It's Like Lost, Sort of
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.
No Levels? How's That Work?
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.