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GDC 2011: Funcom talks The Secret World's PvE, PvP, and ARG

Jef Reahard

Many of you are no doubt as anxious as we are to get your hands on Funcom's new The Secret World MMORPG (with a new website!). The skill-based end-of-the-world riff has been shrouded in a good bit of mystery for a good long while, but we've finally managed to snag a few minutes of face time with the title. This year's GDC marked the first opportunity for anyone outside of Funcom's alpha team to lay eyes on the game, and we've got some pretty juicy details to pass on.

Join us after the cut for the new trailer as well as a recap of Funcom's presentation, which was spearheaded by Ragnar Tornquist and featured designers Martin Bruusgaard and Joel Bylos. Discussion topics include PvP, PvE missions, and character progression.

Gallery: The Secret World: GDC 2011 | 14 Photos

The Secret World is currently in an alpha testing stage with the first external beta test coming two months hence. Funcom's overall message was clearly centered on the fact that the game is aiming for a traditional MMO audience -- albeit with quite a few new gameplay wrinkles thrown into the mix to spice up progression and mechanical conventions.

The game isn't about you as a solitary hero, Tornquist says, but rather focuses on the player character's being part of a larger army of heroes locked in a life-and-death struggle with the forces of darkness. Underlying this ongoing struggle is the game's factional power play in which three distinct organizations vie for control of whatever is left of humanity (assuming that the big bads are eventually put down).

Tornquist reiterated Funcom's commitment to MMOs several times during the introduction, going so far as to say that "The Secret World is an MMO; it's not a single-player game, it's not a console game, it's not a game that tries to be anything like that. It's a game that's really focused around being an MMORPG." That's not to say there is no solo content; on the contrary, Tornquist revealed that you will be able to solo various portions of the game. However, solo activities will largely be happening in a persistent open world shared with other players, which is something of a departure from the lobby- and instance-centric design showcased in some of the MMO genre's more recent releases.

As we've known for some time now, players will initially choose from one of three factions (the Illuminati, the Templars, or the Dragons) and then embark on a journey of discovery based on what Funcom termed the four pillars of The Secret World. The first pillar is the present-day setting of the game, which informs everything you do and encompasses both the ancient and modern world. The second pillar is the free-form progression exemplified in the game's skill-based advancement system that lacks both levels and classes. The third pillar is factional conflict (of the PvP and PvE variety), while the fourth and final pillar is the game's story (told via missions, cinematics, and the visual and mechanical design of the open world).

Missions, PvE, and ARG

At this point, Tornquist turned the presentation over to designer Joel Bylos, who showed off a few cinematic mission intros (similar to Age of Conan's Tortage cutscenes) and clued us in to a few of the bells and whistles that Funcom has up its PvE sleeve.

Missions in The Secret World take the form of both action and investigation sorties and feature a tiered system that functions as a kind of autosave mechanic. Bylos also highlighted the game's environmental interaction features, noting that killing zombies is less a matter of spamming specials and more a matter of the judicious use of car alarms, flammable objects, and the luring of NPCs through burning hazards (and making use of traditional special abilities to exploit the burning state for higher damage and quicker kills).

Players can also affect the persistent world in quite meaningful ways. Again Bylos used the players vs. zombies example to show how using alarms can call more NPCs to an area and how targeting specific mobs can lead to players being able to effectively control the NPC population of a particular game space. The Secret World will also feature a variation on the public quest mechanic by which players can jump into open world action events regardless of their social status. "You don't need to be friends, you don't need to be in the same guild, you don't even need to talk -- you can just jump in and help out and earn skill points and experience," Bylos said.

Investigation missions are where The Secret World really sets itself apart from the MMO competition in terms of PvE. In a nutshell, Funcom is aiming for an ARG-like experience, making use of external tools like Google and various meta-gaming opportunities as well as in-game mission arcs to create an immersive experience for players who long for something more than the get-there-as-quick-as-you-can level grind that typifies most MMORPGs. Bylos was quick to point out that players who lack the desire to do anything other than theorycraft build mathematics can still do so, but the options will be there for the folks who are looking for a deeper experience that takes full advantage of the game's conspiracy-laced supernatural aesthetic.

