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The Secret World Interviews: Q&A with Ragnar Tørnquist

By William Murphy on June 02, 2011

MMORPG.com:

First, let me say thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to let us bug you, Ragnar. We know how busy things are getting there with the impending beta for The Secret World. First, let's do some introductions: give our readers some background on what other titles you've worked on and where you "cut your teeth" so to speak.

Ragnar Tørnquist:

I've got pretty long teeth. I've been in the gaming industry since I did an internship back in university -- starting out as an animator on an interactive storybook, and transitioning into design and management -- but I've been making games for most of my life. It's in my blood. At Funcom, I've worked on everything from Casper, a PlayStation kid's game, to The Longest Journey, Dreamfall and, of course, Anarchy Online. I was also at one point heading up Midgard, an MMO built with the AO engine and based on Norse mythologies, which was, unfortunately, put 'on ice'. I'd love to get back to that setting at some point: there's so much potential there, and we had some great ideas. But Anarchy Online is really the game that made me understand the potential of the MMORPG as a playground and medium for powerful, engaging stories.

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MMORPG.com:

What kinds of things did you learn from your experience with Anarchy Online, and how have they prepared you for the more ARG-driven experience you're shooting for with TSW?

Ragnar Tørnquist:

Working on Anarchy Online and with the AO content team was amazing fun, and we were able to do some really interesting things with the story, tying the novel and the animated episodes to in-game events and quests. When we launched the AO storyline, no one else had really done what we were trying to do, so we were fumbling in the dark. But I'm very proud of what we accomplished, and how we were able to engage players emotionally through the use of in-game mechanics as well as videos and websites. In that sense, AO was the launching pad for a lot of the ideas we brought with us to The Secret World.

The ARG was something that emerged naturally from the setting and the storyline we had in mind, and it's one of the most fascinating and interesting design experiences I've ever had, and I'm incredibly excited to see what our lead content and lead gameplay designers -- Joel Bylos and Romain Amiel -- have been able to bring to that with the actual gameplay mechanics. It ties so closely into everything we've done outside the game, and that link will be even more important and evident when the game goes live.

MMORPG.com:

The Secret World has been riding under the radar a lot until recently. But one of the most recent videos released by you guys got a lot of people talking. Is there some deeper meaning to the "Everything is True" trailer, or is it basically a bunch of hints to the game's lore?

Ragnar Tørnquist:

There is most definitely a deeper meaning to it. Everything IS true. Every statement in that video has an obvious meaning -- reflecting in-game content and mechanics -- as well as a more hidden one. Nothing is done by chance. It's all connected.

Or maybe it's a red herring. Maybe the real truths lie elsewhere. Maybe nothing is true.

MMORPG.com:

One of the more exciting features for the game (at least from my point of view) is the classless and level-less system. But it seems like an awfully lot to balance and include in a game... 500 skills is no joke. What's the team's approach for the always tricky notion of "balance" in an MMO?

Ragnar Tørnquist:

Constant iterations, focus testing -- both on the team and with outside testers -- and a very flexible and powerful toolset that allows us to be dynamic and responsive to player feedback. There's no magic to it, but our systems designers are experienced and incredibly smart and hard-working, and we have a core group of senior managers who bring a lot of good feedback to the table on an ongoing basis. At the end of the day, however, it's all about seeing how this system holds up when hundreds and thousands of players are unleashed upon it, and that's what Beta-testing is for. We've recently started our first Beta phase, and that's already given us a ton of valuable input on balancing and skill progression. So it's a lot of work, but as a team and a company, we're set up to handle that work and to make the tweaks and rebalancing needed for The Secret World to have a fun, powerful and unique role-playing system. And we're not going to launch before we're absolutely certain that we've got this right.

MMORPG.com:

PvP is "must-have" feature for any AAA release these days, and it seems like the common trend is for the match-made instanced sort. But there are a lot of folks out there if our forums are any indicator who long for something more persistent and with more meaning between factions than just a grind for gear. What kind of insights can you give to players who are hoping TSW will offer something like that with its three-faction setup?

