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Some Assembly Required: Is The Secret World a sandbox?

Jef Reahard

I'm more excited than I thought I would be for The Secret World. After playing it at last week's Game Developer's Conference and getting a preview of the game's crafting system, I think it's safe to say my anticipation went up a few notches.

The real-world setting and horror-fantasy elements have always been appealing, but a general lack of info throughout 2011 -- coupled with Funcom's decision to add a cash shop to a subscription game -- conspired to knock The Secret World down a few pegs. Now I'm almost willing to forgive the business model faux pas because it seems like the game will feature significant sandbox elements.

Is it a sandbox, though?

The Secret World - Illuminati HQ
The case for
The most obvious sandbox nod in The Secret World is the game's skill system. Gone is the tired and unimaginative class-based approach, and presumably, the restrictive and repetitive gameplay that the trinity inspires. In its place is a huge question mark called the ability wheel, which contains over 500 unique skills.

Funcom intends for its players to experiment with dozens of possible skill and weapon combinations (weapons feature their own unique characteristics as well as "builder" mechanics that allow for further customization and various combat-related options). As designer Martin Bruusgaard told us last week, "players can wield two weapons at the same time, so a lot of the player skill comes in finding the right combination and also finding the abilities that work well with one other."

While it's true that the optimal min-max configurations will probably show up on The Secret World fansites shortly after launch, Funcom should still be commended for giving its players the option to do something different (remember, kids, fun gameplay doesn't have to equal efficient gameplay). That takes a lot of guts in today's one-design-fits-all MMO industry, and it's one of many reasons why I'm rooting for the game.

The Secret World still features traditional roles like the tank and the damage dealer, however, and the ability wheel -- and the various skill decks it makes possible -- aren't so much doing away with the trinity as making it possible for every player to be a jack-of-all-trades depending on the situation.

Bruusgaard told us that everyone can change both her gear and her skill loadout with the click of a button (and more crucially, while in the field), which eliminates the need roll an alt or trek back to town and seek out the equivalent of a class respec NPC. The GDC demo featured a combat-driven segment in which a dev-controlled player went from DPSing open-world mobs to tanking a dungeon boss at the head of a full group, and this kind of single-character versatility is beyond the capabilities of most themepark titles.

The other 800-pound sandbox gorilla in Funcom's arsenal is The Secret World's crafting system. I like to think I'm reasonably well-informed when it comes to MMORPGs, but the tradeskill reveal caught me completely off guard (and I loved every minute of it, to be honest). Not only is Funcom taking a page from Minecraft's playbook, but it is also apparently toning down the anti-crafter annoyances inherent in most themeparks.

How so? The devs are allowing the thousands of possible prefix, core, and suffix crafting sub-components to be traded between players, which will hopefully lead to increased player interdependency and an economy where tradeskillers are just as important as loot drops.

The Secret World - Scary Templar folk
The case against
One of the more worrisome things about the GDC demo was the amount of "MMO story" cutscenes on display. It's not that they were bad; if anything, the Dreamworld engine and Ragnar Tornquist's storytelling chops made them quite a bit more interesting than their counterparts in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

That kind of force-fed narrative isn't what I look for in an MMO, though, and highly structured character arcs (that everyone experiences) are certainly not conducive to sandbox gameplay.

There's also the fact that Funcom hasn't said anything about player-generated content. Sure, you can classify crafting as such, but in terms of roleplaying tools, housing, and possible player-made missions, we've heard a whole lot of nothing.

Furthermore, I asked Funcom's Joel Bylos about The Secret World's sandbox pedigree in an interview last summer. While he gave me an unambiguous answer, it was also clear that the devs are stepping well beyond the boundaries of the usual themepark design template.
I wouldn't describe the game as a sandbox but rather as a themepark 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.
The verdict
From what little I've seen of the game (our GDC demo was approximately an hour in length, followed by 45 minutes of hands-on time with one of the starter areas), I tend to take Bylos at his word. The Secret World has some undeniable sandbox elements, but it also has suggested progression and a focus on single-player storytelling. For me, the relevance of crafting and the economy that results will be a major determining factor as to the game's emergent potential, and we won't know about that until after launch.

At this early juncture, I'd have to say that The Secret World fits firmly into the hybrid sandpark category, and that is both unexpected and exciting!

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!

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