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Chaos Theory: The Secret World's bright (player-driven?) future

Jef Reahard

Apologies for not following through with part three of my crafting guide this week. I fully intended to do so, but a couple of interesting things happened over the past few days that merit some discussion.

First off, Ragnar Tornquist published what can only be called a defiant state of the game letter. The Secret World's creative director engaged in some rabble-rousing penmanship that managed to inspire a metaphorical fist-pump from yours truly, even though I've been covering games long enough to cast a cynical eye toward similar rally-the-troops developer rhetoric.

Tornquist admitted that TSW's competition is stiff, in particular new releases like Guild Wars 2 and Mists of Pandaria, but he didn't shy away from singing his game's praises. More importantly, he reiterated what early adopters have known for a while now: The Secret World is that increasingly rare MMO horse of a different color, and despite financial and personnel losses, Funcom knows it has a winner on its hands and is fighting to keep it.

The Secret World - Egyptian temple
"And that's why we're not about to change," Tornquist wrote. "We're not going to play it safe. We won't be introducing classes or levels, elves or centaurs, and regardless of the competition, we won't back down from our original vision. We're going to keep doing what we're good at."

He went on to detail how exactly the firm plans to stick to its guns, from monthly content updates to new zones, abilities, weapons, and even a mysterious "huge and exciting new feature pencilled in for Christmas." One of the more interesting parts of the letter was Tornquist's acknowledgment of the dabbler mentality that's all the rage in MMO circles now, as well as the fact that TSW will stay the course by remaining "a game for gamers."

It's hard to put a finger on exactly what was meant by this last bit, particularly in light of the company publicly stating its intentions to casualize parts of the game going forward. It was also an interesting turn of phrase when viewed next to a recent Gamasutra article that hinted at Funcom's move away from its core MMORPG roots.

The firm is eyeballing "smaller games that require shorter development times and less upfront investments," Gamasutra posted, in addition to titles that "emphasize multi-platform engagement and flexible business models" and that are "in line with today's market." The article went on to mention League of Legends and World of Tanks as examples, both of which are completely focused on small-group lobby combat as opposed to TSW, Age of Conan, or Anarchy Online.

The Secret World - chasm
The Gamasutra piece also cited Minecraft as an example, and it's here that Funcom's future plans start to get mighty intriguing.

Is The Secret World Funcom's last MMORPG hurrah, though? Let's hope not, and I asked producer Craig Morrison that very thing in a pre-PAX interview conducted via email last week. While Morrison admitted that Funcom is looking to cut costs (and therefore scale, at least in the short term), he was also enthusiastic about the company's new direction and what it could mean for fans of player-driven gameplay.
What we are saying is that at a fundamental level we do see more potential in system-driven game formats as opposed to purely content-based games. That though doesn't mean it has to be a small game, EVE for example is a systems-driven game rather than a content-driven game.

So it's more about being efficient and trying to create titles that leverage the best part about MMOs, and that's the communities around them! We have been crafting stories for a long time now, and we feel it's also important to start to think more about how we can also let the players drive their own stories. There is a lot of potential there.
The Secret World's skill system is evidence that Funcom can think outside of the traditional themepark box when it comes to mechanics. Now that its hand is being forced in terms of budgetary constraints, it will be interesting to see how far into the sandbox realm the company manages to go.

The Secret World - EgyptWhile TSW's narrative is well-written and quite enjoyable, it still falls into the trap that awaits all MMO story: It's good for a single play-through. I've rolled multiple alts since the game launched, and while I take the time to listen to all the dialog and watch all the cutscenes on my main, all of that stuff is summarily skipped on every other character.

Voice-actors and writers would seem to be first on the chopping block if you're an MMO studio looking to churn out sticky content on a tight budget. Think about it: BioWare bet the farm on MMO story, and the result was a game that hemorraged players prior to its six-month anniversary. And correct me if I'm wrong here, but the company's deep pockets weren't deep enough to produce much in the way of post-launch story-related content or cutscenes, in spite of pre-launch promises to the contrary.

Story content is fixed content, and it's rarely consumed more than once. It's also consumed much more quickly than it can be produced, which makes Funcom's flirtation with sandbox mechanics seem pretty sane.

What's happening at Funcom is a small part of the larger picture when it comes to MMOs. There are simply too many games vying for a limited number of MMO players (an even smaller subset of whom are actually willing to pay for what they consume). Content-driven MMOs have a finite lifespan and very likely, higher development costs over the long-term, whereas player-driven virtual worlds are both cost-effective and the raison d'etre for the MMO genre in the first place.

Morrison's comments lead me to believe that Funcom is one of the few AAA studios to realize this, and I'm excited to see what the company does as a result. Don't forget that the firm also has a significant technology platform already in place (the Dreamworld engine and content creation tools that power both AoC and TSW). As Morrison said, Funcom "can probably achieve more on smaller budgets than you might think."

I certainly hope so because despite its reputation for buggy launches (which, by the way, ought to be improved in light of TSW's smooth debut), the company has produced three startlingly original MMORPGs, and it would thus be a damn shame to see it become the studio equivalent of Raph Koster or Richard Garriott.

In terms of The Secret World specifically, I wouldn't be surprised to see the game take a page from ArenaNet's book going forward. Yes, Guild Wars 2 technically has MMO story, but the game has also taken some lumps for shoddy voice-acting and the general feeling of afterthoughtishness (of course it's a word!) that permeates its narrative. And you know what? Good for ArenaNet for not spending a bunch of money there because even when it's done well, MMO story is an afterthought, or at best, a one-off gimmick.

Sure, ArenaNet threw in some template-driven cutscenes and hired a couple of well-known voice-actors in order to avoid falling behind the trendiness curve. At the end of the day, though, GW2's story is window dressing. The real story is unique to each player or guild, and I'd like to see The Secret World follow suit.

Regardless of how it actually plays out, I'm inclined to believe Tornquist when he says that The Secret World has a bright future. The title is already a ton of fun as is, and the foundation is in place for it to evolve into even more of a game-changer.

The Secret World - Saiid
Yes, Jef Reahard is paid to play The Secret World. But he's not paid by Funcom; Massively leaves the bribes and the bad grammar to its imitators (it's a conspiracy!). Chaos Theory comes your way every Thursday, bringing you Gaia's latest news, guides, and commentary.

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