Interview: Tørnquist On The Secret World

Funcom’s contemporary dark fantasy, The Secret World, is an MMO with a cliffhanger ending. So says its creator, Ragnar Tørnquist. In fact, it’s claims like this that make this one of the most significant MMOs currently in development. Hell, with CCP not having released any details at all for World Of Darkness, this is probably the most interesting forthcoming MMO we’re aware of. Anyway: braving the nightmarish audio confusion of my echoing speakerphone interview setup, Funcom’s project lead took some time out to talk about the game, with its conspiracy theories and modern mythologies, and his feelings about high heels. Of course I didn’t start by asking any relevant questions, and asked about Anarchy Online instead.

RPS: Just to create some context: this isn’t your first MMO, is it? When people talk about you they tend to reference Dreamfall and The Longest Journey, but you’ve also worked on an MMO that is still going today, Anarchy Online. It seems a bit like a “forgotten MMO” these days, but it was pretty important, and you made an enormous contribution to that game…

Tørnquist: Anarchy Online, okay. I worked on the story for that and obviously I wrote the entire backstory up as a novel, so I did have a lot of input. I didn’t have a lot of input on the mechanics of the game, but I designed a lot of the characters, factions, and the planet and the ecology of all that. We did work on it for quite a long time.

RPS: Do you think the idea of AO’s four year story arc was a good one? Did it work? And does that have any lessons for the story-driven angle you’re taking with The Secret World?

Tørnquist: Obviously it didn’t pan out quite as we intended because things changed when the live team took over. I do have the original storyline somewhere and if we went back and looked at the plans there, well, it’d be interesting see what we planned to do, and look at how we planned to shut it down, which was part of the original idea. But I don’t think it worked, it wasn’t really feasible, and we won’t want to have shut it down: it’s still up and running. But I think the idea of an MMO that has significant changes to it is important, and that’s what we’re talking about for The Secret World. I was just in a meeting earlier today with the writers for the game, where we were talking about something we’d like to do after launch to fuck with the players a little bit, and also to change the world. We want to make it seem like a place of danger: a place that can change. No one has really done that with online worlds yet. Anarchy Online didn’t do it, even though it intended to do it, and WoW certainly hasn’t done it because it’s such a huge thing that they’d be afraid to make significant changes. When you get to a certain size you tend to be reactionary: you don’t want to mess with the formula, but I hope we can do that. With the Secret World, I hope we can make some real changes.

RPS: So you think you’ll be less conservative with The Secret World as a result of learning from other MMOs?

Tørnquist: Well let’s say that we’re making alterations to the traditional MMO formula. It’s a classless game, which is a big change, and it’s an open world. I think we’re at the point where we – I don’t want to say take risks – but make the changes that are necessary to bring the MMO genre forward. There isn’t much alternative in the MMO world, and when you look at the experiences you have in story or action driven games, well, I’d say we were very open to it, and we know that it’s really important to be different. We want to be the ones who are willing to break convention.

RPS: Can you tell me a bit about the creation of the world. I mean this time you weren’t creating a fantasy or sci-fi world, or adapting someone else’s license, instead you’re creating a fantasy within the real, contemporary world… how does that work?

Tørnquist: The Secret World has been in my head for a very long time. I started thinking about this kind of game world around ’97 – I’ve said anything from ’96 to ’98 to other people, so let’s say ’97 – I don’t have my papers back from then! But that mix of the real, the contemporary with magic and mythology was present in a lot of comic books I was reading back then – Hellblazer and Swamp Thing and Sandman, obviously, and I didn’t see that happening in games. Time passed, I worked on The Longest Journey, I wrote some stuff down, and we cancelled a game called Midgard, and we started thinking about that kind of setting again. It’s just a great setting for an MMO: a modern dark fantasy. We started working on a game called Cabal, which we created a vast backstory for, with all kinds of characters, locations, it was a gigantic universe for the game. Back in 2003 we created a demo to show what the game might look like. We’d invested a tonne of time in researching everything from the occult and conspiracy theories through to cryptozoology, huge amounts of research which was a luxury to be able to do. Then we put it all on hold and made Dreamfall. When that was done we went back again. – I call it the curse of this game. We made a few changes to what the game was all about, but the story and the essence of the universe remains. And it’s been a work in progress for seven years now, which is fantastic. This can be dangerous, but I think we’ve had enough people in and out of the project to get new responses and input. To me it’s the most interesting game world I’ve ever worked on. It’s been a long process, but the basic tenets of the universe have remained the same, and that means it remains very coherent.

