Age of Conan was a completely new direction for MMOG combat that gave players a direct connection with what was happening onscreen. How will The Secret World's combat make players feel like an active part of the onscreen action?
RT: The key to the combat in The Secret World is player engagement. We don't want our game to feel static, for players to just sit and wait for a cooldown to clear and to push that button again. We want players to react, interact, to feel like they're in control and that every decision matters. Each weapon in our game has a different feel and strategy to it, and the combination of weapons--players can carry two, and create decks to support that--requires players to really think before they go into the field, when they put their decks and gear together, and while they're in a combat situation.
Combat resources play a big part in that, as does movement and combat tactics. Who do you engage? How? When? Sometimes the player needs to analyze the environment before going into combat, and there are often ways to distract enemies--such as causing an explosion or a fire--and avoid direct encounters, or at least massive encounters, altogether.
It's also important to note that most of the attacks available to players allow for movement while attacking, so players aren't necessarily locked down. You can fire your gun while running, for example, or cast a lightning bolt while circle-strafing your enemy. Combat in The Secret World feels engaging and dynamic and fun, and we're confident that players will enjoy it.
GS: Anarchy Online and Age of Conan were both criticized for their technical issues at launch. Have you learned from those experiences? What steps are you taking to ensure that The Secret World is technically solid at launch, and do you have any assuring words for cautious consumers?
RT: Funcom's DreamWorld technology--an evolution of the server/client technology used for Age of Conan--has been live for several years now, and, in our experience, it's remarkably solid and stable, a result of all the great feedback and dedicated testers both on staff and volunteers outside Funcom. We don't see a lot of players complaining about stability in Age of Conan today, and the expansion pack launch and constant content upgrades for Age of Conan have gone very smoothly.
Regardless, with The Secret World, we'll be running plenty of beta events between now and launch to test our severs with thousand of simultaneous players, and we've made client performance and server stability key focus areas for our tech teams. MMORPGs are uniquely difficult beasts to launch, and it's hard to cover for every possible eventuality, but Funcom's experience and expertise in this area will really help The Secret World have as smooth a launch as possible.
GS: It's no secret that the MMO genre has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years. What can I do in this game that I can't in other MMO games?
RT: In The Secret World, you can be whoever you want to be. You don't have to lock yourself down into one class and one role, but instead you can experiment and create hybrid decks that make your player character radically different from any other character in the game. Without levels, you're also free to explore the world in a nonlinear fashion--hopping from New England to Egypt, for example, when you've had enough of the fog and the dead rising from the ocean, and you want some sun...and evil sun-worshiping cultists.
In addition, you get to explore modern cities such as London, New York, and Seoul; use weapons such as shotguns, assault rifles, and baseball bats; fight vampires, zombies, and parasite-infected humans; and set off plastic explosives, dodge security cameras, hack into computer systems, decipher locks, and, together with other players, solve intriguing and complex puzzles in our unique investigation missions. These story-driven missions take online cooperative play to a whole new level, and players are required to work together--both in-game and outside the game--to research conspiracies and ancient history, solve mind-bending puzzles, and use lateral thinking to crack these mysteries wide open.
GS: Based on what we've seen so far, it looks like The Secret World is packing in a whole rogues' gallery of supernatural monsters. Which iconic horrors can we expect to fight against in the game: vampires, werewolves, the Sleeping God Cthulhu?
RT: Players will encounter and do battle with a huge variety of monsters, pulled directly from mythology, urban legend, and popular culture: from the walking dead of Kingsmouth, the ancient mummies of Egypt, to pure-blood vampires and experimental human-vampire hybrids in Transylvania; from demons in hellish dimensions and bloodthirsty Mayan sun-cultists, giant tentacled god-creatures in Times Square, and growling werewolves in the Carpathian mountains, to parasite-infected humans in the Tokyo Metro and dark shades inside the dreaming mind of an eldritch god-thing. The variety is massive, and our monsters are some of the most unique and horrifying monsters ever seen in an MMORPG. We've got some amazing monster designers and artists making these creatures, and I'm really proud of what the team has come up with. I think players will agree!
GS: Since The Secret World is set in modern times, will there be any cross functionality with social media services such as Twitter or Facebook?
RT: We haven't announced any cross functionality yet, but the opportunities are too good to miss out on--so yes, there will definitely be hooks into both social media services and other out-of-game media such as websites and community forums.
GS: What has the development team learned from the successes and failures of other MMO games, and what does an MMO game need to do in order to survive in today's marketplace?
RT: It's pretty simple: it needs to be a good game. It needs to be fun to play, approachable yet deep, and it needs to support hundreds--even thousands--of hours of gameplay. We need to keep players engaged and entertained as they progress through the scripted content, PVP, and other gameplay mechanics.
To that effect, we've made sure that the content in The Secret World has meaning and value. Our missions aren't about killing 25 vampires and collecting their fangs. They're about digging deeper into the mysteries of the world, interacting with characters and the environment, exploration, puzzle-solving, sabotage, and story-telling. There's plenty of combat, of course, but rather than being the sole reason for the missions, they're an integral part of accomplishing the goals in the mission--and sometimes you even have a choice. Jump in and attack everything that moves, or find a way to distract or mislead your opponents.
The same goes for all the other game mechanics as well. In The Secret World, you're rewarded for playing the game, and you're given a reason to do what you're doing--be it PVE, PVP, crafting, achievements, socializing with other players...everything. Making MMORPGs is probably one of the most difficult things in this industry, and it takes a lot of people and a lot of time to get it right--not just from a production point of view, but also through focus testing and bug fixing, ensuring that the client-server technology is stable, flexible, and bug free.
But most importantly: an MMORPG needs to be fun, plain and simple. And since I play The Secret World every single day, and still enjoy myself immensely every time I log in, I can at least promise that our game will be tons and tons of fun!
GS: Thank you for your time.