CES 2008: A covert intel briefing on The Agency

Michael Zenke
M. Zenke|01.21.08

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Michael Zenke
January 21st, 2008
CES 2008: A covert intel briefing on The Agency
Earlier this month, Sony Online Entertainment finally gave the gaming world a full-on look at The Agency. The unique title, a brand-new blend of the shooter and MMO genres, was featured in a hands-on talk over pre-recorded video; a compromise in the face of demoing an online title in the unfamiliar surroundings of Las Vegas. That talk, given by the mile-a-minute lead designer Hal Milton, has been covered endlessly at other sites. You can view the complete discussion in video format, or read a great writeup of the event over at GamersInfo.

Some of the most interesting tidbits the developers were willing to discuss that day weren't on the guided tour. Lead Designer Hal Milton and Design Director Matt Wilson were willing and able to discuss several aspects of the project still in the development stages with us and our friends at Joystiq; we were able to pick their brains on the game's business model, the fantastic world they're creating, character advancement, future content additions, and the numerous challenges of creating a game that straddles two platforms.

Easily one of the most refreshing things about The Agency is the humor that the developers are aiming to introduce to the world, as Hal Milton explains: One of the things I love about the spy genre is that everyone automatically gets it. I love fantasy, I love sci-fi, I love writing those stories, but whenever I try to describe the game concept I have to go in and back-fill for like ten minutes. "And then Sir Clamdar of Thobordoxy grabbed the Handbag of Doom." Or, "the year was 2753, and the Federation ..." Most people don't care. They just want to jump into the world and know where they stand, as opposed to being dropped into a world completely clueless. That's what's great about the Agency, there's a lot of similarities but our world is so different from the real world that they start to experience the humor and flavor.

Read on for more 'covert intel' you may not have seen discussed elsewhere on this blockbuster in-development title.


Behind the Scenes

The game is running on Vista, DirectX 10?

Hal Milton (HM): We are currently developing on XP using Epic's Unreal 3 toolkit.

Matt Wilson (MW): It will run on XP and Vista, we're basically making sure that it will support all the optimizations that Epic has done for DirectX 10. That's why we chose Unreal, so we could be on Vista and XP at the same time.

HM: That's been great. One of the best things about using Unreal ... normally in game development your client takes a long time to mature, and the pipelines for getting art and animation in ... if we have an idea we can prototype it really quickly. We have a whole bunch of features in line for the game, and that lets us just get in there and try it out, see if it's fun, and then say "Hey code could you formalize this for us? Design asks humbly." Having an end-to-end pipeline that works ... we have to build our own hooks in. It's not like Unreal 3 was really designed to work with an MMO, it was designed for limited single-player experiences. So we've done some really hefty architecture on the server side and the client-side to support the number of players and complexity of players, the number of animations.

MW: In other games we've worked on, gameplay is like the last three to six months of the project, like "oh yeah, now let's get the fun in there". One of the things we wanted to focus on, especially with an MMO, is that we want to be playing the game throughout the design process. The negative is that we do have to write a lot; Unreal 3 is not meant to run an MMO and so we've had to do a lot of work on scalability, with multiple characters in there, a lot of stuff that other shooters don't have. But we have been in there playing the game since the beginning, so that's great.


HM: The outside area in Prague I'm really proud of; when you're building a game as large as this one, handcrafting all the spaces is just ... you'd never be able to do it. Tilesets, on the other hand, can look like tilesets. They can look really blocky and rigid. We built a tileset that looks really organic. You can edit the structures from inside them, we can support a number of different areas.

How big would you say Prague is?

HM: That's hard to say, we're going to have several major districts in the game. That district takes several minutes to run across, and it's one of the smaller districts. We want about double that size. The playable space in Prague, not including private instances ... I couldn't give you an actual estimate right now.

MW: The interesting thing is there is a lot of density with the buildings, and we're not even close to filling up all those spaces. There's already about four hours of gameplay in there.

HM: And none of that is the mini-game activities, or the non-combat activities, or anything like that.

The World

How many cities are you shooting for in the game at launch?

HM: We're aiming to have three locales: Eastern Europe, Central America, and ... am I allowed to say the other one? East Asia.