RPS: Can you just explain the classless progression idea?

Tørnquist: We wanted to make a game system that was at home in the modern world. This isn’t a medieval fantasy world in which you can be born a baker and die a baker – it’s based in the modern world around us. We wanted to give people freedom to be what they want to be, and play how they want to play. You can read into that the idea that we’re reaching for the moon, but it has some important basic ideas: players will have a sort of deck of cards which will say how their character is going to be. They will be able to shuffle that deck to change how they play as they go along, they’re going to open up more options for that deck as they go a long. It’s much more dynamic than other such games, you won’t get stuck as the tank or the healer, and you should be able to contribute to the process and to the party no matter who you are. Clothes aren’t going to have stats – you can choose whether you want to wear sneakers and a T-shirt, or if you want full goth outfit, or a dress and high heels. All those things are possible, and they’re not going to effect how your character plays.

RPS: High heels do have some kind of general dexterity modifier though, right?

Tørnquist: It’s my feeling that high heels could in fact be very dangerous.

RPS: Classical MMOs as they are now tend to have a brutally vertical structure. If someone has been playing for six months you can’t really play with them. How does The Secret World deal with that?

Tørnquist: Well I don’t tend to have time to play consistently, so of course that is an issue for me too. I tend to find that people zoom ahead of me in MMOs, and I am left wandering around, feeling alone and powerless. But with an MMO you want to reward people both for playing for hours and hours, and for people to come home play for an hour, and get something out of that. The classless system helps with that because you can play for a reasonably limited amount of time and get skills that will allow you take part in the group, even if the area is quite dangerous, and the party quite experienced. They will be able to go more places than you, have more options at their disposal, and be able to do missions you can’t, fight enemies you cannot fight, but you will still be able to play with them in a group and contribute without having played as much as they have.

RPS: So how does the world work? How open is it?

Tørnquist: The world is fairly open. When you start you start in a hub city. When you make a new character you make a few choices, you choose how you look and where you start, and a couple of other things I can’t talk about. After that you’re basically free to roam the world. As you explore you do missions, and open up characters. There are areas that are more dangerous than others, and there are progressions from one area to another into more difficult encounters. You can go to harder areas, but you will struggle unless you are with a tougher group of players. But most importantly there is a linear storyline for you to follow, the story that explains why you can do all this amazing stuff. Following the story takes you to new locations in a sort of “ideal sequence”.

RPS: Does that lead to some kind of end game? You can’t keep telling the story indefinitely?

Tørnquist: The open structure of the world means that there will be missions to do after the main linear story is completed, and we’ll keep adding to the world. But a linear story does have an end, and we do have an end for the launch version of the game: we’re going to finish with a cliffhanger. We’re planning on expansions and content upgrade, and that will continue the story. You’ll complete the story and say “Oh crap I want to know what happens next!” But then you’ll have to wait for the next season, and spend some time roaming around, discovering the other parts of the story. There’s lots to discover around the world, clues, bits and pieces of the puzzle, and we actually have mechanisms for putting that together. You’ll get rewarded for finding all this out, too – you won’t just get rewards fighting monsters, you’ll get story rewards and the time you put into it. It should take people a very long time to discover everything.

RPS: Any plans for guilds, player-built objects?

Tørnquist: We’ll have something called cabals, which is our version of guilds, and there will be something tied to that which allows players to make a permanent stamp on the world. I can’t say too much about it, but there are mechanics for creating networks and allowing people to feel like they are part of something bigger.

RPS: Well we look forward to seeing that. Thanks, Ragnar.

Tørnquist: Thank you!


  1. kyrieee says:

    This is the first MMO in years that has me exited

    It could be really great.

  2. Scott says:

    I’ve given up getting excited about MMOs, but this has piqued my interest, as has the World of Darkness one.

  3. the affront says:

    I do applaud them setting this in an urban fantasy-ish world and using a classless system since it’s in my opinion without any doubt absolutely superior to class pigeonholing sadly so common today (did no one learn from UO? it boggles my mind), but this “endgame” of “discovering parts of the story not in the main storyline” sounds really damn boring, as there simply is no way to churn out enough quality content to keep any but the most casual of players busy. It’s not rocket science WHY other MMOs go the grind route (be it xp or item or raid) – or the only other alternative to it, which would be PVP.

