Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

17 February, 2013

That moblin was wrong: it’s not really a secret
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:45 PM

I decided to sign up as a soldier in the secret war. It was pretty appealing when The Secret World was only $10 after they dropped subscriptions. Cheapest entry into an exclusive club, ever!

And, to answer the burning question: Dragon. You may congratulate or boo me in the comments section. ;)

A more substantial review beyond the jump.

A history shrouded in mystery

I played The Secret World (TSW) in beta. I wanted to see how they would push MMOs forward after the building expectation. The game eschewed the standard fantasy setting, ditched the usual level and class systems, and focused on telling an interesting story woven from conspiracy theories. I enjoyed the beta, although I was disappointed that the much ballyhooed “investigation quests” were disabled. Ultimately, like a lot of other people I guess, I decided that the wasn’t quite engrossing enough to buy and subscribe to the game.

But, without a subscription and a ludicrously cheap purchase price, I could resist no longer.

A secret handshake shows the way

Ah, the classic decision faced in any new MMO: what character type do I want to play?

The visual customization of your character is good. Obviously, in a game set in the modern world, you’re limited to human characters. There’s a good bit of choice, although the organization of the options leaves a bit to be desired. You can create a fairly unique looking character, perhaps even one that looks vaguely like you.

Gameplay choices are more complex. Funcom decided to get rid of levels (kinda) and classes (although they kept the trinity). So, you don’t have the all the familiar tropes to rely on.

There are nine weapon types in TSW. Three melee weapons, three firearms, and three types of magic. Without existing tropes, the first step is to learn what the different weapons do. For example, Assault Rifles do damage but also have some healing type abilities through “leeching” abilities. Each weapon has two tiers of abilities: an inner circle of two groups representing the “basic” abilities of the weapon, and an outer circle with six more expensive groups of abilities. The outer tier abilities are not necessarily more powerful, but they tend to be useful in more specific situations. For example, the outer circle Blade ability Grass Cutter does slightly less damage the base blade ability Delicate Strike. However, if the target is “Afflicted” (has a DoT from another ability), then Grass Cutter does about 20% or so more damage.

But, you have to choose carefully. You can wield only 2 weapons at a time, and only get 7 active abilities (typical hotbar abilities as in other games) and 7 passives (buffs that affect your character or enhance skills). Part of creating a smart build is picking the abilities that mesh well together. But, what do you want to do in a game with such free-form character advancement?

Each weapon type builds a resource: firearm resources build up on a target like combo points for Rogues in WoW, magic builds up resources from 0, and melee weapons build up resources that also increase when out of combat (like mana in other games). Some abilities increase resources, many for both weapons you have equipped. Other abilities consume resources, either taking a set amount or consuming all resources to do a variable effect. So, you tend to have an ebb and flow of building resources, then consuming those resources with other abilities.

Even though the game is technically classless, it does have the trinity of roles. For example, Blade skills do damage and “increase survivability”. If you take a lot of the “survivability” skills (and focus on equipment with defensive stats), you’ll have a tank-type character. In fact, when people look for groups they explicitly ask for healer, tank, and DPS characters. The potentially interesting thing is that you can swap between roles fairly easily if you have the appropriate skills and equipment. You don’t even have to re-spec, just adjust your equipment and skills when not in combat and you’re good to go.

Growing to unknown levels of power

So, how does your character grow? Even without explicit character levels, your equipment has quality levels (QL) that range from 0 to 10. Higher QL has higher bonuses and you need to higher skill levels with that type of equipment to equip higher quality levels. So, the game has a relative power level that is used for gameplay calculations. Advancing a skill also gives you some minor bonuses associated that skill. For weapons, you have 2 sub-categories and the highest is used for your overall skill level with that weapon; for example, Blades have Damage (which gives you an ability that does bonus damage on every other hit) and Survivability (which lets you regain some lost health sometimes when you get hit).

So, how do you get all these wonderful abilities and skill levels? Buying them with points! How do you get ability points and skill points? Gaining xp! You gain xp from killing monsters, but as with most modern games you get more xp if you complete quests. (At least the first time, repeating a quest seems to give less xp.)

Quest come in four flavors: main story quests that take you through a whole setting, dungeon quests that you complete in dungeon areas, main quests (includes the investigation quests) that you get from NPCs, and side quests that you usually pick up along the way doing other quests. Except for three side quests, you can only do one of each other type of quest at a time. To be honest, this feels like a way to just stretching out the content by keeping you from doing a bunch of quests all at one time. There also doesn’t seem to be quite enough side quests. All the main quests have voice over introductions, where your silent character lets the quest-giving NPC either give a monologue or interact with other NPCs nearby while giving you some hint or background on what you’re about to do.

