Massively checks in on The Agency with Lead Designer Hal Milton


As we noted yesterday, The Agency isn't canceled. Despite that mixup from Gamefly's automated notification system, the FPS/spy title from the SOE Seattle studio is still going strong. Joystiq spoke with the SOE subsidiary briefly yesterday, and we had the chance to do so as well. Being the MMO nerds that we are, we just had to go a bit outside the scope of this latest mixup - mechanics are far more interesting than drama!

Join us as we talk over the current state of The Agency's development with the animated and always-interesting lead designer Hal Milton. Hal shares with us a bit of insight into what they're currently working on, give us a few fun facts to chew on, and makes us actually look forward to next year's summer con season. We didn't think anything could do that. Spy social engineering at work!

Read on below the cut for our full discussion.
%Gallery-12934% Thanks for your time, sir. It's always a pleasure to speak with you. So, you guys aren't canceled, right?

Hal Milton: No, no, we're not canceled. We have actually changed focus completely, though. We're now making a "Kitt Kittredge: live the life of an elite spunky pioneer girl" series. I think it's a great change for the product, I think our Eastern European assets will work well as assets for new colonial America. I think people will appreciate the change, we've had to make gambling games into more Thanksgiving hunter-gatherer experiences but other than that everything is the same.

No, no. Gamefly did not kill us, we're still making a spy game. I'm not sure what happened here, I've never seen Gamefly do anything like this before. Usually they have solid information they base changes like this off of, so that's intriguing. SOE has gone through some changes, that's certainly true. SOE is now a part of SCEA, which is a publisher relationship change. I'm sure when they say "SOE isn't publishing The Agency anymore", they really mean "SCEA is publishing The Agency now." Maybe this tripped some things accidentally in their system to send out that message?

"We're all just concentrating on getting our tools online and building as much content as possible – making sure that content is actually fun."

We're good, we're good. Everything is fine! Yay! Of course, this is one of the designers saying it – there could be a smokey cabal in the execusphere chittering away and cackling about their master plan. As far as we've been told, no, we have the same great support we've always had.

More generally, how is The Agency going? Last time we spoke with you, it sounded like you had your overall design generally pegged down but you weren't quite feature complete yet. How are you doing now?

Hal: That's an incredibly accurate assessment. The feature work continues unabated. We're concentrating on all of the little, boring stuff on one end and some really interesting stuff on the other. We're getting as many people as we can into the game, shooting it up, having a good time. We're trying to push our population as far as PvP and game mechanics go – making sure the guts are all really well built up for operatives, intel, storytelling, advancement, every other feature. That's all great, but that's the boring stuff.

The exciting stuff, the reason I'm staring at my left hand even though you can't see it, has to do with getting new content in. We shook up some of our tile editor tools, we just finished the base European tileset. As a result we've just exploded on locales. The speed with which we're able to execute on those is great. We're building out the rest of the core locales, a bunch of stuff in Europe and Central America going up right now. We're working on a whole bunch of mission content that will be going into there. It's really busy, really exciting.

We went kind of intentionally dark after CES, we've been pretty quiet this year so we could go heads-down on the content. In the world of MMOs and triple-A game development we are actually a pretty reasonably-sized team. We're slightly under a hundred people. I know sports titles and other games that have much larger teams than that for 'offline' games. We're all just concentrating on getting our tools online and building as much content as possible – making sure that content is actually fun.

It sounds like you have a bit of a ways to go, then. From the developer perspective, you've been working on this a while now, how are things going from a morale perspective?

Hal: It's like every group. You get so close to the project, there are people that can see the end point. That end point is really thrilling, but then there are people that are caught in the day-to-day grind. That always, always takes a toll. The second people get some distance from the project the fun starts to emerge again.

"It's been exciting to see the team's growth – the growth of the team has been part and parcel with seeing new depth and features in the game. I can't wait to keep chugging on that content and breadth for ... whoo-ha – many months."

I generally think we've been keeping the fun alive pretty well. When we announced the game last year we had around 30 people working on the game at that time. That was sort of a core skeleton group of folks. We've been staffing up ever since. That staffing up has really given us the density we needed to make these big leaps and bounds changes that have been occurring.

We finally even got some more space. We were crammed in likes sardines. It was a cube arrangement for most people but we'd have two people in a cube, two or three people in an office, it was a wondrously communal atmosphere. It was like being in a marketplace in Mazatlan or something. It was fantastic.

But now we actually have space for people upstairs, and we have a little bit of breathing room. It's been exciting to see the team's growth – the growth of the team has been part and parcel with seeing new depth and features in the game. I can't wait to keep chugging on that content and breadth for ... whoo-ha – many months.

So you folks still have quite a bit of work to do. Do you have a sense of when the full steam content/polish phase is going to kick in?

Hal: Well, we're already in full content creation mode now. The full polish mode is sort of burbling underneath. We're polishing as we go while the features come in. I'm not supposed to talk about any specific dates right now but I think you're going to see some stuff at a few of those 'small' shows next summer, the ones they throw every year. That'll give you guys a good indication of where we're at.

I'll give you an example: in Europe we have Prague that has already been built. We have the first pass on Kiev, Warsaw, and a couple of other cities. We aren't building the whole cities, of course, to say so would be a horrific lie. But it's been really exciting to see those spaces go 'boom' into place. Now Central America is being tackled, and there are some really exciting locations that we're beginning to hit there.

"I think you're going to see some stuff at a few of those 'small' shows next summer, the ones they throw every year. That'll give you guys a good indication of where we're at."

We got back this fantastic Panamanian shooting gallery, just so damned beautiful. I can't wait to be able to show it to people and let them play through it. We're getting into the guts of the game, we're getting into the content, we're polishing up features that make it playable so that we can get real feedback from people, but we'll be iterating on that throughout the next 'amount of time.'

That all sounds terrific, sir. Thanks so much for your time.

Hal: Thanks, always nice to talk to you guys!

This article was originally published on Massively.