Matt Gardner (Dealspwn): Our resident MMO guru, Carl, interviewed Ragnar at Gamescom and came back with glowing reports, and although I can't say I've ever been a huge MMO fan, I've found myself taking an interest in The Secret World, particularly with regard to the mythos, the story elements, and the three factions involved. How did the concept for the game come about?
Erling Ellingsen (Funcom): Well, here at Funcom, we've always tried to innovate. And I'm not just saying that, the proof is in the pudding. With Anarchy Online we created the first sci-fi MMO experience and pioneered things like dynamic questing and user trials, with Age of Conan we heavily explored the nature of combat in a massively multiplayer online title, and broke new ground in terms of action.
So naturally we wanted to create something very different to the rest of the genre with The Secret World. We realised quite early on that we wanted to set it in the real world, and our game director, Ragnar Tornquist, is a writer by trade. He wrote the story for Dreamfall and The Longest journey, two award-winning adventure games, and he wanted to focus heavily on story in The Secret World.
So when we looked at those two things - the idea of setting the game in the real world, along with this emphasis on storytelling - the notion of taking real world stories themselves, cultural myths folk tales and legends from around the world, that came quite quickly. There's so much stuff out there, too; brilliant stuff that might seem simplistic and childlike in narrative terms at first, but with real depth that we can work with. Take the Bogeyman, for example; it's a childish legend, but at the same time, he scares the crap out of people. The ability to take material like that, put our own spin on it, and incorporate those ideas into the game, is fantastic.
Matt Gardner: In the past, the nature of class systems have served to encourage players to create multiple characters to fit multiple playing styles for multiple playthroughs, thus extending an MMO's longevity. Do you think that the classless nature of The Secret World, and the ability to swap different power loadouts in and out during play, will negatively impact on that side of things?
Erling Ellingsen: That's an excellent question, and one we've asked ourselves on numerous occasions. To be honest, if we really thought that those systems would hurt replayability, we wouldn't have incorporated them in the first place. I mean, we're a subscription-based MMO, we need people coming back.
We believe very strongly in our progression system, and the freeform nature of it allows players to immerse themselves, and truly reflect player choice, in a way that normal, more rigid classes simply haven't been able to achieve in the past. In the Secret World you can find synergy between different types of abilities, mixing and matching to suit numerous play styles. There's over 500 different abilities in the game, and finding and unlocking them all, working out which ones compliment others best, that's almost a game in itself.
Matt Gardner: So the decision was highly motivated by the desire to give the player freedom of choice not just at the start, but progressively too?
Erling Ellingsen: Absolutely, that's what it's all about. We see these rather innovative systems as a true strength for our game. We have a lot of replayable content in the game, particularly depending on your faction allegiance, and we want you to be playing that content again and again. We didn't think it was fair to demand players start a new game just because they want to explore new avenues, or new powers. In many ways, we're hopeful that gamers will still be playing The Secret World months down the line precisely because we give them all of these options without requiring them to start new games and create all new profiles.
Matt Gardner: It does seem as though, in this generation of gaming in particular, that player choice and player freedom appear to be very much the order of the day. MMOs have always had to provide the player with tools with which to help create personal experiences, but it looks as if Funcom are going a little further this time.
Erling Ellingsen: Well we certainly hope so. I like to think of our skill wheel as something of a 'systems sandbox'. The concept of 'sandbox' doesn't necessarily have to mean a huge open world where you can do whatever you want. I mean, we have a huge, gigantic world, but the progression mechanics themselves are almost like a 'systems sandbox'. By that I mean that the tools offered are deep enough to provide endless approaches and aspects of gameplay.
It's a little like Minecraft, for example, in that although there's not a huge amount of content in Minecraft, the tool systems are so deep, they let you experiment and tinker and play around in the game so much, that you keep coming back and playing over and over again.. In that respect, inasmuch as our progression system is designed to encourage players to tackle content in different ways, exploring new and diverse power sets, we share one or two things with sandbox mindsets.
Matt Gardner: This ties is quite nicely with a query that's often popping up at Dealspwn, both amongst staff and in the community: just how big is The Secret World, and how are Funcom looking towards providing incentives for gamers months down the line, PvP aside?
