A Little Piece Of Hell: Building The Secret World

Veteran developer Ragnar Tornquist (The Longest Journey) outlays his plan for The Secret World, an MMO that avoids the epic fantasy cliches of the past in favor of psychological horror and contemporary fantasy -- and no player leveling system.

As the MMO genre matures, and as certain avenues of competition are closed off by saturation, developers naturally begin to turn their sights towards unexplored territory for the genre. One such is Funcom's Ragnar Tornquist; perhaps best known for The Longest Journey, he's more interested in exploring a supernaturally-tinged present-day world than another medieval fantasy empire.

Though the MMO he's working on, The Secret World is being built on the technological underpinnings that drive the company's game Age of Conan, it's a very different title -- one that blends horror, fantasy, and real-world urban settings with some traditional MMO gameplay. On the other hand, a character leveling system, the absolute backbone of the genre, is eschewed.

Here, Tornquist describes the creative tone he's going for as director and producer of the game, alongside Martin Bruusgaard, the game's lead designer.

The result sounds like an experience both like and unlike online and offline games of the past -- and one that could be an important stepping stone in the genre's evolution if it finds a receptive audience.

I first saw NDA'd material from this game way back in 2005, as I recall. How long have you actually been working on it?

Ragnar Tornquist: This game has been in development for a very long time. We've been working on it for a while. Officially, we've been working on the game since 2006. That's when we had sort of the team we have now, but we did work on the game briefly before when it was called Cabal back in 2002.

So that was a little after Anarchy Online launched.

RT: That was after, yeah. We actually had a playable demo of the game back then as well. It was playable in the loosest term, but you could run around and have fun.

So, really, we've had a big team on it for the last three years. But MMOs are huge. They take time and so many iterations of things. Luckily, we are using a lot of the same basic technology that Age of Conan is using, like the rendering engine and network technology and things like that.

But we are doing our own role playing system and our own combat system, and everything is going to look completely different and completely new. The game is going to play very different from Conan.

How did you decide to set the game in the modern day, with the conspiracy layer? That's unusual enough for games at all, let alone MMOs. Designers often tell me that's the hardest setting, because you're going up against a setting the audience actually knows. How did you get from the idea to the practical side of it?

RT: That's always an interesting process. Of course, there are a lot of people behind this game. It's made by a team. But it was something I wanted to do for a long time. I like the contemporary fantasy setting. I'm a big fan of that. I like it more than medieval fantasy.

Back in the 1990s, I wrote a concept for a single-player game set in this kind of universe. Nothing ever happened with that. After we launched Anarchy Online, we were looking for the next concept. We held off a whole bunch of ideas, but again, this popped up, this idea of a contemporary universe -- to get away from sci-fi, to get away from fantasy.

Again, back then, it was just an idea. It was something called The Entire World Online, which was about traveling the world, fighting monsters, uncovering ancient mysteries -- that sort of stuff. It was more of a pitch than a fully fleshed-out concept. We've just been working on it, iterating it over the years and trying to translate the ideas for the universe into an actual game.

You can make an MMO in any kind of setting. You can pick anything and make an MMO out of it. That's not the difficult part. The difficult part is making sure there's a link between the gameplay and the story, and that there's a reason for players to do what they're doing there, and that it feels like a real place. It feels like a solid game world.

If you spend a lot of time on it and iterate it and work on it, eventually it comes together. It's been a very collaborative effort. I think the team is really invested in this. Everybody on the team thinks it's the ideal setting for this kind of game. It's not been done, and yet it's something that most people like. So it's strange that nobody else has done it.

It's a respite from the fantasy worlds of MMOs. It's nice to get away from that. It's nice to be able to carry guns around that shoot things in the head. It's nice to have zombies -- all those things. When you get all those people and get all those idea and everybody's on the same page, it's quite easy. Everybody's working in the same direction, and I think everybody understands the universe very well. They know exactly what we're trying to do.

Martin Bruusgaard: I agree. I just think it's weird no one has done it before. The world really needs this game right now, I think. People will have a lot of fun in it.

RT: That's your quote right there. "The world needs this game."

There seems to be a gravitational pull towards the central successful MMO design. How much do you have to balance the design between the known, proven mechanics and the desire to carve out something different? Is that a challenge?

MB: Absolutely. It's, as you say, about finding that balance -- because we don't have to reinvent the wheel over and over and over with all aspects of the game. It's pulling out the few things or variety of things that work in other games, and putting our tiny twists on it.

The biggest effort is making all these little features work together in a way that feels like a complete game, that feels like our own game. I think we've been able to do that really well. Combat feels really great, pulling out the best from many games.

Several MMOs -- at least some -- have gone with the FPS feel, but I think we've taken that to another level. It actually feels like that wall between the character and the player is down.

We're not talking much about crafting and exploration and the PVE content [yet], but we have looked at other games, we came up with a lot of things ourselves, and it feels like a very complete game.

