As we sit and discuss The Agency with lead designer Hal Milton in the discreet offices of Sony Online Entertainment's Seattle studio, he hits upon a definition of what MMO games should deliver that's quite brilliant in its simplicity. We might have been talking about any number of the innovative, open-ended features of the espionage-themed massively multiplayer shooter when he nails it: the collectible operatives who play the game when you don't, the role system that's assigned to gear rather than characters, the multiple character progression threads, the encounters that scale to either solo or group play, the alias system of disguises - to be honest, we can't remember which.
"It's just having fun in a world that keeps going," Milton says simply. "I mean, really, it's not that hard. It's just that everybody tends to..." But there he stops himself short of laying into the competition. "Oh, anyway, I'm not going to go off on a rant."
Ranting, though, is nearly all Milton does for a solid eighty minutes, fuelled by an enormous cup of coffee, nicotine withdrawal, a brain overflowing with ideas and raw enthusiasm for the game he's making. Enthusiasm that, having seen a demo and talked it over with Milton and development director Matt Wilson, it's very easy to share. The Agency is unquestionably one of the most appealing and cleverly conceived prospects in online gaming right now, and if it fulfils its promise, it could be very big news indeed.
We covered the basics in our interview with designer and writer Matt Staroscik some months ago: The Agency is in development for PS3 and PC, and is a story-led co-operative spy shooter set in a persistent, massively multiplayer world, with a light-hearted take on the Bond and Bourne clichs.
"There's so much beautiful stuff in Bond I can't even express," says Milton. "And we've been pulling from just about every reference we can - that's actually an important note about our game. EverQuest was the grab-bag of fantasy clich. That's really the approach we want to take with The Agency - we're a grab-bag for espionage and action fun. We're not just borrowing from Fleming or Le Carr, but we're also looking at - I mean, for God's sake, the A-Team! That actually informs team dynamics and character dynamics for Paragon." Paragon is one of the game's two rival (but not actually opposed) factions, the rough-and-ready mercenaries to UNITE's high-tech super-spies.
Running us through character creation, Milton shows off the distinct visual signatures of Paragon and UNITE, and the versatility and wry style of the game's superb character art. Though not as sharply stylised as Battlefield Heroes or Team Fortress 2, the game's lightly cartooned look allows for character with tremendous variation and charisma and a certain tongue-in-cheek exuberance; self-expression through character creation, one of the key draws of persistent online gaming, is clearly not going to be a problem. Pointing out a male Paragon merc with overdeveloped pectorals, Milton notes that "breast physics are not just for women" in The Agency's world.
As with other MMOs, the visual signature of your class or group role will be in your outfit, but unlike those games, changing that role will be as simple as changing that outfit. There's no particular benefit in character specialisation, and Milton wants players to be able to enjoy everything The Agency has to offer by starting just two characters - one UNITE, and one Paragon.
The group roles are divided into three archetypes - combat, stealth, and support - with each of these offering a choice of two provisionally-named roles, although more will be added later. On the combat side, the tactical specialist is a front-line force who takes and deals damage, and is expert at breaching and creating cover - there are dynamic cover opportunities such as desks to overturn, which both players and AI can make use of. The weapons specialist is similar, with a greater variety and depth of skill will weapons.
Of the stealth roles, the Spec Ops is a traditional scout who can cloak to sneak ahead, take out security and disarm bombs, with the Psy Ops specialists in manipulation of other players or AI, confusing and turning them. Supporting classes are the self-explanatory field medic, and the field tech, a role that can create perimeter defences with turrets, hack systems, and even lay down custom save checkpoints. Both support classes will be reasonably proficient at combat too, able to do their bit in the fray.
Each role has its own progression built into the game, with a number of titles available to it for each rank (or overall level) your character gains within its home Agency. There's also a separate weapons experience track that unlocks skills and improvements for the game's various weapon families. "So, as opposed to one monolithic level ding that you're shooting for, we have this very broad assortment of dings that you're going for at any given moment," says Milton.
Clothes define even more than your class, however. The game's Alias disguise system - if we're talking A-Team dynamics, this one is the Face - is at the heart of non-combat gameplay. Don a disguise and an alias rating tracks how deep your cover is - "like ammo or health, as AI perceive you, they're doing damage to that alias rating as sure as if they were shooting you," says Milton. That can be mitigated by using an "act natural" skill or doing something inconspicuous - stopping at a bar for a drink, for example.
The example in the demo is a simple tail through city streets, but Milton describes a more elaborate nightclub infiltration that is almost a maze puzzle, and says team dynamics for the alias system are also in the works. Intel gathering through photography and other means is another major non-combat mechanic for the game; collecting intel in turn unlocks missions and operatives, and feeds into the crafting system.
The demo takes us behind a flower-shop fašade into a UNITE field office. The office is home to some light relief in the form of a Q-Bert arcade machine (although even this ties into the game world - clearing it will unlock an operative) and some comical Q-style R&D vignettes (again - take pictures for intel and more unlocks). Mini-games, which will naturally include casino games, will be roughly divided between "Flash-style" diversions like Q-Bert, and more physical in-game interactions, with some - on a hacking, lock-picking or surveillance theme, say - integrating with mission play.
