SOE Seattle looks at The Agency as a different challenge than the MMO giant’s typical output. For them, this is a shooter first and foremost, and when they build the game, they keep that in mind above all else. They’re loathe to repeat the mistakes of games like Planetside that were just too big and empty for shooter fans and not persistent enough for MMOers. SOE has spoken a lot about expanding the MMO market and getting different types of gamers online, and there is simply no market bigger than the first person shooter market at this time.
“That’s the type of game that sells really well,” admitted Senior Game Designer Kevin O’Hara in a crowded San Francisco hotel bar. The locale fit the interview. The Agency doesn’t strive to recreate the drudgery of real life; it is all about the exaggerated glamor of espionage. The W Hotel’s bar was buzzing with sore, slightly intoxicated developers and reporters as we crammed into a corner to talk business. Throw in some tuxedos and ball gowns and it’s exactly the kind of place one picture’s James Bond stopping in for a martini.
O’Hara is part of a team of roughly 70 people at the SOE Seattle office, a group whose core has a lot of experience, if not a lot of games on the market. In early 2004, this was the same core group that was let go by Microsoft when the axe fell on the Norse mythology-based MMO Mythica. The cancellation was a harsh reality, but after some time in the wilderness of independent development, they reemerged as a team under the SOE banner and got to work on The Agency.
Their belief in the FPS market is important to the development of The Agency. These games sell the best and provide a tight, but also manageable experience for players that translates well from the PC to the PlayStation 3, which is where the game is headed. That doesn’t mean they’re just charging people for an online shooter though. It’s important to them from a design perspective that the game’s environment work firstly as a shooter, but the persistent elements of the game are what differentiate it from the crowded FPS market.
The Operative System is their answer to collection elements that MMO gamers demand. In this system, players effectively collect NPC characters, which are, at the most basic level, trading cards. They can be swapped with others, but are also the backbone of the offline elements of The Agency.
Make no mistake, the game is persistent, but ironically for a game that bills itself as a lighter diversion, they’re taking a page from the most hardcore MMO on the market – EVE Online – with the addition of offline advancement. For example, if a player finds themselves stuck on a certain mission, SOE won’t let that be a bottleneck. Assign an operative and they’ll complete it for you, in real time.
“Offline advancement is important to us,” said O’Hara. This slides into the game’s crafting system. Every time they show the game, SOE Seattle is fond of reminding reporters that James Bond doesn’t build cars. The Agency is no different, if you need a car, you tell your operatives and they build it in real time. It gets dropped off when it’s done, not before. Everyone has their Q.
It’s this kind of general fear of the MMO grind that seems to have become the core philosophy behind The Agency. They’ve positioned themselves as the anti-MMO MMO, which sounds absurd, but might just be the dose of fresh air the genre needs.
“Fun now, no waiting,” O’Hara repeated the company mantra, as members of SOE Seattle tend to do. That’s what it boils down to and it means lots of instant travel options, always having missions to do and never having to walk more than a few blocks once in a city.
Those operatives are not all just passive behind-the-scenes players, though; they also can play a role in the active missions, which always let players decide whether they want to just lock-and-load and blow their way through or carefully plan a more delicate approach. Operatives can chime in with key moments – picture the generic spy movie scene where a guy hidden somewhere on a laptop helps the main character out – or even take up a sniper rifle to help in what the agent feels might be a delicate situation. The approach combines pre-planning by-the-player and off-the-cuff decisions, depending on the mission.
The Agency unfolds in three distinct acts. The first takes players to Central America, the second to locales in Eastern Europe and the third to the Far East. O’Hara was mum on specific locations, although they have shown Kiev and Prague at various shows, but the hope is that they can then add new locales and acts over time, post launch.
While the game does take place in the real world, though, they have no particular political axe to grind or message to deliver. This is a light game, a diversion, and it’s supposed to be fun, not a depressing crash course in the intricacies of geopolitics. This commitment is demonstrated by their choice of traditional Cold War settings, rather than the timelier Middle East, despite their contemporary setting. They’re cognizant of the fact that The Agency needs to be about the player’s secret online identity.
To date, one big public relations element of the game is what they call “The Agency Moments”. These are big pre-rendered set-piece action sequences that come towards the climax of missions. Some are simply non-interactive animations that incorporate player characters, a cherry on the top of the mission. Others require God of War-style button matching sequences that influence the success of whatever crazy explosion they have the characters causing.
Some skeptics have questioned the feature’s relevance as a selling point. It’s neat, no one will deny, but really, how much fun can someone have with something that is only minimally interactive and rare?
“I think it’s a show piece,” O’Hara said. It adds to the game, but is not the core of the game itself.
Like every game studio, the crew also faces the decision of where to draw the line on content and maturity. Ultimately, the ESRB needs to make a decision on their game, which as Take-Two has shown everyone, can be a rather important moment for any game. SOE Seattle believes that anything done in a James Bond movie is fair game. There’s drinking. There’s smoking. There’s gambling. There’s violence. There’s leather clad women with lots of cleavage. Will that earn them an “M” rating? It might, O’Hara conceded, but it’s also all very comic book-like. He suspects they’ll likely earn a “T for Teen” or, maybe, a light “M.”
Work continues on The Agency for the PlayStation 3 and PC. As per usual, we know only that it will be ready what it’s ready.