Click through to page two for an exclusive chat with The Secret World's writer/director, Ragnar Tornquist. Read on below for our impressions from a live demo at this year's Game Developers Conference. Preview by Oli Welsh. Interview by Robert Purchese.
If nothing else, Funcom is enjoying the opportunities for creative PR afforded by the real-world, modern-day setting of its next MMO, The Secret World.
The last time we met the Norwegian developer to see the game, we were in a fake Irish pub in Cologne's Koelnmesse exhibition hall. This time, at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, we're in a circular chamber in a sort of post-deco style, with a beautifully restored 1906 carousel outside.
The atmosphere of cultured, contemporary creepiness is only slightly spoiled by THQ choosing the same venue to stage a lunchtime thrash metal concert to promote Homefront.
We've seen The Secret World a few times before, but this is our first chance to see it played in a live demo and the first opportunity to catch up with it since EA signed a deal to distribute the game.
Funcom won't discuss a release date yet, but Tornquist, joined by designers Joel Bylos and Martin Bruusgaard, does reveal that his baby will be starting its first internal beta test within the next month or two.
To recap, The Secret World is an open-world MMO with free-form character progression set in the present day. Players join one of three competing secret societies – the Dragon (based in Seoul), Illuminati (New York) and Templars (London) – to combat a nameless, occult evil that is threatening the world, and prove virtually every popular conspiracy theory true in the process.
If EverQuest channels D&D and EVE Online expounds on Iain M. Banks, The Secret World mashes up Buffy, The X Files and H. P. Lovecraft.
We begin by running through some missions in the starter area of Kingsmouth, a sleepy, autumnal New England community overrun by zombies and some kind of alien or demonic infestation on the beach.
Tornquist is piloting a blonde girl in a hoodie, dual-wielding pistols; traditional MMO lock-on targeting is in evidence, unlike the reticle-aiming we've seen in previous videos.
Still, the action is faster and more fluid, if less crisply defined, than the genre norm as the team of four battle large crowds of zombies in the woods, setting them on fire or using car alarms to summon new spawns.
Server structure is still to be decided but The Secret World will use very little instancing. Funcom prefers to have players collide, co-operate and socialise on large persistent maps and in dynamic encounters.
Later we pick up a new mission from a policeman, a haunted, hollow-eyed deputy standing atop a barricaded building. As with BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic there's a focus on voiced mission dialogue, but it's less long-winded and the characterisation has more humanity.
The floating text of the virtual reality-style interface is a nice touch, as are the "tiers" that save your progress through missions which seem longer and more involved that your average quest.
An interesting new gameplay style is offered by Investigations, non-combat detective missions in which players follow a trail of clues – sometimes leading outside of the game – to solve a mystery.
Tornquist's adventure gaming roots show here: in the mission we're shown, a series of Illuminati symbols on drain covers lead players to two names, which when Googled help solve a clue leading to a clock leading to a Bible verse leading to a code leading to a cache of gear.
With no levelling or character classes as such, gear – weapons, costumes and trinkets (there's no armour) – forms a substantial part of The Secret World's character progression.
So does the acquisition of skills, with complete freedom, from a sort of radial pie chart (though there are suggested paths through this for the less experimental player). Seven active and seven passive skills can be equipped at a time and combat revolves around ranged weapons, melee fighting and magic.
We're so used to measuring our progress through RPGs in numerical bands it's a little hard to get your head around, but Bruusgaard and Bylos promise the system should be intuitive.
Action-adventure-style lock-and-key mechanics based around skills or items will pace your progress through the content. There will be achievements to earn and your rank within your secret society will have a major effect on gameplay (as well as bragging rights, naturally).
The last piece of the puzzle is our first look, in video only, at The Secret World's player-versus-player element. In contrast to the rest of the game, what's shown so far seems to have a very conventional approach.
In this "gentleman's war", the three societies – who are free to mingle and co-operate in PVE – vie for control of the magical hotspots of Stonehenge, Eldorado and the lost Himalayan city of Shambala.
Sounds mysterious, but these locations prosaically translate into maps for king of the hill, capture the flag and ranked arena deathmatch. Eldorado looks the most interesting, with an asymmetrical map for three teams of 10, and "flags" replaced by skull-style idols which have to be held on to rather than delivered.
It's the most convincing demo yet for The Secret World, and the game is an undoubted fresh breath for MMOs in style and setting, if nothing else. But nor is it as confident and clear a manifesto for the future of the genre as Guild Wars 2.
