Q&A: SOE's Wilson Presents The Agency
As announced elsewhere, Sony Online Entertainment has revealed that it's developing the first massively multiplayer online game for the Playstation 3 as well as PC, and it has nothing to do with swords or sorcery. Known as The Agency, the game is set in the world of espionage, inspired by James Bond and aimed at a more mainstream audience.
Sony Online Entertainment Seattle has a few tricks up their sleeve to keep players always attached their virtual world, such as using SMS messaging to notify players about in game events. Gamasutra spoke to Matt Wilson, Studio Manager, to explain their upcoming project.
Where did you guys come with the idea to make an espionage title?
Matt Wilson: I think our big inspiration to develop this game actually came from watching movies. If you pay attention to all of the summer blockbusters there are lot of movies that come out around the spy/espionage genre. Whether it’s James Bond, or the Bourne series all the way from Mission Impossible or even TV shows like 24 or Alias, it is a really big genre of information that is out there.
When we were watching the gameplay demo we saw there was a little FPS shooting. Is it an FPS?
It’s both first and third person shooting, but the main component there is shooting. One of the things we wanted to do is combine the best of the mainstream action genre. So if think of mainstream shooting games, you know you see a lot of them on the console and on the PC, we really want to take advantage of that and bring a new audience to what typically is a fantasy online world.
After that, we want to take the two [genres], the best of the MMO and the best of the shooter, and combine those to develop something that is new that is pushing the online space forward.
How do characters team up? Do they meet before hand in a lobby or is there a virtual space everyone is hanging out at?
We’re going for the world approach. When you log on into The Agency you’re logging into our world. In fact our world is the world! We will have public spaces that you can join up with your friends in, do some amount of combat and mini-games.
Once you’ve joined up with your friends you will be able to go out and do more experiences, more like what you would see typically in cooperative shooters in these instant spaces.
When you meant you “the world is our world” did you mean the text messaging and the e-mail system? Can you explain a little more about that?
Yeah, I think the interesting thing we’re trying to do with The Agency is allow players to experience our world both online and offline. What we mean by that is as you are playing our game you will be collecting operatives what we kind of call living loot in this space.
These are people that are like Jack Bauer’s Chloe or James Bond’s Moneypenny, these are people who can help you find missions and get going. Eventually you are going to be saving that scientist on a mission. You’re going to be able to bring him back and he’s going to be able to make things for you.
One of the things we wanted is do was go for a real time, I’ll use loosely, crafting system. As you’re collecting these operatives they can build things for you, whether that is the car or other things. They can build them both online and offline. What that means is you save the scientist, you task him out to build that car, it might take a week for him to build that car, but that week is going to occur whether you are online or offline.
If you are offline and the car is done you can opt in to get e-mails or text messages where you can actually get that event. The scientist can go, “Hey, your car is ready, and by the way I’ve got a mission laid out for you. Ready to take it? Come on back!” We really want the game to feel it is always progressing with them whether they are playing or not.
Specifically during the presentation, you mentioned you can save an operative or not by pressing one or two on your phone...
Yeah, one of the things we’re toying with is these operatives are not only builders, they’re explorers too. We can send them out, just like you would send a standard agent out, on missions. These missions have success factors and failure factors. One of the examples that we brought up today, which I think is a really fun example, is the ability to send an operative off to investigate someone down in Central America. Maybe a drug lord in Central America.
As you’re investigating that he might hit a failure point where the game messages you back, “Hey, not only did I find the guy, but he’s got me now! He’s got me trapped!” We want to have bi-directional SMS where you press one to give a million dollars or two to let him die. The whole aspect to this is really making you feel you are playing the game whether you are online or offline.
What if you just never get the text message? Does he automatically die?
He just might die. [laughs] One of the things we want to do is really have fun with the game. Yes, you can lose operatives, but we don’t want it to be one strike and you’re out. We want to give people opportunities to be able to recover their operatives. That is part of the gameplay and having over the top silly ways of these guys dying is one of the things we want to have fun with.
You said it might take a week in real time to build a car. Don’t you think that might interfere in the gameplay because you have to wait for the car to be built for the next mission?
Not necessarily, I used that probably as an extended example. There are many tasks that can be accomplished in seconds. It could be “hey, I just want to do that reconnaissance in the room over there, tell me who is in there,” and that might take ten seconds. We definitely want to have long term gameplay where people are collecting operatives and combining these operatives to build out things in the long term. The car is definitely an example of that is something that might be as special as a mount you might achieve in another game where you might spend way more than a week to achieve it. [laughs]
That’s true, it’s passive, and at least you’re going out living your daily life. But can the car be destroyed?
The way we are looking at vehicles is vehicles are something you want to collect and augment over time. These vehicles will help you in your missions. It’s not necessarily that you are going to lose them. We want people destroying their cars over, over and over again.
The nice part about it is you have your own agency, your branch office, which basically in you can come back and get the car anytime you want. We want people destroying stuff, we want them running out of ammo, and blowing up cars. But they can always go back and get another one.
You mentioned there were two different types of agencies. Can you explain what those are?
Our two agencies are U.N.I.T.E. and Paragon. U.N.I.T.E. is basically our typical Bond agency. This is where you might find James Bond. These are superspies; these are people who might live the martini lifestyle. You have Paragon more of a mercenary group. These are ex-military guys who definitely prefer force over finesse. They are probably going to be blowing up stuff more than our U.N.I.T.E. agency.
Can you switch between the two factions or are you stuck once you join one?
Betrayal is definitely an interesting thing we are thinking about in the game, but we haven’t decided whether or not if we are going to let people do the switch yet.
Who are you actually protecting the world against?
We haven’t talked anything about the story. We’re holding that back for awhile. We really want to have a lot of the elements seen in the spy genre. I mean spies have villains, we got to have our villains.
Has there ever been any thought about letting players play the villains?
It’s definitely something we’ve thought about. It’s not something we are committing to yet. It is not really part of the core project that we are working on at the moment, but definitely an interesting idea.
Going back to the villains, secrets agent movies usually have ridiculous traps and mansions you have to walk to. Are you going to have lairs with traps with I don’t know... sharks with lasers?
We want to have fun in our game. We haven’t come up with specifics I can talk about now, but I will give you a little example. We already have sharks in the game, it’s going to be pretty easy to stick lasers on them. [laughs]
So the Agency is coming out for both the PS3 and the PC? Is this correct?
Yeah, that is correct.
Are you going to be able to use your character on the PC and the PS3 or is your character fixated on one platform?
As of right now we separated the two platforms. From a technical aspect it is achievable. We are not sure yet if we want to do it from a gameplay aspect. It is definitely something we are looking, but nothing that we have committed to.
Specifically, for the Playstation 3 version are you using SIXAXIS tilt control in the Agency?
Definitely something we are looking at using, but we have not decided how to use it.
Are you guys going for a subscription fee or is The Agency free to play online?
We have not determined what our subscription model is yet. One of the things we are doing is a wait and see to see how Free Realms works out as far as their subscription model. We have designed the game to support multiple subscription models from free to monthly subscription.
Have you considered a cash-op or ad based service?
Most of the revenue systems we have been looking at include a lot of different aspects. Obviously you’ve seen Kung Fu Hustle and Free Realms. Those have taken completely different approaches to the model and we have been given the freedom to think of a lot of different models. I don’t know exactly if game players are ready for that kind of model yet, but it is something we are definitely looking at.