The experience will also be quite communal, due to the challenging nature of the puzzles and the inevitable fact of information sharing due to forums and the web. While you might wonder why Funcom is spending considerable time and energy on mechanics that many players will no doubt try to bypass via The Secret World equivalent of WoWhead, Bylos says it's a matter of creating something new in the genre and offering players challenging content while keeping the game fresh in their minds. "These puzzles are hard; we want people to work together and think together, and we want to create a group dynamic and compel players to think about the game even when they're not playing it."

Though part of The Secret World's appeal (and certainly a large portion of its early marketing campaign) is focused on cryptic bulletin board discussions and lengthy, conspiracy-laden forum threads, the meta-game is only part of the package. Faction symbology and a laundry list of investigative mission clues appear throughout the game world itself, and Funcom is deliberately avoiding the time-honored technique of leading people around via waypoints, instead opting for a more immersive figure-out-the-clues-as-you-go experience.

Additionally, many of the missions will take months to decipher (with more waiting in the wings), and the game's three factions will also be pitted against one another in the race to solve the mysteries first and earn the resulting bonuses. Bylos likens the mechanic to "an alternative form of raiding" and says that the investigative missions, when coupled with the action missions that occur in the game's open and persistent spaces, will create a play environment unique in the MMO space.

Character progression and customization

The Secret World eschews the standard level- and class-based systems for which MMORPGs are famous. Instead, Funcom is gifting players with 500 unique skills, which Martin Bruusgaard says are truly unique and not three- or four-rank variations on the same skill. The skills are divided into actives and passives, with seven of each being available to players at any given time.

To progress your character, you earn XP, and subsequently skill points, which can then be spent acquiring new skills with which to customize your build for various situations. Characters in The Secret World will be able to spec into any of the traditional roles available in other MMORPGs including tanks, DPS types, healers, and of course, a huge number of customizable hybrids.

Skills are further divided into melee, magic, and ranged specialties, some of which must be unlocked sequentially prior to becoming available for your build. For players who may be overwhelmed at the thought of coming up with a build amongst all the choices, Funcom is offering templates which are effectively suggested paths analogous to traditional archetypes with which most gamers are already familiar.

Bruusgaard likened the game's skill system to the venerable Magic: The Gathering customizable card game. Players can think of their initial skill loadout as a "starter deck" of sorts that can then be customized and further built out by acquiring newer and better skills over the course of the game.

In terms of aesthetics, Funcom told us that The Secret World's gear is completely disconnected from the clothing options available to your avatar. The game will feature thousands of different style combinations appropriate to the modern-day setting, while gear functions essentially like invisible implants that work behind the scenes to adjust your stats and complement your skill build.


The Secret World's PvP game happens in various locations of mythical and supernatural significance scattered around the globe. For the GDC presentation, three of the locales were detailed, and the devs explained the capture/hold mechanics for each space as well as the story significance and the reasons that three factions will be continuously battling to control each area.

First up is Stonehenge, and the conflict is built on 5-man King-of-the-Hill-style action. Teams accumulate points both by holding the inner ring of the ancient site and by knocking opposing players out of the ring. The Stonehenge instance features quick respawns and fast action, and it requires a certain amount of skill and build knowledge as well as strategic choices on what kinds of builds to bring to the fight.

The second PvP scenario takes place in the Himalayan mountains, specifically the lost city of Shambala. Shambala PvP is The Secret World's answer to ranked arena fighting, with persistent teams matched against similarly skilled opponents in last-man-standing deathmatches.

The final GDC PvP location to be revealed was El Dorado, and it features a 30-player (10 per factional team) battle royal that basically equates to a capture-the-flag match using four mystical idols. Funcom has added a bit of a twist to the traditional mechanic, that being the fact that players must hold on to the idols until the end of the match. The map is completely asymmetrical and features numerous nooks, crannies, elevation differences, and choke points that lend themselves to digging in, making a stand, or skirting your enemies while attempting to wait them out.


And that's our preliminary report on The Secret World from this year's GDC. Stay with Massively for all the Funcom-related news and views as it happens.

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