The revelations finally revealed at PAX earlier this month helped answer some of fans' most burning questions about The Secret World. Here's what we know so far...
Still in the heated stages of alpha development, The Secret World is capturing the attention of gamers around the world. Widely publicized and fueled by clever viral marketing campaigns, the upcoming Urban Fantasy/Horror MMO is finally starting to reveal some of its secrets, thanks to recent gaming conventions like Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) and Games Developers Conference (GDC). Six months ago, all we had were a handful of rumors and some outdated, leaked screenshots. Coupled with a few cryptic website domains and a mysterious alternate reality game (ARG), The Secret World's developers had the gaming community right where they wanted it: tightly-wound and frothing at the mouth for anything that might explain what this new MMO is all about.
The GDC 2009 (San Francisco, CA) last spring marked the first substantial round of sneak-peek media and rough explanations of TSW's theme and game world. Tiny bits of information trickled in over the next few months, but it wasn't until PAX 2009, in Seattle earlier this month, that a few of those curtain threads we've been pulling on finally began to unravel; ZAM scored an interview with Ragnar Tørnquist, Producer and Director of TSW, offering more answers than we've heard in quite some time. In this special feature, we look at the big picture and tie it all together; both past and present. Whether you're looking for a synopsis or just a single place to start learning about The Secret World, this is what we know so far…
Currently under production by Funcom, the Norway-based developer and publisher of Age of Conan and Anarchy Online, The Secret World was originally imagined by Ragnar Tørnquist in 1997. He didn't actually begin pitching it until a couple years later, and it wasn't until 2002 that the earliest stages of pre-production finally began. Back then, the game's production name was "Cabal;" a demo created with an earlier engine was showcased at E3 in 2003, codenamed "Next Big Thing." Over the course of the next few years, Funcom scrapped the older game engine and changed the working title to "The World Online," which would ultimately evolve to "The Secret World" in 2005.
Full production finally kicked into gear in 2006, when Funcom registered a slew of domains like www.darkdaysarecoming.com and www.anygodimarksacred.com in anticipation of the MMO's viral marketing campaign. Part of that campaign was the "Cry Gaia" ARG; check out this timeline for a summary of the event. By 2008, TSW's development was in full swing; Funcom and Tørnquist were already putting a dual-region launch plan in motion for North America/Europe and Asia. Check out the TSW Wiki News Timeline for more details about the game's development from then until now.
But what makes this upcoming MMO so noteworthy? If you're just "tuning in," so to speak, you're probably wondering why this particular title has garnered so much attention. The ARG and early "leaked" media hinted at a game world that blurred the usual, defining boundaries of past and present MMOs. Instead of choosing between tried-and-true genres like fantasy, sci-fi or horror, The Secret World looks to be an amalgam of them all, and it takes place in our modern world. In May of 2007, Funcom confirmed the story angle and game setting in a press release:
Taking place on our earth, in our times, ‘The Secret World' (TSW) is inspired by history and mythology, modern conspiracy theories and ancient mysteries. For there really is a world within ours, a secret world, where magic exists, monsters roam and ancient forces are fighting for the dominance of earth. It is a world of legendary stories, ageless conflicts and powerful cabals. In this world, even modern cities hide secrets. In this world, players can take part in the greatest conspiracies of our age, and battle the forces of darkness across the world and throughout time.
"We started envisioning this contemporary online world more than ten years ago, and as the years passed the ideas grew and improved," said Ragnar Tørnquist, Producer and Director on ‘The Secret World'. "We always wanted a different kind of online world, something scary and contemporary, something deeper and closer to our reality. Our goal now is to create a detailed world where players feel empowered and part of something big, something mystical and epic."
If you haven't seen them yet, take a look at the first TSW cinematic teaser trailer, "The Firestarter," released back in April, and the second one, "The Puritan," released earlier this month at PAX. Granted, they're not actual gameplay videos, and as some of the more discriminating Age of Conan fans know all too well, you can't always rely on early cinematics to judge an MMO.