MW: What we haven't announced is what the cities are in those locales. Jet-setting is a key component to feeling like an elite agent, and so the interesting thing about our game ... even when we're in the embassy district in Prague, we're going to be taking you out to other cities like Paris, or Amsterdam, or other places like that.

HM: One of the reasons we started with Prague is the city has representative architecture for most of Europe. Everyone shoots in Prague if they're trying to represent Europe. Even if they're trying to represent Victorian England or some other part, Prague is a beautiful place to scale your assets from. That's the approach we're taking to the world.

Sort of that romantic spy thing ...

HM: Every spy movie goes to Prague! Prague, Vienna, all these places in Europe are so rich with movies from the past, as well as more modern movies like the Bourne films ... almost the entirety of Mission Impossible 1 is set there. It's gorgeous stuff.

And how many cities would you say are there going to be in one locale? Ish?

HM: Easter Europe is a good example, I'd say about ... actually, I'm not going to say. We have a number of locations, whether or not they're fully-fledged cities ... just like in a spy movie you're in the crawl and you're in some section of Kiev ... we're going to have a number of those. More than one, less than a hundred. That's all I can say. What we have on the design side is that we've plotted out the entire story arc for the steadystate story. It basically takes place in three acts for the three locales, with jet-setting in between them, to give a taste of other things. It introduces all the primary factions, the big enemies, gives you all the nice turnarounds in the story ... "Oh, he's the bad guy, he's the one pulling the strings" that sets you up for the static content, as well as the elder-game metacontent we're going to have.

Future Content

Additional content is going to be released on an episodic basis, you've said. Any idea on what kind of schedule that will be?

HM: We haven't announced any kind of schedule, we want to basically have a series of small missions that we release that will stack up. Sort of vignettes ...

So instead of a huge expansion pack ... more like bite-sized chunks

HM: Exactly.

MW: What we want to do with this game is support the long-term addition of content. We'll be putting out updates where there will be new content, new missions. Other times we might put out bigger updates with something like a new city.

HM: Yeah, from the biggest down to the smallest. There's a big expansion where we introduce a whole new locale with a few cities in it, right? Then there's the periodic, every nine months story drops into the existing locales.

So there will be full expansions in addition to the smaller updates?

HM: We hope so.

MW: We haven't sorted out how we're really going to do it yet.

HM: We have to ship the first game!

Business Model

MW: The main reason we haven't announced how we're handling expansions yet is that we haven't announced our business model. One of the interesting things we're looking at is, how can we lower the barrier, get people into the game and playing? We're targeting the console as part of our audience, so it's really important that the barrier is super-low. There aren't that many subscription services on consoles; it's still a new concept to them. One of the projects I'm sure you're going to see here today is FreeRealms, and we're sort of waiting to see how that turns out. It's more of a 'velvet rope' model, you can play with a lot of the content before you have to opt-in and pay. We've been designing the game to support a bunch of different business models and updating models. We haven't decided which one we'll be going with. We're going to see how FreeRealms does.


The plan is still to have the PS3 and the PC be two parts of the same experience?

MW: Right now we're working towards that. We'll make decisions as we get closer, but that's still the goal. The interesting thing about that is the second question is 'can you play them together?'. From a technical perspective it's not a problem, but you get into some gameplay issues with PC players vs. console players.

HM: We don't want to water down one experience to support the other, and that's something we see people do a lot. That's one of the reasons we have private instances in MMOs today. People go "here's your big public space, there are so many arbitrary folks together and you need a compromised rulesset to support them all". In a private instance where we can control the population, we can have all the fun story and fun gameplay that they're used to. The same thing applies to cross-platform play as well. If you're having to water down the experience for one, someone is going to feel cheated. We're still evaluating it, we're hoping we can make something happen there. It's about gameplay first.

MW: Probably the most important reason we're still discussing it is that the certification process for consoles is tough. The certification process for packages and stuff ... they've never really had an MMO on the PlayStation. The update of an MMO is important; everyone who plays an MMO expects regular updates as part of their purchased products. If the server goes down or the patch is bad you need to update it immediately. The PS3 right now is not geared to do that. Our certification testing has to be way higher on that platform. That means it may lag a little bit from what's on the PC. We want to make sure the worlds are connected, so there's no reason the database and players can't be shared across the world. You may choose, though, I'm playing on the PS3 shard at first vs. the PC shard.

