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!