05 March 2012

It's a Secret (World) To Everybody

Last week Funcom lifted the curtain on the latest set of press impressions on their upcoming MMO, The Secret World.  I have been pretty clear about the fact that this is my #1 most anticipated game of the year (unless WildStar were to make it out in 2012, but I doubt that.)  So while I do strive to limit "fanboi enthusiasm" and be as objective as possible, it is inevitable that my positive attitude towards this game is going to come out in my comments on it.  Obviously that does not disqualify me from discussing it, but giving you that information helps you as a reader to decide whether I'm on to something valid, just ranting, or trying to "prop up" a game I care about.  One thing I always work hard on accomplishing is being honest with my audience.  With all that said, let's dive into my thoughts on TSW!

This IS Your Grandpa's MMO (but in a good way!)

TSW rolls back the clock in many ways in terms of MMO design.  That is not to say that the graphics look like Everquest (TSW frankly looks gorgeous) or the UI reminds you of Star Wars: The Old Republic (sorry, had to get that zing in.)  No TSW borrows from many concepts of MMO's long passed and brings them to 2012.  For one thing, TSW is hard.  This isn't World of Warcraft or RIFT where death in solo content is all but impossible unless you AFK in the middle of an enemy camp.  Enemies are clever, they use different skills against you, and often you need to think about how to defeat them rather than smashing your face against the keyboard and then collecting the loot.  For MMO players who started before WoW, this was the norm, although some games probably took it too far.  Even WoW in its original incarnation was a bit more "dangerous" place.  The Cataclysm may have changed the face of Azeroth, but it certainly made it a "safer" world too.  TSW returns to the old paradigm, and makes no apologies for it. 

Another way TSW is "turning back the clock" is in terms of its character development.  The way you build your character in TSW is a refreshing mix of the old and the new.  The "new" comes in the form of a level-less and class-less system.  There are no mages, or warriors, or priests.  There is no level 1, level 10, or level 50.  TSW is a game in which your character "learns by doing."  You want to learn how to use shotguns?  Pick one up and start firing.  Smashing things with a hammer more your style?  Grab one off the rack and swing for the fences.  But more on that later.  Here's how this is "old" as well.  TSW offers 588 different attacks and abilities.  Read that number again.  5-8-8.  And with each character having access to all these skills, character creation in TSW is going to be a deep and potentially complicated experience.  Again this is a far cry from the "modern" MMO that is moving more and more towards simplification and homogenization among characters.

This ISN'T Your Grandpa's MMO (but in a better way!)

While TSW does borrow from these older MMO conventions, that is not to say that it doesn't bring anything new to the table.  It most certainly does, two things in particular that I want to discuss here.  Since we were just talking about it, let's keep discussing the character system.  A level-less and class-less system isn't an entirely new concept, but it certainly hasn't been attempted in a large-scale MMO in quite a long time.  I have never played a game with a system like this before and I am really looking forward to the flexibility to basically create whatever kind of character I want without being tied to a specific class or paradigm.  Obviously TSW will develop its own "theorycraft" community and people will work on finding the best combinations of skills for particular tasks, but that's part of the fun too.  And with a system this diverse, hammering out all those skill sets is going to be a huge undertaking.  I look forward to seeing what we can produce with it.

The other new concept TSW brings are what they call "Investigation Quests."  These will involve getting information from the real world to solve puzzles in the game.  Now puzzles are certainly not a new concept, but hitting up the in-game browser (bravo on including that, by the way) to take a trip to Google to run a search for an old Edgar Allen Poe quote is far different from the norm.  Again I'm sure there will be people that will post all the solutions so people don't even have to work that hard to find them.  And I am sure there will be "trolls" in the game shouting answers to puzzles in the global chat channels (gotta love people who pay $15 a month just to ruin other people's fun) but I think these people will all be in the minority.  The kind of player that will be attracted to TSW in the first place is also the kind of player that is going to want to figure these things out for themselves and only look for a "cheat" if they get stonewalled. 

Development Dollars and Sense 

The MMO community is a pretty diverse place full of people with very passionate opinions.  Many of The Informed have been pining for a game that goes back to these "old school" principles.  We want a harder game.  We want a more in-depth and complicated game.  It is fashionable to hate games like WoW and SW:TOR these days as being too simple and ruining the genre.  But as I point out, these opinions may sound like a majority on the Internet, where many of the prominent bloggers and gaming journalists promote them.  But "Joe Sixpack Gamer?"  They are perfectly happy with the "hand holding" and are looking forward to playing their kung-fu pandas.  That is why what Funcom is attempting with TSW is so extraordinary to me.  They are bucking the common trends, and making no excuses for doing so.

This is why I believe that TSW is going to be a significant critical success, but it is unlikely to achieve similar financial success.  The Informed will hail it as a return to "classic" MMO principles and it will obtain a very dedicated and passionate fan base.  But for all the acclaim it will get in the blogosphere, I don't see it picking up a large number of subscriptions.  This is going to end up being a very niche sort of game.  The people who it is designed to appeal to are going to enjoy it immensely, but the average gamer is probably not going to be interested.  Why play a game where you have to work to achieve something when your kung-fu panda can "faceroll" their way through everything?  And yes, I sound critical of that model, but it has its place as well.

Overall this is a chance for The Informed to put their money where their mouths are.  We complain that we don't like the current crop of MMO's, yet we keep paying our WoW subscriptions anyway.  We say we don't like the direction the genre is going in, yet we shell out $200 for the SW:TOR Collector's Edition (guilty as charged.)  MMO developers are like any other company.  They go where the money is.  If TSW is the kind of game we say we want, then let's open up those wallets and prove it.  But in the end I think this will only serve to prove my point about The Informed being a minority.  I think we will support it.  But the extent of that support will simply show what a small group we actually are. 

Incidentally, this is also why "sandbox" games and "open PvP" games tend to fail, or if not fail, only retain small, dedicated followings.  These concepts, like those embodied by TSW are also very niche in scope and appeal.  We all sound very "loud" shouting from our individual little soapboxes, but we are "drowned out" by the not-so-silent majority voting with their wallets to support games like WoW and SW:TOR.  And I know I spent most of this post essentially trashing games like that.  They aren't bad games.  They just aren't "good" ones either.  So let's get behind the TSW's and the TERA's of the MMO world.  Make the developers stand up and take notice and you'll see change in the genre.

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