By Adam Smith on November 28th, 2011 at 1:41 pm.
In the first part of this in-depth conversation about The Secret World, the talk focused on the game’s fiction and mythology. As the discussion continues, we explore how different the game will be to other MMOs as well as talking about the importance of lore. After covering connections to Indiana Jones and Tintin, the questions turn to other matters as we wonder aloud how long we may have to wait for more Dreamfall. The interview followed a full day hands-on session with the game and those present were: Marten Bruusgaard, lead designer of The Secret World, lead content designer Joel Bylos and the game’s writer/director, Ragnar Tørnquist. We were also joined by Norwegian journalist Knut Gaute Vardenær.
RPS: Now that Ragnar has left us for a brief time, let’s talk about some of the ways in which The Secret World deviates from traditional MMO design. No levels and no classes. How difficult has it been to make that shift and how much difference does it make to the flow of the game?
Bylos: Levels are a very good mechanic for keeping people on a track. So when you make a game that has levels, it’s very easy to make sure that people are fighting the monsters that they should be fighting because they have the right number over their head; the same one as the player. So they can think, ‘oh, this is the right monster’. It’s also a way of trying to stop players from going back to areas to exploit the content. Part of the challenge of creating a level-less game is, first, making sure that people feel like they’re getting more powerful. And secondly, making sure that people feel they can go to new places and do different things without a number being superimposed telling them what they can and can’t do.
Hopefully, you guys felt that today a little bit. You started off, not really super-weak, but you weren’t super-powerful either. And as you played the game, you progressed both in skill as players, improving at actually playing the game, but you also gained more powers and became more versatile as characters. I think that’s a large part of the challenge. Making sure that the process feels natural, without us telling you, or putting a signpost there.
So, the missions do that in more subtle ways. There’s a mission called supply run, where you pick up stuff. That’s a very simplified way of looking at the mission – yes, you do pick up stuff – but in addition, you learn the layout of the town. You learn where you can go and where certain things are located. That’s just one of the ways in which we guide you, but we try to use subtle methods. I think I said before that I believe World of Warcraft uses a very heavy hand to guide players. It says, ‘pick up this stuff here, go and do these missions in this place here, do all the quests then go this place here and do the quests there’. That’s very heavy handed. In our game, we try not to be as heavy handed. It’s much more of a light touch and comes through in the places you visit and the people you meet.
Bruusgaard: It’s all about progression. We want to give players a sense of development, to pull them further into the world without thoise numbers above players’ and monsters’ heads. It seemed to be working really well. You guys ended up fighting harder monsters than at the beginning, but without any number telling you that you were ready to fight creatures with a ‘3’ above their head. We think that’s a better feeling. A natural feeling of becoming stronger.
In addition to that, we can talk about the lack of classes. We feel we have created a system that is easy to learn and hard to master. You will be able to do damage from the get-go just by hammering buttons, but if you invest time in learning the skill system and feeling the depth of it and taking time to sit down and read what the powers do you will be rewarded for it. We’ve always said that would be important – if players learn the system they shall be rewarded.
And it should be like that, right? We’ve made a comparison to Magic: The Gathering. A lot of the game is won in advance of combat, taking the time to sit down and decide what a deck should do. And then going out and executing it correctly. We put a lot of emphasis on that, allowing multiple layers of synergy. It’s there in the states, the triggers, the weapons and it’s a system that allows people to play around and have fun. If you don’t want to invest too much time, you can just mash buttons and you’ll be able to get through some of the content like that. You won’t be able to do everything. As you progress through the game, things do become harder and harder. Eventualy, you’ll need to bring specific ‘effects’, as we call them. But then we’re talking endgame.
To me, it feels right not to be locked down to a class. I play every MMO out there and I’m done with re-rolling. First thing I always roll is a healer and then after some time I want to play a differnet class but have to play for months to get to the point I want to be at. We’ve been able to do away with that and it’s working.
Gaute Vardenær: Will new players that are not accustomed to MMOs be able to get used to this system? In WOW, it’s very clear when you click character creation that you can be a warrior – something strong that can take a lot of damage. Do you think new players will understand how to adapt their skills to become classless?
Bylos: Here’s an example. The first time we gave the systems to the developers to play with, the first time they were played internally, people went in with this class idea. They thought, ‘I’m Mr Hammer, that’s what I am, that’s what I want to be’. They’d build a hammer wielder but then see someone with a sword doing a nifty dash and think, ‘that looks cool’. So then they’d buy the sword stuff, just for the dash. So then they are hammer guy with the dash. And then they think, ‘when I do the dash I can also knock people over, so let’s take another skill from elsewhere that hits the prone monster hard’. By the end of the process they’re playing a character totally different from what they used to be at the start. We’ve talked a little about templates, which can guide new people and show them the path. But it’s very natural to experiment, sometimes just for the sake of coolness. When I first played I thought, I love pistols, I’m going ot be a pistol guy. So I ran in with dual pistols and I thought, yeah, I’m a kickass pistol guy.