Erling Ellingsen: Content is hugely important in an MMO, we understand that. I can't give you a figure in ,say, square kilometres, because we simply haven't computed that, but the world is absolutely huge. I mean, just the part that we were playing today is called Solomon Island, and we've been playing a little bit of one-third of Solomon Island. Later in the game you go to Egypt, and Transylvania, all over the world, and all of these places are represented by huge areas in which you'll spend tens and tens of hours each, just playing small parts. So we have hundreds of hours of content in the game straightaway, spread all over these story locations; then, of course, you have the different Secret Society hubs, and the Secret Society ranking missions as well. There are also numerous dungeons that go beyond the locations I just talked about, like Hell, there's a Soviet research facility too, there's one that sees you go back in time to a North American location where Vikings and Mayans are battling it out, there's a huge breadth of content.
Matt Gardner: Did you say we'll end up going to Hell?
Erling Ellingsen: Oh yeah.
Matt Gardner: Will we get to fight the Devil himself?
Erling Ellingsen: [Laughs] Well I'm not going to spoil anything, but you will get to fight gigantic demons that breathe fire.
Matt Gardner: How does that emphasis on narrative feed back into the content? Are the missions in The Secret World the same staple of 'Locate. Fight. Return.' quest templates that seem so prevalent in the MMO genre?
Erling Ellingsen: I was just going to say that there was something I'd forgotten to mention in the bit on story and content. [Laughs] I think that too often in MMOs, missions are a simple case of 'go kill this, go kill that' over and over again. In The Secret World there's a much, much greater level of intricate storytelling. The missions are multi-tiered storylines, and there are hundreds of them. So comparing the level of content of a traditional MMO to that of The Secret World is a little complex, because in our game, when you're progressing through these gigantic storylines, it's a different way of playing than simply 'FedEx-ing' or killing grunts and drones.
Matt Gardner: Factions, too, play a large part in ensuring MMO longevity, and you have three here: the Illuminati, the Templars, and the Dragon. How have you gone about making these three factions distinct from one another, and creating attractive sides designed to cultivate a sense of loyalty in players?
Erling Ellingsen: The three Secret Societies are so different, they speak to different kinds of people, and that's why we actually created a personality test to help players pick a Society. People take the test, the answer according to what they personally feel is right, and the advice at the end is beased on those answers.
So you have the Illuminati, who are rather corporate and manipulative; the Templars, who are rather brutal and militaristic; and then you have the Dragon, who are quite mysterious, and incorporate spiritualism and guerilla tactics. And we've found that these aren't just choices made on the basis of the cooler look or appearance, but that ideologies and philosophies play a part too, and that's really really exciting for us.
Matt Gardner: And how does that tie in with the new browser-based Secret War experience you've just released?
Erling Ellingsen: Well it gives players the opportunity to learn more about their Secret Societies, and show their loyalties too. One of the great things about the community for The Secret World is that the hundreds of thousands of people who've already flagged their Secret Society allegiances are taking it so seriously. They're putting it up on their Facebook walls, and arguing over philosophical points of conflict in the forums, trying to convince each other that their own Society is better, using real world data, historical research, discussing conspiracy theories, to get the upper hand.
We kind of just wanted to create the Secret War browser app to fuel those fires even more, and even after just a matter of hours, there are loads of people getting involved, and that's incredibly encouraging for us.
Matt Gardner: Finally, subscriptions. What can you tell us about the payment structure in The Secret World? Will microtransactions be involved and, most importantly, will players be able to 'pay-to-win'?
Erling Ellingsen: Well, we will have a subscription model in place, but we haven't announced the base subscription pricing as yet. As for the rest, the in-game shop will stock vanity items, nothing that enhances power or directly affects a player's abilities in any way. It's important to be very clear on that: we do not want to allow people to buy items that give them a significant advantage in any area of the game. Rest assured that the only things you'll be able to buy are vanity items and 'nice-to-haves'.
Matt Gardner: Brilliant stuff. Thank you for your time.