Of course, the voiceovers are incredibly limiting to adding content; as we saw with SW:tOR, it’s hard to keep adding the content that players of this type of MMO consume at such a rapid pace when there’s the expectation that it needs to have voice acting along with it.

A character’s hidden talents

I did a bit of research on recommended builds. I saw a lot of references to Blades and Assault Rifle builds, so I went with those weapons. I didn’t follow any particular builds, just used those two weapons and figured out how they worked. I spent my ability points unlocking the inner tier of abilities for all weapon types; I figured I would want to try out the different abilities after a bit.

Currently I’m in the third zone in the game, the Blue Mountains area. I’ve done all the quests in the first two zones at least once, at least the ones I could find. :) I’ve run the first two dungeons twice as well. My current build works very well for me. Perhaps too well, in that when I tried a few other weapons I just couldn’t get into them, even before I started buying the outer tier skills. Other weapons lacked the punch or survivability I’ve come to enjoy with the Blade/AR build. Although, I think I’d still like to try to create a tanking build for future dungeon runs.

I have the same problem I encountered in Guild Wars 2: I’ve kind of optimized my selection based on my playstyle, and the limited number of skills feels limiting to me. I like having abilities that I don’t use every fight, that I save for those special “oh shit” situations.

A big potential downside of the character advancement system is that it seems to make alts largely unnecessary. Why build a new character and have to grind through the same old quests when you could do the same thing on your original character and get those abilities eventually, anyway? The limited number of quests means that you aren’t getting much in the way of new experiences. The only difference between the factions seem to be flavor text after finishing a quest, a few quests you participate in as you level up, and some cosmetic options. Whereas I have an army of alts in DDO and GW2, I only see myself really playing one character in TSW.

The obscured path to the future

Some other thoughts about the game.

A lot of people weren’t fond of the combat in TSW. It does seem a bit awkward, still relying on some of the hotbar combat tropes in other games, while seemingly encouraging a more mobile mindset that GW2 seemed to streamline a bit later. I think TSW’s combat is fine so far, but I’ve read warnings that the next two major areas, Egypt and Transylvania, are MUCH harder in turn. We’ll see if I can persist.

A gameplay element that I particularly like are the bits of lore. These are orange squares located around the world; some are hidden while others are out in the open. These open up bits of text that tell you about the world. Although, as much as I’m not fond of GW2 putting every location to find on the map, I do wish there were hints about where the locations of the lore are. If there’s some item of lore I’m missing, I either have to spend time wandering around trying to find it, or read a site that tells me exactly where the lore is found (because, hey, achievers like to read lore too.) I wish there were a more happy medium.

Overall, I like the story; it’s actually pretty good, and I don’t just mean “good for a game”. The heavy reliance on voice acting means that there’s going to be a finite amount of content I’ll be able to consume before it degenerates to grinding to fill out the skills on my character sheet, though.

In the transition from subscription to free-to-play, I worry that TSW seems to be giving away a bit too much. Keeping in mind that I tend to be a cheap bastard, I haven’t seen much I’m particularly interested in spending money on past my $10 investment to buy the game. They do give you a few perks for subscribing but a big one, a reusable xp boost, doesn’t quite work the way the game is set up. You can use the xp boost to double monster xp for 1 hour, reusable every 16 hours. But, that includes time spent in voiceovers, or just listening to dialog options with NPCs. After I pop the boost then sit in an otherwise entertaining quest introduction, I feel like I’m wasting a resource. I’ve had to change my perspective to see it as a bonus rather than a feature, which means that subscribing might not be worthwhile. And, given that I’m not all that fussed with cosmetic options, that won’t be a source of income from me. The only thing that might be interesting is some of the “DLC” stories they’ve introduced after launch. As I’ve written before, I think DDO does free-to-play right.

There’s also a system of auxiliary weapons I haven’t figured out yet. Rocket launchers, chainsaws, and quantum bracers sound interesting, and I assume there some high level feature I haven’t stumbled across yet.

Overall, I’m enjoying TSW. I made my home (you can group with anyone on any server, but you have a home) on a role-playing server, so I might dive into that a bit more later after I’ve explored the world a bit more. :)

With a lot of new mechanics to explore, I’m still figuring out things on a design level. I’ll probably do another post in the future with some design analysis. But, I’m interested to hear what you think. Is TSW intriguing to you? Or did you let it pass you by? If you play it, what builds have you found to your liking?