One of the difficult parts of that kind of design in MMOs is the resistance to real-time interaction. If you do have a gun and you shoot at a guy, that needs to be as real-time as possible, but MMOs often have trouble making it feel right, in part because of all the server-side calculation and authentication going on. They do that pseudo-turn-based thing. How are you addressing that?

MB: Well, from an animation point of view, it doesn't look turn-based at all. It's doesn't have that "starting position, slash, back to start, slash, back to start" feel. We have a much more fluid way of presenting animations. Also, since it's an MMO and since it's RPG-based and item-based, the way we can limit that is through the recharge of the weapon, for instance.

It doesn't feel turn-based at all. It feels like the weapon you're wielding is natural. Are you wielding a sniper rifle? Then it's natural to have a longer recharge time because it's bolt-action. But if you're wielding a sword and you don't have that much of a recharge, and if you're wielding an Uzi, it's quick to change a clip.

It's always hard for me to just tell you that it feels good, but it honestly feels very nice and correct.

Ragnar, you've of course worked on many projects at Funcom, but as a name, you're probably best known for single-player games like The Longest Journey. What's it like taking the lead on an MMO like this?

RT: Well, I do play MMOs, but I am an MMO nibbler. I try a lot of MMOs. I like playing MMOs in the beginning. I like to play tons of wild characters up to the 20s or 30s. At that point, I get bored, and I really just want to try something else. I don't usually have time for a lot of the endgame stuff -- the big raids, the PVP, all that.

So, in this game, I think I've had a lot of input in the beginning of the game -- how the game is introduced, how you start playing it, the missions, things like that -- but I have to rely 100 percent on people like Martin when it comes to PVP, and some of the dungeon experiences.

For me, it's all about having people you can really trust and rely on, to have really experienced people. Martin has experience with Conan, and we have a lot of experienced people on the game as well. I just focus creatively on those things that I'm most comfortable with and most familiar with. The rest of it, I lean on a lot of people.

I think game development, even though MMOs are so vastly different, is similar in a lot of ways. Game development isn't that much different -- but it's bigger, it's more challenging, it's a lot more features, and it's a lot more stuff to keep track of. I mean, if I have to go back to single-player games, it will feel like a holiday, because you have a set of features, and you just do that really well. With MMOs, it's a lot more challenging.

MB: I think it's important to mention that the difference isn't as big anymore, because the genre is so big and there are so many players who play MMOs now. Ten years ago, you could force people to go into hardcore mode and find a group, but now we have to cater for more casual players, and it has to be more solo-friendly. I think having that in mind when designing a game is very, very important these days.

Has your MMO behavior of repeatedly getting to level 20 or 30 affected the design of this game?

RT: Yeah. But I think it's because we all agree on it. It's not just because that's how I play MMOs. We decided to create a game that's fun from the get-go. You don't have to spend 100 hours grinding to be able to join everybody else and actually play the game.

The philosophy is you sit down and you play. You have cool powers, cool weapons, and cool monsters from the very beginning. And also with the open world, no classes, no levels thing add to that because you can go out there, you can go anywhere you want.

If you manage to get a bunch of abilities and powers for your character, you can join a team with some people who have been playing it for months and years, and still have fun playing together with those guys. That philosophy, I think, has been central to the game.

MB: No levels and no classes means the progression of the game is very horizontal. It's still an RPG. It's still item-heavy. Getting gear and getting loot will be important, but so are gathering and training up and getting different powers.

We want the players to be able to play the way they want to play, so they can spec out their build to their liking. If you want to play as a tank, you should train tank powers. If you want to play as a healer, you train the healing powers. If you want to play a hybrid, that's fine. We're also designing the powers to really work well with each other so that you and your friends can have builds that complete each other. That will be an important aspect of the game.

What's the long-term character development and progression in a system without traditional levels or classes? For someone who's been playing the game for a long time, what's their incentive from a gampelay standpoint? Do builds eventually converge over time?

MB: As we mentioned earlier, in terms of a casual-friendly game, excelling at something, at a very specific thing, will happen pretty quickly. We want the players not to wait until the end level before the game actually starts to become fun. So, you can excel at something pretty early, but gathering all the different powers and having like all of the tools to tackle all the obstacles that we as designers can throw at players, that will take a long time.

That will definitely be an incentive to gather everything, to be like a complete character. But also, we have tons of different repeatable content in different shapes and forms. We're not talking much about the PVE aspect yet, but yes, we have catered for that.

Being set in the real world, you've got London, Seoul, and New York City. Many MMOs have huge worlds, but they're arbitrarily huge. You only know one place is whatever distance from another place because the developers are telling you what the scale is.

But as someone who lives on Earth, you know how these cities are related geographically. You bring more knowledge to the table than if you're playing World of Warcraft. But that also puts more pressure on the game to live up to that expectation.