Ragnar Tørnquist:

We have only revealed a small part of our PvP system so far. The mini-games set in El Dorado, Shambala and Stonehenge are going to be fast-paced, fun, and easy to get into. But we'll soon reveal more about the mechanics behind the secret war between the Templars, the Illuminati and the Dragon.

MMORPG.com:

The ARG sort of mysteries are something you guys are hoping to have carry over into the live game. But how do you prepare these sorts of multi-week puzzles in a world where the Internet means people know everything almost before it's supposed to be known?

Ragnar Tørnquist:

It's a challenge, and in the long run it's impossible to prevent player from simply reading the solutions online and breezing through the investigation missions. But that's fine. There are those who will find joy in being part of that first wave of players who work together to crack the puzzles and dig deeper into the game's lore; there are those who come later but who still want the challenge, and who will therefore stay away from all spoilers; and then there are those who want to just see and play through the story as quickly as possible. And these are all perfectly valid ways to play the game and experience our investigations. Of course, we'll be revealing new investigations after the game goes live, so the players -- and our community -- will have plenty of mysteries to dig into for years to come.

MMORPG.com:

I found the idea that making noise and setting off car alarms could start area-wide quests, like a zombie invasion or something along those lines. It's reminiscent of Left 4 Dead, and I'm left wondering if this kind of unique content will be something featured heavily in TSW, or as sort of your own answer to "Public Quests" as they're known in other games. Basically, is Funcom jumping on board for the switch to "Dynamic Content" as its being called?

Ragnar Tørnquist:

We really believe in creating a true multiplayer world where instancing is kept to a bare minimum, and where the actions of players have consequences for everyone around them. When a Draug boss spawn in the middle of Main Street, it spawns for everyone. When the Kingsmouth Sheriff's Office is under assault, that's an event that affects all players in the vicinity. Most of the content in The Secret World is true massively multiplayer content, and it's definitely something we feel is important in an MMORPG, and we're not trying to compete with single-player RPGs. Instead, we want to give players a living, breathing world where actions have consequences, and where players work together -- or against each other -- to accomplish tasks and to progress through the content.

MMORPG.com:

Someone at Funcom (maybe you?) was once quoted as saying that the next several years of content are already planned out for TSW. I assume you mean in the form of the game's story and where you want to take it, but could you elaborate a little bit more on this idea? I think some might misinterpret this as "we're holding back content for launch".

Ragnar Tørnquist:

We're definitely not holding back anything for launch. In fact, we're trying to squeeze out as much content as possible in the time we have left -- the more solid, fun, polished content, the better. Having said that, we're also constantly thinking and looking ahead. An MMORPG doesn't end with launch: that's where it begins, and unless we're ready to feed our players with new content, new stories, missions, locations, dungeons, gameplay mechanics and powers, then we're not doing our jobs. So yes, there are big plans for where the game is going, content- and story-wise, and we've even done a bit of pre-production on upcoming material...none of which I'm ready to reveal at this point.

Plans, of course, will change when we open the floodgates and our world to the players. We're not rigid, and we will make sure that the players are heard, but in terms of the story, we've definitely plotted out most of the beats going forward, which will certainly inform everything from the contents to the mechanics.

MMORPG.com:

Could you elaborate a bit on the items and gear as they pertain to TSW? It sounds like that while many will be faction-specific, because of the classless system you'll basically be allowed to look however you want. But will there still be stats and the like assigned to items, or will they be mainly cosmetic in nature?

Ragnar Tørnquist:

Clothing is cosmetic, but a lot of clothing is reward and achievement based, meaning that you can show off your status and your progress if you so wish. Everything else -- weapons, magic rings and talismans, 'chakras' -- has stats and affects your character and your powers. This is where a lot of our character progression will happen, and a well-equipped player will be a lot more powerful than one who's just starting out, even when sharing the same deck of powers.

MMORPG.com:

Okay, just one more before we let you go. In the spirit of the game's setting and story, if there's one cryptic hint you could give all the fans of the game right now, what would it be? What can we start ruminating on as we wait for uncovered secrets?

Ragnar Tørnquist:

The secret war is on the horizon. The engines are slowly turning. They are waking.

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