Chaos Theory 15
[Ed: Look for an official Funcom statement regarding the anon tipster email at the end of the article.]

Scott Jennings ended a blog entry about The Secret World with a telling phrase this past week. "This is why we can't have nice things," he said. This was preceded by what can only be called a lament, as Jennings laid out how Funcom did something that most MMO developers are loath to do these days: It made an original game. And the reward for such was a dismal quarterly report and a round of layoffs.

That The Secret World attempts to break from the putrid post-World of Warcraft MMO mold is not up for debate. What is debatable is whether breaking from said mold can be profitable.

The Secret World - Lonely Templar in FusangThe good news
Before we start drowning our sorrows in alcohol and anonymous internet commenting, let me point out that it's not all gloom and doom. Funcom did indicate that the game will be profitable over the long haul. It is "significantly cheaper" to operate than Age of Conan, for one thing. For another, TSW has a much happier early-adopter base than the 2008 sword-and-sorcery MMO, and Funcom plans to keep it that way via a mixture of new content and good customer service.

A few weeks ago the company made waves by outlining its plans for monthly content drops. The first of these hit on July 31st, while the next one comes your way on August 28th. I'm still not sure how sustainable this is over time, but I have to be hopeful both for my MMO-playing sanity and for the sake of yet another group of folks who are finding themselves out of work.

The bad news
Regardless of how you feel about Funcom and its products, layoffs are a sobering reminder of the fragility of our favorite games and the true cost associated with financial failure. We received an anonymous tip this week regarding Funcom's downsizing, and though the following information is unsubstantiated rumor, I give it here just to put a human face on what we're talking about:
Apparently a huge number of Customer Service employees were cut, as well as the majority of the QA testers in Durham. 85% of costs needed to be cut in the Montreal studio, which means a proportionate number of people will be laid off.

At this moment, employees have only been informed that there will be "temporary layoffs." Nobody knows who exactly will be cut.

The CEO did say that "only the best employees of each team will be kept." At the moment, there is no ETA for the layoffs; employees will be informed later this month. Nobody knows how long the layoffs will last (if they are, indeed, temporary).

The majority of the QA department in Montreal was made up of employees on temporary contracts, and they have been informed that their contracts will not be renewed. Those who are not on temporary contracts still don't know if they're staying.

Also to clarify: the only people who have been informed that they are affected by the layoffs in Montreal, are the contract QA testers. The Durham team does no development and was mostly customer service and QA testers.

The company is apparently finding jobs in other companies for those who will be laid off, should they not be able to wait to be called back into work... something that no game company in Montreal has attempted to do on such a scale thus far.
From an outsider's perspective, we know that Funcom has been down this road before, twice, and it has yet to close an MMORPG. Anarchy Online was by most accounts the worst launch in the industry's history, yet the firm righted the ship and the game soldiers on 11 years later.

Age of Conan, famously dog-piled by a vocal contingent of dissatisfied players upon its 2008 launch and saddled with an inaccurate perception of failure to this day, also continues to turn a profit for its parent company and make a niche subset of MMO gamers happy. I expect similar things from The Secret World over time, as it is a well-made game despite a few missteps and it's different enough from other MMOs to call a sub-genre its own.

The Secret World - Little lion petFree-to-play?
And yes, The Secret World may drop its subscription fee eventually. Unlike AoC, TSW needs no retrofitting; the cash shop is already in place and making money, and it's likely just a matter of throwing the proverbial switch.

It's hard to say whether Funcom developed aspects of TSW's progression system with F2P in mind. Recall that the game has been in production for over five years and that the freemium business model was basically unheard of in the west prior to 2010. I'm curious to see how The Secret World marries tiered access to its convoluted skill and ability wheel, particularly since every other Western freemium convert has had a bone-stock leveling/talent tree system that lends itself to the conversion in ways that free-form skill-based systems do not.

I suspect that the base TSW F2P setup will look a lot like Age of Conan's. The cash shop will feature predominately fluff items, moderately to expensively priced and perhaps augmented with inventory upgrades and gear that's good for impatient newbs but inferior to high-end drops. Subscribers will probably get no perks other than full access to the game's content, with perhaps a meager allotment of Funcom points thrown in on a monthly basis (though likely not enough to buy a full fluff item every month).

As I mentioned earlier, I'd be pleasantly surprised if Funcom's monthly content drops continue indefinitely. Instead, I'm betting on quarterly content expansions (or expansion-lite adventure packs) that will require payment from both free players and subscribers.

The Secret World's endgame is still taking shape, which is one reason I doubt that free-to-play will rear its head before the end of the year. Funcom needs time to see what the majority of its high-skill players are going to do so that it can adjust its service- and cash-shop matrix accordingly.

As of right now, the game lacks even one raiding instance, although there are several small-group dungeons that may be run on stupid-hardcore mode for corresponding gear drops and bragging rights. Unlike AoC, TSW has no endgame "alternate advancement" abilities to put under the paying customer umbrella.

I would imagine that F2P will get you a certain number of SP/AP or perhaps limited access to a couple of the pre-made deck builds. Also unlike AoC, TSW doesn't have dozens of dungeons to part out a la carte, so barring further instance introductions, you might see Funcom offer easy-mode access to Polaris, Hell Raised, etc., with elite and hardcore modes reserved for the folks who pay a monthly subscription.

It's anyone's guess at this point, though, and I'm interested to hear what you guys think in the comments. We'll dive back into some impressions/guides/good times next week.

[Editor's note: As this is purely an opinion piece centered on speculation, it's important to note a few clarifications. Funcom contacted us with an official statement regarding the anonymous tipster email in this article:

"As communicated in the stock notice last week, Funcom is currently in the process of reducing operational costs, and this involves temporary layoffs as well as other initiatives.

We do want to make it very clear that we remain fully committed to The Secret World, and as we are demonstrating at Gamescom this week, we have many short and long term plans for the game. This includes regular content updates, such as the New York raid instance coming in October and the vast Tokyo adventure area planned for release in early 2013, both of which we are revealing at Gamescom this week.

We feel it is necessary to make it clear that the anonymous letter posted on Massively.com includes several inaccuracies both in terms of numbers and timings, but because this is currently an ongoing internal process we can not make any further comments at the present time."


I also made the decision to change the wording of the sentence "And yes, The Secret World is going to drop its subscription fee eventually." to say "may drop" to reflect the fact that nothing has officially been announced. Jef clearly expressed the speculative nature of this article several times, but I can see how that line alone could be taken out of context easily.]


The Secret World - Carter unleashed
Yes, Jef Reahard is paid to play The Secret World. But he's not paid by Funcom; Massively leaves the bribes and the bad grammar to its imitators (it's a conspiracy!). Chaos Theory comes your way every Thursday, bringing you Gaia's latest news, guides, and commentary.

This article was originally published on Massively.