Where does Funcom go with The Secret World from here? [Interview]

12 Sep 2012  by   John Robertson
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Being an MMO set in the real-world, The Secret World immediately sets itself apart from the usual fantasy settings that dominate the MMO landscape. And yet, despite that uniqueness of environment, the game has not taken off and had the success that developer’s Funcom would have liked to see.

In a recent Q&A with The Secret World creative director and producer Ragnar Tørnquist, we asked him about that issue, as well plans for the future, the state of the MMO genre in general and how he feels about the way player’s have acted within his game so far.

We hope you enjoy.

IncGamers: Generally, now that the game is a few months old, what are your thoughts on how it’s performed? Has it sold as much as you would have liked, have players been retained as well as you expected?

Ragnar Tørnquist: Funcom recently released our sales numbers, and I don’t think it’s a big secret that the game has sold less than we’d hoped and expected. That’s never fun, of course, but we do have a large (and growing) community of very dedicated and loyal players, and we have every intention of keeping our community happy, and also spreading the good word to those who haven’t yet had a chance to play the game. We’re continuing with development as planned, and the team is most definitely in this for the long run!

IG: Have there been any elements of player behaviour within the game that have surprised you?

RT: The passion our players have for the game, definitely. The amount of time and energy they are investing in exploring the Ability Wheel and coming up with new builds — it’s way beyond what we’ve been able to predict, really, and it shows how much our players care about their characters and about the role-playing and combat systems. I’ve also been very happy to see how much our players care about the world, and how invested they are in exploring it and understanding it.

Outside the game, it’s been heartwarming to see the constant and loyal support from our players. They’ve been helpful in getting the word out and keeping the game in the media. Whenever and wherever there’s a thread or discussion about The Secret World, our fans come out in force, and that’s something we really, really appreciate.

IG: Are you planning on releasing more content for it? Patches, updates, expansions etc.

RT: Absolutely. We’ve committed to releasing monthly content updates — called ‘issues’ — and the second one is coming out this week. We’ll be delivering new missions, new stories, new features, new weapons, new locations and tons of other stuff on a monthly basis, free to our subscribers. In the slightly longer run, we’re also releasing a raid and a brand new adventure zone, set inNew York andTokyo respectively.

IG: How has the competition (Guild Wars 2, WoW: Mists of Pandaria, SWTOR) affected the game, from both a design and commercial perspective? Have you changed/added anything as a direct result of those games and how they’ve handled themselves?

RT: No, none of those games have really affected our direction at all. We’re still the only MMO set in the modern-day real world, the only one with complete freedom of progression, freedom from levels or classes, and the only MMO with an epic, ongoing storyline…so I firmly believe that we’re different enough to stand apart and to stand on our own. We don’t want to copy anyone else, or compete with traditional fantasy MMOs. We’re going to continue doing what we’re good at, what we have been doing, and I think gamers appreciate the alternative — being able to play a game that is radically different from everything else out there.

IG: Do you think the subscription model is the still the way forward, or should MMOs instead be looking at other means of monetisation?

RT: The Secret World is still a subscription based game, so there’s life in that model yet — but I do think that MMOs will rely more and more on other business models going forward.

IG: Some videogame commentators have said that the MMORPG is as big as it’s going to get in terms of player numbers. Do you agree with that? What can the genre do to increase its appeal?

RT: I think the genre needs to diversify more and offer players something other than variations of the same fantasy worlds and the established roleplaying classes-and-levels. That’s what we’ve been doing with The Secret World, and though players haven’t really flocked to our game yet, I really do think it’s the right approach, and the only way to attract new players to MMOs. I don’t agree that the genre can’t grow bigger, but it will require taking some chances and doing things differently. It has felt like MMOs have stagnated in recent years, but I hope and expect that to change.

IG: You’ve done away with traditional character levels. Now that you’ve had a chance to monitor players, has that been a success?

RT: Yes, absolutely. It’s one of the things that our players love most about the game, and we wouldn’t have done it any differently if we could. It may be a bit harder to understand and get into, creating a bit of a learning curve, but once they’ve made that transition, players seem to really enjoy it — enjoy that freedom and power you get from being able to progress at your own pace, rather than feeling compelled to ‘level up’.

IG: Which of the three factions have proved the most popular with players? Do you have a theory as to why that is?

RT: It’s a bit hard to say, but the Templars are definitely a lot more popular than I thought they would be. I think it’s because they are easy to understand, and that they appeal to the more traditional MMO players. The Templars are definitely the most fantasy-like, and they’re also based inLondon, which is a fantastic hub. The Illuminati can seem like a bunch of assholes from the outside, and you really need to get their sense of humour to be able to stomach them — and the Dragon are a lot more mysterious and cryptic, which makes them harder to understand. The Templars fight the good fight against the armies of darkness, and that’s something everyone wants to do.

IG: Funcom has recently said that it’s going to concentrate on smaller games with shorter development times… what does that mean? What kind of games?

RT: That’s not really for me to say, since I’m only working on The Secret World, but the LEGO license is one example of how Funcom is going to try to diversify into different genres and audiences.

IG: Were there many major features that had to be cut from the game prior to release that you wished had made it into the final product?

RT: For sure, but that’s the great thing about MMOs — nothing is ever cut, only postponed! We launched with the most important content and features, while other stuff — like the raid, for example, andTokyo — were left for later. But nothing is lost: if it’s something we feel will benefit the game, it’s on our schedule. We have an ambitious roadmap, and the game will keep growing and changing and evolving for years into the future.

IG: Why do you think the majority of MMOs are set in fantasy worlds? The Secret World, by contrast, has fantasy elements but is set in a world recognisable as our own – do you think that has worked for or against it?

RT: I think that’s definitely worked in our favour. We’re different, we’re fresh, and we have such a vast world to draw on. We’ve just gotten started. I do think that fantasy worlds are the ‘easiest’, in a way. Gamers love playing high fantasy, and those types of worlds work really well with a more traditional class-and-level system. But the genre needs to evolve, it needs to diversify, and that’s why we chose to take a different route. And we’re going to stick to that.

We don’t plan on introducing elves or dwarves or centaurs into The Secret World! Instead, we’re going to dig even deeper into the mysteries and mythologies of the real world, and keep surprising and engaging our players with content they’ve never seen before, and a story that will keep them on their toes for years to come!

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