It's hard to tell if a certain vagueness in the game's presentation should be attributed to a deliberate air of mystery, actual indecisiveness in development, or simply the fact that its unusual design will only successfully communicate itself first-hand. To answer that, we'll have to wait for the first hands on; until then, read on to see if Tornquist can convince you.
Eurogamer: How long has The Secret World been in development?
Ragnar Tornquist: It's been in production for five years now. We started in 2006. Yeah, MMOs take a long time! The game did actually start production before then as something called Cabal in 2002, 2003. The team went off to do Dreamfall and then we returned to it after and started tinkering again.
We've been in full production for the last couple of years.
Eurogamer: How much has Funcom spent on The Secret World?
Ragnar Tornquist: Oh, I think people would probably kill me if I revealed any numbers. But these games are expensive and MMOs are probably the most challenging games to make. It's hugely complex - it's like making five other games.
The Secret World is a triple-A title. It's a solid bet for Funcom and EA... It's definitely equal to Age of Conan and in some ways it surpasses it... On the content side we go further than what Conan did. We are pushing to have as much exciting content as possible; more monsters and locations and things like that.
Eurogamer: You describe TSW as "triple-A" – do you consider games like Rift, World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic to be your peers?
Ragnar Tornquist: Yes, in some ways. In terms of scale and amount of content we're not trying to match World of Warcraft - that would be completely insane and would take us about 10 years! I don't think anyone expects, going into Secret World, that it's going to be as massive a world and have as much content as WOW does. But that's not our focus.
We want to be unique and different. The fact that we're all MMOs doesn't mean we shouldn't do different things. We embrace the competition and we stand apart.
I keep saying triple-A title because people have looked at MMOs in the past as second-tier games, that come out and aren't polished, are broken. But that's not the case any more. Rift showed that you have to be polished and it's not acceptable to launch half a game.
Eurogamer: You say you're focusing on storytelling - to the same degree that BioWare is in Star Wars: The Old Republic?
Ragnar Tornquist: Their approach to storytelling is very different to ours. We're not really about the personal story; we're really not about that story where you as a character go out into the world and have all these exciting adventures with sidekicks and things.
The Secret World is much more about you as a member of a faction, as a member of a secret society that is out to rule the secret world. It's about you as part of a secret army, fighting for control of the secret world and also to hold back this rising darkness. It's all about you along with other players in a living environment.
And that's our approach to the story... It's perfectly soloable, but you will be doing that with other players.
Eurogamer: What are the storytelling mechanics?
Ragnar Tornquist: Our game is about the real world and you have to research history, current events, characters and conspiracies, mysteries in the real world and bring that into the game world and solve puzzles through that.
These investigations, they can take players an hour to figure out or they can take players weeks and months to figure out because they'll basically be a huge ARG, something that feeds on external sources. It's a big jigsaw puzzle.
There are two sides to the story. There's the story mission you play when you start out in your secret society and that carries you through the entire game. It informs the entire game. It changes the entire game based on which faction you are.
There's also the jigsaw puzzle, and there are thousands of them; tens of thousands of pieces scattered about the game world in lots of different ways: in dialogue, in mission cinematics, in gameplay mechanics, in other things that I haven't talked about that I'm not going to tell you!
At launch you will maybe see a 10th of the entire picture. Launch is only the beginning of this story.
Eurogamer: You've been in development a long time – how often have you gone back to the drawing board?
Ragnar Tornquist: I wouldn't say that we keep going back to the drawing board, but of course we do change things. Some parts, like the story – the overarching storyline has remained pretty solid since 2003, although lots of details have changed. The game mechanics have definitely changed as we implement and prototype and iterate on things.
The game has changed massively in a lot of ways and it has to, because that's how every good game is made. The systems and underlying ideas of The Secret World have changed and modified for the better.
Eurogamer: As it stands, how much of The Secret World game is there?
Ragnar Tornquist: I guess our first beta phase is a month from now. It's a limited beta, which means there will be external people but don't expect an invite yet.
It's a limited section of the game. Large portions of the game are playable, large portions are very testable, but it doesn't all look as good as it needs to look. We're going to start with some sections of the game and expand on that. It's really hard for me to give a percentage estimate, but we are quite far along.
We're at the point where we know when the game is going to be released, but we're not quite ready to tell people yet.
Eurogamer: Will there be an open beta for The Secret World this year?
Ragnar Tornquist: Again, I can't tell you that. But there will be a lot more beta phases as we go forward. Like I said, the first one starts in a month. We are going to have a lot more and we'll keep expanding how many people are in it.
