Infiltrating the Agency - An Exclusive Q&A with Lead Designer Rory McGuire

It seems like many years ago when we first heard about Sony Online Entertainment's The Agency. Then things went quiet for a while.
It seems like many years ago when we first heard about Sony Online Entertainment's The Agency. Then things went quiet for a while. The silence was broken recently as SOE has let the world know their first person shooter MMOG is shaping up to be an exciting addition to players' libraries. Ten Ton Hammer spoke with Lead Designer Rory McGuire at Fan Faire 2010 to find out more about this hot upcoming title.


Ten Ton Hammer: Where are you guys right now on the development front?

Rory McGuire: Right now we’re marching to alpha, which means we're feature complete and most of the features are in place. On the development side, we're bringing everything together into one piece and making it work. A lot of games wait a long time to do that and I think that they pay for it. For me the biggest thing is, on the MMOG side, is if I can’t see your rewards and if I can’t understand how to get them, then I’m not going to care. Why put all those hours into it if I feel that I’m wasting my time. If that happens, then I’m not going to hunt that content down. We’re doing that soon so that we can keep polishing it and keep polishing it, so that when the game launches, I’ll understand what the rewards will be, there’s not too much information that I’ll being tuning crap out, but that it’s also a constant stream of all the things I can do and places I can go. Basically, we’re fine tuning and polishing it.

Close covered combat in The Agency
Close covered combat in The Agency

Ten Ton Hammer: As you progress towards alpha, now that you are feature complete, are there things that you’re holding back until after launch?

Rory: Yeah, there have been things that have been back-burnered for sure. For the most part, we’ve announced what has been. We’ve been pretty good at announcing if something is on the edge. There’re a couple of things that have been scaled down, but the core things: the shooting game, the AI, the missions, and all that are in live, so it puts us in a good spot.

Ten Ton Hammer: What would you say were some of your biggest challenges on the development side?

Rory: The biggest thing is reconciling the notion of massive multiplayer with a first person shooter, because in an FPS, particularly a military style one, you expect a very precise, an almost razor-thin perfection to it. If you look at Modern Warfare or Battlefield, which has a huge open world, there’s still a ton of detail spent on a very few polygons on your screen – your hands, your weapons, the enemies. Reconciling that with the massively multiplayer side, like why is it compelling for me to go out and get stuff? Why is it compelling for me to keep playing the game? Typically, a first person shooter is done in about ten, fifteen hours. If you move to multiplayer, you’re looking at from 25 to 40 hours. I got about 5 days playing out of games like Modern Warfare 2, so I got a good amount of play out of it, but still all my MMOG accounts have way more than 5 days listed on my playing time. I played the crap out of Modern Warfare 2, so that was an extreme case. So, basically reconciling the fusion of those genres was challenging.

Ten Ton Hammer: How do you make your world feel big and alive, like you’re interacting with a large number of players?

Rory: I think that one of the biggest things is that if you do have the notion of a public space and you’re going off into instances, and I think that that model works, but you need to have them mean something. A couple of games that have had that model, it’s been disconnected, very disjointed kind of thing where I interact with a terminal and then I’m whisked off to somewhere else in the world. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to a player. I still think that you can have a world where people aren't always in combat as long as there’s a sense of something else going on in that world. You just can’t be dudes standing at terminals. With us, we have several different mechanics dealing with public space as well as the fact that the public space has to have more value than just a place to trade stuff. It needs to have meaning for other players. With us, it’s world domination. There are guys securing locations, moving around the world. There’s intelligence where you’re getting photos and recording audio. There are aliases, and then there are all the other things that people are doing. There are things like the auction house to attract people to a specific place. Another thing that we’re doing is rewarding each of the districts where you’re adventuring in and taking that risk on yourself of getting caught by enemy agents, which is something other games don’t really do comparably.

Ten Ton Hammer: I guess one of the things that have been missing from those other FPS games is a sense of exploration, a reward for exploring

Rory: As for exploring, I completely agree. There are cities you can learn, and with the exception of maybe one other game which has pretty big zones, those cities in other titles you can learn extremely fast. There’s no real reward for exploring.

Ten Ton Hammer: Will there be places with Easter eggs and those kinds of things?

Rory: Yes, absolutely. There’s going to be multiple things, like achievements for exploring, vendors you wouldn’t find in other areas, and things like that.

Ten Ton Hammer: What is your favorite aspect of the game that you can’t wait to see get out there to the players?