    You really should have asked about PVP, as I fear without it this game will at best be an insignificant curio for casual roleplayers (as all the hardcore ones would probably still prefer user created content/hands-on GMs/DMs à la NWN modules, and everybody else spoilers the story to get at the loot or its equivalent and then quits after being bored to tears).

  4. Alexander Norris says:

    The Secret World sounds amazing, I’ll grant it that; I truly hope that Tornquist can pull this off and deliver a quality, urban fantasy, classless MMORPG with (hopefully) actiony gameplay. Essentially, I want EVE’s infinite replayability minus the cliff-like learning curve and with actiony gameplay added.

    I’m extremely wary of getting worked up over this, though. MMOs aren’t really my thing, and the last one I got all worked up about ended up being not-so-good.

  5. Heliocentric says:

    Magic milkshake that lets you use fireballs better be an item you can buy/make.

    I’m kinda exited about this game, but I’ll know when i see gameplay footage if this is the same tired old shit in new clothes.

    Classless advancement is a mixed bag, now you cant be a level 37 goth chick.

  6. the affront says:

    You could still be a grandmaster goth chick. Or grandmistress. Something like that, anyway.

  7. derFeef says:

    Looking forward to this – it sounds amazing. And seeing Funcom is pushing Age of Conan into the right direction, this could turn out as my dream MMO.

  8. Fomorian says:

    I got to admit – even though I’m still annoyed at Tørnquist for leaving Dreamfall Chapters for after The Secret World, I find The Secret World quite promising. Being the first MMO that really caught my eye.

  9. Zaij says:

    Should stop fucking working on The Secret World and work on TLJ 2.

  10. mellowF says:

    His comments remind me of Guildwars in a way…
    Guess thats not a bad game to “copy” from.

  11. DMJ says:

    You didn’t ask the most important question I have about this game: What is the girl in that picture drinking?

    On a more relevant note: Story is not why people play MMO games. As has been noted elsewhere, who even reads anything but the objectives in quest briefings? Story is not enough of a pay-off for play. People want power, they want rewards. Specifically, they want more power, they want more rewards. They want to be better, or just more capable, than someone who has played the game less. Given a choice between a snippet of game lore, advancing the epic world tale, or a dagger that adds +10 to Marketability, which do you think they’ll choose?

    The number must get bigger!

    Gnoll lungs? Ten of? On my way.

  12. Fomorian says:

    DMJ: don’t you know a milkshake when you see one? Unless it’s a mana potion. One can never be sure.

  13. Heliocentric says:

    Its probably smoothie or something. A demon milk smoothie!

  14. Andy`` says:

    Far as I can tell the carton says the holy words “milk” on the side, in Chinese. My source is the following picture: link to

    I’m sure the picture bears no relation to the kitten content flavour of the milk, nor the lethality health benefits.

  15. RagingLion says:

    @ DMJ: Surely some people out there must be most interested in a more story-driven MMO. The current place the MMO genre is in doesn’t mean it will stay that way forever and a different type of player could be drawn into the genre.

    Personally MMOs in general are a turn-off for me. Typically I want a single-player story-driven experience and despise the idea of grinding. If I was ever to give an MMO a try it would have to be something more like this.

  16. Jazmeister says:

    I like this, this thing here. He’s trying a good, cool, new thing. It is good.

  17. Bobsy says:

    I’m probably in a minority in that I’m actually more keen for Tørnquist to be doing The Secret World than more Longest Journeying. It’s not that I didn’t love those games – I so did – but the ending of Dreamfall left me a little cold and I’d genuinely rather it was done right than it was done right now.

  18. The Fanciest of Pants says:

    Don’t bone this one funcom. I have high hopes for this game. *crosses fingers*

  19. danielcardigan says:

    I’m a casual MMO player, from time to time. Perhaps with a classless, skill based levelling system it’d be possible to have a combination of glorified chatroom with various activities for casual players who just enjoy the vibe or want to research the back-story, and a grind for the hardcore. Club Penguin meets Runescape, it that top 10 from a while back is any guide.