Eurogamer: The Secret World hasn't got levelling, why?
Ragnar Tornquist: People enjoy levelling – it's not like that's outdated. It's a great mechanic for making you feel like you're progressing. But it does set you on a very defined course... It's like being on a train and having a beautiful view out the window.
We're definitely more open; we're definitely more free-form. It means you start the game as a blank canvas. We give you direction but we don't lock you into any one choice.
You can build different decks with your powers; all these cards can be put together for a certain encounter. You can't go through all the content with one deck, direction. Different encounters, different dungeons, different experiences are going to require different approaches, so diversity in your character is incredibly important.
Being just one thing, the magic DPS guy, will get you through a little bit of the content and then you'll figure out that no, it's not going to work on these guys over here – you need to build something else, go in a different direction.
That free-form gameplay is something that MMOs have lacked. To me it feels fresh to do be able to do that, and it fits our modern setting.
Having levels also puts the focus on levelling, and we don't want to do that. We want to put focus on the content; enjoy the content, really enjoy the missions as you play them. Enjoy pursuing these new powers that you don't have to be a certain level to use. It's liberating.
Eurogamer: I haven't read a lot about the static elements of The Secret World: the crafting, the trading, the city hubs. These are the glue of an MMO that holds the whole thing together – how will it all work?
Ragnar Tornquist: We're going to have all of it. We have said we'll have crafting but not talked about what it entails. Crafting is a huge part of a game and it's really interesting.
Our hubs; we have three hubs in the game: New York, Seoul and London, and those are also the secret society headquarters. London is the main social hub, to socialise with people, go to shops or hang out at the pub. It's designed to include all players from all secret societies. It works like it would in any other MMO except with our unique twist.
Players can form guilds called cabals, and together with people in those cabals they can do dungeons or team up or socialise or do PVP, which is a huge part of the game.
Eurogamer: Will there be trading at auction houses?
Ragnar Tornquist: Yep. There will be things to support a living, thriving economy - that's really important for us. The economy in this game is going to be really healthy because of the crafting mechanics. That is a significant part of the game.
It's not something you have to do. There are players like myself; the very thought of crafting is disturbing to me! I just want to get in there and get my loot!
Eurogamer: Will The Secret World exist on one big server or be broken into smaller ones?
Ragnar Tornquist: We haven't announced a decision on that. It ties it into PVP as well. We hope to do so in connection with more PVP announcements, because what we've shown so far of PVP has just been the mini-games. We haven't talked about other PVP mechanics in the game.
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Eurogamer: Will there be raids in The Secret World?
Ragnar Tornquist: We haven't talked about raids yet. It's an open game, it's a free-form game – it doesn't mean it's an entirely linear game. Your character will grow in power and encounter harder content, even if you don't have levels. You do need a sense of progression and completion.
On the PVE side, we have a defined endgame where players complete the first part of the story mission that continues after launch. When they go beyond that there are pockets of content that are much harder and require people to get a better selection of powers.
There are dungeons that we haven't talked about that are really going to challenge people. The PVP is of course something that's going to keep people going. As for raids, we haven't really announced anything yet.
But on the mission side we are going to keep investigations going after launch and make sure there are things to keep the community bustling and keep them going. But most importantly what I think will keep people going will just be getting more variety in their powers.
To cover all the content in the game you are probably going to have to get most of those 500 powers and find the best ways to use them.
Eurogamer: You advance through ranks in the secret societies, and this affects gameplay in some way – how?
Ragnar Tornquist: We haven't really talked about it but no one has really asked about it!
We're conscious that these don't come across as levels. People are rising within the ladders within a secret society, and part of that is gaining access to new secrets. You gain rank through missions, and you say in order to progress to the next step on the ladder you have to do something for us - and that usually involves something to do with the other secret societies.
It does have a direct impact on some gameplay mechanics, giving you more choices. It definitely has an impact on your character.
Eurogamer: Can you progress right to the top of a secret society and become the boss?
Ragnar Tornquist: Not at launch! We need to keep some stuff for the future. You won't even see the top in The Secret World at launch.
These societies go deeper and further than anything you can ever imagine, so you'll barely be able to scratch the surface in the beginning. But as the game progresses...
These hub cities where the secret societies are headquartered – that goes pretty deep there; there are layers that are invisible at first but then you get a hint of it. When it comes to the endgame and the launch version, that may open a door and reveal what's beyond it. But it's a long path from there to ruling the world.
You know, 10-15 years of a live game before we get to the bottom of it, so it'll take a while!