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

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

style="width: 600px; height: 338px;"
alt="Close covered combat in The Agency"

Close covered combat in The

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?
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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

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

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
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?
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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
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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?
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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

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?
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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.

style="width: 640px; height: 360px;"
alt="A female of the ParaGON persuasion"

A female of the ParaGON

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?
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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?
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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 style="font-style: italic;">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?
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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?
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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 style="font-style: italic;">EverQuest and style="font-style: italic;">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 style="font-style: italic;">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.

style="width: 640px; height: 360px;"
alt="Explore Venice in The Agency"

Explore Venice in The

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?
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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?
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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?
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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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