As The Agency's Lead Designer, Hal Milton, and Director of Development, Matt Wilson, spoke, they made it clear they do not accept the common assumptions of MMO developers. Too often, they said, design decisions are based on precedent. They want to build a game that appeals to more than just MMO fans, and to accomplish their goal, the crew at SOE Seattle operates from a different toolbox, that of the first-person shooter.
"We wanted to bring mainstream gaming into the MMO space," Wilson told assembled journalists in during a presentation at SOE's MGM Grand suite during CES.
To capture that audience, they invented an exaggerated and idyllic world of espionage. Fans of James Bond, Jason Bourne and any other number of famous properties will instantly find themselves at home in the real-world locales, which for launch include a smattering of European, East Asian and South American locales.
They are driven by a desire to capture the secret agent lifestyle, which is one of fast cars, beautiful people, posh casinos and big guns. The Agency is all about the glamour, not the drudgery, and has far more in common with the world of the early Bond films or even Austin Powers than it does the harsh realism of Jason Bourne. They want their game to be an escape.
That's part of the reason they went for a shooter. They don't want people to go in and do target practice to advance their rifle skill. That's not to say there is no advancement, but rather that it centers around the number of tricks in the trunk and not the basics of what a player can do. Milton told us that if a level one player managed to shoot a high-end player between the eyes, that guy is dead. There isn't an infinite curve where one "level 50" agent could take out an infinite number of newbies. The advantage of the high-end guy is in the sheer volume of cool things he can do. He still has to aim his guns and shoot.
The same logic inspired their previously announced "you are what you wear" system, which is a catchy way of saying players can change classes with a simple wardrobe change. If someone wants to be a high-powered commando, he gets his commando gear. If he wants to be a support/medical type, he better bring his paddles. Players advance in each of the different classes through usage. If someone spends a lot of time in full combat gear, he'll unlock a lot of combat abilities, and so on.
During this event, the team showed off more details on their previously vague operative system, which is poised to be one of the neatest aspects of the game. As players play through missions, they meet a range of characters that for whatever reason may be willing to join the character as an operative. These characters have their own agendas and may want money, pursue their own ideology, simply wish to cooperate or even join with you for their own ego's sake. The theory is called "M.I.C.E." (money, ideology, cooperative, ego), which according to Milton is an actual CIA term they use to collect their own sources and operatives.
These characters level up as they're used and even traded off to other players. This collection of operatives can contribute at key moments in a mission as the voice on the other end of a headset that exists in every spy movie, or take on a Q role and build fancy new toys.
"Spies don't click to craft," Wilson said with a grin, but quite seriously. At a basic level, it is operatives that do that for the player, and the results are in real-time. So for example, if a player wants a new car, they can build it for a monetary and time cost. Say that car takes a week to create. Well, in this form of offline advancement, a player can login on a Saturday and tell his operative to build him that fancy new car. Next Saturday, that same person has a car.
That wasn't enough for SOE Seattle, though: They then extended this system's tendrils into people's day-to-day life. It's optional, but it sounds absolutely cool. They gave the example of an operative told to scout a location in South America. It's supposed to be a four-day mission. The time arrives, and the game will actually contact the player with a cell phone alert or email to tell them it's done. What's more, it can even build gameplay into people's day-to-day life. For example, that text message may not just say it's done, it might say that the operative has been captured and his captors want $1 million in exchange for his life. Text one, they're paid and you have your operative. Text two, he's killed. Ignore the message, and you can deal with the situation later.
It sounds corny, but the effect sounds almost like The Agency hopes to make their game a true secret identity for the player, in and out of game. It remains to be seen if there will be enough extra-game involvement to truly evoke that level of immersion, but the prospect is fascinating and perfectly suited to the universe they've built.
This event also gave SOE Seattle an opportunity to expand on their mission system, which learned a few lessons, it appears, from Guitar Hero of all things. Each instanced mission has a score given at the end - gold, silver or bronze - based on factors within the mission. In the one they showed us, there were bad guys with bombs at the end of the mission who wanted to cave in an embassy. They ran toward one of four support beams. If they strapped bombs to each of them and they went off, the embassy would be destroyed and the players would lose. If all four supports were saved, the players earned a gold ranking.