  20. Morph says:

    So every reason I have not to play MMOs (generic fantasy setting, grinding, no story, no real freedom of character etc.) is about to be fixed. Oh crap, if this turns out as good as promised then I fear for my free time.

  21. Radiant says:

    That trailer was one of the best things I’ve seen all year.

    My main problem with playing mmos is the sheer length of time you need to invest to play them.
    If you mis step for even a week or two you lose contact with the people you played with.
    So it’s a constant grind just to keep up.

    What I’d love to be able to do is play an mmo very much like quake live where I can play for 15 minutes a couple of times a week and then leave.

    What I’d love to be able to do actually is play this mmo like that.

  22. Helm says:

    “I think we’re at the point where we – I don’t want to say take risks”

    I wonder why, since what he describes onwards seems pretty risky, does he shy away from the word.

  23. Jim Rossignol says:

    Isn’t it riskier *not* to innovate, given the state of MMOs?

  24. Solar says:

    This does look enticing.

    Had fun on the website, trailer good, forum interesting… There is a secret lying around that has been ‘solved’. If you’re interested in The Secret World I recommend you have a read.

  25. Walsh says:

    Story is not why people play MMO games. As has been noted elsewhere, who even reads anything but the objectives in quest briefings?

    That right there is the problem. Every kid has ADD and can’t be bothered to read anything, they need a legion of voice actors on retainer to churn out dialogue imo.

    I disagree about the story though, every MMO needs world shattering events otherwise they are stale infinite loop rooms.

    Why does Eve make for good reading? Because there’s only one instance and what one guild does affects everyone in the universe instead of lulz we raided the super skeletun king for the 400th time but this time did it in 5 minutes instead of 6 on the brightworld server.

    I consider that part of MMO storytelling, story isn’t necessarily you read this crap then fetch 10 squirrel tails but world changing events that advance a narrative.

  26. Helm says:

    Jim, I’m sure a lot of MMO developers are more concerned with switching minute aspects of gameplay around and selling those as if they’re fundamental changes to the formula than they’re concerned with actually changing up the WoW model completely, heading into uncharted territory. The former costs much less in development and then it’s up to the PR people to sell it. The latter is much more difficult and actually risky because if the new design alienates the WoW trained people too much, they won’t ever even get into it to enough to justify the development. Much easier to do a game that is superficially different and sell it as something extravagantly different with golden mouths like Tornquist’s. I suspect he’s shying away from the word ‘risk’ because he has a conscience and in the end he knows his game isn’t such a significant departure from the MMO norm as he is now doing PR to convince. We’ll all be here to examine the end result in any case. I’ll be glad to eat my words and have this the second MMO after Guild Wars I’ll play if it’s truly different.

  27. Mechazawa says:

    On one hand, it looks very interesting, with lots of new concepts and new ways to play.

    On the other hand, it’s Funcom.

  28. Markoff Chaney says:

    Her Milkshake brings all the demons to the yard,
    and they’re like,
    its better than yours,
    damn right its better than yours,
    I can teach you,
    but I have to charge
    15 bucks a month

    (I can’t believe I googled those lyrics. I feel dirty now)

    -EDIT- I endeavour to read all the quest text in MMOs. It usually angers those I play with since I’m sitting at the quest giver still reading and trying to make it fit in the lore while they are working on their third boar. I think this a hold over from my Pen and Paper and CRPG days though. All the more of a loss for those that don’t care about the lore.

    Also, I have to agree with Number 6 here (/giggle). As an MMO developer, you are virtually forced into polish and iterate mode and keep innovation and risk to an absolute minimum if you ever hope to see a proper return on your investment and long term retention numbers to keep you in the black.

  29. DK says:

    “we’re going to finish with a cliffhanger.”
    Congratulations Tornquist – you just promised to include the very thing we hate you for: Not finishing the thing we love you for.

  30. Dan Harris says:

    Want want want want want.

    Why can’t I be a baker, though? I enjoy baking…..DOOM!

  31. DMJ says:

    I agree that the market needs more story. However, I feel that that takes it so far from the current concept of MMO (note that everyone seems to have dropped the “RPG” part of the original acronym) that it is doing itself a disservice by calling itself such.

    Story in an MMO is immensely problematic.

    Do you have everyone at their own stages of the same story? Then how can you claim that everyone is sharing the same world?

