Funcom promises that its upcoming MMO The Secret World will let you "experience a linear story in a non-linear fashion" as you slowly assemble the pieces of a worldwide conspiracy and mystery that began hundreds of years ago. It's a tall order for a genre that seems more interested in forcing you to kill 10 rats/spiders/goblins/tax collectors before actually letting you get to the good stuff, but Lead Content Designer Joel Bylos and Lead Designer Martin Bruusgaard are pretty confident that The Secret World manages to make it work.
The first step to refining the storytelling was changing the way that The Secret World approaches quests. Players will only be able to have three active quests at a time - one story quest, one main quest, and one side quest - a limitation that Bylos says was vital to maintaining good storytelling.
"I worked on Age of Conan," he explained during my visit to Funcom to get hands-on time with the game. "We did 1600 quests for launch, 800 quests on Godslayer. You can't build a nice narrative when this playfield has to have 70 quests, because every other area has 70 quests. How much of that is going to be filler?"
Rather than just give you busywork meant to boost your XP, each mission of The Secret World teaches you something, shows you a mechanic in the world, or introduces you to an area. You're still earning XP, but you're also learning more about the world around you, gleaning information about the overarching story.
"It gives you this opportunity to build toward something rather than having to say, 'Go do that, now come back, now go do that, now come back,'" says Bylos.
Some players will undoubtedly feel uncomfortably restricted by the game's limit on active quests, but Bylos believes the narrow focus actually works in the player's favor, turning the NPCs from quest dispensers into actual people.
"In level-based games everyone thinks that endgame is where they need to be so it's like, 'get everything, get to endgame, get to endgame.' But I think it's nice when we have put so much effort into these stories and these characters, people actually feel like, 'I did something for the Sheriff.' I don't think people [are] like, 'I just did the five missions at the police station hub,' instead they're like, 'I helped out the Sheriff.' It's a different tack on things," he says.
And not one that just any MMO can pull off, apparently.
"Not to be knocking anyone, The Old Republic is really going to be story driven as well, but it's a very different kind of storytelling," begins Bylos. "Their kind of storytelling is very, 'This is the story we're telling you, go from A to B, this is the story, this is the story.' Our story is more like, 'You stumbled across this piece of lore, you read this piece of lore.'" Part of the fun of The Secret World, Funcom hopes, will be piecing together the game's mystery by comparing notes with other players.
All of this sounds great if you're looking for a really juicy story, but what if you're the kind of player who really just wants to kill things and get loot? No worries, says Bruusgaard. He's still pretty sure you'll dig it.
"I'm very confident because I know that type [of player]. I am kind of that type," he told me. "I'm usually the type of gamer, especially in MMOs, I want to get XP, I want to get to the endgame, I want PVP at the endgame and I want the best loot. Just give me the missions or quests, I just want to get there. [Senior Producer and Creative Director Ragnar Tornquist] challenged me when I started on the project three and a half years ago, he said, 'I know you're this kind of guy, let me tell you this story of The Secret World.' I sat down, he gave me a two hour presentation, and I said, 'This needs to be a movie, TV series or a book or something.' I'm sold, I'm sold."
The story was certainly what pulled me into The Secret World; you can register for the beta to see if it piques your interest, as well.