At PAX 2009 this past weekend, Kotaku sat down with Funcom to delve into the secrets behind The Secret World, learning about the societies, cabals, and PVP combat in the upcoming modern-day MMO.
I met with Funcom creative director Ragnar Tørnquist and The Secret World's lead designer Martin H Bruusgaard on Friday afternoon at the 2009 Penny Arcade Expo, packed into a small meeting room in the back of the main exhibit hall, where the two had to use a microphone to communicate due to the noise of the giant The Beatles: Rock Band stage just outside the door. As convention-goers warbled their way through a sloppy rendition of "A Hard Day's Night," we began to delve into the secrets surrounding The Secret World.
What is The Secret World? Funcom's third MMO after Anarchy Online and Age of Conan is a game that takes place in the real world of today, only everything is true. Aliens and demons exist. The world is hollow. Conspiracy theories are often true. There are mystical forces hiding just beyond sight, and if you see something moving out of the corner of your eye, odds are it isn't just a trick of the light.
Think The X-Files, or perhaps for a more modern point of reference, the television show Fringe. It's an intriguing concept made even more intriguing by the unconventional way Funcom is going about structuring this world.
As mentioned in previous articles, there are three secret societies operating beyond the veil of normalcy in The Secret World. In London, the ancient Templar organisation wages a holy battle against evil. They are the closest thing that The Secret World has to good guys. As Tørnquist puts it, "They don't participate in the war on evil. They ARE the war on evil. They're good in the sense that in order to get to that one demon in the middle of the town they're willing to burn the whole thing down, so good is a relative term."
Then comes the Illuminati...The Secret World's answer to bad guys. The Illuminati is the most secret of the three societies. Driven out of Europe by the Templar in the 1600's, the Illuminati operate out of an abandoned warehouse in New York City. To the Illuminati, power is their currency. Getting it, controlling it, and keeping it is their goal, and they will achieve it at any cost.
Finally we have my personal favourite society, the Dragon. The Dragon believe in chaos in order to achieve a balance between good and evil. Their motivations are known only to them, and their actions make sense only to them. From the introductory trailer I was shown: "The two most powerful warriors are patience and time. We are Dragon, and we have both." The Dragon are master manipulators, playing the two other societies against each other from their base in a monastery in Seoul, Korea. I particularly liked Tørnquist's description. "These guys believe that the world needs to descend into chaos before achieving balance. They're unknowable...they are chaotic...they are like the Chinese puzzle box - secrets within secrets within secrets."
The three societies are united in their war against evil, make no mistake. Their difference lie in their pursuit of power. They share common goals, but when the dust clears and evil is vanquished, each society wants to come out on top.
Your choice of secret society determines your starting location, with the action kicking off at the home base of the Templars, the Illuminati, or the Dragon. Home bases contain the social spaces, vendors, and mentors for each society, so they'll be an important place to visit as you progress through the game.
And what of progression? The Secret World is a game without levels and experience, so how do you show the rest of the game how good you are?
First off, players can progress in ranks in their particular secret society. Each player begins as an initiate; your actions affect your ranking in that secret society. A higher ranking might mean access to more powerful items and equipment, or titles that display your rank.
The ranking system also extends to your Cabal, which is The Secret World's answer to a guild. Much like EverQuest 2's guilds, your Cabal gains rank as new members join, tasks are completed, and the talent pool swells, unlocking special benefits that aid the entire Cabal, from special rooms in the Cabal's housing to items and equipment that will aid in the struggle against your enemies.
To gain rank, a Cabal needs to attract top players across all areas of expertise, which leads us directly to the other way to stand out in The Secret World. Leaderboards.
Funcom plans on tracking every statistic possible in The Secret World and presenting the results in the form of global leaderboards. From how many items you create to how many monsters you've killed to the number of enemy players you've taken down in PVP, all of these statistics will be tracked and displayed. Tørnquist explains that they'll be keeping track of so many different aspects of the game that odds are you'll find yourself on top of one of the lists, be it crafting or killing.
Being on top of the boards will mean more than simple street cred. Since Cabals will need to have top players in order to increase their rank, Funcom expects that the leaderboards will often be used as a recruiting tool, with rival Cabals trying to lure top players to their ranks, increasing the feeling of manipulation and intrigue that permeates the game.
Plus, you'll be able to display your stats on Facebook, and who doesn't love showing off on Facebook?
The battle for ranking and status finally brings us to the player versus player combat in The Secret World. While above ground the battle against evil is the main focus, deep within the hollow Earth, Cabals and secret societies battle for control of the world's most precious resource: anima. Anima is a key component for crafting items and objects in The Secret World. In short, it's the lifeblood of the economy, and the only way to get it is to either trade for it or take control of an anima node deep hidden under the planet's surface.
The PVP combat in The Secret World is called Battle for Hollow Earth PVP. Both solo players and Cabals do battle underground in order to control the precious anima, with Cabal coffers slowly filling the longer they possess a node. There is an element of strategy to the PVP battles, with players able to construct turrets and defences to aid in the protection of their valuable property. There's also diplomatic strategy to consider, urging Cabals to form alliances and help defend each other from attacks from rival societies or risk being helpless when the enemy reaches their gates.
While players don't have to participate in PVP, what happens beneath the Earth's surface will have effects topside. Funcom couldn't say much now, only hinting that there will be consequences on the surface that could lure players down to give PVP battles a try, and that the Battle for Hollow Earth would be a very important aspect of the game.
Our presentation ended with a short clip featuring actual gameplay from The Secret World, created by internal testers at the spur of the moment a week before PAX. It showed fast-paced, action oriented combat, complete with a targeting reticule. Says Bruusgaard, "It's a very RPG system, but it feels like an action game as well. You can run around, strafe, and shoot the zombies in the head. Hopefully we can cater to those who are sick and tired of the point and click MMOs and want something more dynamic."
There are plenty of secrets left in The Secret World. There are new enemies to discover, bizarre characters to meet, and mysteries to unravel. When will the truth be revealed? Funcom has been working on the concept for the game for nearly a decade, and the game itself since 2006, and they're not prepared to nail down a date just yet. Just rest assured that Funcom won't stop until The Secret World is perfect, and if their ambitions match the final product, we could be in for something spectacular.