RT: Absolutely. I believe any good fantasy has to be grounded in reality, especially when you're dealing with contemporary fantasy set in a real world. It has to be very real for you to believe that you're really fighting these zombies and using all these strange magic powers and believing in all these conspiracies. The wrapping has to be completely real.

But that's a good question. A lot of people are wondering how they can feel like you're actually traveling around the world if you have London, and then you have New York, and then you have New England, and you have Egypt, and it's all scattered around. We have a brilliant solution.

[laughs] Is that it? You have a brilliant solution?

RT: We're doing something really cool that we're not revealing yet. Have you read The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan?

I haven't, no.

RT: No? Go and read that, and then you'll learn.

But you will be able to walk through London, which is going to feel like the real London. It looks like the real London. It's not the entire city, obviously. It's a neighborhood that's on the brink between our world and the occult world.

It's a neighborhood that, if tourists wandered in there, they would turn around and feel uneasy. It's the kind of place where there isn't a donut shop. Instead, there's a shop with shrunken heads in the windows or magic potions. It's a place where at night, strange things do come out.

It's like a real London neighborhood, but one that most people never ever encounter. We have a very story-driven, natural way to close this off. You'll be able to walk around there, and you'll be able to walk to New England in a way that feels completely natural and ties into the storyline and mythology behind the game. It's explained in the game how you are able to do this.

That's actually a pretty large part of the game. As the player, you're going to have this power to do that. I'm not going to reveal exactly what that is, because I want players to see it.

You said this particular neighborhood in London is subject to this other influence, which implies there are other parts of the world in this fiction that are as we know them now, that are not corrupted.

RT: Yeah, absolutely. It's real, man. It's not fiction. This is real stuff. The secret world has been there for a very long time. The people who are part of the secret world, it's not like they're in a parallel universe. They're around the corner. I'm sure Seattle has a tiny little street where those people congregate, and those are the locations we have in the hubs. Well, not in Seattle. New York and London are the main hubs. Not Seattle. We didn't really see Seattle as a hub. [laughs]

But the other locations in the game are actually normal places where darkness is rising. These are places that weren't traditionally occult places, but where stuff is happening now. Things are crawling out of the ground, dark days are coming, and players are sent there in order to save those places.

They also find out that each of these places is linked. There's a reason why they can access them, why this stuff is happening unbeknownst to most people who are there.

The players are really out to really try to contain this rising darkness. They're getting help from governments around the world. They're getting help from agencies from around the world in order to contain it, but it's spreading wider and wider and wider.

That's something we are going to expand upon after launch. The world is going to change.

I really, really hope we can pull this off, and I'm going to fight for it -- being able to actually change locations in the world, change characters, kill off NPCs, make sure that it feels like it's an evolving world, that dark days are actually coming and we're coming closer and closer and closer.

Of course, if the game is a success, we can cross that line. I mean, [World of Warcraft] is doing [heavily-redesigned expansion] Cataclysm now, which I think is fucking awesome. That's the best idea ever, changing the world. To me, that's more interesting than adding a new continent or dimension or something. You change what's there.

We have something called "Exodus." I'm not going to spoil it, but something's going to happen after the game launches. A good while afterwards, we're going to take one of our locations and we're going to completely screw with it and make sure it completely changes based on what the players have done. If they're successful, it goes one way; if they're unsuccessful, it goes another way. The servers will be different as well.

I think that kind of stuff is really important to make [players] feel like they're part of a living, breathing world. In reply to your question, I have no idea, because I can't even remember your question anymore.

Well, one of the things that's always been frustrating about MMOs to me is that they should be about an evolving world, but they never are. They're more static than single-player games, and they should be the opposite of that.

RT: Yeah, absolutely. Of course, there are good reasons for it.

Sure. I understand the difficulties from a financial and technical standpoint.

RT: People get scared if you have a successful game. You really want to screw with the locations and the characters people enjoy, and the quests that people enjoy. It feels risky to do that. At the same time, I think it's riskier to have a game that's just stagnates and feels like a very static place. I really believe in sort of evolving it as we go along.

You mentioned the Wheel of Time series. Are there other works in any medium that you can cite as particularly influencing you, with respect to this game or generally?

RT: Oh, yeah. I'm a big fan of Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics. That kind of contemporary fantasy is a big influence on both The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, and on The Secret World.

A lot of comic book writers like Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis do a lot of interesting stuff in similar types of settings. I read a ton of stuff. I watch a ton of stuff. The X-Files is an influence on things we're doing. Hellboy. I can probably make a list a mile-long.

I'm a big fan of stealing. I love to steal. I like to take good ideas and translate that into something that works with what we're doing. Being inspired by other things is the key to creating something interesting and cool. I'm not afraid to sort of say, "Yeah, this was influenced by that."

It doesn't have to come from nothing. It can come from other influences we have, and that's absolutely fine as long as you're being original with how you present it and how you packaged it together.

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