The Secret World’s Strange Lack Of Levels

“Situational Analysis”. That’s what Funcom are calling the crackling radio reports that reach characters in their upcoming MMO The Secret World, as they make their way through instances like the one unveiled (the first so far) at EA’s recent summer showcase at their Redwood studio. Warning of “aberrant psychic signals” in the wreck of the container ship Polaris and “a highly volatile biological mass” (though I could have sworn I cleaned that up), the transmissions seemed to serve more as glaring signposts reading “Boss fight this way!” than any kind of actionable tactical intelligence.

A missed opportunity?

Maybe, though perhaps not a big one. Funcom have gone out of their way to build ample room for choice into TSW’s character progression system, which eschews classes and levels in favor of the kind of everything-on-the-menu skill progression featured in games like Eve Online. With over 500 skills and abilities that are focused on the versatility of “horizontal progression” rather than the ladder of levelling up, TSW will encourage players to “hybridize”. And with players able to switch out skills at key points in the midst of a dungeon, encounters are meant to be more about “effect requirements” than about builds or classes, according to Lead Content Designer Joel Bylos. Want your tank to bring the anti-magic-missile missile that will get you past that baddie? Fine. Or have your crowd controller bring it. Or heck, even your healer. Anything goes! The Secret World is your oyster!

What remains to be seen is just how versatile a range of playstyles the horizontal progression will support. The five-man party on show at the showcase featured — you guessed it: a tank, a healer, a ranged damage-dealer, a DPS build, and an AoE/crowd control spec. The versatility comes in just how you fill these very traditional roles. Vertical progression is through collecting better and more focused items, while the many-spoked and multi-tiered “skill wheel” that’s featured lets players specialize in one or another branch of magical, biological, psychic or other powers — without locking them out of any others.

“In the beginning of the game, players start out as generalists. They end up as specialists,” says Lead Designer Martin Bruusgaard. Gear helps lead players down the specialist path. “Players will be making their builds more versatile, so equipment is more focused,” says Bylos. “For instance, the best fire damage gear in the game will be really focused — but only on fire damage.”

Not that that means you’ll be forced to sport flaming shoulder pads. Weapons and armor have no cosmetic effects, and character clothing has no stats. Funcom are “still evaluating business models,” but that last sentence screams “cash shop!”, if nothing else. Funcom will also be adding to the skill wheel in the form of DLC after the game is released, according to Bruusgaard and Bylos, which raises interesting possibilties as well.

With TSW’s skill system bearing such a strong resemblance to CCG deck-building, it’s in the PvP “mini-games” (why not just call them battlegrounds?) that unusual builds could have the greatest impact. The three factions (the Illuminati, the Templar, and the Dragon) have a gentleman’s agreement in place not to do battle while at large in the world (and so may group together for quests and instances), but have set aside places where they’ll carry out the nastier work of their ongoing struggle for control (in secret, needless to say). Each faction will foot the bill for any damage done its members, presumably: one Secret World NPC makes player characters sign a liability waiver before he’ll send them off on the quest he needs done.

For more – SO much more – on the The Secret World you can check out John’s massive preview, and then have a read of part one and then also part two of his sprawling interview with Funcom creative director Ragnar Tørnquist.

An MMO we’re actually excited about? It’s the End Times!

[Mark Wallace, the author of this article, is a San Francisco-based writer whose blog you can see here.]


  1. Vexing Vision says:

    Personally, I like levels. I like having skillpoints I need to place around. I like having to choose between swinging my sword around a bit better, or throwing a more potent fireball, because that makes either choice more special.

    This is what turned me of Ryzom really quickly, the ability to become a supermage/tank/dps/healer/crafter, without sacrificing anything anywhere. I like to specialize, as long as I can choose and pick how to specialize.

    That said, I am really excited about the Secret World, but I know I’ll be very annoyed if I can’t play a Lightningbolt-hurling, sword-wielding off-tank because I keep finding all those awesome assault rifles.

    • studenteternal says:

      Eh, not a big fan of levels personally. You hacked your 100th goblin to death, you are better at casting spells now! I have personally always like the elder scrolls system of what you do you get better at. Cast spells? You get better at the spells you know and access to better ones. Wack it with a sword, you learn to swing sharp things around more aggressively!