But then pistols and swords? Even cooler! So I started mucking around with that. So it works on an aesthetic level but also on a pure mechanics level. You might see something useful but you might also just see someone throw a grenade and think, where are grenades? Oh! In assault rifles – better buy into that then because I want a couple of grenades! It’s a metagame. You start playing around in there, maybe to be the best of the best, maybe just for fun. Maybe it’s just because you adjust your playstyle because of certain monsters. We talked about how useful the dash was against the dungeon boss for you.
RPS: Yep. Saved my skin. I only died three times.
Bylos: Other people see that and think, why can’t I dash out of the way? And they want to copy it, even though they’ve never used a sword before. Maybe next time they fight that kind of monster, they’ll bring along a dash. For new players coming from World of Warcraft, I think there is a hump and the templates can help them over that. But I do think it’s very naturally evolving as you play. It has been from watching journalists play. You guys start to experiment and that’s good.
RPS: We’ve been asked by our readers if they can play together with friends who are from different factions. How does that work in the game’s fiction? Are they cut off from each other?
Tørnquist: (who has reappeared without anyone noticing) No. United against darkness, divided in pursuit of power. That’s also framed within the storyline. The Council of Venice has decreed that. PVP in this game isn’t a purely systemic thing. It’s supported by the story and there’s a reason they are fighting in Eldorado but cooperating somewhere like Kingsmouth.
Bylos: Do the soundbyte.
Bylos: All smiles above the table and drawn knives beneath it.
Tørnquist: There we go. The Council of Venice is supposed to control all this but there are schisms and you’ll find out about that when you get to Egypt. They are fighting the rising darkness and they have to be united in that battle. So, consequently, you can group up with anyone from any faction in any area, Transylvania, Egypt, Kingsmouth, even in dungeons, but in PVP there are very strictly defined rules put in place by the Council Of Venice. The rules that are systemic and mechanical are actually story-driven.
In the capture the flag fight at Eldorado, that’s not only because capture the flag is a good game style, it’s because that’s the mechanic that the Council of Venice has defined as the rules of engagement in Eldorado. Nobody kills anybody and that’s really important. When you knock somebody out, you’re not actually killing them. The factions are at each others’ throats, but they’re not actually slitting each others’ throats.
Bylos: (laughs) I was just thinking about a line from one of the evil characters in the game. “I’d kill you but the fucking bees would just tear you apart and bring you back to life!”
Bruusgaard: They’d whisk you away.
Bylos: Every time.
RPS: I remember the early trailer that has the text pop-ps with all the different myths and conspiracies, with bees mentioned at one point.
Tørnquist: The “Everything Is True” trailer, yes. The funny thing about that trailer is that it only came out this year but it was the one we used internally to sell the game. That trailer was made in 2001. It’s been the driving factor behind the game the whole time. All these ideas that flash on the screen sum up the idea of The Secret World. But the bees have a huge part to play and that’s something you learn very early on.
RPS: In the first cutscene.
Gaute Vardenær: You said you didn’t want anything like the dungeon finder of World of Warcraft in The Secret World. When you start the dungeon finder, it tells you what types of player you need – it helps you to complete the dungeon successfully. How do you solve that in The Secret World? Or does the game give you a nudge and say, ‘you might need a healer’.
Bruusgaard: A quick comment on not having a dungeon finder. We will have a matchmaking system, but it won’t be in the form of a dungeon finder. That’s too impersonal, just throwing you into a group where you never say ‘hi’. I don’t like that at all. But we will provide tools for a player to find a group, but it’s up to them to get to the dungeon, which they can do in various ways. When it comes to roles in dungeons, when people sign up, they will choose a role. And that role will play on fairly standard archetypes, such as tank-crowd controller, or support. Those kind of rules. The system will say, if you sign up for the Polaris say, these are the optimal things you will need – this, this and this. But we don’t look at individual players, we look at the group as one entity and what it can bring.
So the Polaris, the first dungeon, is fairly standard. But later on we might say you need one and a half healers, half a DPS. Half a tank. Instead of the traditional class-based way, with the holy trinity, we go deeper and look what the group can bring in total. The amount of powers they have collectively. That allows us to create more interesting encounters, because we’re not locked down to the traditional recipes. So the matchmaking system will say ‘this, this and this’, so one and a half healers will be picked across the whole group. There are fallbacks though, if you can’t find the optimal selection, you can still throw yourselves in there and have a go at it, or switch builds while you’re actually in the dungeon.
