Creating The Secret World - An Interview with Joel Bylos
When it comes to MMOGs, The Secret World, scheduled for launch on June 19, 2012, is cut from a different cloth than most. We talked to Joel Bylos, Lead Content Designer, to learn more about how story and a unique quest system intertwine to make TSW a game like no other.
Ten Ton Hammer: As lead content designer can you explain to us your role at Funcom?
Joel Bylos: I'm responsible for the design, quality and implementation of content in the game. That includes all the playfields you see, all the monsters in the game, making sure the missions are consistent and make sense to play. Essentially any consumable content.
TTH: So there's a heavy involvement with story. Do you find you develop the content more around the story or the story becomes developed more around the content?
JB: A bit of both. Ragnar [Tørnquist, Creative Director,] and the team have very clear ideas on what they want for the story, but they're very flexible on how we get there. The story is very flexible as well. For instance there will be NPCs we want players to speak to at the Illuminati headquarters but we can go nuts on how we actually lead people to the headquarters. As long as we try to capture the atmosphere the story is going for; that's the main thing. And on the other side, sometimes we'll have a mission, for example, and we'll need a story to explain why and how players get to that mission.
TTH: So how do you decide how to convey each part of the story and determine how it would best be played--as a mission or dungeon, for example?
JB: We get the main story line through the playfield and through that determine the supporting cast. Then we ask, How are we going to make these characters more interesting to players and how are we going to get players to peel back more layers on these characters they've met briefly in the story mission?
For instance, in the Egyptian area you'll meet the NPC we call the Ethiopian. If you follow one of the investigation missions in the area you'll get more information on the Plethoron company, who are owned by a corporation, who are the guys that are tied to the Ankh dungeon. So there are all sorts of tie-ins to the main story just by revealing more about the characters in the game. Because the world is so rich and we have so many great backgrounds and stories to go on, we sort of drag players in. It all works together very well.
TTH: Can you describe the different mission types available in game and how those types support each other and the story?
JB: First there are the Story Missions. This type of mission is in all the playfields of the game. This is the mission that will set players out to find out what the hell is going on in the world. It's not a game about being a hero and saving the world. It's a game about shit hitting the fan and we don't know why. Factions really hate not being in control and the player is almost like a minion in that he or she will be sent out to find out what's going on in all the places in the world.
So usually the way the story mission starts out is the player's arrival to the area, and then digging into the plot and finding out what's going on in that area as the plot thickens and thickens and thickens.
Then you have the Main Missions. These missions are always given by NPCs so they have the cut scenes and voiceovers. They're always either a sabotage mission, action mission, or investigation mission. Sabotage missions are where we encourage players not to engage in combat but to be a bit stealthy to avoid NPCs. These missions are usually about infiltrating an area, stealing information or blowing something up to prevent something else from happening.
Then you have action missions, which are usually the more normal MMO-style quest, which will be something like thinning the population in an area for a particular reason which will tie into the main story. These will also fill in some of the backstory.
Finally, you have the Investigation Missons. These are the puzzle missions. This is where you dig into the clandestine, conspiracy angle of things. You need to solve the puzzles to figure out why things are the way they are. This is hacking computers, solving puzzles through Google, and in Egypt, finding out who Aten was in the real world. This guy exists. You can look him up on wiki. Our bad guys are mostly people from the real world.
Finally. you have the Item Missions which are flavor missions you pick up around the world which tie into the Story mission in some way, shape or form. For instance, in one you'll meet a Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer. He's been taking pictures of the creatures who have escaped from Hell. But he's lost his camera and you need to help him find it. All that mission does is lead you to him, but it introduces you to him and you can look at his pictures and read more about the story and figure out what he was trying to do. That again ties into the main story as it's all part of the Hell story arc.
TTH: You mentioned that the action missions are your more standard MMO-type missions. However, the other content isn't the standard-fare MMO content, so how do you define the genre of The Secret World?
JB: You can sort of look at the evolution of MMOs. EverQuest, for instance, did a lot more of the type of stuff we're doing in The Secret World. You had to find the NPC and actually say the key words. They were great big puzzles. Then World of Warcraft introduced quests for leveling. Instead of grinding 50 mobs for a level you get a quest that makes you grind 10 instead and get the extra xp from the quest. That method is fine itself, but I think a lot of MMOs blindly copied that model afterwards.
I feel like MMOs should be about being in an alternate world. In a modern-day setting it made a lot of sense for us to do the investigation missions. Involving stuff like computer hacking is a lot of fun. I loved it in Deus Ex. Sneaking around cameras, too, led us to wanting to do the sabotage missions. We wanted to see if we could actually do it in a multiplayer environment.
What's really interesting in the sabotage missions is if someone else triggers an alarm while you're in the area, you're really in trouble. But it makes sense. If you're trying to sneak into a date factory and some idiot triggers an alarm the guards aren't going to ignore you and head only to the guy who triggered the alarm. It's not like these are things MMOs can't do, but it's something we want to try to do. And who knows? Maybe the next MMO other people make will have enjoyed it too and will expand on the idea.
It's nice at Funcom because we're independent and aren't strongly pushed by publishing forces so we are able to experiment and try our own stuff. We did it with Age of Conan's combat and we're doing it here with lots of different elements of the game.
TTH: How much of the story do you want to reveal per faction?
JB: The thing you've probably already heard about the stories is that it's a series of layers. As you peel back the layers you'll see more of the story and understand it's a smaller piece to the jigsaw puzzle than you initially thought. You understand a percentage of the puzzle and when you put those pieces together you realize you're just holding another puzzle piece of a bigger puzzle.
The player digs into events about three weeks before the game starts, in the game's fictional timeline. The timeline that Ragnar has made goes back about two million years. By the end of the launch timeline the player might understand the first three weeks. But it's not like we're limiting it to just that. There are hints of all of the other stuff. There's more there but you have to read all the lore, speak to all the auxiliary characters, do all the missions. You will start to put together your own conspiracy theories as to what's going on in this game.
I liken it to the first season of 'Lost.' You had a lot of questions and there weren't that many answers at the end of the first season. I would say we'll definitely have a lot more answers and will people will know what happened in the game to them. But will they understand the motivations of every influential force? Maybe not. And they maybe won't understand why. That's the beauty of the storyline because there's infinite expandability in terms of adding depth.
TTH: So you'll play through the game and you'll still have questions.
JB: Yes. And questions we can answer.
Each region is self contained so when you finish Solomon Island, you're done with that story mission. Each part solves itself but there's obviously the greater arc which will continue for a long time. Solving Egypt, Transylvania, New England, and so forth; finishing those story missions tells you about the events in that area and some hints of the other stuff that's going on. But you still have a lot more to learn.
TTH: Does that mean replayability within other factions?
JB: I feel that the flavor between the factions comes on a philosophical level. You can still be a guy wielding swords if you play a templar or dragon or illuminati. There's no value to replaying in that sense.
When you send in mission reports when you finish a mission those reports are tailored to your faction. If you're a Dragon it's a completely different report than if you're Illuminati or Templar. That sort of highlights the philosophy on every single mission. Every time you send these reports you'll get feedback. If you play those missions again from a different faction's perspective you'll have a different experience. You'll have that amount of flavor all throughout the game that makes it interesting to replay as a different faction.
For more details on The Secret World, check out our recent hands-on preview.