The Agency Q&A

We don a dinner jacket and rappel into Sony Online to gather the latest intel on this espionage-themed MMO game.

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The Agency is a new cross-platform massively multiplayer online game coming to the PlayStation 3 and PC from Sony Online Entertainment. While it may well be from the developer of EverQuest, this MMO game will swap the traditional swords, wands, and shiny armour for automatic weapons, dry martinis, and smart evening wear.

We recently got the chance to put some questions to Hal Milton, the game's lead designer, about how The Agency is shaping up. With so many MMO games aiming to topple World of Warcraft from its throne, we asked Milton about the team's long-term plans for the game, as well as how combat and noncombat operations will be handled.

GameSpot UK: What can you tell us about the player-vs.-player action in the game? Will this include world PVP, or is it limited to certain arenas?

Hal Milton: The Agency is an action shooter; therefore PVP is a very important feature. There will be a mix of PVP arenas that support casual and official game modes that feature common and unique multiplayer game types. There will also be some optional crossover PVE missions that may find UNITE and ParaGON agents coming into conflict over shared or competitive objectives within a given area.

However, we need to make certain a player's first experience is not being repeatedly shot in the brain every time they set foot in the world. Therefore, player-versus-player content is always consensual and never a surprise.

GS UK: If you plan to include world PVP, are you going to implement PVE-only servers?

HM: We are currently designing the world to be very friendly to those players who don't want to shoot or be shot at by other players. By default, our game is PVE-friendly, so if we were to explore dedicated servers, they would be for open PVP. However, well-designed spaces, frame rate, and latency are critical to good shooter gameplay, so having arbitrary public PVP could result in a shooter that feels less like an action game and more like a slide show.

GS UK: How many different locations will be available for PVE missions at launch?

HM: We have a large number of locations scattered across the world that will support hundreds of missions. European, Central American, and East Asian locales are currently being developed to support the jet-setting lifestyle expected of elite agents. The modular system we are using to build the world will allow us to expand naturally over time, keeping the world of The Agency continually growing.

GS UK: Will there be persistent in-game housing for players?

HM: We have not made any announcements about player housing at launch. We have some plans for this that we are currently investigating.

GS UK: Is it only the game's longer missions that will require cooperation with other players, or will there be cooperative options for all three mission types?

HM: We made a conscious decision to support a solo path through the game's story content. Missions have multiple ratings a player can achieve based on completing primary objectives, secondary objectives, and bonus objectives. A solo player should be able to score a bronze on any story mission, although some will be a greater challenge than others. Players will be encouraged to form teams to get higher ratings and the better rewards that come along with them. To this end, all missions are replayable, allowing players to tackle them at their own pace and find the strategy they're most comfortable with.

GS UK: Other than chasing down bad guys and defusing bombs, what sorts of missions will players face?

HM: Players will have a wide variety of combat and noncombat missions and activities to pursue. We have missions that involve tailing suspects, dead drops, assassinations, stealth, alias gameplay, and more. We have activities like photography, gambling, in-world minigames, and arcade games. The missions themselves will see players move from standard encounters to elaborate lairs replete with traps, security, and deadly bosses.

GS UK: How many different roles will each character be able to switch between, and will it be possible to create hybrids by mixing gear types from different roles?

HM: Players will have six specialisations related to combat, stealth, and support roles. We intentionally avoided the concept of hybrids, as balance between these roles is key to PVE and PVP gameplay. We liked the concept of players being able to max out all their roles, essentially have six characters for the price of one, and explicitly designed it to avoid the "tank mage" syndrome. That being said, there is some overlap between the roles, but highly controlled overlap and not freely interchangeable abilities that would break our role counters and balance.

GS UK: How easy is it to switch between roles?

HM: Switching roles is as easy as changing your outfit. In The Agency you are what you wear. So, head to a facility, access your storage, change into a different outfit, and you are a different role.

GS UK: Other than standard firearms, what kinds of weapons can players expect to get their hands on?

