The Agency

Interrogating designer Hal Milton and director Matt Wilson.

Yesterday, we previewed this promising and extremely inventive MMO shooter for PS3 and PC from Sony Online Entertainment's Seattle studio. We also had a chance to interview lead designer Hal Milton - an endearingly enthusiastic crackpot genius, half George McFly, half Doc Brown - and director of development Matt Wilson about where they're trying to take the game, and MMOs in general. Read on for the results.

Eurogamer: The game's been designed with solo play very much in mind, and very little content that's exclusively for groups. How come?

Hal Milton: There's a designer who I've adored for years who's a good friend, called Dan Rubenfield, who puts this best. For player-versus-player combat, and for all those things that challenge the player, all of our online games are The Lord of the Flies. It's our job to protect Piggy from having his head bashed in with a rock. That stuck with me because it's absolutely accurate - we want to protect the sheep from the wolves.

So we make sure that that core experience that you paid to play, that you want to have fun with, is not a going-to-work simulator which punishes you for not playing it the way we want you to. It doesn't preclude the notion of having that type of gameplay - it just means that it's consensual and the player knows what choice they're making, and everything else is something you can get through with your own wits and skill.

Eurogamer: The proven successes in the MMO field are time-sinks - it's how they work, how they make that subscription seem worthwhile. Making a less time-intensive title, does that worry you at all?

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That's an operative getting in touch in the top right. Probably telling us not to shoot that guy.

Hal Milton: Absolutely not. The whole making sure I can't play any other game but this one, because if I don't play for 4 hours I'll get behind my friends - that's not why we make these titles. The way to keep people in your world is to say, hey, you can play for 30 minutes or three hours and you're going to have a great time, and if you go away for two weeks and come back, there's stuff waiting for you.

Multiple MMOs that require a time-sink are really difficult because of that time-sink, but I can play multiple shooters, I can play Animal Crossing, I can play a bunch of games that have pseudo-persistent elements that track over a year or more, and they keep me engaged.

To step back one second, I just have to state that a lot of the things that people considered part of the genre of MMOs - which is kind of arguable, whether it's a genre or just a feature-set added on to an existing game type - have been determined by a group of folks that started in college making MUDs, we all got rewarded for obfuscation, and then we all decided we're going to write down what the rules of an MMO are and what has to be there in order for it to be an MMO.

We challenge those assumptions by saying, if it's not fun, it shouldn't be there. If it's tedious, it's not gameplay. You can't tell me that something that's really only been around on a college and amateur level since the '70s, and then at a professional level starting in the '90s - that we've actually got some codified rule-set that can be applied broadly to everything. That's ridiculous wonkery.

Instead we're going to take proven mechanics, we're going to take some new ideas that we have, and we're going to make sure that the player has a fun experience that doesn't treat them like some guilt-ridden relative harassing them over the phone to "play me or you're not a good person".

Matt Wilson: The social aspects of online gaming fun are extremely fun, they're really important. The activities in online games have not been as fun, and what we're trying to do is really take more of a mainstream game mechanic like the shooter gameplay and add people, give them a world they can experience, make it a little more compact in play-time, give them more frequency. That's really the core principle - getting more of the ADD group into the space.

Hal Milton: That's a terrible way of putting it, but it's true.

Matt Wilson: It's what we've all come down to. Ever since TIVO, it's ruined my life.

Hal Milton: And we do have, well, the whole point of a persistent game: persistence, one, is my ability to effect change that others can witness. And two, it's being able to have that persistent experience play out over a long period of time, it's not just that it's persistent for my play session, the world is constantly going on. And I'm encouraged to come back from time to time to experience all the new content or all the gameplay I haven't played yet. It's taking cues from TV series and, I will reference it again, a title like Animal Crossing, which has this slew of marvellous persistent mechanics that no MMO has really put in yet, which is shocking to me.

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