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11 Comments »

  1. Good overview. It’s odd that when people decide to write about their experiences in TSW for the first time they almost always seem to be in Blue Mountain, or on the verge of going there.

    Unless things have changed radically, neither Egypt or Transylvania is “harder” than Blue Mountains, far less “much harder”. Given a character using appropriate quality gear, Blue Mountain has to be the hardest open-zone area in the entire game. I hated most of it and went to Egypt long before I’d finished it. I found Egypt much easier, used it gear up, went to the first zone of Transylvania before I finished Egypt, geared up some more and went back to Blue Mountains in Q8 gear, by which time it was just unpleasant instead of impossible. Personally I found Egypt the most enjoyable part of the game outside of London.

    Both the story and the voiceovers are the best I have seen in any MMO. They reach the level of a good genre novel or indie movie, which is a good couple of notches above any other MMO I can think of. I’d be very interested to see a movie or tv show written by whoever writes the TSW scripts. Actually, I’d prefer to see a movie by them than play the game. Despite the quality here, I remain to be convinced that video games are a viable carrier for narrative. How does breaking up the storyline with great chunks where you circle strafe and pound keys improve storytelling again?

    I’m playing agian off and on now its free. I was keen but I’m disheartened by not being able to kill the sub-boss at the end of part two of the first (free) DLC pack. I’m running a rifle/blades build that served me fine right into Carpathian Teeth but I just can’t get past that boss. That’s the sort of thing that makes me think video games and stories are not happy bedfellows.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 17 February, 2013 @ 6:17 PM

  2. You pretty much stumbled onto the uber build where in the end all you need to do is spin-to-win. It’s great at first but I got really bored with it. I ended up experimenting a lot more and trying many different builds I concocted. While nowhere near as good I have a lot more fun with them as I’m often challenged to move more and utilise all my skill set.

    The story and mission dialogues never lose there charm either and pretty much all of them are very well done so I would recommend keeping with it for them alone.

    Comment by J3w3l — 17 February, 2013 @ 7:37 PM

  3. I think the “one character” design is intentional. If memory serves, at one point, they wanted you to lock your account to one faction. That, combined with the heavier focus on storytelling like SWTOR, generally does make it seem like a “play once, be done” sort of game. That’s fine with me, but not really a good fit for a sub model.

    I’d probably be playing the game if it weren’t M rated. The secret society stuff and core design seems interesting, but whatever earns it the rating puts it off my roster.

    Comment by Tesh — 17 February, 2013 @ 8:16 PM

  4. The xp-boost is meant primarily for the veterans, especially those that have specialised builds to farm the Nightmare mobs for xp and signets. With such a build and with the boost on I can typically get anything between 80 and 100 AP in one hour, depending on competition with the spawns.

    @Tesh: The M rating is there because the game does the horror theme extremely well. There are missions that have freaked me out more than any film did (eg. Virgula Divina). Also, swearing. Lots of it.

    Comment by tithian — 18 February, 2013 @ 5:24 AM

  5. My only comment is on this passage: “Except for three side quests, you can only do one of each other type of quest at a time. To be honest, this feels like a way to just stretching out the content by keeping you from doing a bunch of quests all at one time.”

    I think you’re not giving TSW the real credit or missing the point here. In the “traditional” MMO, a player arrives at a “questhub”, where 5 to 10 NPCs hand him a total of between 12 to 20 Quests. The player then sees a lot of markings on the map, heads there, kills 20 wolves, lights a pile of hay, kills an additional 5 old wolves, touches some markings on a wall, kills another 15 grey wolves, blows a whistle, does some more killing. When all markings on the map returned from the quest area to the questhub, the player returns and finishes the quests.

    Now go ahead and ask the player, why he did all those tasks. The only true answer can be “because of XP and items”. Now ask in detail, which mission and NPC he killed the wolves for, why he blew the whistle and light the haystack and what he actually touched the runes for. The player won’t be able to answer that and has no idea on the story at all. Wouldn’t there be SW:TOR, this problem could be blamed on players unwilling to read quest texts, but the same effect still is true in TOR, where each and any quest was voice acted, too. Despite this, people had the tendency to just pick up all quests in an area, often just spacebar through the dialogues, and rush off to finish them in a rush. I have to admit that despite listening to all the dialogues in TOR, i often finished objectives en passe without knowing why i’d do that, simply because i had too many active quests and thus didn’t know which objective actually belonged to which mission any more.