That being said, the coolness-factor of the videos alone is a large part of what's been driving all the recent media hype. The teasers and other media make a rare promise to MMO fans; the chance to explore uncharted territory in a new MMO, which isn't easy to find these days. Before PAX, the best anyone could speculate was that TSW would feature a variation of the urban fantasy, or "street magic" genre, seen in properties like White Wolf's World of Darkness franchise of role-playing games, or the Shadowrun series.
We still don't have a detailed understanding of TSW's lore and back-story, but new information gleaned from Funcom's PAX interviews and announcements confirmed three main "secret societies" in the game; the Templars, Illuminati and Dragon. Similar to factions, the societies begin the game in London, New York City and Seoul, respectively. As suggested by Funcom's initial press release and subsequent interviews, the premise of The Secret World lies in its name; a "secret world" of magic and power exists beyond our own, in which these societies fight a war between good and evil. You can check out this video from TenTonHammer to watch Tørnquist reveal the three societies in more detail.
Tørnquist confirmed that guild and PvP mechanics are both a part of TSW. Guilds are called "cabals," which players will be able to rank up for rewards. In an interview with RockPaperShotgun.com, Tørnquist said that PvP will be fought in a place called "Hollow Earth," which appears to be just what it sounds like; a place below the world's surface, Jules Verne-style. "It's a realm called Agartha, where the factions are vying for control," he told the website. "There's a resource called anima which is used in crafting and upgrading weapons, as well as other things. Players will battle for 'cells' which are areas to be contested by players, so that you can get anima and get access to other areas."
The reasoning behind this PvP area, as he described later in the same interview, is that the factions will be busy fighting "evil" on the surface to save the world; they won't be fighting each other at the same time. Check out this TenTonHammer video from PAX to see Tørnquist hosting a presentation about PvP.
Probably the most significant gameplay feature announced so far is the progression system, or lack thereof. Similar to MMOs like Darkfall Online, progression in TSW is skill-based; no classes, no levels. In our PAX interview, Lead Designer Martin Bruusgaard told us that progression is "linear" and "very result-based." Skill-based MMO progression mechanics rely on the player to mold his or her character into the type of role they want to fill, whether that means gunning down enemies from a distance or wielding melee weapons up close and personal.
"It's all about playing how you want to play and gathering the powers that matter to you, that let you play how you want to play," Bruusgaard said. "If you want to be a healer, then you gather the healer powers, and if you want to be a tank, you can gather the tank powers. You can also create hybrids. It's also important to say that you can design different powers to work with different powers, so you and your buddy can create specs that work well with each other, that feed each other. So, in that way, you can become very good at something very quickly, but to be able to master all of the powers and have a 'spec' for every situation - that will take a long time. So it's quick to get into the game and excel at something, but to be able to have all the tools, that will take a long time. So it's a very open progression in that way."
"I think that's really important to me," Tørnquist chimed in, "because I'm sick and tired of games where you have to play for hundreds of hours to get to the point where you actually 'start' playing the game, I don't have time for that. I prefer to sit down when I get home, sit on the couch, grab a controller, and play to have fun. That's the kind of game I want to work on.
"The beauty of this game is that, yes, you can play for hundreds of hours, and yes, that is going to make you more powerful. You're going to have a lot more choices. You can spec your character any way you want," he added. "But you can also play the game for a few hours here and there, and you're still going to get enough powers to be able to join guys who have played for two hundred hours. You can still join them in the world for a little adventuring, and you can go PvPing, and you can still contribute to the game. Everything you do in the game actually matters, it's not just about grinding, grinding and grinding."
One thing we definitely don't know is when we can expect to play The Secret World; the Funcom team is remaining tight-lipped about beta schedules and release dates in all interviews. However, back in January, Tørnquist wrote in his blog that "2009 will be the year where you learn about the secret world and […] play a role in unravelling [sic] the vast conspiracies that span oceans of time and space." Fans are still trying to decide if he was implying the MMO will be released by the end of the year; he wasn't speaking in an official capacity. Regardless, The Secret World has raked in an outstanding amount pre-launch interest, so it's safe to say this one isn't going to fade away anytime soon. Check out the ZAM.com The Secret World portal site for future news and announcements.