We've got a giant blowout of Funcom's excellent-looking MMO The Secret World (with exclusive first looks at special missions, dungeons, and PVP) headed your way in an upcoming issue of PC Gamer, but magazines are made of paper. Fickle, fickle paper. Sadly, there are only so many trees in the world, and apparently "but it's for a really great videogame article" isn't an acceptable excuse for widespread deforestation.
However, I spent upwards of an hour quizzing lead content designer Joel Bylos and lead designer Martin Bruusgaard over nearly everything imaginable, and I figured you fine folks might be just a teensy bit interested. So, after the break, you'll find many of the best bits - including balance concerns, how the game's like Lost, lamentations about the lack of difficulty in MMOs, and more - broken up into handy categories.
PC Gamer: The first thing that really stands out to me about Secret World is your faction system. It's multi-tiered, you've got three different sides. And you seem to be emphasizing it a lot, you've got the Facebook questionnaire, which is a really cool idea. So is there any inspiration there from the World of Warcraft, Horde-versus-Alliance thing? I don't really think they knew that was going to get so big, whereas you seem to hanging your proverbial hat on it.
Joel Bylos : I think to start with, we talked about three-sided PvP, it's much more interesting than two-sided PvP because you always have the joker in the deck.
Martin Bruusgaard : Everyone talks about Dark Age of Camelot...
JB : Yeah, Dark Age of Camelot is a massive influence in that regard You have the European, the American, and the Asian faction, and that's also very interesting mix, if you want. It doesn't matter where you're from, you can play Caucasian, Dragon, it's not a problem. They all have very different philosophical backgrounds, it's very interesting. Players really identify with parts of these different factions in their own way.
And they almost tie to certain people's attitudes as far as the way they play games. If you think about, you know, Sex Drugs and Rockefeller, they're in there for a good time, smashing things around. The Templars are more ruthless, they're focused, they want to take stuff down. And the Dragon are all about the chaos. I'm running over here, running over there, I'm an explorer. It almost ties to player archetypes in a way. But I think, yeah, it's definitely very intentional, to drive a wedge between these three factions. People can't form guilds with people outside of their faction. So you can't form a cross-faction cabal. That's part of our philosophy.
PCG: One of the big things [at this year's BlizzCon] was the change to their skill system. They're trying to eliminate cookie-cutter builds with their skill trees, these sort of end-all be-all, you have to take these skills or else you made a useless version of your class type of thing. Are you worried about the emergence of that kind of cookie-cutter approach, where people will figure out the skill system and say, if you're not doing this in a certain way you may as well not do it at all?
JB : I think our monsters, in some regard, counter that as well. They require, especially towards the later parts of the game, they require players to bring specific effects. You could say, I've built up this great DPS class, it's awesome. But then the first time you encounter mobs that chain stun you, and you don't have a CC break, then you're gonna die. So that build is not optimal in that situation. We have some very specific areas of the game with specific kinds of monsters that do effects that you just can't beat without bringing certain effects of your own. They're almost like puzzles, I guess. These monsters do this, and you have to look in the build system to counter what they're doing. Or to find a way around what they're doing. It's the same with the heroic dungeons in the game. They require groups to bring certain specific effects to the dungeons or you won't be able to finish them. I guess you could say that it avoids the cookie-cutter of the be-all end-all.
MB : We designed those encounters, especially towards the endgame, to look at the group as an entity instead of looking at what each of those five individual players can bring. Instead we look at, what can this group, or should this group, bring in total? As long as somebody brings that effect it's okay. It doesn't have to be you specifically. I think that's an interesting concept when we're designing these encounters. We said things like, this will require one and a half healers. This will require 0.75 crowd controlling. We don't say you have to have a crowd controller. We need to have a total of X amount of crowd controlling skills in the group.
PCG: On the quests and side events, how different is each faction? Will people end up doing roughly the same things gameplay-wise, or will it be like, you play through a certain area with one faction, and do completely different things compared to what another faction does?
MB : Each of the three secret societies have very different hubs. When they go home, they go to very different places and their experience there is very different. So they start out here. And then they come to Kingsmouth for instance. And they all play Kingsmouth, it's the same content. But the Send Report button, when you finish something, then you get a message from your secret society, and their feedback to you is very different. Templars will say, oh, that was a great find about the Illuminati in Kingsmouth, that was fantastic, that was good information. If you send it to the Illuminati, they will say, well, that was just a test to see if you have your head screwed on.
