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Secret World's Tornquist On WoW Copycats, What's Next

The Longest Interview, Pt 1

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Secrets! Everybody has them – even you. Maybe you occasionally take two samples at the grocery store, or talk on your cell phone while driving, putting millions at risk. Or perhaps you’re just part of some boring, hum-drum Illuminati that controls the world’s every thought and action. The Secret World creative director Ragnar Tornquist used to be like you – except more interesting and with a cooler name. Now, though, his secrets are all gone. Yep, I snatched up every last one. He’s afraid of liquorice-flavored jellybeans. True story. But also, more pertinently, he thinks Secret World “doesn’t feel like any other MMO” in existence, and he has big plans about how to keep you wayward folk interested long after launch. Read on for all of that and more.

RPS: So the game’s about to launch, and you guys just wrapped up a series of beta weekends. I definitely saw a few complaints spring up during that span, though. Were you able to address most of them?

Tornquist: Yeah, that’s actually a good question, those beta weekends have been incredibly important for us. We had the first two, and then we had a three-week break I think it was, and then we had the last two. And in between that, we actually did a lot of things. I think the first two beta weekends were positive, but there was a little feedback that we agreed with – especially in regards to the feel of combat. And also to some issues regarding character creation that we really needed to address.

And we did. We can have really quick turnaround on changes here because of the way we’re set up. We were actually able to address pretty much everything that was brought up on the combat side. Players felt that it was interesting and complex and deep, but that it lacked a little bit of a connection between the character and the player. It felt a bit like their attacks didn’t have enough impact, and there were animation issues, and sound as well. In the course of a few weeks, we addressed all of that. We set up a strike team to deal with it and really focus on making our combat feel a lot better.

We had an amazingly productive couple of months on the project. We were able to alleviate everybody’s fears, I think. Anybody who came back for the last two beta weekends, and especially now for launch, they’re seeing that the game is massively improved from what it was just a couple of months ago. And that’s the way it goes. All those testers helped us. But it doesn’t mean we’re necessarily going to do everything that they asked us to do. We have an idea of what the game should be. And of course, at the end of the day, it’s the players who will be the ones to judge it, but so far, the feedback from what we’ve done has been really good.

RPS: One big, more intrinsic complaint I’ve seen, though, is that TSW is still – at heart – beholden to WoW’s basic formula. I mean, I’m still killing four Draug whatevers and collecting seven egg whosits – even if it is wrapped in a fascinating, well-written and acted world. Are you worried about that, especially given the backlash recent traditional MMOs like SWTOR and Tera have received?

Tornquist: I think, when I sit down and play The Secret World, it feels like no other MMO. If there’s one MMO that feels less like an MMO, it’s EVE, of course – but that’s a very different game. When I sit down to play The Secret World it doesn’t feel like WoW, it doesn’t feel like Guild Wars, it doesn’t feel like Asheron’s Call, it doesn’t feel like EverQuest. It really doesn’t feel like any other MMO.

Have we been traditional in some ways? Sure. But I think those who say that our combat is like WoW’s combat, they really haven’t gotten beyond the surface. At the beginning maybe it feels like that. But if you play for 12, 15, 20 hours, it’s quite clear that it’s radically different. It requires different techniques, it requires different approaches to survive in the world. It requires more movement, it requires more thought behind your abilities.

Yes, we do have missions and you get XP for doing those missions, but that’s not something that’s endemic to MMOs. That’s RPGs in general. You need purpose and we give you purpose all the time. And that’s something that we were very clear on as well. We give you a reason for doing everything you’re doing. It’s never a grind in The Secret World because you go out and you do a mission that makes sense to you. You believe in it. It’s not just somebody telling you to go out and chase rabbits. You’re going out to do something that will pay off in the end for your faction, for you as a character, for the characters in the game, for the world.

RPS: This year especially, though, it really seems like players are having a falling out with traditional MMO structures. Is it time for something entirely new?

Tornquist: I can’t answer for everything in the game that players like and don’t like. But I think, first off, a lot of MMOs get stuck in a rut. Yes, you’re doing the go kill 15 of this type, go kill 15 of that type, and we do have those kinds of missions as well, absolutely. But it feels very different in The Secret World. You’re not just doing it for the simple mechanic of killing those things and getting XP. It’s also tied into a coherent storyline. And there’s a purpose to it, there’s meaning to it, and the mechanics are usually more interesting than that.

Yes, players are probably getting a bit disenfranchised with the typical MMO mechanics. I think MMOs have become almost like a very single genre. Like driving games, they’ve been around forever, but racing games keep reinventing themselves. The same with shooters and the same with RPGs and the same with sports games. But MMOs have gotten stuck in this sort of rut of doing things in exactly the same way all the time.

We’re not doing that. It really does feel different. When you start digging beneath the surface and start playing it for a longer time, it actually feels very different. Yes, again, we’re not moving away from all the established mechanics, but we are adding to everything. There’s nothing in The Secret World that’s exactly like everything else. It’s not a clone of anything. There’s nothing wrong with good clones. Good clones can be great games. World of Warcraft wasn’t the first game to do what it was doing. It was the best game to do what it was doing. We’ve decided not to go down that road, to not be another clone of WoW or clone of EverQuest or clone of whatever came first. We decided to try to reinvent, maybe not everything, but most things.

RPS: Do you think it would be possible to make an MMO that does away with the whole combat-style questing altogether and just focuses around large-scale MMO adventure-style puzzle-solving?

