The Secret World: Launch-Day Interview With Funcom's CTO & Lead Designer

Interviews

We recently had the chance to ask Rui Casais, Funcom's Chief Technology Officer, and Martin Bruusgaard, the Lead Designer of The Secret World, a few questions prior to the massively multiplayer online role-playing game's launch later today. Read what they had to say.


You guys have been working on The Secret World for many years. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game is a week away from launch [at this time]. What’s the vibe at the office like right now? How does it feel to be finally wrapping up on this huge project? What else is there left to do for the game? What can we expect from the first patch?

MARTIN BRUUSGAARD: It's great! After the beta and all the feedback we've been getting, the vibe is really good, and people on the team are looking forward to pushing our baby out to meet the masses. We're very proud of what we've made. We all know that we're not done even though we launch. We have planned content for years to come, but it is a huge milestone we're all looking forward to.

In one form or another The Secret World has been in the works for about ten years, and in active development for the past six, one of the longest development cycles on record. Why has it taken so long?

MARTIN BRUUSGAARD: It has a lot to do with the high quality of the game, but also our previous MMO, Age of Conan. We had a pretty slow start on The Secret World, since most of our developers we're focused on Conan. It wasn't until about 3-4 years ago we really ramped up. The biggest reason though, is that we have so high standards for what we put into the game. Remember, this is a real world setting, a setting everyone is familiar with, and therefore we have to meet people's expectations. Players will notice if London doesn't look like London, or if a bar doesn't look and feel like a bar. We put a lot of emphasis on recreating the world we live in, and that's what makes The Secret World also more believable!

It would appear that the development time hasn’t been wasted, going by the new ‘no levels’ leveling mechanic, and other innovative gameplay systems. Can you talk us through those and explain why you decided to reinvent the MMO wheel that has worked so well for so very long?

MARTIN BRUUSGAARD: It's fantastic to be able to work for a development studio that isn't afraid of pushing the boundaries in a genre. Too many studios play it safe, and copy industry standards, but we believe that one should never stop exploring and thinking in new ways. And that has paid off! We are getting incredible feedback on our level-less progression system. You don't have that number above your head that tells you exactly what monsters to fight, but you still feel that you are getting more powerful as you progress. Also, why being restricted to a class?? We hand all the power to the player, and let them create their own play style, and it's working out fantastically!

Moving back to the game itself, one upside to the delays has been the integration of the latest technology. In the past we’ve seen other titles forced to upgrade their graphics engine and art during development to remain on par with the competition, or at the top of their game, and often at the expense of existing work that typically has to be remade to the new spec. Were you able to develop your in-house DreamWorld Engine to avoid these pitfalls? Furthermore, if it exists, will the same tech allow you to easily implement new features in the future?

RUI CASAIS: As you are probably aware our proprietary DreamWorld Engine is built from the ground-up to drive very complex MMOs. It started with Anarchy Online, which launched in 2001. As with all MMOs we continue to develop for them after launch, so the tech for Anarchy Online had seen many revisions until 2008. In 2008 we made the “big move” of launching DreamWorld 2.0 which premiered with Age of Conan (AoC), which sold more than 1.4 million units. AoC was richly heralded for its visual excellence. Now, with the launch of The Secret World – we have had the luxury of having a long look at what we had with version 2.0 and then move forward with creating what we deemed critical in the competitive landscape for a 2012 launch.

The DreamWorld technology is a mature and proven toolbox that we have developed over the years to cater for the specific needs of MMORPGs, and is comprised of a comprehensive tool chain, scalable server technology and powerful DirectX 11 client to keep us ahead of the pack. We believe in continuous improvement, and look with an analytical mind at each part of the technology and remove and replace any part that isn’t up to par anymore. Not only does this allow us to develop fun and great looking games, but it shortens the development cycle for all our games, so we can prototype ideas faster without spending time on the basics every time.

The feature you’ve implemented most recently is TXAA anti-aliasing, a brand new anti-aliasing technique developed by NVIDIA, with a performance impact between that of FXAA and the ageing MSAA, but with a quality equal to or better than 8xMSAA. From a developer’s point of view, how does TXAA stack up against the many other techniques available, and do you see it supplanting SGSSAA and other advanced techniques as the best possible option for maximum image quality?

RUI CASAIS: Of all the AA techniques out there, TXAA is by far the one that offers the best performance / quality balance, looking really good where most other algorithms fail, namely the temporal aliasing that happens so much in videogames. It wasn’t therefore a difficult question to answer when NVIDIA suggested using this technique to make The Secret World look even better!

[Editor’s Note: TXAA anti-aliasing is exclusive at this time to GeForce GTX 600-Series GPUs and requires GeForce 304.79 beta drivers, or later, to be installed. Functionality within The Secret World itself will be enabled by an upcoming game patch. Stay tuned to GeForce.com to learn when the feature is available, and to get an in-depth look at this exciting new anti-aliasing technique.]

Creative Director Ragnar Tørnquist is famed for his engrossing, mature stories. How are you combining the rich narrative he has created with the multiplayer gameplay of a MMO, without turning a gamer’s experience into that of a subscription-based single-player game? At face value, the two appear mutually exclusive given the typical leanings of MMO players, who power through content in search of the next great item that will enhance their character.