I was surprised to see all the shooter play, it's really action-oriented, and I imagine that would introduce some constraints between the two platforms.

HM: The PS3 is a nice constraining platform. Building for that controller is ... it's powerful mojo. It's really good for design for us as well. It's really important that it plays well on both controller and PC.

MW: And I'm a controller player. Whenever we're in doing PvP I'm playing with the controller. We had a mix, two of us were playing on controller and one person was playing with the PC controls and we put aim assist in there for people on the console ...

HM: It's an uncompromised shooter experience, and we really want to deliver that. Speed-wise it's somewhere between Halo and Rainbow Six Vegas. But still give people the opportunity to step back and have skills that they earned that have some really cool effect in the world. And then have the persistent world part of it, there are characters that can send text messages to me if I've opted into it. There are characters I'll discover in the gameworld over time, I can go away for two weeks and come back to see how the world has evolved over time ... that's one of the things we want to bring to people. The full persistent online role-playing experience we want to bring to a whole audience that hasn't gotten the chance to experience that, while not changing the fundamental gameplay that they're used to. We're not trying to change the gameplay significantly and then telling them it's the same gameplay. The consoles are ready for it, there's no reason we couldn't do it anymore. It's always been a technological constraint in the past, and this is the time.

How about the character switch ... will you be able to play your character on the PC and PS3 versions of the game?

MW: That's something we haven't determined yet. That would probably be an earlier step than being able to play against characters on the other platform. Our goal is to be able to get the databases shared. As we said, until we push through the iceberg of design issues there are still a lot of database issues, backend issues, firewall issues from a data standpoint. It's all political more than anything.

HM: That's why it's fun pushing for Alpha. When we get out of Alpha our featureset will be defined and done, and it's all about content and polish throughout beta. All the questions about PC/console interaction, business models, it all comes down to the featureset and getting it in everyone's head. Getting the game playable and testable. A lot of these answers immediately fall out. It's about making the game fun all the time. So we're just playing multiple times every week, and forcing people in San Diego to do the same. Our servers are in San Diego, and we're in Seattle, which helps us keep the shooter part of this honest. Our framerate, our lag, these are the twin demons of shooter gameplay.


HM: You're going to be hearing some musical treatments we've been getting in, from folks like Paul Oakenfeld, Crystal Method, Filter, lots of folks want to work with us on this project.


HM: As we go through the flower shop, some of those teddy bears are intel objects; guns in the stomach, cameras in the eyes ...

Agencies and Progression

HM: So you have your main Agency, and you can gain ranks by completing missions for it. Based on what specialty you have you gain titles and skills within those areas. Just using weapons and items within the game, you'll gain proficiencies within those weapon families, which will unlock even more skills. They're inter-related with each other. "I've been using the Desert Eagle for ten years, now I'm going to switch over using this other pistol, and this pistol already has two skills unlocked." Instead of one monolithic ding, players are going to be going for a series of dings all the time.

MW: We really want players to always feel like they're always progressing, always unlocking new operatives, skills, abilities. Very similar to your classic MMOs, you're limited to what you can do, what you can equip; as you gain ranks it unlocks access to skills and abilities, stuff you can do over time.

HM: Influence and access are the two concepts players will get into their heads. I need to generate influence in order to gain access to story, to operatives, to stuff. That's going to be an easily-digestible concept for someone who many hasn't dived into the meta-language of MMOs. One of the things I love about the spy genre is that everyone automatically gets it. I love fantasy, I love sci-fi, I love writing those stories, but whenever I try to describe the game concept I have to go in and back-fill for like ten minutes. "And then Sir Clamdar of Thobordoxy grabbed the Handbag of Doom." Or, "the year was 2753, and the Federation ..." Most people don't care. They just want to jump into the world and know where they stand, as opposed to being dropped into a world completely clueless. That's what's great about the Agency, there's a lot of similarities but our world is so different from the real world that they start to experience the humor and flavor. We do have one sort of philosophical mandate with our design: we tackle no ideological struggles. The real world is a dark place, and to capitalize on that is not fun. We want people to have fun.

