Ragnar Tornquist, Funcom's in-house auteur and creator of its next MMO The Secret World, is as bright-eyed, effusive and animated as ever, even if his hair seems to have a nasty case of jetlag. The setting is familiar; we last met in the same building, quite possibly the same room, a year ago.
But in contrast to last year and to his colleague Craig Morrison's dim Conan dungeon down the hall, the room is flooded with northern California sunshine, as if to symbolise the fact that he's actually going to shed some light on the game this time around.
Funcom is eking every inch out of the fact a game about secret conspiracies and a hidden occult world within our own lends itself to a rather coy, cloak-and-dagger style of promotion. But the picture is slowly becoming clearer. We discovered the basics this time last year and more about the game's secret societies and locations at PAX.
Now, at long last, we're to be shown rolling game footage and given the lowdown on this most high-concept MMO, learning a little about the nitty-gritty of its construction: combat, character development, mission structure.
This is a Ragnar Tornquist game, though, so mood, character and story still come first - all presented with a writerly turn of phrase that belies the fact that English isn't his mother tongue. He reintroduces us to the New England town of Kingsmouth, a classic slice of autumnal, wood-framed, small-town Eastern seaboard, straight out of Stephen King or John Carpenter. "Scratch the paint off that white picket fence and you'll find rotten darkness underneath," says Tornquist.
That talent for an elegant turn on genre tropes is echoed in the game's script. Tornquist isn't the only MMO developer touting a newfound focus on story for the genre - LucasArts and BioWare are doing just the same with Star Wars: The Old Republic, for starters - although he is perhaps the only one delivering it in the pithy, world-weary style of American pulp TV at its best. Think Buffy or the X-Files in their now-distant heydays.
He shows us a reel of the fully-voiced cinematic intros that will kick off each of the game's missions, although each will effectively be a "quest chain" in old MMO money, consisting of several "tiers". The intros sketch out the characters that give players their tasks: a jittery Sherriff's deputy, a pair of black-clad Matrix technocrats, a Stetson-wearing backwoods hunter, a nervous priest, a silver-haired biker type in denim, an old lady brandishing a shotgun.
They sketch out the undead terror ("can't we just call them zombies yet?") besieging Kingsmouth along with an ominous, if picturesque, fog, using lines like "I've tried prayer, but Satan's wearing Kevlar" or "I wouldn't go so far as to call any place Hell... but when the wind blows west, you can smell the brimstone". Classic Americana with a striking sense of character and melancholy tone, and it's already clear that The Secret World won't feel like your everyday MMO.
It won't look or play quite like one, either. A segue into gameplay footage shows off a slick and pleasantly minimal "augmented reality" interface not unlike Heavy Rain's: mission and item information appears hovering in 3D space in the game world next to the appropriate item or character. Aside from that, there's not much but a discreet chat window and a bar of seven skill icons at the bottom of the screen.
It turns out that the limited skill selection isn't because we're at an early stage in the game (The Secret World doesn't have levels or character classes). You will only ever have seven active skills available at any time, plus another seven passive skills which might alter your stats or buff one of your active skills (adding knockback to a shotgun blast, for example, or resurrection to a heal-over-time).
You'll be able to unlock many more by trading the points you earn from experience; some skills cost more points than others, many will be tied to certain equipment, and some will have prerequisites, ensuring there is some kind of structure and progression to your acquisition of abilities.
The tactical core of the game, however, will be forming and swapping "decks" of the seven active and seven passive skills to adapt your character to different roles, or possibly to fit into solo or group play. It's a very open-ended and flexible setup with the simplest restraints built in, and not at all unlike the alternate advancement system we've just been shown by Morrison for Age of Conan's Rise of the Godslayer expansion pack.
"It's mostly because we want the players to commit to a, or several, combos," says lead designer Martin Bruusgaard. "A player can train any power in the game, but we want them to think about what powers they bring and why. If you have access to everything at all times during combat, that sort of metagame in figuring out combos disappears. We to create a community where players work together to optimise DPS [damage per second], sort of like a collectible card game.