Tornquist: Of course it’s possible. Absolutely. I’m not sure it’s a good idea, though. It really depends. Conflict in a game is good. I don’t see a need for us to go away from the fact that you have a conflict in the game that occurs through combat. To have to fight an external enemy. There are different ways of doing that. Making just something like Myst Online, well, that’s been done, and initially it was interesting, but I don’t think it was that much fun. I think players felt that there was a lack of conflict, of a drive to it. Having combat, having action, having danger – it’s important, it’s imperative to a gaming world.

There are different ways of doing that of course. You don’t necessarily have to fight monsters and everything. But we found that the whole idea of this communal experience needs to have a sense of danger to it. It needs to feel like a world where anything can happen, and that includes getting your ass kicked, and ganging up and getting revenge. There are varying degrees of that, and I think The Secret World right now, it’s a pretty competitive game. You do have to fight a lot of the time, except when you do investigations.

The battles are part of what makes the game fun and interesting to play. I think solving puzzles all the time, it’s not going to last hundreds of hours. I think people would get bored a lot quicker. Having to deal with a dangerous world where there are real monsters and where evil is rising and to do that in a way that requires you to pick up arms and fight them – it gives the game world more dimensions. I don’t think I would have ever made a game that’s just an adventure game online together with other people. I’m not sure how that’s going to work, but it’s definitely possible. Somebody should do it. It should probably be done by somebody with a small budget and a small team of people that’s willing to experiment more than we are.

RPS: Is it or will it ever be possible in The Secret World to only do investigation missions and maximize your progression?

Tornquist: Yes, I think so. Right now you don’t have to do all kinds of missions in order to progress, but at this point there aren’t really enough investigations to progress only through that. You can do crafting and you can progress, you can do investigations and progress, you can do achievements and lore and progress, but you will have to do other stuff in addition to that. You can’t really skip the combat. But I think as the game grows and evolves, we are going to have enough investigation-type gameplay. It’ll sort of be an alternate progression path, to make it possible to at least get very far without necessarily focusing on quests. I hope so and I believe so, that we’ll get there. But we’re not there quite yet. You’re going to have to fight some zombies and demons and vampires. That’s still an integral part of the game.

RPS: What does your endgame currently look like? What will players be doing once they reach the end of that content?

Tornquist: That really depends on what kind of player you are. If you’re a PvP player there are lots of options. Our warzone, the Fusang Project, it’s really enticing. It’s a 24/7 playfield. It’s constantly in flux, control points shift between the factions and things change on an ongoing basis. That’s great fun for PvP players. Same with our battlefields – El Dorado and Stonehenge – which give you bonuses that can be used in Fusang. Our PvP is not the primary gameplay in the game, but it’s a great added feature. It’s something that really utilizes the builds you’ll come up with in interesting ways. That’s where you can match your decks up against other players.

We have crafting, which, again, in The Secret World is a little more interesting than a lot of other MMOs, I think. That is something that will also keep players playing long after the content runs out. And also, we are planning on adding extra content. Of course our dungeons, which run in heroic modes and like other MMOs will take a long time, they’ll require players to increase their weapon skills, they’ll require new abilities.

We don’t have classes, we have this massive amount of abilities that you can purchase, that you can train, and get them all in order to have the flexibility of choosing any weapon from anywhere. That’s going to take a long time to get through as well. These mechanics are not going to keep everybody playing for six months or twelve months. But for PvE players, like myself, the promise of new content coming on a regular basis and the story continuing – that’s my sort of endgame. It’s a world that keeps growing and keeps living, it keeps changing. That’s something that I think will keep players around as well.

RPS: You say “a regular basis.” How regular are you hoping for?

Tornquist: We have a plan, but we haven’t really announced it yet. I think when we’re ready to do so, we’ll do so. But yeah, we have content plans for a long time going forward. Our team, we just launched the game, but everybody’s here working on stuff that’s coming up. People are working on the stuff that’s coming in the next upgrade, or they’re working on stuff that’s further down the line, but everybody’s working towards creating new content for the game. We’ll announce more about that soon.

RPS: Star Wars: The Old Republic made waves when BioWare announced that it planned on keeping its entire dev team around to make new content. (Then, it, er, failed. But that’s another discussion entirely.) Is your plan to keep everyone and just keep plugging away at the game, as thought development never really… I mean, development on these things doesn’t finish. So is your plan to not even draw a distinction? 

Tornquist: [chuckles] I think I definitely want to keep everybody. Right now the whole team is back. Everybody who was here making the launch version of the game is continuing to work on the post-launch content. We’ll definitely have to evaluate based on how successful the game is; The more customers we have the more we’ll do. We’re going to grow with our customers. The more people play the game, the more gameplay we’ll give them, definitely. In that case, the team will remain the whole team. But of course, people will swap out and we’ll have new people come on, older people will go on and do something else. But yeah, the plan is to keep a very sizable development team – at least for the foreseeable future.

RPS: No vacations! Ever. Write more dialog for police offers with daddy issues!

Tornquist: [laughs] We’re doing staggered vacations. Right now I think everybody’s still here to make sure that, you know, whatever issues pop up in the first few weeks, we take care of them. People get to go on holiday after that. But we’re always keeping people around in every department, so if anything happens or anything needs to get done, we have people around and we are continuing to create content over the summer. I’m not going to have a summer holiday myself until September. So yeah, we do what we have to do in order to make this… to give players what they need in order to keep playing.

Check back tomorrow for part two, in which we discuss free-to-play, Tornquist’s desire to get back into making single-player games, The Secret War, and tons of other wonderful things.  

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