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The Agency Advancement Q&A with Matt Staroscik

Updated Mon, Dec 08, 2008 by Ethec

Sex, guns, fast action, undercover shenanigans, explosions, beautiful women, hot cars, ripped men and more sex. Although that list may seem like an amateur reviewer's one line synopsis of the latest James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, but it's actually a fairly accurate description of Sony Online Entertainment's upcoming massive multiplayer online game, The Agency.

For those of you that haven't been following the progress of The Agency - or haven't even heard of the game - this upcoming MMOG takes a step away from the typical MMOG experience and delves into the FPS genre, relying on player skill more than any other MMOG title currently on the market. However, it's been a relatively long time since The Agency developers talked with Ten Ton Hammer, so we sat down with Matt Staroscik, Game Designer & Lead Writer at SOE Seattle, and talked with him about a number of elements that haven't been extensively discussed in The Agency.

Our topics range from character advancement to aliases, so stick around, fire up your favorite "super spy" movie, and delve into The Agency!


Ten Ton Hammer: To start, let's talk about advancement. It seems to be accepted that The Agency will have characters levels as an advancement system. However, few details have really been discussed about how you gain those levels. Will characters gain "XP" mainly through the completion of missions? Or will shooting enemy operatives garner experience as well?

Staroscik: Career missions are the main way to advance your character’s rank, but if you get a juicy side mission from a contact or randomly find a lair of server-controlled bad guys in the game world when you are not on a mission—well, your current role and weapon are going to benefit from that firefight too. We’re also working on ways to augment that advancement through PvP, Operatives, and more.

No matter your role,
all Agency players will
do their
share of shootin'.

Ten Ton Hammer: When a character "levels up" what exactly will he be gaining? Since the game is skill-based, will we mainly be getting access to better gear and/or operatives? Or are there "special abilities" a character can gain?

Staroscik: Your character builds up a Rank which roughly corresponds to the quality of outfits, gear and the role titles that you have access to. Rank is also the key to using better Operatives and, in general, accessing more of the game world (locations, contacts, and more).

Your base attributes won’t change much because we are still primarily a skill-based shooter and those power progression curves are very different than a standard online game. However, you’ll unlock access to new role titles which will provide you with new abilities. As you play, your character will also gain use-based experience with weapons. If you spend a lot of time with a particular gun, you will unlock some deadly techniques with it. Veteran MMO players will find these abilities and their cooldown timers or stamina drains to be familiar territory. We like the concept of veteran players gaining an edge, but not becoming invulnerable demi-gods that even highly skilled new players can’t touch.

Ten Ton Hammer: When a player gains levels, will they be gaining levels in a particular class? Or are they just gaining an overall character level? For example, would I be a level 31 Spec Op or a level 31 ParaGON?

Staroscik: It’s more like you’d be a “Rank B ParaGON Agent.” You are not locked into a class in The Agency. Those ranks will equate to clearance levels and have the right UNITE or ParaGON flavored context that makes that rank achievement really special. We wanted to move away from the monolithic “ding” in a standard level based game and instead give you a bunch of goals both long-term and short-term to shoot for (pun intended).

The experience you gain will still be tracked; it’s just going to be spread out among several categories instead of just one fat XP number. There’s your overall Rank, the titles you unlock per role, the experience gained with weapons, influence earned in the game world, the size of your Operative network, and other elements.

Dress for success
(or wanton destruction)
in The Agency

Ten Ton Hammer: Speaking of classes, you've mentioned that you are going to have classes that will be determined by gear a character wears. Will this be an actual "class" or is this more of a role a character will play on the battlefield?

Staroscik: One of our key design goals is to reduce the number of bad decisions a player can make. High on that list is choosing a permanent class, because you may get locked in to something that you may not fully understand—at least as a new player. So, we decided that “you are what you wear” was a better choice for us. What you wear determines your role on the battlefield, and if you want to change that role, you change your gear. It also allows players to play the role they feel like playing that evening. Sometimes you just want to blow stuff up (Combat), sometimes you want to help folks out (Support), sometimes you want to sneak up behind somebody and cut their throat (Stealth).

Players will still have favorite roles, of course, and we will reward your progress in a role with titles and new abilities. Just because you can succeed at all the roles doesn’t mean we’re going to make you. However, I have a feeling a lot of folks are going to have fun exploring all the roles available to them.

Ten Ton Hammer: Do you have a list of roles that will be available in the game? Would you mind describing a few of them for the Ten Ton Hammer readers?

Staroscik: There are three basic Roles: Combat, Stealth, and Support, and they all mean pretty much what you would think! Each Role has a few specialties to choose from, and we’ll track your progress by awarding new titles within them.

