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."