Vampires are no strangers to keeping secrets, but they're rank amateurs compared to how well the World of Darkness team has kept a lid on what they're working on for the last few years. Today though, that changes - at least a little. It starts on a rooftop, in a city of night and rain. A girl is on the prowl, her slinky outfit as much as her fangs hinting at what's coming next for the poor guy standing a few steps away. She approaches. They caress. She slams his head hard against the brickwork and drains him dry as casually as throwing back a beer, before equally casually leaping twice her height up a vertical wall and slipping unseen into a more social world of cool parties and gothic chic at a rooftop bar.
This is our first real glimpse of World of Darkness in action - but to be clear, it's also not. Not quite. Even now, what looks like game footage is simply a 'visual target' that mixes in-game assets with a bit of post-production like the splattering of rain on the camera. It premiered at this year's Eve FanFest, with CCP staff watching for the tell-tale glimmer of cameraphones in the dark, and if you do find a copy online, someone has been very naughty indeed.
Still, it's exciting stuff, not because of the faked-up pixels so much as the general style of game they show - an approach to character movement closer to Assassins Creed parkour than regular MMO stomping around, predatory vampires who confidently rule the shadows rather than just wandering thugs who happen to have fangs, and a city whose aesthetic mood comes as much from detail like water dripping down buildings as the lack of sun. For the overall look, think a modernised Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines - though much more advanced - with the demo actually using its music. It's dark, it looks right, and nothing it was doing seemed implausible.
Just don't expect to see much more in the near future. I cornered Chris McDonough, World of Darkness' Executive Producer, to try and get a few extra details, with most specific questions met with a variant on "We're not ready to talk about that yet" - how the politics are going to work for instance, the PvE questing, specific implementations of social features like having a player Prince and whether there'll be vampire generations to deal with. In most cases, this doesn't appear to be caginess so much as things simply not having been locked down tightly enough to commit to, with almost as much frustration on both sides of the table. Almost. Not quite.
So how about a question that could be answered - what the heck is taking so long?
"I think there's somewhat of a misperception on that," said McDonough. "When we merged with White Wolf, the first year we hadn't even committed to making World of Darkness. Then we had to build the team, the next year we staffed up to around 25. It's not like there was a massive group of people. This year has also been the first year the team has worked only on World of Darkness. Our team has been moved onto many different projects in this time."
Even now, the team is only around 70 people, working on an MMO that may be very different from Eve but has just as strong a sandbox focus in mind. It's going to have PvE content as well though, which makes sense, but seemed odd given CCP's heritage. Missions feel somewhat of an artefact in Eve, from a time when nobody could have predicted the scale of its community. Why take the time to implement them in a brand new sandbox game?
"80 per cent of players in Eve run missions. It's absolutely a staple of gameplay, even if it's not an aspirational one," explains McDonough. "What we're making is not traditional PvE content - it's not 'talk to an NPC and consume this' content'. There have to be hazards in the environment or you just have a PvP game, which isn't what we're doing. But it has to be player driven. We're looking to have PvE content that maximises player interaction."
In short, we're not looking at a fixed personal quest type structure - and hurrah for that. One example of how this works is that while World of Darkness is focusing on vampires for launch (other White Wolf characters hopefully coming in due course) everyone starts out as a human. To become a vampire, you first have to be Embraced by another player, with their clan presumably having major effects. You can try to stay a mortal rather than become Kindred, though it won't be easy, and there won't be much content. At least, not for a good few years, when hunters might join werewolves and whatever other new additions CCP makes from the sourcebooks.
This opening doesn't simply tie into Vampire lore though, but makes sure that every new player will need the help of at least one other, even if their plan is to try and survive on their own or stick in a small group off the radar of the world's power-brokers. "That's important to us," says McDonough, "When you start interacting with other people, you gain a vested interest, and a social network. We want to build a society, not just have players."
This being Vampire, there will be some social constraints as well as opportunities - the Masquerade for instance, which forces vampires to hide their existence, is in effect. McDonough wouldn't be drawn on how the MMO will handle the inevitable naked players jumping up and down in the middle of the street yelling "Vampire! Vampire! I'm a bloody vampire!", save that there will be systems in place, CCP knows full well that people will try and work around them, and that other players will be able to enforce social justice. There is permadeath in the game already implemented, though only in certain situations. Once again, no details, save that it takes more than just being ganked.
