The Agency is one of our most-wanted MMOs at the moment, and not just because it's coming to PS3 as well as PC. The spy-themed massively multiplayer shooter from Sony Online Entertainment - creators of early hit EverQuest, and Star Wars Galaxies - looks like it will be one of the first major MMOs to offer a convincing alternative to the epic fantasy RPG grind. Players will enter a sharply-drawn, stylish, but none too serious world of intrigue as either a UNITE super-spy or ParaGON mercenary.
Eventually, you'll graduate to start your own agency, staffed with NPCs you can collect who will do much of the game's hard work - intelligence gathering, equipment creation - for you. We interviewed designer and lead writer Matt Staroscik to find out how things are progressing.
Eurogamer: You've said the game is predominantly a shooter - does that mean the combat is mostly based on player skill, or do you earn RPG-style abilities to use?
Matt Staroscik: Your characters will absolutely develop RPG-style abilities as they gain experience. For example, an experienced character may tame the recoil on his weapon better than a rookie, which means more hot lead put on target.
In the end, though, a bullet in the noggin still counts for a lot, because The Agency is, as you said, predominantly a shooter. Less experienced characters will be at a disadvantage, yes, but we are not like a traditional class-based MMO where your 89th-level Dark Paladruid can defeat an infinite number of noobs. In The Agency, the noobs are going to get you - but you'll make them pay dearly.
Eurogamer: How will vehicles figure into the game?
Matt Staroscik: Some missions will center on vehicle challenges, and they'll feel quite different from the run-and-gun gameplay that we've shown so far. Agents might find themselves in an illegal high-speed race through city streets, trying to earn an NPC's respect and some valuable intel. Challenges like that will often punctuate your transition from one area of the world to another, or introduce a special mission that wraps up part of the story.
Eurogamer: Your system for players to start their own agencies, and recruit NPC operatives, sounds really interesting. How's it going to work?
Matt Staroscik: Operatives are collectible NPCs, AKA "living loot". You'll send them out on assignments to gather intel, make them build things for you, and even have them help you in combat. As they work, they'll gain experience and new abilities. They'll also suffer health and morale hits, which you'll need to manage.
One of the biggest goals for operatives is to make you feel like you are always effective in The Agency, even when you are logged out. Set up op assignments so they work while you are at work, and that evening you may have shiny new hardware, or a new mission unlocked. Going on vacation? Put your guys on that research job that takes a whole week, or loan them to another player. Want to know what's going on? You can receive ops updates in email or even on your phone if you like.
The operatives system is a grand multiplayer game of resource management and risk vs. reward - with hundreds of cool, collectible characters.
Eurogamer: How are you going to handle storytelling?
Matt Staroscik: We'll never force you to read pages of information, because we are a shooter. You'll pick up the basics of the story quite painlessly as you play. But if you want to read the files in the laptop you stole, or check the in-game news sources, you'll learn a lot about the world you are playing in.
Your operatives will also have their own stories to reveal, if you follow the opportunities you'll be presented with. For example, one day you'll log in to see that a mysterious enemy has tried to bump off one of your ops. She's asking you to let her figure out why. Do you let her go? You could uncover a fascinating conspiracy while you boost her experience with a series of assignments.
Eurogamer: How will the world, and travel around it, work?
Matt Staroscik: We'll have public hub areas connecting to public and private instances, where most of the action is. You won't be trucking across huge zones in The Agency. You'll be taking a limo from the nightclub to the mission across town, or hopping on a jet to zip across the world.
Eurogamer: Are the two factions - the UNITE spies and ParaGON mercenaries - opposed to each other? Or are they just different play styles?
Matt Staroscik: UNITE and ParaGON are not enemies. The world's most elite spy agency and the world's most powerful mercenary army coexist just fine. They will come into conflict at times, but it's more of a friendly rivalry. And in fact, we are building the story to maximise opportunities for cooperation between the two factions. But don't worry - there will be plenty of chances to shoot at the other guys if you jump in to a PvP arena.
Eurogamer: Can you give us a feeling for the world The Agency is set in? It seems to be quite cartoony, but also to feature real-world locations.
Matt Staroscik: The game takes place roughly in the modern day, and it is definitely set in real places - unless it serves the story better to make something up.
I wouldn't call it cartoony, but it is definitely not grim and realistic, either. We are taking the traditional theatrical spy shtick and adding our own spin to it. Everything is bigger than life. You'll find a conspiracy behind every door and a supervillain inside every volcano. Secret societies and hidden agendas are everywhere. Bad guys have snappy uniforms. The science is super. Doomsday machines are doomier.