Gaute Vardenær: I guess the same goes for endgame content. I don’t know if you have raids?
Bruusgaard: We will probably not launch with raids. But we have a raid in development and if we don’t launch with it, it will come very soon after launch. We know what it’s going ot be and the story behind it, but, yes, the same will be true there.
RPS: Can we say what kind of scale?
Bylos: I think we’ve said that before, right? It’s ten or twenty. But we’re not really talking much about raids at this point.
RPS: Where does it take place?
Tørnquist: (laughs) We are only hinting but already too much.
Bylos: Let’s just talk about Dreamfall then. Tell us about that, Ragnar.
RPS: I hear there are Chapters?
Tørnquist: (laughs) Yeah.
RPS: Maybe later. Are there anything similar to traditional guilds in The Secret World?
Tørnquist: Marten, why don’t you just reveal that whole thing as well and get it out of the way?
Bruusgaard: Reveal what? You can join guilds. We call them cabals. Players join up and there is a hierarchy, with a leader, officers and normal members and they also have a cabal bank where they can share items and place rare resources. When a cabal goes into a faction vs faction PVP location, they can buff certain areas that they control, to help defenders. Their name is then imprinted in the game, letting other players know that they’ve been buffed by, say, “The Phoenix Order”.
Bylos: The Phoenix Order has Dumbledore, Harry, Hermione, Ron.
RPS: How about endgame. I’d like to talk about that, purely because, from a personal perspective, the most boring part of every MMO I’ve ever played is becoming all powerful and thinking, ‘what do I do now?’ Because The Secret World is story-driven, that could be more of a problem. Having said that, it sounds like there is a LOT of story. But what happens when you finish the story? You probably can’t answer that, now that I think about it.
Bylos: You played the Kingsmouth Code today, which is an investigation mission. We plan to patch a lot of content like that for the people who are not so much interested in wanting to get better loot and become all-powerful raiders, the people who are into the intellectual puzzle-solving.
Tørnquist: How often are we adding content, since you already let that out of the bag at GDC this year?
Bylos: I don’t know what I said. What did I say?
Tørnquist: You said every week.
Bylos: No no no. I said as often as possible. We could easily do once a week.
RPS: You can’t say ‘we could’ without saying ‘week’. I’m going to put ‘weekly’.
Bylos: OK! Fine! Every Saturday.
Tørnquist: It is a good point. Of course, there is a massive endgame, but unless you’re into PVP and achievements and crafting, story does pause at a certain point. But there is always lore, something we haven’t ever really revealed, but we have talked about tenuously…but, yes, you’re absolutely right, if your main driver is PVE and story, there are points where you will have to wait. We will add content to the game in various ways, including new chapters with strong plot points that we are going to push out. But that won’t be on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis. I don’t see The Secret World diminishing though because the story-players are going to take longer to travel through the content on release. Somebody like me who is not into crafting, or PVP, I spend a lot of time getting through the 150-200 hours of story content.
Bylos: You will be into crafting by the time you finish our game.
Tørnquist: Players like me want to linger on things, on the side missions.
Bruusgaard: The thing about the lore is that, say you come into a house and have a mission that takes place there. The mission will tell you 50% of the storyline, but there are always more clues. If you’re interested in the story behind the house and how it ties into The Secret World, there will be clues all around the house that you can pick up and plug into a system. One by one, they piece together the story, giving the full version – why people are there, why it is haunted. There is more behind the scenes to dive into.
Bylos: Dig into.
RPS: Maybe dive and dig.
Tørnquist: But not at the same time. You can only dive at the beginning, you can’t keep diving. Then you have to climb out.
RPS: Then you dig some more and dive again. Is lore its own reward, or do you tag experience onto that?
Tørnquist: Well, if we are revealing lore in full, then I can say that digging into the story will provide rewards. It is a valid way of progressing in the game. Achievements and XP. You can’t only seek lore and expect to get far, but it is a valid path of progression. Anything else we want to reveal today?
RPS: Can we go back to the importance of using the real world rather than a pure fantasy environment? I mentioned Indiana Jones earlier and I don’t think there has ever been a good Indiana Jones game.
Tørnquist: The Fate of Atlantis is a fantastic game!
RPS: OK, yes, you win and clearly I didn’t think that through.
Bylos: Lego Indiana Jones?
RPS: You also half win. Lego Indiana Jones was alright. My least favourite Lego game though.