JB : Ranking missions, every faction has their own set of ranking missions. They're the spice, we pull players who've been playing Kingsmouth for like 40 hours and say, you know what? You get a phone call, it says you need to come back and do a special assignment for us. That's the spice. They send you out to do something specifically for that faction that's unique to that faction.
And in those missions we often play the factions off against each other, so you might be spying on an Illuminati guy as he does something if you're a Templar, or as a Dragon you might be letting loose some sort of chaos into the Templar headquarters. Things like that. The ranking missions are different, the main storyline diverges and then comes back together and then diverges and comes back together between each of the major areas in the game. I guess that's it. Then there's additional faction... The rewards are all flavored differently depending on the factions.
PCG: What are the factions' interactions within the game world like? Do you have any specific setups for world PvP, or is it just like, people run into each other in the field and fight?
JB : We don't have open world PvP, that's important to make a point about. United against the darkness, divided in purpose and pursuit of power. The war zones are where the three factions fight, the battlefields, you played one of them today, are where they'll fight. In the PvE zones there's no fighting between the factions. They can team with each other against the stuff that they're fighting. It's not quite like Horde/Alliance at all in that regard, we let people play together in PvE. Because there's nothing worse than not being able to get a group together. It's important to us that people can play together. But in PvP the gloves are off and everybody runs after each other, kill the guy who wiped your group...
MB : Animosity comes out in the war zones. We have these persistent zones that are always PvP enabled, where you have control points. They're open 24/7, they can hold over 100 players, and you capture these control points. If you manage to capture and hold any of these zones for your secret society, you give benefits to your entire secret society. You can go in there with your guild and take the zone and hold it, and as you're doing that you're giving bonuses to your entire faction, making you guys the heroes. I think that will become a really interesting part of the secret societies and the fighting between them.
JB : It'll become very political over time, which is also interesting. Everyone will start off not knowing each other very well, but as people become notorious, the Illuminati might get a reputation for their ruthlessness and their backstabbing in some of the mini-games.
MB : It's cool, because Templars might control these zones, and then Dragons and Illuminati can say, we're tired of Templars always controlling this. Let's kick them out. They can group up and do that.
JB : Whereas in WoW you sort of see these over-imbalances with Horde/Alliance, you sometimes feel like there's no way we can win this.
PCG: Your story is a huge focus on this. You have tons of cutscenes and stuff like that. The Old Republic is doing something similar. It seems like right now, there's a trend in that direction. Do you think that's really what players are looking for? A lot of WoW players, for instance, just skip the quest text. They don't care about it. They just want to go do their thing. Do you think MMOs are really about delivering that kind of story content, or is it more about players creating their own stories through their interactions with the world?
JB : I think... Minecraft? It's a player story game. It's really amazing, the way people build this world. I think BioWare is more about the linear, they're going to tell you a story, the story of the Old Republic. I like that style of storytelling myself. And then you have The Secret World, and I don't think The Secret World really falls into the same category as TOR.
There's this world, this history, this underlying story to everything in The Secret World. You as a player will be able to dig into that as much as you like, or not at all. You can skip every cutscene by pushing Escape. You don't have to watch them. The lore system we have in the game, the achievement system, everything ties into finding out more, and as you find out more you realize that you're just seeing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. The idea of this conspiracy, if you will, side of the game, is that players will be forming their own conspiracy theories. What is the Filth? What is that? There's no definitive answer that you'll find written on a wall somewhere, there's no-one in the game who's going to say to you, "The Filth is this."
It's kind of like Lost, is the description I'll give. At the end of season one of Lost, people had a lot of questions. I always feel that people will be saying, "These are the events that I experienced in the game, through the gameplay. This is what we saw. How does this tie together? What does this mean? How does this tie to our factions and what they're about?" I almost feel like it's not a linear story in that sense. I think that's part of the MMO philosophy that we're going for, this community-shared experience. We want people to be speculating.
PCG: One of the things during yesterday's presentation, you said that everything, every quest you do, goes back to the main story. Do you mean that? There aren't any filler missions?
JB : They're all contextually tied to the main stuff, yeah. I don't think there are any missions... Well, okay. Side missions, there are side missions that teach you about crafting. You have to craft a zombie voodoo powder, which you can use to take down zombie things with. That's the tie, there are zombies around and you find this ancient book that gives you a recipe for crafting zombie powder. That's not a super-strong tie to the main story, but it's still contextually tied to the story. So I guess on side missions, you can say that they're not always the strongest tie, but every NPC mission? Yes. Absolutely. They're all tied.
