Chaos Theory: Emergent futures for The Secret World

Chaos Theory - Emergent futures for The Secret World
So the big news in the MMO industry this week is Sony Online Entertainment's philosophy shift toward emergent gameplay. It's kind of a crazy turn of events from my point of view. Sure, the company was responsible for the genre's premier sandbox (the dearly departed Star Wars Galaxies), but prior to that it was responsible for EverQuest, otherwise known as the granddaddy of the themepark.

What does this have to do with The Secret World? Well, Funcom has also been making noises about emergent gameplay and paradigm shifts, and I'd like to speculate, prognosticate, and otherwise pontificate about that after the cut.

The Secret World - succubus
Emergent systems
Prior to its release, I wondered aloud whether The Secret World was a sandbox. While the answer was clearly no, Funcom's game does boast several emergent design elements as well as the capacity for additional ones over time.

The most obvious emergent feature is the progression system, which while still heavily tied to gear and an obfuscated sort of level setup, is much more flexible and player-driven than any other AAA MMO in recent memory. Former lead designer Martin Bruusgaard painted this as a hindsight negative in a recent interview, saying that TSW probably innovated itself out of a few customers due to its complex skill system and its intimidating ability wheel.

I'm not sure I agree with that, though, as most of the naysayers I know have name-checked the animations, clunky combat, and a smattering of bugs as their reasons for avoiding TSW. In any event, the game did step outside the box, and it did so well before what could be construed as the beginning of the next industry trend.

In a recent interview with Gamasutra that pre-dated SOE's EQNext sandbox announcement, Funcom producer Craig Morrison hinted at his company's emergent future. "We could make a great systems-driven MMO for 10 or 15 million dollars. Which by the standards of Guild Wars 2, The Secret World, The Old Republic, is a very small budget, but we could bring it to market in three years with that kind of budget and hopefully have a chance of them growing organically from there," Morrison said. "And we haven't got the huge expectation of, 'Oh my God, you spent 50, 100, 200 million dollars on this game, and it has to succeed."

The Secret World - Madame Roget
Cheap retention
That last bit is crucial, and while cynics may say, well, of course Funcom is turning to player content now that it has laid off half its dev team, the reality of the current MMO market is that more studios will be going this route if they want to survive. Funcom and SOE may be the only ones publicly acknowledging it right now, but think about it.

How many new "MMOs" release every month? Five? 10? A dozen? In my opinion, the industry already features way more titles than the worldwide number of MMO gamers will support, and producing directed content for those games over the long haul isn't feasible. The options (greatly simplified, of course) are either close down or give your players the tools to expand the game themselves.

EVE Online is the poster-child for the successful application of this philosophy, and wouldn't you know it, CCP also recently expounded on the virtues of player-driven content as a business model. "The big win is that emergence is cheap," CCP designer Matthew Woodward told Gamasutra. "A lot of emergent gameplay discussion is about the One Big Moment. In EVE, the big heist that happened six years ago, in Ultima Online, the assassination of Lord British. If you do this well, people will play your game forever. People will pay for it forever."

How can Funcom tap into this emergent zeitgeist in a game like The Secret World? I'm glad you asked. I've talked about some sort of mission/dungeon maker functionality before, and while the usual suspects generally pooh-pooh this while championing their preferences for so-called pro content, it remains a viable and cost-effective option.

The Secret World - Egyptian sunrise
Possibilities
Other options to consider include some sort of territory control mechanic and anything that heightens player investment in the game world. For the former, I'm thinking of PvP- and faction-related stuff, of course, but since TSW is a directed-content PvE game at its core, its target audience would likely be put off by any sort of semi-permanent sandbox-style addition that gave, say, exclusive access to a certain zone's content to whichever faction controls it.

Now that I think on it, though, this sort of thing needn't be restricted to PvP. PvE players could get in on the action by completing more quests than their factional rivals or collecting more tokens or any number of other similar goals. Something like this would need to be balanced against the number of linear content fans who would cry about not getting to see/do everything, but Funcom has already set something of a precedent for this with its proposed world-altering story arcs that essentially say "too bad, so sad" to latecomers.

This leads in to the player investment that I mentioned earlier. I know it's hip to game-hop like a madman these days, and F2P makes it more financially palatable than it used to be. Personally I do it out of necessity rather than base wanderlust, though, and this is because few games bother to implement the sticky features that keep me interested.

Each new MMO is a variation on kill this/deliver that/grind more, and while titles like TSW and GW2 dress that up with MMO story and non-standard progression, it's just a flimsy layer of flash that can't cover up the lack of substance inherent in linear designs over the long term.

If we do see a thinning of the herd with respect to MMO titles over the next few years, it stands to reason that those that survive will be those that manage to give their players more reasons to be faithful. These reasons could include housing or other "ownable" spaces (I'm thinking RIFT's nifty dimensional thing-a-ma-jigs here), robust guild management functionality and in-game social tools, or crazy-detailed appearance functionality and the means to market your creations to other players (like APB's clothing designs or SOE's new Player Studio initiative).

Is Funcom going down any of these possible roads? Who can say at this point, but the next few months sure will be interesting to watch.

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.