Bylos: Too difficult.
Tørnquist: Anyway, non-lego Indiana Jones. I would say Uncharted does a lot of that stuff. I just started the third and the second is one of my favourite games. It plays a lot on the Indiana Jones themes, with ancient artifacts and less of the supernatural.
RPS: It always seems to come in at the end, just like in Indiana Jones.
Tørnquist: But it’s mostly relic hunting.
RPS: Yes, and mythology. I was going to bring in another potential influence, which you may disagree with, but how about Tintin?
Tørnquist: Yes. That’s true.
RPS: That captures the idea of the everyman, like Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake, these people who survive impossible encounters and go to impossible places, but always feel on the verge of failure. They have a clumsiness and seem almost inept. That’s something that The Secret World seems to lack, with the player being ‘activated’ at the beginning.
Tørnquist: At the very beginning, in the halcyon days of starting a new game when everything is possible for six months, we did toy with the idea of having the player be their normal self for a few hours, establishing them as somebody outside The Secret World, with a dual life. But the fact is that, for the most part, that’s not what people want. It’s not because we decided we couldn’t do it, we easily could – well, easily is not the word – but we could have done it. But for most people, they want to get into the secret world as quickly as possible.
If this was a single player game, it would have worked. Having the first four hours as the transition into The Secret World. But being an MMO, we’re dealing with a genre that needs to get down to the meat of it as soon as possible. Which is why we made that choice and I think the opposite would have hurt the game in the long run. I’d love to explore the story from different angles, but we do speed through that transition. We have the origin story, which takes you from being someone who wakes up with a bee in their mouth to someone who can control the elemental powers of the universe within a few short days. We do speed through that.
The potential is there to explore that aspect of it, but I don’t think the MMO, the game we’re making right now, is the place to do it. Although we do address the transition in story sequences and cinematics throughout the game, showing that you’re somebody lingering on the verge of becoming something extraordinary, learning how to deal with the powers and the situation. But the player is taken very swiftly from being ordinary to extraordinary. Maybe it’s a missed opportunity but in this game I think it’s the right thing to do.
RPS:We should almost certainly talk about Dreamfall now.
Tørnquist: Well, PR are not here so I’m actually allowed to. Yes!
RPS: There are always plans to continue the story, from what we hear. Simply put, what are they? In terms of writing, is there anything solid?
Tørnquist: There are definitely concrete plans and it’s going to happen unless…no, it is going to happen. But a lot of the team for Secret World is the Dreamfall team. It’s something we talk about on a regular basis and many of the people who worked on Dreamfall see it as the high point of their career. I’m not saying the game was brilliant but the experience of making a game like that is very satisfying because it’s a game that means something to everyone. It’s a game with a lot of flaws but that has managed to survive five years and be something that people remember.
We are definitely doing something more with it and I have the design on my computer but we just need to find the right time and the right people. Hopefully within a couple of years it’ll be something we are working on.
RPS: But presumably The Secret World requires long-term attention as well. Is there any desire to go beyond the MMO and turn it into a multi-game universe? Talking about the idea of it being an MMO and that not allowing you to do certain things with it suggests there are other stories that you want to tell. It certainly seems like it could contain a more traditional single player adventure game.
Bylos: It could be a franchise. It’s a great IP to do anything with.
Tørnquist: I wouldn’t use those words but I totally agree. I would use the word ‘story’ and ‘universe’. I would hate to see the MMO be the end of it, there is so much potential there.
RPS: It seems bloody enormous.
Tørnquist: It is bloody enormous! And it’s not a joke when we say the story goes back millions of years, it’s all mapped out. But the most interesting part is that me and the lead writer have this discussion all the time because we’re actually in disagreement about some aspects of it because we’re leaving so many doors open. When it comes to the main bad guys in the game, who I’m not going to talk about at all because that would really spoil it, we are still having discussions about what they’re true intentions are. It’s so dense it can be read in lots of different ways and that gives us so much potential to take it further.
Some of it we’re going to exploit within the game itself, the MMO, other parts we might do other things with. Perhaps other games.
Bruusgaard: Except Facebook games.
Tørnquist: I would personally love to do a console-based Secret World game and I know exactly how it starts, the opening scene, I know what it would be like. I would love to approach it from different angles. I’d be happy to spend the next ten years doing this and Dreamfall. I’m fine with that.
RPS: Is there any news on an open beta?
Bylos: We put out a statement a couple of days ago, saying that there is no announced date.
Tørnquist: We’ve been in beta since May and registration is open. Oh! It is 8PM! I have to go now but you’re welcome to stay with these people. I’m going to drink a bottle of wine and play Skyrim!