PC: When it comes down to it, how significant of differences are there between players who've been playing a while and players who are new? With better gear, are they worlds beyond, like they're one-shotting stuff that another person has to battle?
JB : Yeah. There will be a big difference if you have the best gear in the game. I think the vertical progression...
MB : It's kind of comparable to WoW. There's differences between a guy who just hit level 80 or 85 and a guy who's playing past 85 for some time. But it's important to mention that everyone has a baseline of health. You don't get any more health from playing the game for a long time, you get it from the gear. So if you're expecting to just damage, and you want to be a glass cannon, yes, you will do a lot more damage, but you still have 1500 health. You can't be that crazy overpowered guy.
We mentioned before, it's to prevent the whole "I want to be a tank-mage-priest." We can't have any player running around as a tank-mage-priest, we want them to make the choice of whether they want to spike one thing or hybridize, and then be a master of none.
PCG: I love the skill system itself, I love that there are 500 skills anyone can unlock. But the interface for it was sort of miserable. The hive system, I felt, was kind of unclear at this point - finicky and difficult to work with. Are you still actively changing anything about that?
JB : You see some of the iterations it's already gone through. It's pretty crazy. We were talking about, for example, all shotgun abilities are red. Then that part of the hive should be red, so you know these are the shotgun abilities. That sort of clear communication of what fits where, even just having the icon of the shotgun on the rows that include shotgun stuff would help a lot. There's tweaks and stuff that we're doing all the way to launch.
PCG: I was surprised by how funny some of the writing is. It's very witty. Sometimes MMO fans, I feel like they don't react so well to that, though. You see World of Warcraft announce their pandas, and everyone suddenly says "No, this is terrible, you've gotta be bigger and more epic!" Do you feel like MMOs - both their creators and their fans - are prone to taking themselves too seriously?
JB : I think it's a setting thing, and it's a matter of being cheesy or not as well. WoW, they own that IP, they do what they want with that thing, and some of the stuff they do is Haris Pilton and things like that. You know, very pop-culture, very tongue-in-cheek, and kinda cheesy. It wouldn't work in The Secret World at all, that type of humor. But the characters themselves being awkward and interesting, I think that really fits with a lot of the characters. [There's] the hobbyist Illuminati member, and [police officer] Andy [casually] talking about human sacrifice. I think it really comes through nicely.
I don't know about taking it seriously, but taking the context of the setting and making sure that your humor matches it. We had rules in Conan as well - like no slapstick - because Conan's not a slapstick sort of story. It's a blood-and-guts-and-glory thing. But we had jokes, we had things in there that were pretty funny.
MB : The Cock Handler.
JB : The Cock Handler. We had all sorts. But you don't want to be cheesy with your setting, you don't want to cheapen it. I think fans respond really well to humor. Yesterday a lot of the guys were talking about it, like "I didn't expect those characters to be funny. I expected this to be all grim and dark all the time." It is quite a grim situation, this town, and you're not sent there to help these people. They're kind of doomed.
That's the ironic tragedy of the whole thing. Those people in the police station, you're passing through and your faction doesn't care about them at all. You're not there to help them. I don't know if you read the reports you get in at the end of the missions, but when you go around picking up supplies for them, the guy at the end says "How quaint. It's funny that you think you're here to save people."
PCG: As we were discussing offhand earlier, the game's got a tinge of difficulty to it. It's fairly hard. What general difficulty level are you aiming for? And also, as a result of that, how solo-able would you say the game is? The missions in general.
MB : In general, we don't want our content to be a pushover. Floating bags of XP. We want players to care and maybe be a little bit more careful than usual.
I think we both miss the days where you were actually running around in an MMO being afraid. That doesn't happen anymore. If you die it's because you were in the toilet or something. I remember the feeling when I played Anarchy Online for the first time and ran around in the desert there, and I was genuinely scared. I had a group, even, and we were like, "We need to watch out." I think that's a good thing - not just steamrolling everywhere.
JB : The longevity mechanic of the game, really, is the skill system. I guess as lead content designer my philosophy on content is that our designs need to teach people the skill system - make them comfortable with it. Of course we have to teach them setting and story as well. And then by the time you reach the endgame, you're starting to become a master of the skill system. That's the aim. You can think of all of the content as a big tutorial, if you want. It's not going to hand-hold you, but it'll be guiding you into learning more and more of the skill system, guiding you more and more into our horizontal progression system.