    • KillerB says:

      Level Up!! Level Up!! All i want to do is Level up!! FO3 & NV had a great system for this with your perks and allocating of skill points, cant wait for FO4!

    • FKD says:


      Random personal note, when I first started playing WoW I thought the “casting spells to get better at that spell” was the reason casters were always running around putting their buffs on random people..and why I started doing it too until I realized there was no skill bar for it.. >.>

    • aethereal says:

      Yes and if you wanted your character to jump without having a stroke you left a rock on your spacebar while you went and made some tea

    • Champy says:

      No KillerB. Fallout *1* had a great system, and lets hope for the sake of Fallout as a franchise, that number 4 will never be made.

    • Jim Rossignol says:


    • ResonanceCascade says:

      @ Champy

      That battle was lost long ago.

      The rebooted Fallout games are one of the most lucrative IPs in the industry, there will be many, many more of them. That’s just reality. Crying over milk that was spilled half a decade ago is getting tiresome.

    • Champy says:


      Tiresome perhaps, but it needs to be said EVERY single time there is a mention of anything Fallout-related. I fully acknowledge the fact that Cain and Boyarsky (And Anderson, but he IS already involved with Interplays Fallout MMO, as far as I know), will never get to decide what happens with their franchise again, but I’ll still reserve the right to tell the world, or atleast the internet, how much that sucks.

    • Arglebargle says:

      Yay, lack of levels! There are other mechanics that work. It is not written in stone somewher that levels are the only proper method of character advancement.

      Also, divorcing your defenses from the umpteenth armor change is great. All that armor switching was just a terrible waste of artist’s resources. Let you character get a ‘look’ (or several) and add ‘magic protection sigils’, etc, to do the trick. Same game functionality, without all the swapperoo. Unless you like that sort of thing. In that case, swap madly!

    • Dhatz says:

      that reminds me how DXHR treats praxis, each 5K xp u get one and there is no limit which tree you develop.(also there are the praxis kits to buy and find)

    • FataMorganaPseudonym says:

      @Vexing Vision

      “I know I’ll be very annoyed if I can’t play a Lightningbolt-hurling, sword-wielding off-tank because I keep finding all those awesome assault rifles.”

      Well, the difference is that you’ll actually still be able to use those awesome assault rifles yourself, rather than being forced to give them away or sell them as mere loot simply because they are incompatible with your pre-chosen class.


      “lets hope for the sake of Fallout as a franchise, that number 4 will never be made.”

      *facepalm* Seriously, why must people say asinine things like this?

      “Tiresome perhaps, but it needs to be said EVERY single time there is a mention of anything Fallout-related.”

      No. No, it doesn’t. It really, really doesn’t. That’s kind of what is meant by “tiresome.” See also: “banal,” “trite,” “tedious,” “insipid,” “futile,” “pointless,” and so on.

  2. Chris D says:


    I think you’re still going to have those kind of choices about which skills to choose. It’s just that you don’t get any more raw power in terms of hit points or damage just by levelling up.

    • Screwie says:

      That’s very much my impression too. The Secret World’s system seems really heavily inspired by Guild Wars 1, except for the pretence of the first 20 levels of that game.

    • Vexing Vision says:

      That’s my problem with Rift actually – I can switch out skills at any time, so my choices of class-progression is not meaningful.

      I know I’ll make choices, but right now it says that the choices of direction which to develop depend on the loot I find.

      I’ll DEFINITELY play Secret World (unless they ditch everything and go WoW after all), but I hope I get to make meaningful character-development CHOICES, not “Today, I feel like my fireballs should be blue”-choices. :)

    • Chris D says:

      I’m with you on meaningful character choices being a good thing, but I don’t think I interpret anything we’ve seen so far as indicating we won’t get them.

      I agree that I don’t particularly want to see infinite respecs a la Guild Wars 1. It feels like you wipe out your character’s history each time, leaving you with a game construct rather than a person. I don’t think that’s necessarily going to be the case here, though.

      While I suppose you could base your progression around your loot, that’s always been possible. It’s never really a good long term plan, loot comes and goes. The think the better way is to acquire loot to support your character choices rather than the other way round.

