It’s difficult to keep a whole world secret, and more difficult still to keep it hidden from Critical Gamer. We found Ragnar Tørnquist hiding under a table and, despite the fact that he refused to take his hands away from his eyes and kept saying ‘you can’t see me’, he did agree to answer some questions for us…
CG: The Secret World seems to ignore many unspoken MMO rules such as almost endless grinding, an epic yet mostly vague plot, giving new players access to only a tiny fraction of the game, etc. Why did you feel The Secret World would work best as an MMO?
Ragnar Tørnquist: TSW was designed from the get-go to be an MMORPG – it’s the basis for the setting and story. An army of heroes is being called into action, and you’re part of a massive war against darkness across the world. On your own, you’d be crushed – but you’re joined by thousands upon thousands of other heroes, all fighting a common enemy but also competing to be the ones left standing when the dust settles. Sure, we have created an entire universe from the ground up and it’d make a great setting for a single-player game as well – I’d love to go there at some point in the future – but for the time being this is strictly a multiplayer setting.
CG: Would you agree that MMO titles have been stuck in a rut for years now? Do you see The Secret World as having the potential to shake up the whole genre?
Ragnar Tørnquist: I don’t necessarily think they’re stuck in a rut, but there isn’t too much variety, at least when it comes to big budget traditional MMORPGs What we’re trying to do is offer something slightly different, to add variety to the genre and to provide players with an alternative. The type of content and the gameplay mechanics will feel fresh and new – particularly since we don’t have traditional levels and classes – and our focus on setting and story, on intriguing characters and real world locations infused with a sense of magic and mystery, along with action-packed gameplay and globetrotting adventure will hopefully draw both established MMO players and those who haven’t yet dipped their toes into the somewhat intimidating world of massively multiplayer games.
So yeah, we could shake things up a bit – or at least offer a valid alternative to the competition. It is, after all, perfectly legal to play more than one game. Or so I’ve been told.
CG: The Secret World is a contemporary fantasy, a genre as yet untouched by MMO’s. What difficulties have you found in making an MMO set in the real world? Why do you think no-one else has tried?
Ragnar Tørnquist: Good question…and I really have no idea. Fantasy worlds are, of course, very appealing, but I think players are hungry for something different and new – never mind that it’s sort of strange to equate “different and new” with “the modern day real world” but hey, that’s my favourite setting and I’m happy we’re the first to do it.
The most challenging thing has been to justify why there are places in the world where players can run around wielding magic swords and assault rifles fighting demonic creatures and mythological beasts without breaking the immersion and making it feel like pure fantasy – but I think we’ve managed to pull that off quite nicely. We’re spending a lot of time building our universe and establishing the setting and the storyline, which strives to put everything into context and make it feel real and meaningful.
I guess that’s why no one else has tried: it’s a lot easier to justify your typical MMORPG gameplay in a fantasy or sci-fi setting. But we sure do love a good challenge.
CG: The backstory for your game touches on ideas of secret societies and ancient orders manipulating realities and keeping people ignorant as to the creatures and entities that lurk in the dark. Are you drawing from real conspiracy theories and mythology to ground your game, or are you inventing your own web of intrigue?
Ragnar Tørnquist: We’re doing a lot of both. There’s so much material out there, and we’ve spent many, many years researching, reading things no one should have to read and embroiling ourselves in one outlandish conspiracy theory after the other. We’ve sorted through the debris and picked out nuggets of ‘truth’ that we’ve then woven into a giant tapestry of story, backstory, lore, setting – creating something that’s distinctly ours, hopefully unique and original, but which contains a lot of recognisable ideas, myths, urban legends, fairy tales…and, of course, dark and terrible truths that really shouldn’t be revealed.
CG: Getting rid of the painful chore of levelling in favour of a skill based system sounds pretty radical for a mainstream MMO. A lot of MMO’s can be described as ‘time-sinks’ with the leveling being the main source for time consumption. Without leveling or grind how do you propose to keep the players attention for a long period of time?
Ragnar Tørnquist: We have a lot of mechanics that will keep players playing for a long, long time – call them “time sinks” if you will, but they’re all about giving players a way to further develop their characters, to dig deeper into the setting and the lore, to earn achievements and rewards, to get embroiled in the faction gameplay, to increase their standing with their secret society, to compete for resources, to gain access to new content…and more.
To me, that’s a lot more interesting than merely finding a way to waste players’ time – to keep them hooked on the game. As a gamer, my time is valuable, and we’re being respectful of that. People who play MMORPGs don’t necessarily have oceans of time available to them, and we don’t want anyone to feel like they’ve wasted their time playing TSW. There will always be a greater purpose, a goal, a reason to keep playing. We want players to feel that everything they do makes a difference – to their character, to the world. And we want them to appreciate the journey, and not simply see it as a means to an end. Slow down, take your time, enjoy the sights and sounds. It’s going to be worth it.
CG: You’re best known previously for modern adventure games such as The Longest Journey and Dreamfall. Does that mean we can expect a level of story and interesting characters on a scale that wouldn’t normally be expected of an MMO?
Ragnar Tørnquist: I think so, yes. That’s been the team’s vision from the outset, to create a world that feels real and meaningful, populated with living, breathing human characters. A world where the stakes actually matter. Part of that is the people you meet, how missions are presented and how players interact with the embedded story, but also how the story is intertwined with game mechanics – how it emerges through exploration and achievements, through simply playing and experiencing the game and the game world. It’s definitely a big part – a huge part – of what makes this game so different and unique and, hopefully, great fun. We’re investing a lot of time and effort into making The Secret World come to life.
CG: In a recent interview with Gamasutra you spoke a little about how you believe in the world of an MMO evolving as the game develops. Are we looking at a new model for MMO’s here then? Rather than simply adding content post-release, do you have plans to shake things up in the world you’ll already have built?
Ragnar Tørnquist: We love shaking things up. I think what Blizzard is doing with Cataclysm is brilliant: changing the world players are comfortable with rather than simply adding new continents and islands. To see something you’ve invested in, grown fond of and accustomed to, change in a fundamental manner – perhaps be torn apart, destroyed, permanently altered – that weighs heavier and matters a lot more to players, I think. Particularly if familiar and popular non-player characters are affected. And even more so if players had a say in the matter…
CG: The PvP zone of the Hollow Earth sounds like it’s largely designed around cabals or guilds. Will there be PvP opportunity for the more casual or guild-less player?
Ragnar Tørnquist: Absolutely. We’re going to make it as easy as possible for players to join in on the player-versus-player combat.
CG: The Secret World is schedule for release on the Xbox 360 and PC. Is a PS3 version planned and if not why not?
Ragnar Tørnquist: There are currently no plans for a PS3 version, though that might change in the future.