    This is redemied in TSW by giving the player one mission at a time. Don’t feel cheated, you now just do one big mission with reasonable XP reward, instead of rushing through a dozen or more missions which just add up to an acceptable XP reward. At the same time you now actually understand why you do it, learn about things in the world and get to know the NPCs and their motivations. (And this is even before mentioning that the characters and voiceovers in TSW are of significant higher quality than most of them in TOR. Sure, there is no 1-2-3-wheel and your own character talks “very little”, but unless you’re mentally a moss-covered rock, your imagination can easily fill in for those gaps, much better than any caned answers could ever do. )

    Comment by Sylow — 18 February, 2013 @ 6:19 AM

  6. bhagpuss wrote:
    It’s odd that when people decide to write about their experiences in TSW for the first time they almost always seem to be in Blue Mountain, or on the verge of going there.

    Probably because it’s a natural point to reflect on the game. You feel like you’ve played enough of the game to get a feel for how it works. You’re past the very newbie stages, and you’ve probably done a few things like dungeons.

    Unless things have changed radically, neither Egypt or Transylvania is “harder” than Blue Mountains, far less “much harder”.

    Ah? I’ve heard people talking in chat that the next few areas are much harder. Perhaps they are trying to spook the newbies. :)

    Despite the quality here, I remain to be convinced that video games are a viable carrier for narrative. How does breaking up the storyline with great chunks where you circle strafe and pound keys improve storytelling again?

    As I’ve explained before, I think games aren’t that great for the designer to tell a carefully scripted narrative. I think the better option is to let the player discover their personal narrative in the context of the game. Maybe I think the Wabanaki should be saved and the people of Kingsmouth are petty assholes that deserve to get eaten by zombies; but, if I want to maximize my XP gain, I can’t act that way.

    And, to be fair, letting the player lead the narrative is scary new ground to cover.

    j3w3l wrote:
    You pretty much stumbled onto the uber build where in the end all you need to do is spin-to-win.

    Damn. Sometimes being a gamer and game designer is a bit of a curse, I guess. I’d love to hear some suggestions for other simple builds.

    Tesh wrote:
    That, combined with the heavier focus on storytelling like SWTOR, generally does make it seem like a “play once, be done” sort of game.

    Yeah, but that seems a poor plan when you’re talking about an expensive game that you’ll have to maintain for the long haul. The appeal of MMOs, from the business perspective, is that they keep players paying in the long run.

    tithian wrote:

    The xp-boost is meant primarily for the veterans, especially those that have specialised builds to farm the Nightmare mobs for xp and signets.

    I can see that. But, it seems a lot less useful for the new players, as I said. Seems like a poor time to give the player the “free premium month” if they get so little out of it. The xp boost would be nice if it fit better with how the game is structured.

    The M rating is there because the game does the horror theme extremely well.

    I think this is most of it. I was in the Blue Mountains and I saw the Decomposing Kodiak monster running around. Holy crap, was that creepy as hell when I first saw it. There’s also the implied sex encounter in the Dragon prologue as well that probably marks it as special.

    Sylow wrote:
    This is redemied in TSW by giving the player one mission at a time.

    Fair point, but it still feels artificial. If you ask me to run to the store, I don’t have to come back before someone else asks me to run to the store as well.

    I think the solution here is to give much better quest design. Have each mission go to different areas rather than overlapping. Or, have more side quests where you can pick them up and accomplish multiple goals at one time.

    I’ll also argue that making the player do something they don’t want to do isn’t really the best design. People can still skip through the voiceovers, they can still just chase the markers on the map, and they can still turn in the quest without really having to understand why they did what they did.

    I still think the reason why it’s designed that way is because creating the mission content, particularly with voice overs, was very expensive. They focused on quality rather than quantity, so they designed a way to make the relative lack of quantity not make the game feel too short. I think a bit better design could have hidden this motivation and made the game even more engrossing.

    Thanks for the comments, all!

    Comment by Psychochild — 18 February, 2013 @ 1:26 PM

  7. I have the same problem I encountered in Guild Wars 2: I’ve kind of optimized my selection based on my playstyle, and the limited number of skills feels limiting to me. I like having abilities that I don’t use every fight, that I save for those special “oh shit” situations.