Some of the properties that we in the office enjoy are Bond, Alias, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and newcomer Chuck. There's plenty of comic relief in The Agency, but it will be more subtle than a rubber chicken upside the head.
Eurogamer: Will the player roles be the sort commonly seen in tactical shooters like Team Fortress 2?
Matt Staroscik: While we do not have a class system, we do have something called Roles, with a capital R. There are three Roles in The Agency: combat, support, and stealth. Each Role has its own specialties as well as a load of abilities. To change Roles, you don't need to create a new agent, simply change your outfit and you're good to go. The abilities of the Roles will be familiar to team shooter and MMO players.
Eurogamer: Why do you allow players to change Roles in that way? Won't that mean there's no incentive to start a new character?
Matt Staroscik: We wanted to make The Agency easy to pick up and enjoy. One of our goals from the very beginning was "fun now, with no waiting". To that end, we didn't want folks to lock themselves into an agent they hate after several hours. Our "you are what you wear" system fits that philosophy. It gives players the opportunity to explore the roles, specialties, and abilities without ever feeling like they've made a mistake or wasted any time.
We wanted a very simple reason for players to create a new Agent, and the UNITE and ParaGON factions, stories, and collectibles provide it.
Eurogamer: How will the player-versus-player element of the game work, and how will it fit into the world?
Matt Staroscik: The simple answer is that our PvP is always consensual. We'll have many multiplayer game types to please shooter fans, from casual and official matches to crossover PvE missions - optional, of course - and some other fun we'll share a bit down the road.
We are working on some other kinds of consensual PvP that do not involve shooting - for example, spying on other players in public spaces. The goal is to keep things light and fun for both parties.
Eurogamer: A sense of specialisation and character progression is vital to keeping players hooked into an MMO. How is the Agency going to provide that? Will there be some kind of levelling system?
Matt Staroscik: We're mixing up the traditional progression structure found in MMOs to create a variety of ways to advance. Instead of players receiving one monolithic "ding!" when they a hit a single level, we wanted to give them a wide variety of frequent gains that make every play session highly rewarding.
When your agent completes a mission they'll gain experience towards their overall rank within their parent agency, as well as experience towards a new title for the role specialty they used to complete it. This will unlock access to new and more powerful outfits, weapons, gadgets, operatives, and skills.
We also have a use-based system for gear. For example, if you spend a lot of time with a particular family of guns, you'll unlock some nifty special attacks. There are also a variety achievements to chase and new operatives to find. Operatives also rank up over time as you use them, giving you even more goals to shoot for.
Eurogamer: How will friends to band together and organise themselves? Will there be an equivalent of a traditional MMO guild?
Matt Staroscik: While we have some grand plans for the "joint agency" system, it will be familiar to players who have used guild features elsewhere. The most common player organisation will be temporary teams. (Don't call it a "party" and make me come over there.)
However, when players band together to create a joint agency they'll open up new content. This includes operative assignments that will require joint agency members to share their operatives on tasks they could never do alone. There will also be consensual competitive hooks that will pit joint agencies against one another.
If you prefer to play the lone wolf, you will be able to solo your way through the entire story and advance your agent to the end. Like everything, though, it's always best to have a few friends watching your back.
Eurogamer: What kind of payment scheme are you aiming for - subscription, microtransactions, content packs?
Matt Staroscik: We haven't announced the business model for the Agency. As a console action game, we want to keep the barrier to entry as low as possible. We're currently exploring a variety of approaches.
Eurogamer: Do you think of The Agency as a console game adapted to PC, or a PC game adapted to console?
Matt Staroscik: Neither. Development of the two platforms is truly simultaneous. The target platform is the PS3, since it constrains the normally crazed MMO user interface to something manageable by humans. However, using Epic's Unreal 3 engine gives us the ability to develop, play, and test the game on both platforms simultaneously. This lets us make certain a choice we made for the PS3 doesn't completely ruin the PC experience and vice-versa.
Ultimately, players should expect to play a title that feels right for whichever platform they choose to play it on.
Eurogamer: And finally - will The Agency be cross-platform?
Matt Staroscik: We haven't formally made a decision on that. There's a lot of new bureaucratic ground to cover regarding a persistent online world on the PS3, like patches, certification and more. The key philosophy is that we will not compromise one platform's play experience just to support both. If we can make it everyone's gameplay experience benefit from unifying the experience, we will.