The Secret World Interview, Part One

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has slapped up the first portion of a new interview they recently conducted with The Secret World lead designer Marten Bruusgaard, lead content designer Joel Bylos, and writer/director Ragnar Tørnquist. On delivering the narrative in an MMO that has the potential for sweeping changes over time:
RPS: With the game having an ongoing narrative does that mean if people join later, the game might be at a later point? Or can newcomers always start at the start? Or will the world have changed?

Tørnquist: That's a good question and it's always a challenge when you're dealing with MMOs. They are tough in storytelling. And that's why I would say at launch, 95% of our story is backstory. It's actually finding out what happened. As you've seen, you step three weeks into the past at the beginning of the game. Just uncovering those three weeks is a big part of the story. At launch we cover, I think, the preceding 10,000 years. That's what we'll be concentrating on at launch. But obviously we want to drive the story forward. But how do you do that in an MMO? I think WOW did it brilliantly with Cataclysm. In fact, Cataclysm came out and we have talked about something akin to that.

An MMO can't be driven entirely by single player action, in fact it can't be at all driven by single player action, so our story is actually about that. The theme of The Secret World is '˜what is the nature of being a hero in an MMO, in this kind of world where there is no one hero'. There's an army of heroes and what you are doing throughout the game is maintaining the status quo. In the case of Kingsmouth, you're not there to save the day, or the civilians, you're there to make sure this darkness doesn't leak out. And more importantly, you're there to make sure that people outside of Kingsmouth don't know what's going on. The factions don't want people in Vermount or Montreal to find out there are zombies on their doorstep, and that's key to the story.

But of course that's not going to be satisfying in the long-run, just to have these pockets of incidents that don't affect anything in the world. So, yes, I hope we can drive the story forward in significant ways. Not necessarily entirely player-driven ways but in significant ways that make sense. But of course, we have to consider whether to get rid of content or let new players experience it before they get to the new content. That's a huge challenge in an MMO to make that feel real. But we are going to do it and we are already talking about plans for the future.

We know the next area of the game. We know where the story is going, but what are we going to do to introduce new players two years down the line? That's going to be a challenge because playing through things that are now in the past of the game's timeline is going to feel a bit awkward.

Bylos: What's interesting about the game is that it has million-year long backstory.

Bruusgaard: I think it's five million years actually.

Bylos: Fine. So you can keep digging into the story, which is helpful because we're only revealing pieces of it at a time. With the whole conspiracy thing, players will create their own theories about where this is all leading. I think at launch people will I don't want to say be creating their own stories but certainly coming up with theories about what's going on.

Tørnquist: Yes, and that's really important. The idea of community-driven storycrafting. Figuring things out, taking all these puzzle pieces and putting them together and seeing the patterns emerging. Then they can start to theorise. And that's what we want players to do. We know the truth. We have this massive document and we know exactly what everything is and what everything does, and the meaning behind it but we're never going to tell players the whole story. We're going to let them figure it out on their own.

Bylos: There really is something very melancholic about the individual stories actually. When you leave Kingsmouth, once you've finished the story mission in that area, and you start finding out that it wasn't a rescue mission and those people are going to die. All the characters you've just spent the last few hours speaking to will die.