Through the Looking Glass

Published on March 11th, 2012

We speak to Joel Bylos, lead content designer for the innovative MMORPG, .

Last month we had the pleasure of sitting down with Funcom’s next big MMORPG, The Secret World, and after a lengthy gameplay session (preview forthcoming) we sat down with the game’s lead content designer, who was more than happy to answer some of our more interesting questions.

GamerZines: What we played today was really refreshing, and sported the sort of innovations the MMO genre has needed for some time. Is that what you guys think?

JB: Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with the traditional MMO. There’s the WoW style MMO and TOR does that very well – it’s a good game. I think Rift did it very well, but I’m a bit tired of playing the same game in every new game, if you want. It’s time to kick on! Guilds War 2 is doing it; they’re doing things which are pushing the envelope, and we made some decisions about how players approach our game – it isn’t supposed to be just about killing stuff or clicking on an object to get something. We wanted to give it a bit more depth.

GZ: A lot of developers tend to shy away from setting their MMOs in the real-world, but why do you think that is?

Through the Looking Glass

London certainly looks like London at least.

I think there’s something about making sure that things capture the feeling people have from seeing them in pop culture. New York needs to feel like New York, and Egypt needs to feel like Egypt, but not just the Egypt we’re making, but the Egypt Hollywood has sold to the world. In some ways it’s easier because there’s more reference material on New York than you can poke a stick at.

On the other hand it’s more difficult because people always have a perception of a place, but the good news is the feedback we’ve gotten so far is that people feel like it works. People from New York have told us, “Yeah I recognise that area” and people from Maine have told us that even the way our characters speak in Maine is 100 per cent accurate.

GZ: The mixing of fantasy and sci-fi tropes is really interesting too…

JB: But appropriate to that, sci-fi and fantasy actually takes a lot of cues from the real-world too, and we build everything in-game from history, myth and legends in the real world.

GZ: Is there a danger of some conspiracy theories in-game coming across as too camp?

JB: I think Ragnar [Tørnquist] always says, “It’s fine to go with cliché” because people recognise cliché, and it’s the twists on cliché that are the most interesting parts and you have to make it work. Ragnar keeps a pretty tight rein on how things feel, and I think there is a limit to how campy it gets. I think the humour in the game; we try to not put the humour into the gameplay. We don’t have NPCs that are called Paris Hilton or Haris Pilton if you want to go the World of Warcraft route, we don’t take it to that level.

The humour comes from the dialogue and the things that you recognise. For example, one girl you talk to says, “If you want to know how low humanity can sink, all you need to do is read the comments on YouTube.” That’s a discussion I’ve had at the office, and that really grounds the game in our world, but it’s true! That’s where the humour comes from, it’s all about building a world full of characters which are funny in their own right.

Through the Looking Glass

The Secret World is chock full of memorable characters, at least if our hands-on was anything to go by.

GZ: The Secret World’s quest design is also really novel, as the objective instructions don’t always point you in exactly the right direction, which isn’t what MMO players expect. You need to think about what you’re doing rather than just following instructions, was that always the goal from the start?

JB: Yeah, I would never classify The Secret World as casual, it’s a fairly hardcore game. We’re making this game, we’re all gamers and this is the sort of game we want to make! The Secret World is hard, but is it the bad sort of hard? You’re a good developer when you make a game where people are frustrated with themselves when they can’t beat something, as opposed to being angry at you. If they’re frustrated with you, then you really aren’t doing your job properly.

Dark Souls is the perfect example that hardcore games are fine, and that people don’t have a problem with them. What they do have a problem with is being too obtuse. I think WoW took some of the obtuse elements of Everquest and made them less obtuse, and suddenly the game was super popular. WoW has its hardcore elements though – the top-level players who are grinding out the best raids. I just think we aren’t trying to cater to everybody, we have our specific core. We want people who are up for chaining abilities and switching out builds. We want people who are into three-way factional PvP and we’re making a game for those people.

GZ: There was one quest in particular today which brought out our hardcore nature. The goal required us to search for the term Gold-Berg on Wikipedia and it took us around 15 minutes to figure it all out. It was really difficult, but it was really interesting to have that sort of challenge.

JB: Was it more rewarding when you solved it?

GZ: It was, and it made people talk to each other about how to solve it, but the problem is as soon as TSW goes live you have guides and that kind of romance around, those kinds of brain teasers goes away…

JB: You can spoil the game for yourself but you can do that with any game. World of Warcraft has that with raid guides. In some ways raids are a puzzler on their own with gameplay, movement and strategy, but it’s still a puzzle.

I think it’s okay that if people get frustrated they can use the browser to get past any point or talk to somebody in the game, but what I think is interesting is that in the Beta people don’t do that. People type in chat, “I’m stuck, can I get a hint please? Do not tell me the answer.” And they get private tells and if people talk about puzzles in global chat, other people tell them “Shut up, don’t talk about this in global chat.” The players are enforcing this themselves which I feel is interesting and very mature. I feel like our game draws in a mature audience too. I hope our community is going to be made up of people who are there for the puzzles, the setting and the story. The Secret World isn’t a game focused on just achieving all the time, so hopefully people will be there for some fun too.

Through the Looking Glass

Dungeon runs were also very puzzle-centric

GZ: A lot of MMORPGs offer CPU-controlled henchmen to help guide players through the world, thus eliminating the need to rely on an active community. Do you think lacking that sort of feature allows you to a foster a much more social player-base?

JB: It’s hard to say. We don’t have pets and companions simply because those don’t work very well in our tech and it isn’t the right decision for us to go that way. It would be weird for us to create these characters who feel as though they belong in the world and then have a guy who doesn’t really do what you’d expect a real person would do. I think in terms of challenge, the game will be hard and people will group up.

One of the interesting things to note is that every mission, except for the puzzle missions, is repeatable with a one-day cooldown. You can do them over and over again, and what that means is that if you find a mission too difficult, you just find one from before that you liked and do it again. You’ll get enough skill points to keep going! I call it a ‘soft difficulty curve’ because the game gets easier as you play.

Most games have you start at level one, get to level 10 in four hours, get to level 40 in 50 more hours, etc. Our game actually starts with players getting access to three skills, and to unlock a new skill point takes the whole bar to fill up and that value never changes. So getting those skill points can take 30 minutes, whereas the second time it’ll take 29 minutes, by the end of the game you’re gaining a new skill point every five minutes and you’re able to purchase skills more quickly, but of course they cost more. You actually speed up your progress in the end by playing more.

To listen to the entire unedited interview yourself, which includes snippets we couldn’t feature here, check out the latest issue of MMOZine. 

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