You mentioned the achievements you can get from exploding the guys in the mission or playing Qbert; will that have any sort of character impact?

HM: Influence is earned by completing missions, but it's also earned by completing the bonus achievements we've talked about. It means that you know if you just need a little bit of influence to advance the story mission path, you could go play a side mission if you want, or you could go gamble and reach a new level you've never reached before. That ensures there are a bunch of ways to play that aren't all based on combat. Non-combat in an MMO is just as important as the combat – it's what keeps the glue of the world living.

MW: The other aspect of that is, maybe you've been stuck for a while, you put an operative on your objective and just log off, and it can work for you to gain influence. We want people to be able to feel like they can advance all the time.

There's PARAGON and UNITE; will we get to pick the bad guys to play?

HM: Not at first. There's so much game to build, I think it's valuable to start with the familiar sides. The best part of PARAGON and UNITE is that they're not diametrically opposed enemies. There are going to be points in the story where PARAGON and UNITE will uncover the 'real' villain will be able to team up and take him on together. I think that's going to be a neat mechanic, where PARAGON has gone through these thrill-junkie Eurotrash guys that have been causing problems and UNITE has been going through these human-trafficking weird goth-dudes and then they all realize the central villain is set up in this fortress so they can join together and take out the threat bigger than themselves. I love that idea of bringing players together.


How do you gain operatives?

HM: Basically play the game, complete missions, explore the world, you'll attract guys based on your influence. The max guys you can get are less than the total number in the world, meaning folks will be encouraged to specialize in the types of operatives you collect. They also have storylines that you can work through, with small characters having these minor interactions between each other. The operatives also go the places where you can't, because the Planet Earth is kind of huge.

Are you ever going to be in a place where you can have your operatives collaborate on a project?

MW: Of course. In fact, players are going to build joint agencies (like guilds). You'll be able to add operatives to a project to shorten the timespan, or even complete something that's not possible to do by yourself.

I read something about tie-ins with your cellphone? Does that tie-back into the operative system?

HM: If you opt-in, because everybody hate unsolicited spam, operatives will not only give you updates on how they're doing on their mission (completion, success, failure), they'll also do some two-way communication as well. The example I give over and over again is, I've got one guy who's building a car for me for a vehicle challenge. Another guy is out investigating a gang. I'm sitting in a meeting, far away from my PC, I get a text message from the first guy saying "hey, that car you wanted, it's waiting for you". Gaahh ... I need to see my car. The next message is from the other guy, saying "yeah, I found those guys you wanted. They found me. They're asking for a million dollars or they're going to kill me." Text 1 to send a million dollars, text 2 to let him die. It's all about what kind of agency head do you want to be – do you want to be benevolent like M or kind of creepy like the Alias guy?

MW: You can also say "I want to get to that decision when I get back online." It's not that it's going to force you...

HM: We're also never going to put time constraints on you. There's nothing worse than a timer puzzle that you're told is going to happen. That's just cruelty. Everything is on demand. But if the player wants to feel like that's happening ...

MW: Or even if you just want to advance the story, just move the story forward, you can do that. Or you can just say "wait until I get back".

HM: It's a great bridging mechanic, to keep people involved in the world. To give you updates as they're happening. Even if your operatives are just having a personality conflict between themselves. That may lead to a fight, or it may lead to a romance, or ... I love the idea of one of my operatives being unavailable because she got ... well, you know. Each of the operatives have their own personalities, and they increase in rank over time, gaining new specializations and abilities over time, making them more valuable for you to trade them to other players. That's one of the things I love ... when you hit the max rank in our game you'll only be able to have about a quarter of the total number of operatives out there. "I'm going all the weaponry/research route, you're going the vehicle route. I just picked up a guy in my recruit bar, I don't really need him so much but I'll recruit him so I can trade for that dude you don't want." We are going to introduce the concept of rarity to this, and it's going to be particularly interesting. "How the hell did you get the Black Mamba card?" "I got really lucky, I got the gold rating in this mission and she made herself available to be recruited." "Dammit, I got to try that."
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