RPS: Thanks for your time, Ragnar! Joel and Marten, do you have time for a few more quick questions?
Bylos: Sure thing.
RPS: With such a large team, and with so much fiction going into the game, how collaborative is the process? Do you have team members approaching writers and suggesting books or movies that they could take inspiration from?
Bruusgaard: We get a lot of suggestions.
Tørnquist: (who has made it no further than the door) Everybody has total freedom within their box. So if you are designing levels, you have the space to add details. As long as people stick within the guidelines of the story, they can adapt and bring things to the process.
Bylos: My rule when I review missions are: no logic leaps, like the player suddenly having to climb a mountain when you haven’t told them why, and the mission has to have a good flow. Otherwise, anything goes. I do tell the designers to always include something from the modern day because when you have a mission that’s about killing ten ghouls.
RPS: We saw that in Transylvania. Helicopters flying overhead and Eastern European architecture rather than gothic castles.
Tørnquist: You saw Transylvania?
Bylos: The first iteration of that mission was basically ghouls stealing occult artifacts. Go track down the ghouls and kill them, then kill the ghoul boss. It was very medieval and very generic. I said to the team, I could do this in WOW. Where are the modern elements? So now, there is a tracking device, with GPS coordinates for the artifacts, so you’re hunting them in a different way.
Because the mindset of a lot of designers is still very fantasy, because that’s what they play, we sometimes have to remind them where we are in this game. There’s an early mission that you played that starts off with ‘kill six zombies’ but then it changes, because you have to kill them in different ways.
RPS: You’re not collecting zombie pelts, you’re collecting biological information about zombies, right?
Bylos: Precisely. Originally, that mission was to kill zombies and collect their kneecaps or something like that. But I said, this is exactly what we don’t want players to be doing. But if you listen to the cinematic at the beginning of the mission, it’s about learning how zombies tick and how to stop them ticking. So I thought, this is a great opportunity to teach players about how our zombies work. So car alarms attract them, which was something in Left 4 Dead.
RPS: That felt like a direct reference. It’s as if you’re pointing out that they are slow, like Romero zombies, but they are attracted by sound like the Left 4 Dead infected, so it’s playing with the cultural confusion around what zombies are supposed to act like now. Again, there’s something quite funny about it, even though reanimated dead people are inherently quite grim.
Bylos: Well, then we have the fire and the gas cans, so you know you can use them if you ever get surrounded. From my perspective, quests break down to five or six rough designs that are used over and over ad nauseum. The few games I can think of that really break the mould are Bloodlines, Arcanum…but if you take Mass Effect for example, the entire quest in that game is kill X with a lot of interruptions along the way. You can break down single player games in the same way. There’s usually one major quest goal from those five or six variations with a lot of sidetracking.
In an MMO, people expect it to be a lot more overt, out there and obvious, telling you what you’ll be doing with every chunk of your time. Blizzard do something larger with their expansions, showing a larger quest, but if you do that too much in an MMO people will lose track of the goal. They want smaller chunks of content. My take on the design of The Secret World is that those slices of your time have to be as interesting as possible and relevant to the bigger picture. They’re not self-contained. You’re always learning about the story and about things you’ll be doing later on.
RPS: I took a mission to find supplies for the survivors trapped in Kingsmouth and my Templar contact was very dismissive. He told me it was a waste of time, but I went ahead and did it because I didn’t want to leave people to starve. When I finished it, he told me I’d put in all the effort for nothing and I should have been doing something useful instead.
Bylos: Yeah, he tells you it’s kind of cute that you did that but that it’s not going to save any lives. The factions are old and they are cynical. You are very much a new recruit and when you rank with the faction, that’s when you start to learn about them. We don’t want to make people regret their choice of faction, but we do want them to question the morality of what they are asked to do at times. There are choices at times like that but they don’t affect anything down the line.
We want people to realise that they may have chosen a faction based on PR about the game but they will learn that they’ve signed up for something that they didn’t expect. You might pick Templar because you like the red uniforms, but we want to confront you with the decision and show you the harsh reality of the guys whose side you’re on.
RPS: There was a moment when I saw an enemy called Witch Burning Victim and my first thought was, “that was probably us. We probably burned these people.”
Bylos: When the lore system is in place you’ll be able to explore that past and see how your faction may or may not be responsible for some of the unpleasant things you find in Kingsmouth. There are mass graves to learn about, but the missions will only give you part of the picture. It’s up to you to explore if you want to know more.
RPS: I sure do. We should probably stop our incessant chatter. Thanks for giving us so much of your time.