The Secret World: Funcom Talks Consoles, PvP, Factions, Star Wars, Next-Gen
The Secret World is Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures developer Funcom’s upcoming MMORPG which aims to mix traditional MMO elements with a modern-day setting interspersed with ancient mythology and secret societies – we caught up with Lead Content Designer Joel Bylos ahead of The Secret World’s 19 June launch date.
Ancient factions compete in The Secret World – which one will you join?
The Secret World’s central premise – adding a kind of fantasy dimension to a contemporary setting – is quite different for an MMO. How big a challenge was finding the correct balance and tone for the game?
Joel Bylos: It has been a lot of work getting the elements into place and ensuring that they fit well together. The game has had a long pre-production time, where different ideas, systems and even time periods for the game were considered. And the game has to walk the fine line between capturing peoples imagination and yet not sending players spiralling into paranoia.
What’s the secret to designing the visuals for a game that you hope to be around for years to come? Did the themes help compared to a traditional fantasy MMORPG setting?
JB: The art director is probably better suited to answer this one, but I think a part of Funcom’s philosophy is that you don’t create an environment, you create an atmosphere. Everything combines to convey a feeling and even when the graphics have become outdated, the combination of elements will still inspire players in the right way. A good example of a game that does this well, after 10 years is System Shock 2.
About the themes, I think they help because modern reference material is readily available – but they can also be detrimental, because people often have their own view of a place through years of exposure in films and other media. We have to recreate that or the feeling of a place falls apart.
You’ll find out what the hell this is in The Secret World.
Funcom’s been working on the game in various guises for almost a decade – how do you keep elements fresh so long down the line? Has anything fundamental changed to keep up with the times?
JB: I think that good ideas resonate, regardless of when they were created. Of course, everything in the game has undergone multiple iterations over the years. Probably the biggest fundamental change was a shift in the time period – the game was originally set in the 1920s and was brought forward to the modern day.
How is The Secret World set to push MMO conventions in terms of narrative, PVE and PVP?
JB: In the narrative sense, TSW pushes the concept of the “jigsaw” narrative. It has all the narrative elements that other games have – dialogue, cinematics – but these elements cover only a portion of what the story is all about. In addition the world tells the story through elements such as phone books, newspapers, radios, cell phones and dozens of other objects. Everything provides the player with information that they can use to construct their picture of what is going on at the heart of The Secret World.
In the PvE sense, the game allows for freeform character development far beyond that seen in most MMOs. In addition we have mission types that will ask the player to step beyond the game and blur the lines between the real world and The Secret World.
Most of the innovations in the rest of the game also carry over into PvP, and I feel we are restoring something gone from many MMOs with our conflict between three secret societies. Three sided factional combat has all but disappeared from the MMO genre in recent years and we are bringing it back with our persistant warzones where players engage in The Secret War for world domination.
Interest has been high with half a million registrants – what’s been the most popular faction so far? What have you learned from the beta?
JB: There has been shown great interest for all the secret societies from people signing up for the beta, which is a very good thing. Right now one of them seems to be getting a bit more traction than the others, but it’s constantly changing.
We have learned a lot from the beta. One of the more significant changes has been an overhaul of the weapon skill system based on player feedback.
You won’t always be fighting in TSW. Probably best here, though.
WoW numbers are dropping, and there are numerous MMOs in the works such as Guild Wars 2, Wildstar and Blizzard’s next effort. Are we starting to see a divide between the new and older MMOs? Is there such as thing as a ‘next-gen’ MMO?
JB: I think next-gen is a word best applied to consoles where there is a significant gap between generations. There are dozens of MMOs released every year and all of them attempt to innovate in some way. To take a few recent examples: Rift took the WoW formula and added dynamic content. ToR built itself around bringing the storytelling experience of MMOs to the next level. I do think that in 10 years the MMO landscape will be significantly different to what it is now – but the changes will happen year by year, game by game for the next decade.
Funcom has acquired more MMO experience than most – how has that informed the Secret World?
JB: In terms of the technology, Dreamworld is an incredibly powerful engine which has been developed over years of blood, sweat and (sweet sweet) coder tears. It allows us to push pixels like no other MMO while still meeting all the demands of a modern MMO engine.
On the design side, MMO design is significantly different from single-player design. There are always dozens of ways that players can break any scripted sequence in an environment where any player can interfere. As designers I think a large part of the experience we bring from our other games comes from lessons learned about what works, what is fun and what players really want.
Free-to-play is reportedly increasing MMO revenues across the board – are subscription MMOs dead, or will they be reserved for just the heavyweights in future?
JB: I think there is a place for both subscription and free to play models. My biggest belief is that people will be happy to pay for a quality product – be it in monthly subs or microtransactions. The key is to deliver quality no matter the business model.
Real-world locations… with a twist.
You had tentative plans to one day launch on consoles – is there still a lot that would need to change on the platform-holder side for true MMOs to hit consoles?
JB: I don’t think we can ignore games like DCUO and FFIV – these are very much true MMOs. So yes it is possible, but of course you need to build your engine from the ground up to scale in that way, especially for this current generation of consoles which is growing a bit long in the tooth.
You’ve got an eclectic mix of influences and gameplay styles with combat and puzzles. Are you attempting to make an MMO for everybody? Do you anticipate The Secret World attracting players that are new to MMOs?
JB: I think we are attempting to make the game which we feel makes sense. It doesn’t make sense to meet every challenge in The Secret World guns blazing. Sometimes players need to step back and think their way around a puzzle. It is the game *we* want to play. Hopefully it will be the game that other people will want to play too.
You must constantly get new ideas for characters/environments/enemies/quests/plot – how do you filter these, and might we see some of them implemented post-launch?
JB: Of course, the game has a million and one ideas. I think Senior Producer and Creative Director Ragnar Tornquist is fairly good at keeping the story in line with his vision and not letting it spiral out of control; the rest of the content naturally follows suite. Post launch content – yes we have a long list. The story continues and we know where the players will be going in the future. And we are foreshadowing this in the game as well.
Finally, you’re publishing partner is EA – which has just launched it’s own MMO in SWTOR – do you see it as competition? Could The Secret World benefit from Star Wars’ success?
JB: As competition, I guess we only see them as competition in the sense that we will be competing for the precious playtime of players. Our game is fundamentally different in design and philosophy. EA has been amazing at sharing their experience with both ToR and Warhammer Online, and provided us resources to improve our testing and developing processes. In that regard, we definitely benefit from Star Wars’ success!
In the same sense, MMOs which succeed grow the market base and we always benefit from more players playing MMOs.
The Secret World is set for a 19 June launch – hit the link to register for the ongoing beta.