"I think it's frustrating in a good way," he continues. "Have you played Plants vs. Zombies? It's the same thing there. You kind of wish that you had all your plants, but it's more fun that you only have some. It makes it better. It's the same mentality."
The combat we're shown is obviously in the early stages, with a group composed of a heavy firearms specialist (in waistcoat, shirt and tie), a fire mage (in a backwards baseball cap and goggles), a sword-wielding martial artist and a healer (a girl wearing hotpants and a bikini top under a frock coat). Although it's based around the MMO staple of skill cooldowns, it seems fast, action-focused and faintly scrappy, which isn't necessarily a bad thing - Age of Conan does scrappy in a good way, after all.
The odd little band skirmish with shambling zombies in a suburban street and a metal golem in a junkyard before we cut to a wreckage-strewn beach where they take on more sinister, glistening sea monsters that blend Lovecraftian horror with a lighter, B-movie style of grotesque: a hulking colossus with giant crab claws and a floating octopoid, like an elephantine Metroid.
The players are moving around constantly, and given the limited skill selection each has, the focus is putting enemies into "states" that allow them to line up combos of each other's skills.
"We tried to come up with something that makes the players move around a bit, think about positioning, not only with respect to monsters but also team-mates," says Bruusgaard. But he and Tornquist can't yet answer some simple questions, such as whether the game will feature lock-on targeting or skilled aiming, as seems apparent from the video at certain points.
"We're very pragmatic when it comes to the control and combat system - we believe in focus testing as much as possible, especially with this type of game," explains Tornquist. "Right now we have a combat system implemented that we feel is pretty good, it feels right, but we are going to iterate on that... We are going to make it so it's not frustrating for the player, but at the same time we want players to be a bit more engaged than the standard way of playing MMOs."
Not everything has to be novel, however, and in terms of its geographical structure The Secret World is going to be a pretty traditional MMO. It will have huge, contiguous, open-world zones for hundreds of players (only instanced in the case of server over-crowding), where day-to-day missions and even some boss fights will take place.
There will be scripted, repeatable dungeons for party play in the classic style, as well as shorter instances or "mini-dungeons" that will form part of mission sequences, be tailored to you or your party, and be used as a storytelling device.
There are many, many more questions to ask about the Secret World, but we've only got time for one. With the level-free, seven-skill character template, it's clear that you'll be rewarded over time with a proliferation of options. But what about the vital component of any MMO, or RPG, or long-form videogame of any sort for that matter - a sense of increasing power? Tornquist gives an answer that should easily put the loot-happy MMO legions' minds at rest.
"It's a very item-heavy game," he says. "Our model there has been World of Warcraft and Diablo, there are literally millions of items in this game, and you can craft, and you can augment, and you can level up your weapons. There are a lot of ways to increase your character's strength."
And although clothing is purely a mode of personal expression rather than stat-bestowing armour, that doesn't mean it isn't a status symbol, that your avatar isn't, in Bruusgaard's words, "a walking achievement rack".
"Clothing isn't stat based, but it is given as rewards," explains Tornquist. "There's stuff you can buy in stores, but a lot of it is tied to mission rewards, to dungeons, completing a dungeon on hard mode might get you this unique outfit. It's about encouraging people to show off...
"That goes for effects on your character based on passives and actives, it goes for the weapons you have. When we have a game without classes and without levels, we do need to emphasise the itemisation and the ways you can make your character look cool over time."
With its streamlined and flexible character development, promise of abundant loot and avatar-pimping options, slick presentation shorn of the typical MMO interface-creep, strong sense of atmosphere and place and character - and of course, with its clever splicing of down-to-earth contemporary setting with catch-all dark fantasy - The Secret World is already a very appealing MMO. What's more, it's one that will specifically appeal to many who have yet to feel the draw of gaming virtual worlds, but that hasn't necessarily thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
How tight the combat and how solid the content that support this structure are will be the key questions now, and it sounds like, on the first count at least, Funcom is still looking for answers itself. Here's hoping it finds them, and lets us start looking for our own answers soon.
The Secret World is due for release on PC. It has no release date.