Last week I got to see Funcom's supernatural conspiracy MMO The Secret World in action, and I went from being interested to being excited. Maybe I was already excited, but anyway, there is now some state of arousal associated with it. For an MMO to be set in a modern-world scenario is intriguing enough, but some of the elements that Funcom showed off demonstrated genuine ambition. They want to do story, and they want to do bold new game ideas. The most interesting of these are the "investigation" quests. A few words on those, and other interesting things, below.
Funcom, evidently pleased with their work, were on fine form as they explained The Secret World at GDC last week. And so we were shown the beautiful cutscenes in which NPCs tell you about your quests. We were shown the defence of a town from waves of zombies - events in the open world that anyone can participate in - and we were shown sea monsters emerging and being slain by katana, shotgun, and pistol-wielding magic-users. It all looked pretty good. Solid, pretty, atmospheric, imaginative. It left me with the kind of feeling I don't get after MMO presentations.
The key movement and combat mechanics seem like very much those of any number of MMOs out there, of course, but it was nevertheless it was remarkably dynamic. For example, laying down a field of fire and then luring enemies through it was totally possible for extra fire damage, and enviromental objects caused things to happen in the world - the slightly predictable example of car alarms attracting zombies made the group quest seem a little closer to Left 4 Dead than to World Of Warcraft. It was impressive stuff. Players were thinking about position and movement, and the difference between a melee character and the one standing at the back with a rifle was really clear. Convincing game design went much further than combat, too, with things like the cues for quests being in the world, rather than being the next NPC, or in the next flashing arrow. Tracking one of the monsters entailed finding flocks of ravens and seeing in which direction they flew off. Follow the flight of the birds and you'd encounter the next battle with your sinister target. Neat. Smart.
I was also fascinated by the character creation process, which is somehow "circular" rather than vertical. Funcom illustrated this with a "skill wheel", which showed that while you character gets more skills, and is limited by his faction, he is not limited by class. You will need to progress along certain routes to unlock certain types of skills, yes, but the game is ultimately "flat". You aren't levelling up to be miles above newbies in power and hit points, you're simply becoming a more talented and differentiated character. You can see precisely why this makes sense, and why it's the kind of system I've been longing for over the years. This more like how real people become more experienced, and learn more skills, than the weird articifial elevator of power that MMOs usually deliver. All that feeds into PvP, of course, which is a domination game all its own, with arenas such as Stonehenge making up fantastical stadiums for the three factions to fight - yes - three way battles for control of the world's mystical resources. Newbies and experienced contenders will all be able to play together, thanks to The Secret World's experience structure.
BUT ANYWAY, the most interesting thing about The Secret World are the investigation quests. These are fascinating, leaky game systems that do more than ask you to collect mystery meats from fallen foes. Funcom showed us a group of players taking such a quest and then looking around in the world for clues. In this case it was a series of symbols on buildings, manhole covers and other elements across a town. Tracking these down allowed them to uncover some secret doorways in one of the towns houses and this led... to Google? Outside the game? Of course! Why not? By being set in the real world, The Secret World is able to draw in real-world elements. To solve the quest in this instance the players needed to actually do their research and find out about the characters - real world characters - who are involved in the conspiracy. These fed back into the game's fiction, and ultimately to the resolution of the quest.
Imagine that: a fun and interesting application for alternate reality games, and Funcom say they're going to try and drop new ones in every few weeks. The community will need to come together to solve some of them, explained game director Ragnar Tornquist, because they'll span the divide between the games factions and even, potentially, between the real-world distribution of players across different parts of the world. They might take weeks, they might take months, but they're a resource and a challenge that no other MMO can boast.
Not that this stuff is even essential to progress within the game world, either. These quests that require you to do a bit of research and to stretch your imagination beyond the build of your character are simply there for extra colour. You can get along just fine following your own character's personal story and slaying monsters, if that's what you want. However, in my mind, the fact that an MMO is even able to countenance these kinds of structures of play and investigation, blurring the line between the game world and the real world, excites the hell out of me. The Secret World might not have the biggest budget or the most compelling art, it might not really shatter the fossilised MMO way of doing things, but it's working hard on being interesting. And it might just be the most interesting MMO project out there.