    Do you have one epic story that players are involved in? Then how do you present the game to newcomers, who missed the beginning, without making them feel left out?

    Do you have one epic story that exists in the world independent of players? Then the players aren’t involved, so why should they care?

    I genuinely believe that story is the most important revolution waiting to happen in online games. But does it necessarily work in the MMO format? Is an online game with story actually an MMO?

    I don’t think so, any more than Diablo is an RTS. Think about it for a second – in both Diablo and in an RTS you click with the mouse to direct one or more units to achieve objectives and kill opponents. But that doesn’t make them the same.

    Can real story actually work in a framework of grinding, looting, and levelling?

    Perhaps a better name for an online game with heavy story elements that drops or heavily de-emphasises grinding, levelling, and looting, would be something like a “cooperative online role-playing game”. But how much “game” would that be? And how much “collaborative storytelling”?

    EDIT: Because I like the new edit button.

  32. DMJ says:

    More brain-thinks, after I posted. Betas of MMO games traditionally tend to end spectacularly, with massive hordes of enemies and heroic, but ultimately futile last stands.

    Remember the alien invasion at the end of the City of Heroes beta? That’s drama, that’s story, and that’s a collaboration between dev-created scenario and players taking heroic actions when death means you don’t come back. The developers let the reins slip, the players gave their favourite characters one last frantic whirl before the great reset for release.

    Does this sound like an online Rogue-like to anyone? Is it permanent ends which give things meaning?

  33. Severian says:

    I also am tentatively excited about this, although I have never actually played an MMO.

    I think there’s an effective way to weave story into an MMO – but it has to be a story that is created by the individual player, not fed to us by the Overlords of Creation. If you create a dynamic and interesting world, with say, complex social and political issues in play, then players will find themselves creating stories through the very act of “level-grinding”. I’m thinking of some boardgames, like Arkham Horror and such, where there are rules and items and locations and characters in play but the true joy of the game is seeing what story unfolds through my choice of actions.

    Ultimately, it does come down to longevity, I suppose – do we all just get bored eventually. But really, why do we hold up MMO’s to a higher standard than our own lives? “My life is so boring – I need to download new content!”, instead of, “I’m going to experiment with/appreciate what I have already and see what I can create in this world.”

    Wow. Didn’t mean to get all preachy and new-age.

  34. qrter says:

    “we’re going to finish with a cliffhanger.”
    Congratulations Tornquist – you just promised to include the very thing we hate you for: Not finishing the thing we love you for.

    Yep. Reading about the cliffhanger instantly made me think “Oh, here we go again..”.

  35. Azhrarn says:

    “Essentially, I want EVE’s infinite replayability minus the cliff-like learning curve and with actiony gameplay added.”

    @Alexander Norris:

    You might want to keep an eye out for the MMO WhiteWolf/CCP are working on based on the World of Darkness RPGs from WhiteWolf Publishing.
    That probably has a higher chance of pulling your desired gameplay type off than FunComs little project.

    Everyone should remember than Funcom sofar have screwed up the launches and content of 2 MMOs which both looked quite promising in their day.
    There is zero indication that this won’t happen again. Tornquist was at the head of AoC as well, and look where that ended up.

  36. Coren says:

    Everyone should remember than Funcom sofar have screwed up the launches and content of 2 MMOs which both looked quite promising in their day.
    There is zero indication that this won’t happen again. Tornquist was at the head of AoC as well, and look where that ended up.


    That’s not right. Ragnar Tornquist had virtually nothing to do with Age of Conan. That game was made by a different team entirely.

    You CAN however associate Tornquist with the classic adventure game “The Longest Journey” or “Dreamfall”, its sequel, and it looks like a good portion of the Dreamfall-team is also working on TSW.

    Which is why I dare to hope that this MMO will be “different” and something that’s actually worth playing.

    Anyone who wants a taste of the mystery should check out this ARG and the accompanying forums. Lots of really cool stuff going on there.

  37. Whowherewhat says:

    @Azhrarn Tørnquist had nothing at all to do with AoC…

  38. mkmark says:

    dude, get your facts right. Tornquist was hardly on AoC, Gaute Godager was and he’s already booted.