Rory: My biggest thing and what every designer for a team orientated game talks about is team play. I’ve been asking my guys to give me more. For massively multiplayer, there has to be more dynamics than a basic shooter, because people are going to be playing for multiple hours over multiple days. Right now, the team play mechanics are pretty good, and it definitely takes some socialization in the game to get it. It’ll take more than 15 minutes. We’ve had guys tackle each other after a play test saying, “That was awesome!” I think that it is only going to get better over time, and my hope is that when we come out, other people are going to say the same.

Ten Ton Hammer: Do you have in-game voice communication?

Rory: We have in-game voice and we’re looking at adding, potentially, this thing where you use hot keys and you don’t use mics for those that don't have them or don't want to hear the other people talk.

Ten Ton Hammer: A common source of frustration is matchmaking in many of these games. There’s often a huge wave of enthusiasts, or die-hards, who come in and learn the game, learn the maps, and get all the skills very fast, which makes it hard on the new players coming in. As they slowly trickle in they’re up against very tough, seasoned players.

Rory: I talked a little bit earlier today about matchmaking. We’re measuring two dynamics. One is your player "hard" score, which is the level of your roles, the items you have for those roles – basically, the measure of your progress in the game. Because we are going to have some power progression with itemization. It’s not going to be the ridiculous spectrum that you normally see, where it’s from 100 to 100,000. There will be players who do more damage. There will be players who will have more health. So that’s one measurement.

The second measurement is the one you talked about where you take the hard score number and you modify it by the number of matches the player has played. Did he win those? What was his kill/death ratio overall? Okay, this is a decently progressed player with fairly mediocre stats so let’s pair him with other players in that same range. So, we’ll modify that score. You can very easily have a level ten guy who’s fresh in the game who just kills everyone, so you have to account for that. The same is true on the opposite end of the spectrum. You can have somebody who is a more casual player who has played a lot and gone through the content, but they’re not that good at PvP.

A female of the ParaGON persuasion
A female of the ParaGON persuasion

Ten Ton Hammer: Are you concerned about that wave effect that teams have in a lot of games where there is a whole bunch of players at the top of the spectrum, and just a few at the bottom who end up having a hard time?

Rory: What I really think is that, no matter what, there is going to be a few players playing PvP at that are more in that mid-range and what we’re trying to do with the matchmaking is to pair them with appropriate players. If nothing else, at least put them in with the bottom of the top and let them get a little more prepared before we put them against the top of the top.

Ten Ton Hammer: Does it get too hectic for the support roles to perform their tasks as they’re fighting?

Rory: No. The support roles are played rather straightforward. We have, and we haven’t discussed this yet, the notion of active and passive gadgets. Gadgets are an expression of skills. So an oracle hack, for example, is a skill and you hit a button and it fires off the ability and it lasts for x amount of time, and we also have passive skills such as immunity to head shots or your footsteps make no sound; things like that. If you’re a player who prefers to just focus on the combat, you can go almost all passive skills. You probably won't want to go all passive because there are a couple of very powerful active skills. Or if you’re a player who’s much more micro-intensive and can handle having four active skills going at the same time and keep all that going in your head while still fighting, you can go all active skills. If you’re a support guy and you’re playing a commander, you can say, “I’m just going to take my heal ability and three passives. One of which makes me move faster, one that allows me to swim because there’s a great deal of water in this particular map, and there’s another one that makes me immune to some effect. However, my primary focus is healing.”

Ten Ton Hammer: Do the passive abilities show up on your character graphically?

Rory: Yes, the passive abilities show up as well on your character. A pair of fins would show up on your sides if you had the underwater ability.

Ten Ton Hammer: You said that you’re preparing for alpha. Is there any kind of time frame you can give us?

Rory: What we’re hoping to do is wrap up alpha in the next few months and then start to show a ton of the PvE content, show a lot of city space. My hope is that towards the end of the year, I’m not going to give you an exact date, we can bring the press in. There’ll be some rough edges, there’ll be some bugs, there’ll be some issues with UI, but people will be able to play it and understand exactly what is going on. Decide on which control is better for them, which gadget is better for them. All those minutiae things that are the devils in the details.

Ten Ton Hammer: As far as progression goes, can you give us a feel on how players progress?

Rory: It’s mostly that we looked at all the other first person MMO shooters, and a lot of those guys go heavily number based and other games make the reticule smaller the higher your ability. And for the most part, we want to avoid those things. We want a shooter to feel like a shooter. If you have a giant reticule and your bullet shoots sidewise, I don’t feel like a badass super agent.

