When I first saw
The Secret World at PAX a few years ago, I realized that this might be the first MMO I would actually be into. A complete lack of dragons and elves is what intrigued me, and the game seemed to have such an interesting world. With the game hitting the final stretch towards release I was able to land this interview with one of the main men behind the game.
Could you introduce yourself and talk about your role on the project?
I’m Ragnar Tornquist, and I’m both the Senior Producer and Creative Director on The Secret World. Everyone always gets those titles wrong.
Can you give us a quick overview of the game and the inspiration behind it? We know it’s a bit cliche but what will set the Secret World apart from the other big names in the genre right now (WoW, Rift, DCU)?
We have four focus areas -- we call them our pillars -- that we feel set The Secret World apart from every other massively multiplayer game.
First off, our setting is very unique and fresh. It’s modern-day, contemporary dark fantasy, a genre that’s been consistently popular in other media -- TV, movies, comics -- but which is surprisingly underused in games. Our twist on this is that we mix the real world with the magical, the ordinary with the extraordinary, and the modern with the ancient, and it’s allowed us to build a world that’s perfect for an MMO, and yet vastly different from everything else out there.
Secondly, our role-playing and combat systems are radically different from other games in the genre. Our focus is total freedom of play, without classes and levels, and a completely skill-based progression. Players can start out focusing on one weapon, one direction, but as they earn XP and buy more powers, they can expand their arsenal -- their decks -- and create unique hybrid characters capable of handling different situations and encounters, playing different roles as required by their team or cabal. And there will be more than five hundred powers to purchase at launch, which means that the combinations are endless. No two characters will be alike.
Our third pillar is what we call ‘the secret war’; the conflict between the three iconic secret societies: The Illuminati, the Templars and the Dragon. This conflict plays out in PvP mini-games, in other, still unannounced, PvP modes, and in the story and missions players embark on. The conflict is ingrained into the very fabric of our universe, and this ongoing war for control of the Earth is a huge part of The Secret World.
Finally, our story clearly sets us apart from the other games out there. We’re putting a lot of emphasis and focus on story -- or stories -- and this informs every aspect of the game, from missions and monster ecologies, to PvP and game mechanics. Everything is touched and affected by story, every decision made is in line with our extensive and deep backstory, and everything has meaning and context. This doesn’t mean players are bound to a single storyline that they have to follow. It means that the story -- which we always describe as a vast jigsaw puzzle -- is embedded into the world in a really unique way, that it makes the world feel real, and it gives players an incentive to keep exploring, keep digging, to play the content in order to enjoy it, and not just to gain XP and race to the finish-line.
Are you worried about the expectations that are set with cinematic trailers? The Secret World has had some particularly enthralling ones, but we've seen what can happen with overly impressive cinematics are significantly disconnected real gameplay footage (such as the Dead Island's announcement trailer) How do you manage hype without it turning into baseless hyperbole?
I don’t think any gamer would ever equate a cinematic CG trailer with actual gameplay, but in our case, the trailers do reflect both the mood and the content in the game. At GDC this year, we showed a particular mission in the game -- The Raven -- and how it leads into a setup that mirrors our second CG trailer, where Rose White, the heroine, encounters a Revenant in a children’s park. All of our trailers feature characters, clothing, weapons, powers, monsters and locations that you will find in the game itself, and though they’re pre-rendered CG movies, the look, lighting and mood is very similar to what we’re aiming for in the game.
Before the beta was released, personality tests were sent to fans to determine what faction they would be most fitted for. How is this determined? What sets the factions apart from one another so distinctly? Any chance there will be something similar when you fire the game up?
We have plans in place to make it easier for player to choose a secret society when they start a new character -- yes.
Can you describe the role factions will have in the game and describe the differences in gameplay experiences offered by each? What’s been the hardest point of balancing the factions?