MARTIN BRUUSGAARD: This is another thing we have designed different from other MMOs. In traditional MMOs you go to a quest hub, grab 10 quests, and then just churn, sometimes, mindlessly through them. In our game, we ask the player to slow down, think, and focus. You can only have one main mission at the time, making it your sole focus. Since you can only have one, players pay more attention to the fantastic cut scene introductions we have at the start of these missions. We also have a few new mission types players have not seen in other MMOs before. One category, the investigation mission, are actually really hard, and often the players have to search online for answers to clues they will get in the game world. By asking the players to be a bit more observant, we pace the players in a very natural way, and we have seen that players do play our game in a different fashion than other MMOs. I should add that these investigation missions are completely optional, and if the player wants to skip them, he is free to do so.

At the other end of the spectrum you have these massively involved puzzles that require player cooperation and the trawling of innumerable ARG-style websites through the in-game browser, searching for clues and piecing together the answer, with a great big carrot at the end of the road in the form of top-tier loot. How do you see this feature progressing? Will players freely share info, or will groups hoard the secrets, perhaps even charging in-game currency for answers and area access?

MARTIN BRUUSGAARD: The aforementioned investigation missions actually came from how well we saw the ARGs did. It was amazing to see how thousands of people, across all boarders, worked together to solve these puzzles. We though "Wow! This is amazing! Let's make this a part of the game!". Some players will definitely hold their cards close to their chest, but we know that the answers to these puzzles will be posted online somewhere eventually. We are not too concerned about that, because we think that the players who enjoying solving these kinds of puzzles, will not want to spoil it for themselves by visiting these websites.

Without doubt, the most important elements of massively multiplayer online games are the starting zones, from which a player’s opinions of the game are generally formed regardless of what lies ahead, and the end-game, which keeps players engaged and subscribed. Unfortunately, many MMOs start poorly and feature little in the way of end-game content at launch. How is Funcom avoiding this issue, and what post-launch plans are in place to keep the most active, and arguably most important players engaged?

MARTIN BRUUSGAARD: I am not concerned about the starting experience for new players at all. You will not start out with a rusty dagger, and kill rats. First you are taken back in time, and relive what caused all this evil to rise up. From there you are sent, by your secret society, to a town in New England to investigate a town that has been run over by all sorts of nasties. I won't spoil anything, but it's pretty crazy, and I can assure you that players won't be bored.

End game is a different monster to tackle. I think one of the biggest faults of MMOs today is that they create content for the players to consume, and when it's consumed, players never visit it again. Reusing the content in a clever way can make development cost lower, and player enjoyment bigger. Our game is slightly different from other MMOs since we don't have any level, and end game is a bit harder to define, but players will have plenty to do. All our dungeons are available in different difficulties, and some of them are insanely hard. This will only be for the best of the best. Also, in every zone the player has played through will have certain camps with monsters that were too hard for them to fight when they visited the zone for the first time. However, when they are strong enough, they can go back and whoop the monsters' asses. By doing this they will gather different puzzle pieces, which they can combine, and then summon forth a demon to fight. If they are successful they will get some nice gear, but a also another puzzle piece. If a player gathers enough of these puzzle pieces, they can summon the region boss, which is a huge baddie! Fighting these guys will require lots of players and very nice coordination. These guys will drop even better gear, but also a puzzle piece. These pieces are for the world boss, which is... Well... Let's just say you need to be a pretty frikking awesome player to tackle him...

In addition to all of this we have lots of PvP the players can have fun with. Everything from some quick action minigames, to persistent world domination PvP. We will also have social features like dance floors, a theater and bars to hang out in. We will also release our first raid, very shortly after release.

What can gamers expect from The Secret World in the coming year? Will the studio continue to improve the game or do you guys have other projects in mind?

MARTIN BRUUSGAARD: We are very committed to The Secret World, and we will keep improving it for years to come. We have already started making the expansion, and we have some pretty awesome plans for it. Funcom has other projects as well, ranging from our other MMOs Age of Conan and Anarchy Online (which is still going strong, 10 years after release!), but also to MMOs for kids [Editor’s Note: Funcom announced a new LEGO MMO yesterday] and Facebook games. We also have some pretty cool unannounced projects, but I can't talk about them yet...

If anything, we at Funcom have built a reputation around maintaining healthy games and never simply letting them die. Anarchy Online has just had its 11th birthday, Age of Conan is more than 4 years old now and like the players know, we keep on investing in the games with content and features.

Which technological advances in The Secret World are you the most proud of and why?

RUI CASAIS: The technology that powers The Secret World is stable and well performing, both on the client and server. While that might not sound very exciting, we are committed to giving players a great experience no matter their hardware, and we feel we have achieved that with TSW.

Also, thanks to the great partnership with NVIDIA, we managed to integrate some really exciting effects like Tessellation, NVIDIA Ambient Occlusion, 3D Vision and TXAA, and will be adding more eye candy in the future, just stay tuned! (And by the way, check it out in 3D Vision, your mind will be blown away!)

Thanks for your time, do you have any final words for our readers?

MARTIN BRUUSGAARD: Try out The Secret World! It releases 3rd of July, and it will blow your mind! :)

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