The demo we're shown takes place in the game's second act, set in Europe (the two locations we catch wind of in our time at the studio are Prague and Panama). The Agency seems to feature an unusually structured storyline for an MMO - albeit one that's some hundred hours long - with acts in which multiple plots, including separate paths for Paragon and UNITE, gradually converge on a single bad guy.
The globe-trotting, Earth-set theme necessarily means the game is going to be geographically broken up rather than a single contiguous world. It'll be based on a hub-and-spoke system with social hubs leading to private and public encounters - some of the spokes may be gameplay challenges, we're told, which leads us to suspect that the game's vehicles may come into play here. "So, you know, it's Diddy Kong Racing", Milton sums up, adding that there will be combat areas simultaneously open to large numbers of players. "We're not going to segregate everybody, we want to have happenstance encounters between players who find themselves magically in the same space shooting at the same bad guys."
In another break with MMO tradition, missions are designed to be playable by either solo players or groups - and not by scaling the bad guys' hit points to match, either. Rather, there will be several levels of objectives to a mission, with bronze ratings advancing the story and being simple to solo, silver requiring a high-level skill or several players, and gold a well-organised full party, with better rewards to match. Most missions are intended to last half an hour or so; while there may be some that require groups, they won't be part of the main story arc. Milton mentions one intriguing prospect: group encounters that are "crossovers" between AI and player-versus-player threat in the same space.
Just as important as your teamwork with other players, however, will be your roster of operatives. These collectible NPCs - essentially characters as equipment - are perhaps the bravest concept in The Agency: the one with the most potential, but also fraught with challenges in terms of design and content-creation for SOE's Seattle team. There will be some 400 of these operatives, varying in rarity, quality and value; your roster can include 50 to 100 of them, of which you'll be able to have an active "hand" of five to ten. Some operatives might have extremely limited runs - say 100 in total - and become very valuable as a result.
They'll slot into four basic roles - combat, stealth, support and the additional "social" type. Some provide in-mission support (in the demo, a cellphone symbol pops up over a pipe that an operative tells us he can blow up, causing a distraction; another example would be a remote sniper), while others might be able to craft items or gather intel for you while you're offline. Social operatives might be tied into mission design or do something as basic yet valuable as filing expense reports to generate cash. There will also be "unique" operatives you don't own, story characters who join you for a limited period. While the majority will exist as abstracted collectors'-card graphics, some will have actual avatars in the world.
As intricate as this system is, the Seattle studio is elaborating it yet further. Some missions might require operatives to be sacrificed; they also have morale ratings you'll need to manage by sending them on R&R (although that in itself has its dangers in the spy world). They might have recruitment criteria based on the CIA's MICE system for turning enemies into double-agents (money, ideology, coercion and ego, if you were wondering). Operatives also have their own stats, including such personality data as their blood type, star sign and whether they tend towards good or evil. These will trigger a series of side-stories as operatives in your roster fall out and need to be let go, or made to settle their differences.
If you opt to allow it, operatives will also be able to contact you out of the game, by SMS and email. SOE has some plans for the out-of-game experience that it's keeping under wraps, but Milton and Wilson let slip some tantalising details. Some 60 organisations from the game world will have a presence outside of the game itself (websites, we'd guess), and there will be a web client that allows you to log in and check your mail and operatives' progress from any internet terminal. And although they're not able to support cross-platform play at launch (despite having it working in the office), they do promise that any account will be playable from either or both the PC and PS3 versions of the game.
A hundred-hour-long massively multiplayer shooter with hundreds of guns, RPG character advancement, a character-collection meta-game, rule-breaking design and sophisticated non-combat gameplay... It's hard to tell what's more surprising, the extent of SOE Seattle's ambition, or the focus and easy confidence with which it seems to be going about making that ambition a reality.
Although the need to generate such a vast amount of content and ensure the game scales well on PC means it's not the most graphically lush title, it has more than enough clean-cut, sharp-edged vivacity in the visuals to make up for that, as well as some outstanding effects. (The effects artist worked on Call of Duty 4 and is "actually pretty inspiring," says Milton. "That man will talk to you for an hour about a muzzle flash and make it a revelatory experience, it's just this transcendent thing to him.") The interface is pleasantly clean and simple too, with a heavy emphasis on contextual actions to make it playable on a pad.
As far as the social structure, character progression and online game design is concerned, it hardly needs adding that The Agency distinguishes itself with ease - this could very well be a game that changes the way things are done in the MMO space, and indeed outside it. With the game straddling the complexity and immersion of a full-scale MMO and the more manageable, session-to-session playing style of the likes of Battlefield Heroes - as well as presenting perhaps the most viable MMO on consoles to date - SOE Seattle is having its cake and eating it with aplomb.
If there's a concern at this stage, before we've tried it hands-on, it's simply how well the game will play as a shooter - an area in which this studio of MMO veterans is far less experienced. If it doesn't have the right tactile kick to the guns, the right level design, the right controls, all this work will be for naught. We seriously doubt that will happen, but we'll be waiting with bated breath to find out.
In the meantime, be sure to check back tomorrow for more on The Agency, in our extended interview with Milton and Wilson.