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The Agency Interviews: Hal Milton Interview

By Dana Massey on May 26, 2009

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The Agency is one of the next generation of MMOs that must find that balance between a game that works well on a console and has the depth PC gamers demand. Recently, Lead Designer Hal Milton took the time to discuss that tight-rope walk and the rest of The Agency.

“If people are worried that the game will be dumbed down,” said Milton, “then no. I don’t think that’s the route we’re taking.”


Cover me!

He believes that the limitations of a console title, namely screen resolution and the controller, help them create what will ultimately be a better PC product.

“Game systems are game systems,” he added, and then noted that the goal of a game should not be complexity. “Instead you should be trying to create something that’s relatively easy to get into. Something that naturally reveals itself to you.”

The smaller screen resolution of a Playstation 3 game, for example, forces the developers to work harder on a UI. Sometimes, with the now ridiculous resolution many of the latest gaming rigs run at, it’s tempting to just throw a million buttons on the screen. Thanks to the PS3, they cannot fall for that trap with The Agency.

Milton anticipates parity between the two games, both with a very similar experience. The goal, for them, is a tight and fun action-shooter experience, a message they’ve consistently delivered since the game’s announcement.

Yet, as longtime fans of the genre know all too well, sometimes messages evolve throughout a game’s development cycle. What young, idealistic developers say three years before launch is often clawed back prior to actual launch. Now a few years in, will SOE Seattle follow the same route?


BLAMO!

“The really great thing is that all the ideas we’ve been pursing really do stick,” said Milton, who believes the key to many of their features is how they’re presented to the user. “The rest of our assumption have been coming on quite swimmingly.”

As this stage in the development cycle, SOE Seattle has begun to really delve into the bad guys of the game and more locations for the players.

“[There’s] tons of work on the content side,” he said. They have put a lot of work recently into locations in Europe and Central America, two favorite spy-genre locales where players will conduct their capers.

Another focus has been their player vs. player (PvP) game. In The Agency, all their worlds – or servers – feed into the same PvP environment, which indicates a more firmly segregated form of PvP than a lot of other recent and upcoming games have boasted.

One of the most fascinating aspects of The Agency, though, is their complete and total disregard for individual genres. They’re not afraid to introduce elements that they think will work, even if they’re far afield of what is expected in this genre.

A good example of this is their Operative System.

“Operatives are collectible characters in the world that based on how you play and what kind of agent you’ve created you’ll be able to have access to different ones,” explained Milton.

They did this to get rid of clicky crafting and turn something that can be often boring in MMOs into a sexy, spy-appropriate experience.

“[Each agent has] a host of people who work for him, whether or not he’s online,” he said. “And if you’ve opted in… operatives will even keep you apprised of their progress.”

That right, offline progression. Operatives will craft and do things you told them to in real time, which means players can leave their basements and still advance in The Agency. There’s also just something really cool about the idea of getting a text message from your explosives expert while you’re in a bar. In some ways, SOE Seattle no doubt hopes, it will make the player feel like they’re always in The Agency, without actually forcing them to be. A neat trick.


Dressed to kill

At the time of the interview, they’d crafted 480 agents to play and Milton noted that players will “only ever be able to max out to around 100 of them” on a single character.

“Some of these operatives have their own specific stories associated with them,” he added that some will be based on how players interact with them. “As far as betrayal backstabs, etc, I have to keep some things to myself.”

The trick will be to balance this system, no easy feat. While operatives all have positives and negatives, Milton said they hope to create a system where there isn’t one perfect combination of operatives.

And if they fail and there is? “We can always give those guys a conflict,” he laughed, before more seriously adding, “We’re trying to avoid the specific imbalance before we even hit the shelves, which is why we’ll have a good long beta process so everyone can tell us how stupid we are.”

One area where they’ve made no promises, despite reports to the contrary, is how they’ll monetize the game. On that front, SOE has delivered a quite consistent message that they just have not decided yet.

“The big thing we’re doing right now is we’re watching to see how FreeRealms is received,” Milton noted, in reference to the recently launched SOE children’s MMO, which tries out some new economic models. “We actually don’t have a robust plan for microtransactions in place.”

Obviously, SOE is a business though, so it remains to be seen what will be the most effective way to monetize it. As a game designer, Milton said that, “We’re trying to create a game that doesn’t have a whole host of hidden expenses because, as a gamer myself, I don’t want to be nickeled and dimed to death for no good reason.”

Ultimately though, the decision on how the game will be priced remains completely up in the air. “I’m waiting for word to come down from the guys upstairs,” he added.

The Agency continues a steady march through development. “We’re hoping to get into the Beta sooner than later,” he said. Look for some news on that front this summer.

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