    Which is why Egypt and Transylvania are good; they point out the limitations of a Blade/Assault rifle build. Mobs develop extra damage based upon the damage type you do to them – so Affliction (ie, most Blades) become more of a liability; develop immunities (to Afflictions or to Impair: again, good luck Blade) or require another state (Weaken or Hinder, not found in Blade or Assault Rifle) before they can be damaged. On Solomon Island, Blade/Assault rifle is king; once past that, some diversity is necessary. Part of the problem, of course, is you get to Blue Mountains with your Blade/Assault rifle build, you start fighting the infamous Ak-abs and you say ‘these aren’t hard, what is everyone complaining about? This is boring’ (or, if using any build without ranged attacks: ‘these Ak-ab are too hard, I quit!’).

    A big potential downside of the character advancement system is that it seems to make alts largely unnecessary.

    I took 5 characters to QL10: one extra character slot purchased, and one deleted. It was just more enjoyable to start again and explore a weapon combination from the ground up than it was to pick and choose once I’d got to Transylvania. That said, 4 of the 5 characters ended up being re-specced in at least one primary weapon, somewhere between Savage Island and City of the Sun God.

    I’d echo, too, the comment about questing: TSW’s limitations, although initially off-putting if you’re used to other MMOs, is a real strength; it makes you engage a lot more with each quest (more intrinsic motivation to quest, less extrinsic). There’s the obvious comeback: ‘you say that, but you stopped playing…’ and that’s true, but then I’m one of those people who hates instance-running, and when I stopped, that was the end-game. Plus, the side-quests really reward exploration (although, as always: isn’t reward exploration something done for achievers? but still… there are quests out there if you want to look for them).

    I do have to disagree strongly on the character creator though: in beta, that was my main feedback, ‘make it better!’ You can create all different sorts of human character, as long as you choose ugly ><

    Comment by sean — 19 February, 2013 @ 1:07 AM

  8. Hmm, yes, i get your point there. Indeed among the first missions in Kingsmouth, you do two “retrieve stuff” circles in short order, which indeed feels redundant.

    Though, while i played through all of the game, i don’t remember the same effect again later in the game. Yes, you sometimes were sent to the same place in a followup mission, but the reason why you return is a followup task with understandable logic behind it. Next to that, it’s usually side missions which send you to similar stuff than main missions again, but those side missions can be picked up along, three at a time, which i found to be sufficient to avoid unnecessary repetition.

    Comment by Sylow — 20 February, 2013 @ 5:52 AM

  9. “Yeah, but that seems a poor plan when you’re talking about an expensive game that you’ll have to maintain for the long haul.”

    Well… yes. I’m not saying it’s what I consider smart MMO design. :)

    Comment by Tesh — 20 February, 2013 @ 8:46 AM

  10. Right around Blue Mountain I started feeling like the game was too brutal for me. I enjoy the storylines and want to play more, but just haven’t managed to get back into it. On my to do list, I think. I think I need to XP/SP/QL grind some before trying to continue the story quests.

    If it hasn’t been pointed out yet, the auxiliary weapons are picked up in quest chains in various different spots, for example the Quantum Bracer quest line starts with “Moose”, Kingsmouth’s resident Fonz and crafting trainer. It has a fairly high QL requirement.

    Comment by Max Battcher — 23 February, 2013 @ 4:08 PM

  11. “Or, have more side quests where you can pick them up and accomplish multiple goals at one time.”

    This is usually the case. If you take a main mission, you will end up nearby one or more side missions. Those in turn take you to another area of the game, where there will be either another main mission or side missions. The side missions are often hidden, sometimes in a cave, sometimes a strange object laying on the ground. This encourages exploration. If you find yourself without any missions and running back to NPCs, you’re missing a lot of the side quests.

    Regarding weapon choices, as the game progresses, you’ll find that you will need more than just Rifle/Blade. Specific enemies will require certain builds to defeat. When you get to Translyvania and run the nightmare missiosn, you’ll need to bring other weapons to the table. This is why the game lets you learn everything, since you will need everything to get past what the game throws at you.

    Alt’ing is a little bit difference in this game. You build up “alt” builds with your main character, which is similiar in other games as rolling up a new toon. Instead of replaying the same missions though, you get to do high level content as you build up your secondary roles. It takes a good deal of time to get a full tank, heal, dps, and support roles. Plus there are viable combinations such as a tankhealer, dpshealer, etc.

    Give Marthos a holler in the game. I’d love to show you around a bit, maybe hunt down some missed lore pieces and side missions.

    Comment by Marthos — 25 February, 2013 @ 9:06 AM

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