Well, it’s been a few months since The Secret World (TSW) launched, and of the new games arriving – Guild Wars 2, Mists of Pandaria – this is the one I find myself returning to. A big part of the reason is the setting – there’s simply no other game quite like it.
The Secret World is set in the modern day, but with one critical difference – the stuff of dreams, nightmares and mythology have begun manifesting in the waking world. Zombies, Lovecraftian horrors, ghosts, the wendigo and sasquatch of indian legend, Slavic vampires and more have made their way into our countrysides and cities, all with the seeming intent of destroying our world. There’s a hint at some kind of power behind this invasion, and player characters begin their creation by being “selected” somehow by a mysterious force, (imparted by magical “bees”) that imbue them with extraordinary powers.
So The Secret World(TSW) went ahead and implemented something that, upon consideration, seems a no-brainer—they added an in-game web browser. Hit the “B” button and you’re taken to Google, and from there, you have access to the entire internet from within the game. In makes complete sense for an MMO set in the modern day, especially given the need to research clues and solve things like Morse Code puzzles. Sure, we could do all that in an outside browser as well, but having the browser right there not only keeps the player in the game, but also makes for a more immersive experience. In several quests, it’s actually necessary to browse out to a website created by the TSW developers to solve the puzzle. Given the number of times I’ve popped out of other games to look up information in the browser, I’m wondering why more games haven’t attempted to present their lore in-house.
At a recent meeting with a group of game developers we were discussing the merits of quest chains vs. open, serendipitous questing.
The original Ultima single-player games used an open system – as you traveled through the world you might talk with a person in a village who, if you asked him about a particular subject (using a method similar to the old Zork games – trial and error typing in your own subject line), he perhaps could tell you a story with a lead you could follow up on – he might tell you of a person in another city who knew more, or possibly of an area in Brittania where an object might be found if you investigated. There was no guide telling the player the exact location, just the name of the city or locale, and taking of notes and using your map was certainly necessary to keep track of the thread. At any one time you might have 4-5 threads you were following, and a decent-sized notebook. If you had somehow stolen from the character or attacked him previously, you might not get the clue or thread in the story. Ultima kept track of your behavior in the world.
In 1978, just about 11 years after TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons burst onto the scene, a company called Chaoisum introduced a new game: RuneQuest. While there were many, many differences between RuneQuest and D&D, the one people point to most frequently is RuneQuest’s percentile-based skill system, and the fact there were no character “levels.” In RuneQuest, rather than templated character classes (“fighter,” “cleric,” “thief,” etc.) with pre-defined abilities, you placed points into skills, and as you used them, each skill had the possibility to improve. So a character might have especially good skills in longsword and shield if they were a fighter-type, or magical spells if they were a mage. Even more of a shock, your “hit points” almost never increased. Your ability to defend (parry or dodge or block with a shield), could become very high, but your base health stayed pretty much the same throughout your character’s life. A lowbie character with a very lucky roll could defeat a high powered one who made a very bad roll—something unheard of in the D&D world.
I logged into Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) for the first time a year ago, knowing it was a free-to-play game, and at the same time feeling a little weary of the Warcraft level and gear grind. There had been something of a hub-bub over LOTRO going free in 2010—it was one of the first to do so—but other than that, I was a bit surprised how such a well-known title had such a quiet following. Or maybe it was just that the Warcraft crowd was bigger and louder.