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Chaos Theory: Why you shouldn't worry for The Secret World

Jef Reahard

These last few weeks have not been full of good news for fans of Funcom or its nifty modern-day horror-fantasy mashup called The Secret World. There were some layoffs. There was a content delay or three. There were hints of free-to-play (which, despite all the in-roads made over the past year, is still seen as something approaching failure by portions of the gaming populace). And let's not forget the requisite comment section naysaying that accompanies any MMO.

Join me after the cut and I'll tell you why none of that stuff worries me.

Chaos Theory - Why you shouldn't worry for The Secret World
First off, let's look at the obvious. The Secret World is a terrific, original MMORPG. Sure, it's an acquired taste when it comes to combat animations, and the PvP is unabashedly borked. Funcom has done something special with this game, though, and at the risk of repeating what I've said multiple times before, there isn't an MMO like it that mixes a modern setting, skill-based advancement, and a pro-quality narrative center.

Secondly, look at Funcom's history as a company. Its first MMO was Anarchy Online, and as a paying launch-day customer, I can tell you that it was an absolute disaster of epic proportions. Name any MMORPG released in the last decade, any one at all, and I guarantee you that it had a smoother launch than AO. Yes, I'm including Star Wars Galaxies, Darkfall, and any number of other abortive attempts at both early stability and customer service.

After the dark days surrounding its launch, though, AO righted itself in a big way. It grew. It added features, content, and expansions at what passes for a rapid clip (unless your name is Trion). I don't know this for sure, but I imagine there were some layoffs involved in AO's early days (the MMO blogosphere didn't exist in 2001, and what passed for gaming press at the time didn't give a damn about MMOs even if they knew of any beyond EverQuest). Such was the extent of the game's teething.

You know the rest of the story, though. The game continues to this day. It's slated for a graphical overhaul, and while it's not setting any population records, it's beloved by many, and more importantly, it's turning a profit for its parent company nearly 12 years after its maiden voyage.

Chaos Theory - Why you shouldn't worry for The Secret World
Age of Conan's development history tells a similar tale, albeit one that's not quite as long. The game debuted to much fanfare (and a million or so box sales) in May of 2008, only to be crucified in the press and the court of public opinion due to various shortcomings, both perceived and actual. The game's development director was fired or resigned depending on whom you talk to, and a major rewrite of the title's combat systems led to a seismic shift in its target audience.

What was initially a PvP-driven game morphed into one of the more content-rich PvE experiences on the entire MMO market. It did so despite stiff competition that same year from Warhammer Online, which many pundits and players mistakenly assumed would be the end of AoC. Four years and several dozen devs later, AoC has a massive expansion and a good-sized adventure pack under its belt. It has a ton of new zones, quest content, and high-end PvE stuff that stacks up well against competing titles, and most crucially, it has more of all that on the way in spite of Funcom's recent financial troubles.

My best guess is that The Secret World is in a similar spot. We already know that due to the Dreamworld engine and the single-server tech surrounding it, maintenance and upkeep on the game is possible at a reduced cost. I don't know exactly how many jobs were affected in the recent restructuring, but some reports speculated as much as 50% of the firm was let go.

Regardless, Funcom's live service hasn't missed a beat. The game remains stable, and customer service ticket times and responses are no different than they were prior to the layoffs. We did see multiple delays on the Issue #2: Digging Deeper content patch, and this was probably due to Funcom trying to do more with less.

One look at the patch notes confirms that it was a huge undertaking. In addition to the new weapon, new abilities, cosmetic options, and high-end group content update in the form of the lair revamps, there were a frickin' ton of bug fixes, tweaks, and minor additions.

Chaos Theory - Why you shouldn't worry for The Secret World
Will Funcom be able to meet its monthly content promise going forward? I doubt it, particularly if all the updates are this meaty, but I'm also not going to hold it against Tornquist and company for being so ambitious. Early returns on the Digging Deeper patch are good. There's new mission content of course, but there were also some welcome mission bug fixes. If you want me to throw in a negative, here it is: It's vexing to see the gear manager issues persist, but I feel as if the firm has earned itself a little time to get everything right by virtue of shipping an MMO that's simply fun, warts and all.

And let's be real. The Secret World was always going to be a niche game. Funcom may not have met its projections when it sold 200,000 units, but I think that's more of a business planning blunder than an indictment of the game. Mechanically, TSW is as deep as MMOs come, and it's generally impervious to facerolling. The narrative is similarly layered, even moreso when compared to the competition in the MMO story department.

Many gamers can't abide complexity and freeform advancement, so I feel that 50,000 (paying) players going forward would be quite an accomplishment. Does TSW have 50,000 paying players? I have no idea, and that's really beside the point. It does have a future, particularly if both Funcom and its fans can continue to weather these inevitable year-one pains.

Chaos Theory - Why you shouldn't worry for The Secret World

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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