Elements seen or discussed also include genuinely expansive cityscapes to explore, with an example in the demo being our vampire girl spotting a flicker of movement leaping between buildings, immediately switching from partygoer to huntress and giving chase over the rooftops. CCP is compensating for its small team with some very clever tools to help create MMO-scale content relatively quickly. Textures for instance make heavy use of procedural shaders, with levels mocked out using simple kit blocks that an artist can jazz up with individual art asset packages - things like a brownstone apartment block whose window-layouts can be randomised every time so that there's no repeating pattern in a street, or being able to create endless original brickwork patterns with sliders. Every texture also features a 'wet' variant specifically for atmospheric purposes, brought out through rain and effects like puddles.
It's all looking fantastic, and watching it in motion really begged the question of why more games than just this and The Secret World have tried mining the rich veins of urban fantasy.
"We think of it as more modern gothic," corrects McDonough. "But sure. I don't want to be insulting, but I think there's a lot of copy-catting, where people see what they think has been a success and do it, whereas CCP wants to be a trend-setter rather than a trend-follower. It's great - the IP gives us a wide open space to play in, and lends itself well to a sandbox environment. In (tabletop) Vampire: The Masquerade for example, players would compete to see who would be Prince, and even if it wasn't them, there was that story going on. The focus is much more on the setting and letting players be the stars, and that's where we're heading with the environment and emergent systems."
While most practical details were under wraps, a few were confirmed or discussed in the FanFest presentation or in separate chats, and here are some of the highlights. In terms of maturity, different worldwide taboos mean CCP isn't sure what it can get away with in terms of elements like blood and nudity, though its stated goal is to make a mature game that doesn't shy away from Vampire's sexual elements. In their internal test build, it's possible to steal a fallen player's clothes, leading to an entire world full of naked vampires. This will officially not be the case at release because it's ridiculous. Even if full nudity is allowed though, it's likely to be restricted to places it won't be jarring.
Like Eve, World of Darkness is due to be a single world, its scale and specific locations both still 'no comment' territory. Cities will be huge and seamless, though it'll be possible to get around faster using subways. The procedural texturing allows for things like city districts to shift look depending on ownership, though that might not actually make it into the game at launch - cool as it could be. Vampires will be able to travel between locations, though there may be some restrictions, such as a train between LA and New York (hypothetical examples) only running at noon (ditto), to prevent a brood magically racing in from around the world to help out in a mere street fight.
CCP is also hoping for a much larger female playerbase for World of Darkness than Eve Online, where the universe is 96 per cent male, though McDonough made a point of saying that this is intended to stem from the game's existing nature rather than any special targeting efforts. "Vampire has always appealed to women, but I think one of the secrets there has been not pandering. We're making a world with seductive and powerful vampires, male and female, that will appeal to all styles of players, and there are women of all styles of players we think will be attracted to it."
Elsewhere, there will be crafting and similar elements, though your character specifically won't do them personally - "You're a powerful, immortal lord of the night - you don't want to sew a shirt!" Instead, you have a network of lesser beings to do that kind of chore for you, maintaining narrative cohesion even if the practical mechanics aren't that different to other MMOs. Also, by 'shirt', think 'ridiculously stylish outfits spanning the full gamut from gothic finery to insane streetwear'. The world will also have NPCs, to make use of and snack from, and players should be able to stay connected with the game and their networks in at least some form via both real-world and in-game cellphones.
How all that will work though, along with details like available clans, the roles of groups like the Sabbat, Disciplines, how the sandbox will turn statements like 'backstabbing, betrayal and Machiavellian politics are the hallmarks of the Kindred' into political intrigue on a worldwide scale, and whether or not it'll be possible to put bounties on Malkavian players for thinking they're funnier than they are... all that is firmly for the future, and the distant kind at that.
Instead, post-FanFest, CCP is going back into lockdown while it continues work, as much to spare itself the need to churn out a constant stream of content to remind people it's still busy as to keep its secrets. It's not like it has to show much, with Eve paying the bills and no fixed deadline, as much as we want to see more. There's exactly no chance of a closed beta this year, with a release not likely until 2015, and everything seen/heard still subject to change.
Oh, except for one thing, straight from McDonough's lips to the hearts of players everywhere.
"We've banned the names Edward and Bella."