      There have been plenty of paper RPGs that have used a classless, levelless system. You still have the freedom to specialise if you want to, but you’re not constrained to one particular path either.

  3. darthmajor says:

    Will it have monocles? Surely the illuminati will have monocles at least.

    No open world pvp and no talk about death penalty (will be probably something nigh-nonexistant like most MMOs out) make this so much less interesting :(

    • PoulWrist says:

      Likely it’ll make use of even more instancing than AoC did. I figure some kind of hub that you hang out in, like Guild Wars, where you team up with guys, then get teleported to your quest area, and that’s where you run through a heavily controlled location that gives you the experience they want you to have. Probably why it’s taking so long to develop if they’re doing away with the open world run about doing stupid quests like kill 5 zombies and bring back 10 chickens.

      That way they could also start it out as f2p, block 50% of the content, 80% of skills, and so on, and sell it bundles at the cash store.

      Just my take on it. I don’t believe it’s an MMO in any other way than that it’ll have a lot of players log into a handful of servers and be able to go on quests together in groups of 5, 10 and 20. All guesses! But sounds like what they’re doing is a guild wars clone.

  4. Rii says:

    My touchstone here is the dual-talent system introduced some time ago in WoW, which I loathe for destroying the talent system as a means of defining and differentiating one’s character.

    This sounds like that that but even worse because this game’s method of specialisation-without-sacrifice revolves around gear (fiddly, boring) and looks set to include pay2win also. Yay.

    • drdss says:

      Ruined it? Have you *tried* going through the new firelands stuff in your healer spec because you forgot to switch back to DPS after last night’s raid?

      My main is a druid, and how I would love *more* specs – my beloved boomkin, the healer my guild needs, a tank spec for emergencies/more extreme soloing and a dedicated kitty PvP spec. Right now I’d have to level a second toon to 85 and spend several tens of thousands of not-real gold to be able to experience drood gameplay to the full – or dick around constantly paying for re-specing and messing with my lovely spell bars. Neither fills me with glee, this is supposed to be a game and therefore played for fun.

  5. Diziet Sma says:

    Ultima Online had a fantastic skill system, I do not understand why more modern MMO’s have eschewed it. As you used a skill, you got better at it. You could mark skills to progress, stay where they were or decrease. So I could max out, say, Wrestling for a while. Then if I decided I wanted to try Magic at the expense of my Wrestling skill mark it to decrease and start trying to cast spells. It was flexible and let you precisely manage your skills without locking you into one class.

    • Dhatz says:

      thats what i hate about level system, you dont get to change unless you restart, its what made a lot of people sad it in many RPGs.

  6. Lobotomist says:

    I seen the gameplay preview. Dungeon instance actually (although not in actual dungeon)

    The game seemed to be extremely linear in terms of movement off the beaten path. They even called the game map “arena” at one moment.

    The game itself sounds very interesting. But ever growing limitations in movement in upcomming “MMO” games , are worrying trend indeed

  7. K. says:

    I am with the article on this: still unsure about the benefits of this system.
    It sounds like a case of “looked good on paper”.

    Since it is still a classical tank-heal-dps model, it forces me into one of these roles… and instantly makes about 2/3 of my available skills useless PLUS gives me the task to analyze hundreds of buttons and abilities on their usefulness in my build.
    I had similar problems with RIFT: Nice active/passive talent trees and soul swapping features… but in the end it’s just the same “look for best in slot for your chosen specialization”.

  8. TsunamiWombat says:

    Too bad all the gameplay footagbe i’ve seen looks abysmal and boring.

    • PoulWrist says:

      Doesn’t all MMO footage fit that bill? Just asking, cause I’ve never seen exciting MMO gameplay videos :p

  9. Quine says:

    True- while the setting sounds interesting, the gameplay so far just looks like a bunch of animations in a Place, rather than something fluid and dynamic. Ho hum.

  10. gwmclintock88 says:

    Can I ask what people expect besides the classic triad? What other things exist that can not be boiled down to being variations of that triad? People whine about this and offer nothing as an alternative, so I really would like to know what they are looking for in regards to ‘other classes’ that can not be boiled down to those three.

    Also, my impression was the fact that I could be a healer at one minute, switch skills and be a tank, then maybe switch skills and crowd control…so I think that if more impressive than anything else.