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The Secret World and the future of the MMORPG

The MMORPG as we know it is in a state of flux, facing an uncertain and unguaranteed future. With The Secret World dropping its mandatory subscription fee, has it avoided the pitfalls so many others have fallen into? Separate from that, does it, on a very basic level, breathe new life into an aging formula? And if so, what does it mean for the genre at large? Niall Gosker investigates.

The Secret World simply by virtue of its setting stands out in what is a genre devoid of creative universes. It takes place in the modern day, in our world, except every conspiracy theory and supernatural phenomena is a reality. The Illuminati, zombies, demons, ancient mythology and more; they’re all here. It would have been very easy for the game to end up a garbled mess of unoriginal lore torn from the pages of practically every fictional work ever but the strength of the writing ensures all the seams are stitched firmly together and never show signs of unravelling.

It’s a rarity for an MMORPG to place such emphasis and devote such attention to storytelling. Story has generally been relegated to lengthy and mundane quest text in most games but with Star Wars: The Old Republic last year, fully fledged cutscenes and voice work became a standard and an expectation. It’s crazy to think that that it’s taken such an extraordinary amount of time, for what have been normalities in practically every other genre since the shift in the third dimension, to find their way into MMOs. The Secret World presents each mission with a short but well shot cutscene and some genuinely entertaining dialogue, straddling the line well between dark satirical humour and decent philosophical ponderings. Often the highlight of each quest isn’t in its playthrough but rather your interaction with the quest giver.

That’s not to imply that they’re poorly designed or unfun to play, quite the opposite. It definitely meets its ‘fetch quest’ quota but even these are more interesting than they would be in any other MMORPG, purely the world is packed with so many fascinating mysteries to uncover and is brimming with personality. Indeed, the mystery aspect is the fulcrum around which The Secret World’s most innovative gameplay features rotate. Cryptic puzzles pop up often in the form of ‘Investigation Missions’, requiring use of the game’s basic browser, which allows access to Google and any other sites that might prove useful in the deciphering process. Integrating the larger world makeup right into a central gameplay mechanic and having it make contextual sense, is an extremely clever way of further investing the player in the world’s lore. They also serve as a nice break from the more combat oriented sections, which are unfortunately lacking in the same inspiration seen throughout much of the game. It’s pretty standard MMORPG fare; Healers, tanks, mashing a row of numbered keys, and waiting for cooldowns. There is a reticule mode which attempts to appeal to fans of more traditional action games but it is underdeveloped and little more than window dressing. It would be fantastic to see it built upon further in the coming months as it certainly has potential to freshen up what is now a completely stale and archaic battle system.

The biggest concern when The Secret World dropped its mandatory subscription was in how Funcom would redesign aspects of the game in light of the fact that many players will only be paying a once off fee. Thankfully, their decisions have been wise, with practically no restrictions in place for the more casual player and have been met with good reaction. To contrast this with how The Old Republic handled its own transition to free-to-play is astonishing. BioWare screwed up big time; by imposing petty limitations on non paying players to such a severe degree, many have agreed that to play for free is a tedious and pointless affair. The free-to-play balancing act has proven to be an exceptionally difficult task for numerous developers to successfully pull off. One would hope that The Old Republic is merely a demonstration of growing pains, a bump on the road to a business model that will prove satisfying for all. The Secret World gives good reason to believe that may be the case.

The MMO landscape is certainly in a period of transition with a very foggy future ahead. Considering the number of big titles who have abandoned the subscription model so quickly in recent memory, it’s clear that such an approach is no longer viable, especially in this economic climate. Expectations of the consumer have changed. It’s difficult not to feel for the likes of Bethesda, who have been developing The Elder Scrolls Online for roughly the past five years, and now find themselves in a very tricky situation. Not only is their main system of income taking its last breath, the genre itself has stagnated and is in dire need of a revolution. With The Elder Scrolls Online seeming to retain nothing of what made the franchise so loved in the first place and consequently looking like nothing more than a prettier World of Warcraft, and being based on an aging blueprint, it is likely dead on arrival.

While The Secret World does prove that there is some life in the MMORPG in its current form, the ball is back in Blizzard’s court. In one way, they’re under no real pressure to release their follow up to World of Warcraft anytime soon; despite dwindling popularity, it remains a grossly lucrative business proposition. Rather, the urgency should stem purely from a desire to retain public interest, to inject the rejuvenating cure into the veins of a decaying genre, one whose rotting limbs continue to allow it to sluggishly stumble forward; but how long before its brittle bones collapse under their own weight?