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Interview: SOE Talks Building Out  The Agency  Onto Facebook

Interview: SOE Talks Building Out The Agency Onto Facebook

May 18, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

May 18, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC

Much has been made of the opportunities for Facebook as a gaming platform, but alongside the rise of the metrics-focused social gaming industry and exploding casual user bases, few developers see any relationship between this burgeoning space and the traditional business.

But Sony Online Entertainment sees a way to bridge that gap -- it's extending its massively multiplayer shooter property currently in development, The Agency, onto Facebook with a social game subtitled Covert Ops.

With its ability to expose properties to massive social audiences, using Facebook makes marketing and community management sense for core IP -- that's half the genius of Facebook extensions on home consoles, since friends viewing the activities of other friends become aware of games they hadn't yet heard of and become curious about the gaming interests of their pals.

The Agency: Covert Ops goes well beyond community relations, however. Development director Dan Kopycienski of SOE Tucson, responsible for creating the Facebook game, sees it as a true multiplatform collaboration with the Seattle studio developing the main online game.

"It seemed like a prime opportunity to create a viral social media game based on the world that they're building for the MMO," he tells Gamasutra. So the Tucson team, which normally focuses on smaller, more casual titles, found itself talking characters, world and storyline with the Seattle team.

"We integrated some of the music from the larger action game, and they worked with some of our concept artists... and it was a fun experience for us to be able to look at all the cool things that they've created and that they're working on right now," he says.

Facebook games can be a good marketing vehicle to draw users into larger properties, Kopycienski admits, but that was less the goal here: "From my point of view this is a stand-alone game as well," he says. "I think there's gonna be a lot of synergy between the two games."

So while the Facebook game offers prospective The Agency players a solid entry point to the game's universe, factions and world, Kopycienski hopes the Facebook game will continue to be an alternate in-road to the main game even after The Agency launches -- and the infrastructure is being considered for a persistent relationship between the two worlds.

"I see it as an extension," Kopycienski states. "That's the reason the business is making virtual worlds. When I'm home at night and when im playing on my PC or PS3, and I'm playing The Agency... I have that time dedicated to really immerse myself in that high action game."

"Why not expand that experience to the afternoon, when I'm at work, and I just broke out my lunch and i'm sitting at my desk and I dont have the opportunity to just pull out a PS3 in the middle of my workday?" He suggests. "I can open up Facebook and do things within that world that kind of relate to each other? What if the things I do in my Facebook extension game affect the main game, and stuff like that? I think it makes sense to do that."

In that respect, Facebook gaming becomes a platform ally -- another option in multiplatform development -- not an isolated business. What's that like from the creators' side?

"It started with getting access to a lot of their content, so when it started off, we got intro-ed to the storylines, the world -- and I come from an art background, so I really just looked at a lot of the concept art and that really set the tone for the design of our game. Our goal was to really carry over the style of what they're working on on the larger action game."

So much of SOE Tucson's work revolved around translating the tone and gameplay of a full-scale action game to the far lighter Facebook platform: "Obviously Facebook's not conducive to that sort of gameplay, so we kind of needed to come up with ideas that would work for Facebook but still be true to the style and tone of the larger game," Kopycienski says.

"We came up with our storylines, passed them to the writers in Seattle, and they corrected us where we kind of went off the wrong path and helped us with our style and our tone," he says of the collaboration. The opportunity to collaborate with a core development team on a property like The Agency was a fun and new challenge for the Tucson team accustomed to smaller projects with much briefer development cycles (they've also built strategy-lite PoxNora).

"Our background has been more kind of web-centric games," says Kopycienski. "We started in the mobile industry, and before that, we did more viral type online games."

But Kopycienski wants to encourage more traditional developers to view Facebook not as an alien industry or a threat to their business, but as a possible additional frontier in their process. Although it can be challenging to adjust to the unique limitations of Facebook and its general audience, "I think it makes a lot of sense," he says.

"Our goal wasn't to make a FarmVille or a traditional Facebook game," he says. "we wanted to raise the production value a little bit, and cater to people that enjoy more gameplay elements. A lot of the top Facebook games are fun, but a lot of them are really just doing virtual chores and sharing them with friends."

A major part of adding depth to that traditionally-shallow format is a larger storyline, Kopycienski suggests: "We wanted to do something that kind of alluded to a larger world, a story -- like playing an interactive spy novel," he says.

And for those that get involved in the Facebook game early, it'll be more of a natural evolution into The Agency when SOE Seattle launches it, Kopycienski hopes. "This is the first step," he says. "We have a whole lot more stuff planned."

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