As The Agency’s Lead Designer, Hal Milton, and Director of Development, Matt Wilson, spoke, they made it clear they do not accept the common assumptions of MMO developers. Too often, they said, design decisions are based on precedent. They want to build a game that appeals to more than just MMO fans, and to accomplish their goal, the crew at SOE Seattle operates from a different toolbox, that of the first-person shooter.
“We wanted to bring mainstream gaming into the MMO space,” Wilson told assembled journalists in during a presentation at SOE’s MGM Grand suite during CES.
To capture that audience, they invented an exaggerated and idyllic world of espionage. Fans of James Bond, Jason Bourne and any other number of famous properties will instantly find themselves at home in the real-world locales, which for launch include a smattering of European, East Asian and South American locales.
They are driven by a desire to capture the secret agent lifestyle, which is one of fast cars, beautiful people, posh casinos and big guns. The Agency is all about the glamour, not the drudgery, and has far more in common with the world of the early Bond films or even Austin Powers than it does the harsh realism of Jason Bourne. They want their game to be an escape.
That’s part of the reason they went for a shooter. They don’t want people to go in and do target practice to advance their rifle skill. That’s not to say there is no advancement, but rather that it centers around the number of tricks in the trunk and not the basics of what a player can do. Milton told us that if a level one player managed to shoot a high-end player between the eyes, that guy is dead. There isn’t an infinite curve where one “level 50” agent could take out an infinite number of newbies. The advantage of the high-end guy is in the sheer volume of cool things he can do. He still has to aim his guns and shoot.
The same logic inspired their previously announced “you are what you wear” system, which is a catchy way of saying players can change classes with a simple wardrobe change. If someone wants to be a high-powered commando, he gets his commando gear. If he wants to be a support/medical type, he better bring his paddles. Players advance in each of the different classes through usage. If someone spends a lot of time in full combat gear, he’ll unlock a lot of combat abilities, and so on.
During this event, the team showed off more details on their previously vague operative system, which is poised to be one of the neatest aspects of the game. As players play through missions, they meet a range of characters that for whatever reason may be willing to join the character as an operative. These characters have their own agendas and may want money, pursue their own ideology, simply wish to cooperate or even join with you for their own ego’s sake. The theory is called “M.I.C.E.” (money, ideology, cooperative, ego), which according to Milton is an actual CIA term they use to collect their own sources and operatives.
These characters level up as they’re used and even traded off to other players. This collection of operatives can contribute at key moments in a mission as the voice on the other end of a headset that exists in every spy movie, or take on a Q role and build fancy new toys.
“Spies don’t click to craft,” Wilson said with a grin, but quite seriously. At a basic level, it is operatives that do that for the player, and the results are in real-time. So for example, if a player wants a new car, they can build it for a monetary and time cost. Say that car takes a week to create. Well, in this form of offline advancement, a player can login on a Saturday and tell his operative to build him that fancy new car. Next Saturday, that same person has a car.
That wasn’t enough for SOE Seattle, though: They then extended this system’s tendrils into people’s day-to-day life. It’s optional, but it sounds absolutely cool. They gave the example of an operative told to scout a location in South America. It’s supposed to be a four-day mission. The time arrives, and the game will actually contact the player with a cell phone alert or email to tell them it’s done. What’s more, it can even build gameplay into people’s day-to-day life. For example, that text message may not just say it’s done, it might say that the operative has been captured and his captors want $1 million in exchange for his life. Text one, they’re paid and you have your operative. Text two, he’s killed. Ignore the message, and you can deal with the situation later.
It sounds corny, but the effect sounds almost like The Agency hopes to make their game a true secret identity for the player, in and out of game. It remains to be seen if there will be enough extra-game involvement to truly evoke that level of immersion, but the prospect is fascinating and perfectly suited to the universe they’ve built.
This event also gave SOE Seattle an opportunity to expand on their mission system, which learned a few lessons, it appears, from Guitar Hero of all things. Each instanced mission has a score given at the end – gold, silver or bronze – based on factors within the mission. In the one they showed us, there were bad guys with bombs at the end of the mission who wanted to cave in an embassy. They ran toward one of four support beams. If they strapped bombs to each of them and they went off, the embassy would be destroyed and the players would lose. If all four supports were saved, the players earned a gold ranking.