For example, within the Support role you may choose to equip yourself as a Field Tech as opposed to a Medic. Field Techs are combat engineers that support their team by keeping teammates’ armor in good repair, and they have EMP gear that counters some Stealth invisibility tricks. As you gain experience in a track, you’ll be awarded titles in accordance with your new abilities. A Field Tech who’s able to flush out cloaked enemies with a special ability may have the title of Sentinel.

You can make progress on all of the specialty tracks in a Role, so playing a Field Tech does not mean that you cannot become an effective Medic. It just takes time. You can’t be all these things at once (you are what you wear, and you can’t wear more than one outfit at a time), so we don’t have to deal with the tank-mage syndrome.

Alias missions add a little more subterfuge action to The Agency.

Ten Ton Hammer: Next, let's discuss aliases. What kind of functionality will aliases have in the game? Will players be in their "alias" gear when they're not on a mission? Will players be able to customize their alias outfit?

Staroscik: The function of an alias outfit is to let you go undercover someplace that would frown on combat uniforms bristling with weaponry. It could be a tuxedo, delivery guy coveralls, or maybe a fuzzy sports mascot suit. If you want to hang out in your alias wear—and you will, because it is cool and customizable—you’ll be able to.

Ten Ton Hammer: What can a player do as an alias? Will there be missions where a player needs to go undercover in his alias to achieve his goal?

Staroscik: What you can do in alias wear is not get noticed. NPCs will look at you and chip away at your alias—it has a meter, like health. You can pause or even reverse the damage to your alias by doing something appropriate for who you are supposed to be, deflecting suspicion.

Let’s say you are under cover as a Global Package Express delivery guy. You’re carrying a parcel and walking around inside a high-tech office, trying to get to the VP’s office so you can drop a keylogger onto his computer. Employees keep looking at you, and maybe they are noticing you because Bob is the regular GlobEx guy, and you ain’t Bob. Your alias rating is dropping. What do you do?

As part of the GlobEx outfit, you have access to a new skill that will help you. When you hit it, you examine the parcel you are holding, reading the name on it again. The alias drain freezes for a few moments. Do you have a GlobEx driver’s clipboard? If you do, there’s another skill you can use while your first one is cooling down—fiddle with the papers on the clipboard. If you customized this outfit with the GlobEx hat, maybe both of those skills would be 10% more effective. If you pass a men’s room, duck inside for a minute to recharge your alias a bit, then get back to the mission.

Ten Ton Hammer: What is the overall goal in a game like The Agency? For example, the ultimate goal in a game like WoW is to gain the most epic, l33t loot. Is the same true for The Agency? Or will Agency players want to be at the top of their competitive leaderboards? Or something else entirely?

Staroscik: Hopefully, we will succeed in making a game where there isn’t just one goal to shoot for.

I think a lot of players will want to max out their Agent, going for the most uber gear and powerful personal abilities. That’s certainly a common drive. But along the way there are many missions, each with difficult bonus objectives to shoot for... completing everything in the game to the highest level of perfection is going to drive some people.

There are Operatives to collect—gotta catch ‘em all, right? Each has their own backstory and will unlock assignments and abilities that really extend the world’s stories, the arsenal of gear at your disposal, and your available actions in the world. Some players will really get in to that. And there is PvP too, for the leaderboard junkies. We’re also going to have a rich guild system (we currently call them Joint Agencies) that will encourage some fun rivalries and unlock some new gameplay mechanics.

Lastly, we will have ongoing content and faction rivalries that players will be able to participate in for bragging rights, perks, and other meta-game elements I’ll be murdered if I talk about.

Ten Ton Hammer: Will player versus player combat be in the game? We know it's been talked about in the past, but we wanted to make sure that everyone was on the same page.

Staroscik: You will be just a few button presses away from a casual or official PvP match if you want, but it is always consensual and it is never necessary to play through the story. If you want to play The Agency as strictly co-op, you can. You can even solo effectively, if you want to ignore the many potential teammates all around you!

There will also be special events, side stories, and contested areas that require PvP participation, but this is always optional content. We’re going to do our best to make PvP attractive to all players, though, not just the elite headshot brigade.

Ten Ton Hammer: Is there anything else you can tell Ten Ton Hammer readers and The Agency fans?

Staroscik: Personally, I am the kind of gamer that does not care for the traditional MMO grind. As a matter of fact, if I have to wait more than 20 seconds to respawn in a shooter then I start to get irritated. The Agency is the MMO that I want to play—it’s going to deliver the action of a modern shooter, and the character progression, story, population, and persistent world of an elf-smashing MMO.

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