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A Little Piece Of Hell: Building The Secret World

February 12, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

As the MMO genre matures, and as certain avenues of competition are closed off by saturation, developers naturally begin to turn their sights towards unexplored territory for the genre. One such is Funcom's Ragnar Tornquist; perhaps best known for The Longest Journey, he's more interested in exploring a supernaturally-tinged present-day world than another medieval fantasy empire.

Though the MMO he's working on, The Secret World is being built on the technological underpinnings that drive the company's game Age of Conan, it's a very different title -- one that blends horror, fantasy, and real-world urban settings with some traditional MMO gameplay. On the other hand, a character leveling system, the absolute backbone of the genre, is eschewed.

Here, Tornquist describes the creative tone he's going for as director and producer of the game, alongside Martin Bruusgaard, the game's lead designer.

The result sounds like an experience both like and unlike online and offline games of the past -- and one that could be an important stepping stone in the genre's evolution if it finds a receptive audience.

I first saw NDA'd material from this game way back in 2005, as I recall. How long have you actually been working on it?

Ragnar Tornquist: This game has been in development for a very long time. We've been working on it for a while. Officially, we've been working on the game since 2006. That's when we had sort of the team we have now, but we did work on the game briefly before when it was called Cabal back in 2002.

So that was a little after Anarchy Online launched.

RT: That was after, yeah. We actually had a playable demo of the game back then as well. It was playable in the loosest term, but you could run around and have fun.

So, really, we've had a big team on it for the last three years. But MMOs are huge. They take time and so many iterations of things. Luckily, we are using a lot of the same basic technology that Age of Conan is using, like the rendering engine and network technology and things like that.

But we are doing our own role playing system and our own combat system, and everything is going to look completely different and completely new. The game is going to play very different from Conan.

How did you decide to set the game in the modern day, with the conspiracy layer? That's unusual enough for games at all, let alone MMOs. Designers often tell me that's the hardest setting, because you're going up against a setting the audience actually knows. How did you get from the idea to the practical side of it?

RT: That's always an interesting process. Of course, there are a lot of people behind this game. It's made by a team. But it was something I wanted to do for a long time. I like the contemporary fantasy setting. I'm a big fan of that. I like it more than medieval fantasy.

Back in the 1990s, I wrote a concept for a single-player game set in this kind of universe. Nothing ever happened with that. After we launched Anarchy Online, we were looking for the next concept. We held off a whole bunch of ideas, but again, this popped up, this idea of a contemporary universe -- to get away from sci-fi, to get away from fantasy.

Again, back then, it was just an idea. It was something called The Entire World Online, which was about traveling the world, fighting monsters, uncovering ancient mysteries -- that sort of stuff. It was more of a pitch than a fully fleshed-out concept. We've just been working on it, iterating it over the years and trying to translate the ideas for the universe into an actual game.

You can make an MMO in any kind of setting. You can pick anything and make an MMO out of it. That's not the difficult part. The difficult part is making sure there's a link between the gameplay and the story, and that there's a reason for players to do what they're doing there, and that it feels like a real place. It feels like a solid game world.

If you spend a lot of time on it and iterate it and work on it, eventually it comes together. It's been a very collaborative effort. I think the team is really invested in this. Everybody on the team thinks it's the ideal setting for this kind of game. It's not been done, and yet it's something that most people like. So it's strange that nobody else has done it.

It's a respite from the fantasy worlds of MMOs. It's nice to get away from that. It's nice to be able to carry guns around that shoot things in the head. It's nice to have zombies -- all those things. When you get all those people and get all those idea and everybody's on the same page, it's quite easy. Everybody's working in the same direction, and I think everybody understands the universe very well. They know exactly what we're trying to do.

Martin Bruusgaard: I agree. I just think it's weird no one has done it before. The world really needs this game right now, I think. People will have a lot of fun in it.

RT: That's your quote right there. "The world needs this game."

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Seth Burnette
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Great interview. I love your incredulous attitude, Remo. "Is that it? You have a brilliant solution?" definitely brought a smile. That being said this is the sole MMO that I have personally been interested in so far and this adds to that interest.

John Petersen
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There aren't very many games i wanna play nowadays, but this is definitely one of them. Whether I get to play it or not is a different story.

Bart Stewart
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On the plus side, I've been advocating for years now that an MMORPG doesn't require classes and levels, that it's possible to create an enjoyable gameworld in which you create a character and just start playing -- no waiting months to "level up" or being stuck with some stovepiped set of abilities that some developer decided your character's "class" should have. For this alone, I'm hoping The Secret World is a success.

On the negative side: "We're not talking much about crafting and exploration and the PVE content ..." Sigh. I'm getting really tired of hearing this from MMORPG developers. We know there will be ways to shoot things in the head and otherwise commit bloody mayhem. Every MMORPG has that. It's understood that there will be combat content.

