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Joystiq interview: Hal Milton, lead designer, The Agency

Kevin Kelly

How much more proof to do you need that Sony's The Agency has a devious lead designer working on things? Here's a picture of the guy as a young lad, suspiciously posing with a handheld Merlin game. Remember all the codes and secrets you had to punch into that little red devil? Plus the little raspberry sound it made when you got things wrong, ah ... the memories.

Joystiq caught up with The Agency's Hal Milton recently, between secret missions and long hours up in Seattle where he's hard at work on this new MMO/RPG/CIA/FBI/U.N.C.L.E. title. Check out our interview with him after the break, and visit us tomorrow where we'll be hanging from guy wires and wearing a stealth suit into producer Sherry Floyd's office for some answers as well.

Gallery: The Agency | 41 Photos

So, what inspired you to develop The Agency? Why now? What prompted the development of this game?

Our group began life as a start-up in the Pacific Northwest called FireAnt. SOE liked our ideas, acquired us, and then gave us the amazing opportunity to develop a new title for them. Not a title based on a movie, or a book, or musical, or movie-based musical adaptation of a book, but our own title.

We had a number of game concepts we wanted to pursue, but The Agency was the one that all of us agreed sounded like the most fun for the most people. Espionage, action, intrigue-this felt like a natural fit for a persistent online world filled with real people.

The game has a very distinct look and feel, what inspirations did you draw from?

I think our Art Director, Corey Dangel, could write about this with more authority. However, I'll do my best.

We intentionally decided to go with a more stylized approach.

Our external inspirations range from Pixar, to the graphic design of classic movie posters and title sequences. Our internal inspirations come from Mr. Dangel and our concept artists (Sam Wood, RK Post, Patrick Shettlesworth, Eddie Smith) whom have worked very hard to define the looks of our environments, characters, and action.

Additionally, we are consciously trying to create a world that isn't all brown or grey. We want this to be a fun, inviting place that you want to escape to, not from.

Lastly, we're making an online game that will support lots of people and live for years, not a single player title that you can burn through in a few days and then shelve. To that end, style and character are always a more successful approach than seeing every pore in someone's skin. Going purely representational, or photorealistic, is a quick road to poor performance and outdated looks. Our inspirations understood the economy that style affords you without sacrificing impact, and we're paying attention.

What makes the gameplay in this title unique?

Much like stories, there are only so many games out there. However, combining the gameplay of a shooter with persistence that matters beyond your character is something we find really compelling. I also think that our long game mechanics (like Operatives, which I can't wait to start talking about in detail) will give people a very different and deep experience than what they're accustomed to.

The game will be both on the PC and the PlayStation 3. Will people be able to play cross-platform with each other? What benefits do these systems offer?

We love the idea, but we're thoroughly evaluating all the ins and outs to make certain it's a good choice for The Agency.

You mentioned that your "team" will continue to develop even when you're offline and not playing, how does that work?

As you advance in the game you'll gain the ability to recruit Operatives that you can use to provide goods, services, and some much needed abilities in the field. Long-term assignments are all carried out in real time, whether or not you're logged in. These include R&D on weapons or gadgets, or deep cover intel gathering to generate new missions for you.

Operatives, as a system, is something I can't wait to talk about in greater detail, but suffice to say that you'll collect, grow, trade, share, and be surprised by the interactions Operatives will have over time with you, your other Operatives, and even other players.

Was there any really fun research you got to do for the game? Firing guns? Watching bad spy films? Parachuting out of a plane?

I wish! We do have the requisite stacks of film, TV and other references running constantly on a secure ParaGON feed (aka a DvD player with a label on it) in our kitchen. SOE's health plan tends to frown on official parachuting. However, for some reason, they were perfectly fine with us rigging an election and subsequent coup (bloodless, of course) in a country that will go unnamed.

When you play the game, do you prefer the spy or the mercenary side?

ParaGON and UNITE have their own unique charms. Choosing a favorite is like deciding which child we love the best. I don't want either side developing a complex should they feel shunned. And yes, I'm to the point where I'm anthropomorphizing artificial agencies.

What's been the biggest challenge in developing this title?

It's never about the big challenges, it's all the eleventy bajillion little ones! We're really trying to marry a number of features that haven't been put together that often in the past. It's always easier to follow standard structural and genre conventions. The second you deviate, all of the unknowns begin to compound until you have a fairly impressive array of work to do. Luckily, I'm working with a truly amazing team that has shown over and over that they are up to all of the challenges that come our way. I can't wait until we can share all of this work with everybody else.

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