The approach that we took is drawing inspiration from games like EverQuest and EverQuest II where you have the notion that while you’re itemizing and your numbers are getting bigger, but they have game changers that they introduce to you over time. For example, I played an enchanter in EverQuest. When you first create your enchanter, you have direct damage, a crappy pet, and you have a stun. After four levels you get a mesmerize. Four levels after that you get an AoE mesmerize. Four levels later you get clarity. By level 24, you're not using the original abilities any more. Not because you haven’t upgraded to them, which is a common thing, but because you have other things that fit the role better in the way that you want to play.

The approach that we’re taking with each of the roles is that you pick one, recon for example, and you get the fundamental recon experience of sniper rifle, you move faster, and so on, and that’s where other games would be saying "We’re done! We’ve got a class!" That’s where we start, but we start adding things over time that change your experience, such as the oracle mentioned earlier. Or the tactical insertion where you can teleport across the battlefield, which is a good example, and we also have cloak for recon. We’re shooting for eight to twelve abilities or gadgets per role, not including passives. What that will give you is that your experience will keep changing as you progress in that class. You keep your core shooter experience with the sniper rifle as part of your role, but you keep getting little abilities that keep changing things. By the time that I hit the end, not only have I unlocked everything, but I’m also making a decision of, “Ok, this is a close range recon. I’m going to give him a cloak so I can get close in, I’m going to give him oracle so he can see, and I’m going to give him these two passives.” Using that same recon, I’ll make a totally different sniper; so just within that given role, I have a ton of variety.

Another thing that we’re doing is that we’re not limiting you to specific roles, so you can unlock all the roles over time. Starting with one and as you progress, you get more and more roles. We don’t want to overwhelm you with too many options in the beginning, but you will be able to unlock all of them. Some of those roles are associated with certain factions, but we’re not doing where only U.N.I.T.E. can be recon, only ParaGON can be assault. For instance with the alias that I was talking about before, by using alias you can be from U.N.I.T.E. and infiltrate ParaGON, go on a mission for them, learn how to be an assault, and then go back to U.N.I.T.E. again, so you can unlock it that way. Each of those different roles is itemized in different ways, but you’re not limited to the eight to twelve limit either. Each of those gadgets is itemized as well. There’s a short range version of oracle that’s on all the time, and there’s a long range version that’s good for snipers. So the amount of options open to the players is huge, and none of that is bogged down with numbers flying over your head. It’s a very visceral, easily understood, first person concept, but it also changes the game a lot.

Explore Venice in The Agency
Explore Venice in The Agency

Ten Ton Hammer: Are the factions of U.N.I.T.E. and ParaGON directly opposed to each other or just kind of stand-offish towards each other?

Rory: It’s more of a friendly rivalry, because if I make ParaGON and you make U.N.I.T.E. we want it so that we can go on missions together. There will be specific PvP scenarios where we do U.N.I.T.E. versus ParaGON. If I prefer the flair of cornrows and a ripped jean jacket, I can be ParaGON. If you prefer suits and things that are flashy, you can be U.N.I.T.E. and we can still play together.

Ten Ton Hammer: What is the core conflict of the game?

Rory: The core conflict of the game is 1) with the different villain factions, and 2) with player agencies fighting other player agencies. Ultimately, world domination. If you and I make a small agency, we can compete on a smaller scale for territory in world domination. As our agency gets bigger over time, we add more people, and then we go to 12 on 12 with that number of players per side.

Ten Ton Hammer: Is there some sort of mastermind villain group?

Rory: Yes, there is. Our mastermind group is called Omen. The story behind them is that when the Cold War ended, Britain, the US, and the Soviet Union hunted down all their agents in the field in essence to get rid of all that information that couldn’t be revealed to other sides. There were tons of black ops to wipe it out, and while they were successful in doing that, there was a small cabal of agents that banded together. So, they’re MI-5, they’re KGB, and they’re CIA, and they’re banded together for revenge. So you have all these old members of the KGB and the CIA from 30 to 40 years ago, who are all masters of spycraft, coming back as old men and women to take revenge on the new generation. It’s a pretty long story arc, but the first story line reveals that they’ve stolen a nuclear sub that’s armed with this experimental weapon that destroys the properties of water. They’re planning on using it in Venice, and I don’t want to reveal too much. It’s a pretty cool story.

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