The offer of non-destructive content, on the other hand -- that's a growth opportunity. That's an area where an MMORPG developer could excite people. Intead, we get "we're not talking about exploration and crafting."

Really? Why not?

Here's a quote from STO producer Craig Zinkievich in an IGN Voon chat from April 1, 2009, edited by Charlene Sheridan:

"Q: Can you give us some more examples of non-combat content, diplomacy, science, exploration?

"A: Well, many of the different non-combat content things that we are looking at right now kind of involve some of our crafting ideas, involve some of our indirect PvP gameplay, but I am not allowed to talk about any of that stuff right now because the PR people will come and I'll get in trouble and then they won't let me talk anymore because we're supposed to be talking about the cool iPvP and crafting stuff later in the PR spin, sorry, guys." ( )

"Crafting" in STO, it should be noted, consists of taking collected items to an NPC who allows you to exchange them for some other individual item. It's difficult not to conclude that "we're not talking about it" is simply a way to avoid acknowledging a near-complete lack of interest in providing that kind of non-combat content.

If MMORPG designers are not willing to talk about the non-combat content that could distinguish their product from all the other "shoot things in the head and take their stuff" games out there, why should gamers believe that any such content is actually being developed? Why should gamers not conclude instead that "we're not talking about X yet" is actually code for "nobody here cares about that stuff so we're leaving it until last (if we have time)" or, less cynically, "the publisher isn't giving us any milestone payments for non-combat stuff so we're leaving it until last (if we have time)"?

My complaint is basically a request for developers to be up-front about what is and what isn't in their product. It's not about competitive advantage -- unless you've patented it, it's probably not something that no one else has ever thought of before. (And if you have patented it, then you're free to talk about it.) Stringing gamers along with a coy "we can't talk about that yet" is a great way to lose the trust of -- and future sales to -- gamers who rightly get tired of being led on.

If it's not going to be in your game in a substantive way, say so. You may lose a customer for that particular game, but you'll gain their respect and their willingness to consider other products from you because they trust you to be honest with them about what you're selling.

Or does customer loyalty over the long run no longer count for much?

At any rate, most of what I've heard about The Secret World since its Web site opened up, I've enjoyed. I hope it does well, if only to prove to other MMORPG developers that the class and level fetishes are not, in fact, innate requirements for this kind of game.

Colm McAndrews
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I'll be interested in this game as long as they don't reveal that it has the usual babysitting quests system.

Kevin Reese
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Hats off to Funcom for being brave enough to try something a step out of the typical fantasy MMO setup. Personally I couldn't care less for another WoW clone -- Secret World is very refreshing, even if I have doubts they'll be able to do something really new when it comes to leveling and game mechanics.

Stephen Chin
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What Bart said. Here here!

Bob Cruse
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I've also been watching this development for a long time. Hopefully the unique aspects of the project will attract players wanting something different than the usual "Kill Me 10 Rats" questing. Like any ground-breaking game, taking calculated chances result in hit-n-miss opportunities. I hope Secret World is a success.

I can't wait to side with my fellow Dragons to teach that Out of Chaos Brings Order!


Dolnor Numbwit

Eternal Newbie

Bryan OHara
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Any MMO that doesn't have Orcs or Elves in it is worth looking at IMO.

Let's hope they stick to their guns and make this truly unique.

Ka Wang Wu
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Looking forward to hear more about the story world. It was the only thing in this interview that kept me reading.

Alan Lail
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Or maybe they're still iterating on those ideas?

I think we can assume that this game is still pretty early in the development cycle. With that in mind, you should think about how important combat is to an MMO, and how many other aspects of the game it directly affects.

Of course they will have lots of info on combat at this point, they've probably had plenty of time to reiterate and concrete how it will work.

However, to assume that they aren't focused on crafting, exploration, and other aspects of the game besides combat simply because they 'aren't talking about it' just isn't fair.

Try having a little faith, and hope that they are holding back because they want to really think about what will be fun for players, and have the chance to start back from square one if necessary. How upset would you be if they did spill the beans, but it turned out to be completely different by the time the product actually shipped?

Either way, I'm very excited :)

Thorsten Schelter
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That's exactly the point, at the moment they are in an alpha stage of the game, so things might change still. I wouldn't say too much about features that might be in it then either. Also, I guess they might have learned a bit from the start of Age of Conan where some promised aspects still haven't been implemented.

They haven't talked much about the story either, mostly cause of not spoiling it I bet. But, if you look at their last financial report you can see that they are planning a "significant PR ramp-up for Q1", so we should get more informations. Also, it all looks like there might be a closed beta soon and that they are aiming for a release in the end of 2011.

These all are my own speculations, so don't take my word for it. ;)