  39. Dave says:

    I do applaud them … using a classless system since it’s in my opinion without any doubt absolutely superior to class pigeonholing sadly so common today (did no one learn from UO? it boggles my mind)

    Wait, are you actually holding up UO as an example of good MMO design? I think that’s what you’re trying to do, but I’m having trouble imagining that.

  40. Gnorf says:

    I think it would be wiser to remember that Funcom will have learned a lot, especially from the launch of AoC. These days, a lot of players are returning to the game, and generally liking what they see. Having said that, I really didn’t know that Ragnar Tørnquist was involved in AoC. Are you sure he was, or are you just doing your best to discredit Funcom? Personally, I liked both AO and AoC a lot better than I did WoW.

  41. Serondal says:

    The launch of AoC lol. Lesse I baught the game, installed it, created a character, played for about 10 minutes (I think there was a lot of crashing and running around and lag and what not) then I took the CD outside and exploded it into a crash can with a quick snap and never played it again. I wouldn’t say it was the biggest waste of money I’ve ever made, but it was certainly the biggest at that point in time.

    UO had/has a classless system since it was launched and it obviusly has done a lot of things right since uh, it is still running when E&Q and Sims Online and Tabula Rasa are NOT. The idea of a classless system is not new, in fact it isn’t even slightly new. UO never had a class system and many many many many MUDS did not have class systems.

    For my money UO is still the only mmo I’d pay to play.

  42. Azhrarn says:

    Guess I was incorrect on the Tornquist comment, and having played AoC for the full month of gametime it came with, I must say they would have had to fix a lot.
    Considering the mess it was above lvl 50 rewritting the game from 40 onwards would probably have been faster than patching it into a workable game…
    If they pulled that off, I would be impressed.

    As for the two adventures Tornquist did work on, a single player story experience is something quite different from an MMO, and saying that good results in one field will yield good results in the other is downright wishful thinking.

    I do hope that the Secret World will turn out good, but I’m not getting my hopes up since they managed to thoroughly ruin their previous attempts. The world could use a nice current day setting MMO with some added weirdness.

    But I have a little more faith in CCPs little jaunt with WhiteWolf since one has a lot of experience in a fairly succesful MMO. (not many MMOs aside from WoW can say they’re still growing after almost 6 years of existence)
    And the other is a publisher for a set of very nice RPGs, pen and paper ones admittedly, but that means that setting the scene and leaving it to the players to make something of it is what they have done for a living for a long time.

    A good combination I would say.

  43. Pantsman says:

    @Azhrarn: Actually, not even WoW can say that, since it hasn’t been around for six years!

  44. NoRCoN says:

    Where the Hell is the “Buy this now!” button?!

  45. Nutkins Victory Otter says:

    Dev stories in MMOs… :(
    Player stories from MMOs… :D
    And the two are never related.

  46. Trollwind says:

    I’ll remain cautiously optimistic about this game and hope they can truly pull it off. As a casual MMO player, I’d love to see a classless system that is not 100% about getting to the maximum level and the best gear so that you can pwn everyone else.

    The cliffhanger ending and linear storyline are worrisome though. I can imagine those players who rushed through to the cliffhanger resorting to continual bitching and griefing others when there is nothing left for them to conquer. Are we ready for an MMO that is about the gaming experience and not grinding for experience?

  47. Nenad Ristic says:

    This sounds absolutely amazing. I have already signed up for the Beta, hoping that I actually get in. I love the modern fatasy/horror setting, and it sounds like it will have a decent storyline to boot.

  48. simonkaye says:

    Here’s the thing about incredibly-awesome-mummy-ogre-crawly creature with THE jaws from that trailer:

    He actually has a really cute little button nose. Take a look at him there in profile. Awwwwww.

  49. bitkari says:

    Sounds really interesting. I’ll certainly give this one a month and see how it goes.

  50. undead dolphin hacker says:

    1.) The game will be horribly buggy and laggy at launch. This is because it’s Funcom.

    2.) Based on those screenshots, you’re looking at a total population of under 100k due to the hardware it’ll require.

    3.) It’s not fantasy or sci-fi, subtract 50-75k from total population.

    4.) It wants to tell you a story. As Ken Levine so perfectly said, “the bad news is for storytellers is that nobody cares about your stupid story… no matter how detailed or lovingly you craft it.

    I will be surprised if this game even so much as sees the light of day.