HM: I would love to spill the details on some of the other nontraditional weapon types, but I have a feeling I would be taken out by the team using the closest real-world equivalent they could find...which might involve my head and a microwave.

GS UK: And can we expect all manner of James Bond-type gadgets to play with?

HM: Agents need gadgets, and we are developing some combat, support, and stealth gadgets that range from the standard autonomous deployable turret to the not-so-standard distractions, poisons, and other fun stuff.

GS UK: The game seems to have something of an emphasis on not just killing, but looking good while doing so. How do you plan to achieve this?

HM: We have developed an alias system for the game to ensure players look the part. After all, you are not going to get into an elite nightclub with an M60 strapped to your back. When players go out in the world, they bring two outfits with them: the role they picked and their alias. Their alias functions a lot like their role, but instead of having weapons and gadgets, they have accessories and credentials. Depending on where they are and what's going on, they'll be able to swap between them.

After your alias gets you into a space, you then have to worry about your alias's health. It is a lot like your health bar, but instead of enemies shooting you, they're examining you. The more they stare, the weaker your alias gets (mind bullets!). You will need to perform an alias action to slow or stop the decay, like taking a drink at the bar (careful how many drinks you have). If you start to run or perform another out-of-character action, your alias may be hit even harder.

So, to get to the crime boss's back office by passing through the high-class casino filled with hired goons, you will need to don that tuxedo, walk tall, maybe enjoy a martini, and try not to lose your cool. One you are in the back, you will be able to swap into your role outfit and get to work.

GS UK: What age rating are you hoping The Agency will receive when the ESRB get their hands on it?

HM: We are not restricting ourselves when it comes to content, which means we are currently looking at an M rating.

GS UK: Will PS3 and PC players interact in the same world, or will there be platform-specific servers?

HM: The primary design concern with cross-platform play is to not water down the experience for one platform just to support both. We would love there to be interaction between PC and PlayStation 3 players, but we have not determined the feasibility yet. The deciding factor will be if we can make the game both fun and equitable between the two systems.

GS UK: Will the PS3 version have mouse-and-keyboard support?

HM: We are investigating that now. Technically there isn't any reason why we couldn't; however, this has an impact on aim assist mechanisms and other elements that might feel unusual for the player. At the very least, keyboard-bearing PS3 players will have more fluid text-chat capability. At the very most, we will continue tracking how mixing things up feels as we constantly test the gameplay.

In the meantime, we are developing the keyboard-mouse control scheme for the PC while constantly refining the PS3 controller abilities to feel as natural as they can.

GS UK: What plans are there to integrate content from The Agency into Home?

HM: Unspoken plans mentioned in whispers behind locked doors thick with ritual and danger.

Home is a really exciting initiative, and we are tracking its development very closely. We are reluctant to talk about any Home support until we have proven out the concepts we are currently developing.

GS UK: Are you planning for a simultaneous PS3 and PC launch?

HM: Yep.

GS UK: Are you planning a public beta for The Agency, as has become common practice for MMO games?

HM: Absolutely! Beta is where we get a chance to watch our wonderful design assumptions and server technology crumble to dust under the stampeding feet of resourceful gamers. You can't consider your persistent online world ready for primetime until you have let it be abused by lots and lots of people outside the group developing it.

This gives you the chance to avoid unnecessary surprises, adjust to and address performance or feature problems, and in general make the game as solid as possible.

GS UK: How long would you expect this beta to last?

HM: As long as it takes to guarantee a solid playable experience for folks on launch day. By the way, as a designer, I'm required to say that.

GS UK: Are you planning a subscription-based model, or will you be relying on other revenue streams such as in-game advertising?

HM: We are definitely exploring nontraditional business models. Our primary goal is to reduce the barriers to entry for the console crowd. However, we are still on the hook for running the server clusters and support infrastructure that makes our service fun and easy to live in.

When the exec-u-sphere has signed off on a solution that's right for The Agency, we'll let everybody know.

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