When creating an open, skill based system without classes or levels, it’s important to ensure that no player will ever be at a permanent disadvantage because of choices made while experimenting. Since players have to choose a faction at the very start of the game, and they’ll never be able to switch -- on pain of death! -- the three secret societies have to be perfectly balanced. So while certain player powers are unique to each faction, for the most part, they share the same selection. When it comes to balancing the gameplay, we’re about to go into our first Beta phase, and this is obviously going to be a focus going forward: putting enough people in, having them play the game, and then make adjustments as we go along.
Story wise, however, there are big philosophical differences between the factions, and in terms of content, there are unique missions, clothing sets, uniforms, items, characters, locations and so on. Playing as a Dragon will feel very different to playing as a Templar.
What is the biggest challenge in bringing a new MMO into the current market? What are your biggest concerns about the launch of the game?
We’re lucky enough to have a very solid foundation, a core engine and server technology that’s been live for many years, which is going to help us have a smooth and player-friendly launch. It’s always a bit scary to launch a brand new game, of course, and to suddenly have hundreds of thousands of players amassing upon your world, but we’re all looking forward to it. An MMO isn’t really an MMO until it’s launched, until it’s used and abused and changed forever by the living, breathing players.
I guess my biggest concern will always be: will our players enjoy it? Will they keep playing? Will they appreciate what we’re trying to do, especially since we’re deviating from a few of the tested and true MMORPG conventions? I believe the answer is ‘yes’, but only time will tell. What’s important to me is that we make the best game we possibly can, the game we’ve always wanted to make...and play.
Can you describe some of the elements in the game that are tied in with the ARG and social networking? Will there be any way for players to interact with the game while they are away from the computer?
We’re looking at ways for players to interact with the game and the world while they’re away from the computer. In fact, with our investigation missions, players will have to go outside the game in order to solve intriguing puzzles based on real history, myth, legends, conspiracy theories, and they’ll also need to cooperate with other players via forums or chat in order to basically solve these really deep and complex ARG style problems. Some missions are designed to take weeks to crack, even with the help of the entire community.
One of the big features in the game is the lack of fixed classes and leveling, could you talk about that decision and how you’re going to provide players with a feeling of character progression in the game? Are you at all worried about taking out two of the key conventions of the genre?
Progression is key in an MMORPG. Since we don’t have traditional classes or levels, or even armour, it’s even more important to have other paths of progression that make players feel empowered and in control of their destiny. Collecting powers and building these decks of seven actives, seven passives, is a large part of that, and it’ll take players hundreds and hundreds of hours to create enough decks to tackle most of the content in the game -- and that doesn’t even take into account PvP. Gear is another hugely important progression path in The Secret World, and there will be tons of weapons, trinkets, and other items that affect your stats and your skills -- crafting is a big part of this, but not something we’re ready to reveal quite yet. Players will also progress inside their secret societies, climbing from the position of an initiate into a position where secrets will be revealed, and where players will be required to perform important duties and secret tasks for their superiors; basically becoming a part of these ancient and dark conspiracies.
It’s important to note that while there are no levels, players continuously grow stronger, more capable of dealing damage, of performing various roles, of protecting themselves -- it’s an open game, and not a flat game. There is tons of progression, and it’s a key driver for players to keep playing The Secret World -- for hundreds and even thousands of hours.
Speaking of genre conventions, what things does a MMO has to incorporate to be accessible by fans of the genre (gameplay, controls) ? What areas do you think you can innovate in?
Our goal has always been to be accessible to anyone who’s ever played an MMORPG. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to controls. On the other hand, we are innovating in a lot of other areas, including the RPG and combat systems, the setting and universe, the PvP and factional conflict, and the story and characters. Visually, we feel we have a very unique and modern look unmatched by any other MMO, and we’re also putting a lot of emphasis on the fact that players can look any way they want to look, be anyone they want to be, and play any way they want to play: We don’t have traditional armour, so players are free to wear anything -- from t-shirt and jeans, to leather coats and combat boots; and without levels or classes, players are free to develop their characters however they want, without limitations. It’s simply true freedom of progression!
We'd like to thank Ragnar for taking the time to answer our questions as well as Erling for helping to coordinate the interview.