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Massively Exclusive: Joel Bylos talks The Secret World's endgame (and a bunch of other stuff)

Jef Reahard

Funcom is ramping up the publicity for The Secret World this week, and Massively's getting in on the action via an exclusive interview with lead content designer Joel Bylos.

Earlier we told you how TSW's devs are hard at work putting a supernatural (and conspiratorial) twist on some of the world's most well-known cities, and we recently sat down with Bylos to talk about everything from using Google Maps to navigate Funcom's version of New York, to the nature of the term "open world," to the use of random game objects by the player.

Bylos also has some interesting things to say about The Secret World's sandbox elements and its endgame, and you'll find all that and more after the cut.

Massively: The recent dev blog mentions being able to see the real-world areas represented in the game's version of New York on something like Google Maps. Can you give us an idea about the size of explorable New York in TSW? Is it the whole city? A particular borough? A few blocks? What about London and other urban locations?

Joel Bylos: It's not the whole city; it's a part of it, a small neighborhood if you will. The idea is to capture the feel of the city, not to be identical to it, but we have taken a lot of inspiration from the real-world locations, hence the reference to Google Maps. Seoul is roughly the same size as New York, whereas London is the largest of the hubs.

The hubs are themed to the secret societies as well, the Illuminati are not in the habit of advertising their presence, the Dragon are chaotic, and the Templars are by far the most public of the secret societies.

Video game cities often feel a bit soulless due to the inability of the player to explore all of the buildings. Conversely those that have tried to make every door accessible (like Matrix Online) have resorted to repetitive interior design. What is Funcom's take on this problem? Can you explore a lot of the buildings in TSW's cities or is the player mainly traveling through exteriors until you get to mission content?

The locations that are important can be accessed, else the doors are closed. And the accessible locations are unique, not recycled interiors, just the way it is in real life. You just can't go opening all the doors in the real world either! But players will be able to enter a lot of buildings from shops to pubs, and of course the secret society headquarters.

Previous interviews have indicated that the game world is open and relatively zone-free. Does that restrict the sizes of the cities and playfields that you can build?

The game world is open in the sense of there being no hard gameplay blockers between areas (like levels), but technically the game still uses zones. However, we are devising a way to handle transportation between areas that makes it feel less abrupt than in, for instance, Age of Conan, to make traveling from location to location feel more like a part of the experience.

We spend a lot of time hand-crafting our areas for atmosphere and we avoid doing things that run counter to that philosophy. Also, just the fact that locations are spread all over the real world would make it impossible to have the game truly seamless.

Age of Conan's Khitai areas were quite a bit larger and more open than the original game zones, but performance suffered for some users. Is the Secret World team taking any particular lessons away from AoC's Dreamworld implementation for use with the new game?

The fact that Age of Conan uses the Dreamworld engine is a massive bonus for The Secret World, of course. The engine is continually improved by our tech team but the value of getting direct feedback from a populated live game can not be overstated. Recently there have been improvements like the addition of Phys-x for server side collision, etc.

Our developers have made vast improvements to the engine, even since the release of Rise of the Godslayer. The Secret World is also continuously pushing the development of the engine forward. On the design side, we pay close attention to the lessons learned from all of the other projects.

The dev blog mentions the use of various objects in the course of doing mission content (vacuum cleaners, phone books, etc.). Can random game objects be wielded in combat or is it more along the lines of certain objects triggering certain encounters?

The answer is both yes and no. The Yellow Pages, for example, can be used whenever the player feels like it. But when on a mission that requires the player to look in the Yellow Pages, they might find some information highlighted that was not highlighted before.

Other things, like the vacuum cleaner, form a part of a specific mission and can not be wielded like a regular weapon outside of that mission. We have some very interesting non-mission related interaction mechanics which tie directly into the skill system.

The dev blog also contains some exciting references to endgame ("every minute of play is the endgame" and "there are no 'you need the blue key to continue' moments"). Can you give us an idea of TSW's endgame? Does it involve aspects of the traditional raid/gear ladder? Is it more story-focused? Is it PvP-focused (and/or focused on experimenting with skill builds)?

It depends on how you define endgame. From my perspective endgame is generally when you have gotten far enough to start being able to access the interesting content. In The Secret World there are all the things you would expect from a traditional MMO endgame: Gear, dungeons and so on. The difference is that shortly after character creation, you can jump right into whichever of them you want and still stand a chance of surviving because you made the right build for the style of gaming you want to play.

Hence, I say that there is no endgame and there are no hard content blockers. You can literally start at the end if you think you are good enough! Of course, there is still a strong feeling of progression throughout the entire game, but it's not about achieving a certain level so you can go battle a certain monster that requires you to be a certain level to stand a chance. It will definitely challenge you, it requires you to approach the game differently than you would in other MMOs.

Along the same lines, the "blue key" comment indicates that TSW will feature non-linear/sandbox gameplay. Do you consider the game a sandbox? Is there a definite progression and/or story path that you'd like for players to experience or is advancement and content consumption arbitrary and/or up to the player?

I wouldn't describe the game as a sandbox, but rather a theme park where you pick whichever rides you like whenever you like. Most missions (unless they are a part of a story arc or secret society ranking) are available the minute you finish the tutorial. All skills are available after a few hours of play. Through the story mission there is an encouraged progression path, but there is nothing forcing players to follow it before they can move on.

We really want The Secret World to be a world to our players. A place that draws them in whether their interests are PvP, story, crafting, exploration or social. Whatever they like, our philosophy is that they should be able to start enjoying it right away.

Thanks for your time.

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