Chaos Theory: Reflecting on The Secret World's first year

Chaos Theory Mission accomplished, The Secret World celebrates first anniversary
Bring out the cake and light the candle! Exactly 365 days ago today, the MMO stork delivered a new bundle of joy to gamers, one with a modern setting, cerebral challenges, and a unique take on the genre. And now that little bundle has sprouted up, weathering its share of growing pains over the last 12 months to carve out its niche in the MMOverse. Happy first birthday, The Secret World!

To commemorate this auspicious occasion, I was going to burst out in a traditional song, but then I got an even better idea. I decided to instead do that other mainstay staple that happens at the celebratory gatherings for youngsters: bring out the baby scrapbook! As both new friends and old gather together to help celebrate this milestone, join me in flipping through the the pages of TSW's memory album chronicling the ups and downs of its first year of life.

Kodak moments
Life for TSW started with a twist. The same day players welcomed the entrance of the horror-themed game to their lives, Funcom's CEO exited his position. He wasn't the only one to step down from his parental role, either. Just two months after launch, Ragnar Tornquist left the game director position and the mantle passed to Joel Bylos, who later became game director for all three Funcom games. Each departure certainly raised questions about the stability of the game in the minds of financiers and players alike, but Bylos' obvious passion for and dedication to the game went quite a way toward allaying the fears of the fans.

First day of school
Before that launch month was even over, The Secret World was taking its first steps into additional content with the very first monthly update: On July 31st, Issue #1 Unleashed hit servers. It was a proud moment, and players were introduced to their first experience of delving deeper into the lives and histories of favorite NPCs.

TSW experienced some delays with the next developmental milestone. The second issue, dubbed Digging Deeper, was initially due out in August but was pushed back a few times. It finally went live in September. As if hitting a growth spurt, Issue #3 The Cat God came hot on the heels of the second, with only a week between the two! It was a proud moment to see TSW really cruising along. And who could forget the first big event, the appropriately themed Halloween adventures?

A field trip!Surprising us with the next milestone, the game introduced Issue #4 Big Trouble in the Big Apple with only a day's notice in November. Remember that first raid? It followed only a few days after. Apparently capitalizing on the no-advance-warning trick just five months in, TSW began regaling us with Issue #5 The Vanishing of Tyler Freeborn, but not before captivating players and non-players alike with an Alternate Reality Game (ARG).

Before the year ended, TSW's big End of Days event really captured the essence of the game. Oh look, here are a a few shots of Bylos really getting into the spirit of things during the celebration. There's one in every family -- and we've got video proof!

After that, things slowed down quite a bit, and the next major developmental achievement, The Last Train to Cairo, didn't come until until March. Understandably, that sixth issue didn't launch until after the relocation and restructuring dust settled.

A tale of two TSWs
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. This famous quote opens a work that is cut in two, each half focusing on a different city. Similarly, the inaugural year of The Secret World could also be described as split down the middle.

In the first half of its life, TSW was a subscription game with promises of monthly content updates, a promise that was mostly kept (see Issues #1-5 above). In these first months, the sub model was defended; in July, Tornquist even stated, "The subscription fee and our business model supports a big, ongoing team." However, players familiar with the history know that the game suffered layoffs as early as August, which is the opposite of a "big, ongoing team." The next month found the development team growing again, and in October, Funcom declared that the game wasn't going free-to-play anytime soon. Of course, it actually didn't -- it went buy-to-play instead!

Skip the school lunches...
The second half of the game's lifespan so far has been marked by the B2P model, starting just over five months into the game when subscriptions were abolished on the ominous date 12/12/12. it is also the period marked by the massive restructuring and the relocation that whittled down the development team significantly, combining all three of Funcom's games into one team. You'd think that this move would have hurt the quality of The Secret World's content and its bottom line, but it in fact did the opposite.

Even if you don't count Issue #5, the subscription season saw a quicker release of more issues, but the B2P months saw deeper, more involving content. Sure, the first half introduced many new things, like the Chronicle leaderboards, the Albion Theatre (an in-game venue for putting on RP performances, complete with props and effects), the majority of the auxiliary weapons, tweaks like making lairs more casual, and the PvP changes. But since the team became smaller, the quality of the updates feels decidedly better, even if they're spaced further apart. Take the Tyler Freeborn arc, for instance: That storyline captures the essence of the game as pretty nothing else in game does. It immerses players in the intense undercurrent of suspense that other missions and the environment only touch on.

Would be nice to have a larger team again so the content comes quicker? Sure. But I don't see that happening in the near future. The payment model change itself boosted TSW sales, and since the restructuring, the game has continued to show financial improvement, so why would Funcom mess with success? Besides, in the choice between faster or deeper updates, I think TSW is one game where deeper is definitely better; I'll just wait.

Giving the old noggin a workout
Ready for round two
For all its flaws, the game still struggles with (PvP has always had a tough life in TSW, and there are folks who are rabid in their desire for more endgame), The Secret World has earned its loyal fanbase. Not only does it offer something different with the setting (like the investigation and sabotage missions), but it invites the community to become a part of the world. Just look at the music contest that resulted in player music being incorporated in the game. And remember when Funcom granted rewards to every player when an exploit skewed results of an in-game contest? The development team may be small, but it does seem focused on giving the players a worthwhile experience.

It's been an eventful year for The Secret World, with both ups and downs, and I'm glad I was a part of it. Now it's time to close this chapter and start a new one. I am excitedly looking forward to the game's second year, and with a brand-new event kicking off tomorrow and Issue #7 hitting next week, the second year is off to a great start! I've got the camera ready...

Conspiracies, paranoia, secrets, and chaos -- the breakfast of champions! Feast on a bowlful with MJ and Justin every Monday as they infiltrate The Secret World to bring you the latest word on the streets of Gaia in Chaos Theory. Heard some juicy whispers or have a few leads you want followed? Send them to mj@massively.com or justin@massively.com and they'll jump on the case!
This article was originally published on Massively.