It created a strange little mini-game where the agents tried to shoot down the bomb-carrying lackies before they reached the pillars, but they also had to be careful not to shoot and thus detonate the bombs too close to the pillars. In one case, a team member intentionally detonated a bomb as he sacrificed one pillar for the lives of several gun-toting bad guys. In another instance, a character was able to disarm a bomb already affixed to a pillar with only moments to spare.
The goal of the scoring system, Milton told us, was to make the game truly solo-able. Any single character should be able to achieve at least a bronze in a mission if he does it correctly. Yet, a well-armed team can go in for a gold and reap the rewards that go with it.
It also adds to replayability. Just like Guitar Hero, they fully expect people to go back and do missions over just to upgrade their score and achieve the next level of loot.
To date, SOE has only shown off two missions, both pre-captured to video and edited together. What is clear in both cases is that these missions all have much more in common with single-player FPS games like BioShock than they do MMO missions. Enemies react, knock over tables to take cover and shoot back. They don’t just mill around in a well-decorated room while people pull them off one at a time. There’s a certain irony that a game in a spy genre famous for stupid villains would create the most intelligent MMO bad guys.
They promise three distinct lengths of missions for gameplay purposes, cleverly named short, medium and long. The longest of which can last over an hour, while the other two are accordingly more manageable.
The world itself was surprisingly interactive, some of it just for fun and some of it with more meaning. As part of the “you are what you wear” system, players sometimes need to dress the part, which means a tux or a fancy gown. In these situations, their health is replaced with their cover, and the more the bad guys stare at them, the more cover they lose. If it gets to zero, it’s blown and guns come out. It also ticks away faster the more quickly the player moves around. So, if a player with a gatling gun comes running into a cocktail party, it won’t take the guards long to realize he’s likely not there for crab cakes. If the same guy wears a nice suit and mingles appropriately, he might just make it to the door on the far side of the room.
That’s not foolproof though, so they added some neat touches. For example, if someone really seems to be suspicious, it cannot hurt to go get a drink. It’ll allay their fears and slow the cover bleed, but it might also make the vision a bit blurry.
They also added unexpected touches, such as Q*bert machine that actually plays Q-Bert. Sony owns the rights, so why not? Milton even mentioned that while some may just play Q-Bert for fun, it is entirely possible that some Q*bert obsessed operative someday may not talk to someone who hasn’t gotten a certain score in the game. Or, maybe it’s just mindless diversion. Who knows?
The Agency Moments are another core piece of the puzzle for this title. Milton told us that the true key to these is that people will want to do them just because they’re fun. Sometimes they’ll be integral to the mission – such as a dramatic escape – and sometimes they’ll just be a cool cut-scene that tops things off. Regardless, they’re going to be over the top.
The first mission, previously demonstrated, saw two agents jump on a carousel and fire at their enemies as it spun. In the latest one, one agent chased a get-away truck full of explosives, tossed a box in the air and shot it, which set off a chain reaction that ultimately blew up the truck and the surprised lackey inside.
The former had the advantage of knocking out enemies, while the later was purely cosmetic. Still, others will even be interactive and require mini-games, such as those in God of War or other similar titles. These can be single character in-engine scenes or involve a whole group. The real key according to Milton, though, is that players will always want to activate them, if only to see what happens.
Players start the game in one of two established agencies: “ParaGON” or “U.N.I.T.E.”. Each has its own distinct stereotype. The former is for gun-totting, brute force maniacs and the latter for surgical subterfuge.
The game is being developed for both the PlayStation 3 and PC, but with an emphasis on the simplicity of the console controller. They have yet to reach a decision on whether the two platforms will cross-pollinate, nor were they ready to unveil any specifics about integration with the PS3’s “Home.” At this time, they have worked to keep the game open to any business model and hope to choose the one that offers the lowest barrier to entry. There is no timetable for the game’s release.