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RPS-ish At-Ish E3: Housecleaning – SOE

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[Thanks to extreme tiredness, I didn’t manage to write up all of my impressions from E3. Over the next couple of days I’ll clean house and post up my leftover thoughts.]

So if the Sony Online Entertainment game that you are looking forward to is DC Universe Online, well, E3 wasn’t for you. Because cleverly, SOE are going to reveal all of the details of the game at the San Diego Comic Con (which, in retrospect, I should have stayed for) in front of the slavering hordes of nerds that they want to impress the most, instead of wasting the details on the slavering (but smaller) hordes of nerds at E3. What did I learn from my brief chat with the developers? Well, that it’s going to be a heavily physics based MMO where characters be able to “use the environment as a weapon” – and they made a pretty big deal about how hard it is to put proper physics into an MMO.

The footage I saw was amazingly weak (the animation clearly wasn’t finished for it) but the way they’re talking about the game is interesting – that they “run it like it’s live already” writing “patch notes” for each revision as they develop it in house and maintaining a “community” of players (who I guess are just the developers) so the change of rhythm from developing to being live doesn’t have an intense culture shock for the team. The thing that creative director Chris Cao told me that will be most divisive (I think) is that “moment to moment, DC Universe Online is an action game.”

Quite what that means isn’t clear, but I do think it’s unlikely to follow City of Heroes’ example in that case. Similarly, they explained they want the UI to be “invisible” (or at least intuitively undistracting) as a result of the joint PS3/PC joint development.

Ah yes – the PC/PS3 joint development. Now although SOE have been developing titles for PlayStation for years, it does seem that it’s really recently (since the acquisition by SCE) that they’re really pushing their development to cater to the PS3 first, rather than creating spin-offs or cut down versions. The Agency seems like a perfect example of this.

Now I really like the concept of The Agency. Actual “espionage” rather than just “stealth” is such a great and completely underused concept that it would be nice to see something done with it – and hopefully done well.

Of course, I can’t guarantee on the basis of the short demo – not even running live on hardware – that it’s going to be done well. There’s something kind of hilarious about the concept that in the world of the Agency almost everyone is a spy if it’s part of the world rather than a side effect of all of the players being spies (think if DC Universe Online was to take its cue from Alan Moore’s Top Ten, for example). The game shown had only reached alpha, but the short demo had its highlights – a group of spies working together in a firefight to disarm bombs while fighting off henchmen looked fun – but its lowlights were more obvious and incongruous.

There was almost a “Giant Enemy Crab” level of uninsightfulness in showing a sequence where a group of spies carefully “tailed” a henchman as he headed to a lair in Prague by running around dressed in futuristic military gear (brandishing weapons) mere pixels behind their prey. It looked incredibly stupid.
Okay, so that’s sort of negative. But there’s a lot to like about The Agency. For one, the art style is really nice, and it does look different from most MMOs. Also, with the current climate of flexibility for players in MMOs, your skills and levels are tied to your individual “outfits” so if you get sick of playing as a stealthy type, you can switch to playing a medic.

PS3 is the primary platform, though, which means they’re promising to put in quick time events. Urgh. And they haven’t thought about how they’re going to charge for it (they’re not even confirming a subscription service) because they’re waiting to see how Free Realms does.

Free Realms is a little MMORPG they had on show that’s being aimed at 9-14 (looking all cutesy as a result) and its funding options includes microtransactions. Plus it shares a lot of similarities with The Agency – skills and levelling attached to outfits, for example – but it diverges by following the ideas of social networks.

The title includes a home page on the web for your character, the ability to share pictures, links and videos with friends and so on. One of the cool ideas included is that the game is downloaded while you create your character and launched from within your browser, so it’s all been very cleverly put together to make it as easy as possible to begin playing (and it runs on everything with a GeForce or greater).

I’m not the kind of person particularly swayed (or impressed) by the current “everything and the kitchen sink” angle of socially-orientated MMOs, so it remains to be seen if Free Realms is able to make it all work rather than being a disjointed mass of mini games, social areas, pets and everything else they could imagine rather than the fine balancing any game requires. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for it, though.

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Mathew Kumar

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