There were a lot of new games presented at Sony's Gamer Day. One of the most exciting was in a genre I've been looking forward to for a long time - the super spy. Sony Seattle took the game in an interesting and really great direction; instead of the stealthy, hard to manage games we're used to from single player games, they're making a fun, James Bond-like insane game known as The Agency. Director of Development, Matt Wilson, was on hand to answer questions and his enthusiasm is as unchecked as the games's characters are larger than life.
Ok, so...The Agency, in a nutshell...
Matt Wilson: The basic premise behind The Agency is to live the life of an elite spy agent. We intend to do this by really immersing the player in what they've been used to seeing in movies like James Bond or the Bourne series or in TV shows like 24 or Alias, to really give them that experience of living the life of an elite agent. Whether that comes from the lifestyle, the locations or the over-the-top action moments that people love to see. We want to give them something exciting that they would typically expect in that kind of action/intrigue genre.
When we think about The Agency, it's about starting the player in one of the two established agencies inside of our world. UNITE - which is kind of our super-spy agency (So, UNITE would be the agency that James Bond would be from if he were in our game.), or ParaGON, our more over-the-top paramilitary guns-for-hire. We want to have developed two distinct sides that people can decide based upon a lifestyle.
Do you want to have the look of the uptown lifestyle of UNITE, or do you want to experience the gritty downtown lifestyle of ParaGON.
Even their actions are different. UNITE is going to focus more on stealth, more finesse, whereas ParaGON is definitely going to bust-the-door-down, grenades-throwing, mini-gun action ... explosions are probably their favorite things to do!
A player will start out in one of the two established organizations; then, they'll work their way up into what we call the high-stakes, high-profile world of an independent operative. They'll get to break away from their Agency - their mother ship - and start their own agency. Through this experience, they get to actually collect operatives inside of the world. This is what we call "living loot" ... it's our word for it. As you're doing missions, you're not going to just receive weapons and stuff like that; you're actually going to save people. As you save them, they're going to want to join your agency.
Say you save a scientist, and he wants to join your agency. He then becomes the beginning of your own Q branch. Now you're actually able to start building exotic cars or weapons or other things.
As you play through the world and develop your own agency, part of that might be joining with other players to build joint agencies. When joint agencies form, players can work together to build more fantastic gadgets and maybe even special items. Maybe you're collecting operatives that can build vehicles, and I'm collective operatives that can modify those vehicles with gun mounts ...
The last third of our game is the high game. This is what we call world domination ... that's the loose term for it. This is basically being able to vie against players or against other agencies for missions and even PvP arenas. We really want to have a fun high game where people can continue, whether it's cooperative with their own agency or against other agencies.
My favorite topic is "Fun Now, No Waiting." Explain what that means, if you would. Also, you're obviously working to that end to appeal to a more pedestrian gamer and a wider audience; how are you going to do that while still appealing to the hardcore gamer?
Matt Wilson: I think our original goal when we started this project - it's actually been our goal for a few years when developing games - was how do we take the stickiness and the community aspects of traditional MMO games and bring it to the mainstream audience? Part of that is lowering the barrier to entry. "Fun Now, No Waiting" is our phrase that kind of represents what we want to do with the gamer. Part of it is being able to have a zero barrier to entry when you come into the game. We're taking the best from the console shooter genre then really pushing it more towards large scale world - the persistent world of MMOs.
The first thing we wanted to do in lowering the barrier to entry is get a more mainstream approach. We did that by picking the spy genre, picking intrigues, picking things that people can clue in on immediately. And by using stories that people have heard before.
Secondly, it's giving them something really easy to do. This for us meant pick up a gun and shoot. It's not that difficult; there are a lot of popular games out there that use this skill. What we noticed in the console space is that it's the main way people game; it's very testable and that it's very easy to get started. So we wanted to take that space and really drive it forward.
The final part is the stickiness and community of an MMO. That's basically the primary reason people play online - the community aspect. It's meeting your friends; it's playing with your friends and finding a way to make that really easy to do. When you come into our game, we want to make it easy for you to find your friends, immediately get into the action together and get a mission if you want one, or log off if you'd rather. You don't have to continue play.
The second part is the stickiness. That's where the operatives come in. The operatives are your reason to come back. You're collecting these people inside of the world, and as you collect them inside the world, they'll do things for you - not only online, but offline. And part of that is having them build you presents - you know, while your offline. Maybe you've been playing with your friends, you've got that scientist you saved, and you put him in your own branch. You decide, "Hey, I want to build that cool exotic car." He might come back to you and say that's to take a few days or a week. You log off, and it's no big deal, because you've got him on that car.
You may be in a meeting; you may be at home or whatever. If you've opted into our messaging system, you may get a cell phone page or an e-mail that says, "Hey by the way, I've finished your car; it's awesome; come back and get it, and by the way, we've got a mission lined up for you." Or perhaps it says, "Your car is done, but I'm being held hostage; they want $1 million, or they'll kill me." And now you have to decide whether to save the scientist. We really want people to feel that whether they're online or offline, they're advancing, and they're not being left behind by the people that are online all the time.
For the more casual gamer, what will his/her experience be when they boot up the game? There's no manual, and it's designed to be user friendly ...
Matt Wilson: Our vision for when a player starts the game is the same "vision" you have of an action movie. When you watch an action movie, what do you expect? You expect to see action right off the bat! You might not even understand what's going on, but you're participating in a quick little story that plays out; that's really exciting; that feels like you've accomplished something. And in our game, we want to do the same thing. We want to start the player immediately in the action - maybe they have to escape, whatever it is. This is something we see in the James Bond movies all the time. When the player jumps in, he should get that experience immediately and feel like they've accomplished something. They really don't need to learn anything more than movement and shooting, and that's it.
Who is your target audience?
Matt Wilson: One of the things we recognized in the MMO space is that we have a fairly large female audience; part of that is not alienating them as we're building the game. It's not to say anything about how female play style is different to males. We want to give people a lot of options in our game. We determined that there are a lot more female gamers in the MMO space, because there are a lot of options in how you play. We want to continue that tradition of the MMO space and continue that in the game we're developing.
Now tell me from another angle how you've worked with the more traditional entertainment minds and resources of Sony. What resources have you had access to?
Matt Wilson: When we began our start-up, one of the main reasons we went to Sony and later became Sony Online Seattle was that SOE is owned by Sony Pictures. One of the many things that Sony Pictures brings to us is that wealth of content creators. Whether it's what they're doing with their animation or with their writers, we get access to them. We've already started building some really strong partnerships with Sony Pictures and Sony Pictures animations groups, who write a lot of the stories for movies that you might have seen. Basically, we utilize that top-tier talent to bring those story elements into our game. It's really been awesome to have that education, because I think traditionally, we've used non-professional writers in game development, and now it's great to be able to work with a person for whom that's their trade.
You're really humble. It's got to be great for the writers to be learning to write for games.
Matt Wilson: Oh, yeah ... that's the exciting part. Anytime we've talked to the writers, they are really excited to get into this space. Being able to tell more of an interactive story rather than a static story is big a challenge for them, and it's where our education comes into play; but where they get to help us out is deliver humor and other things that we might not be the best at doing.
Speak to me about the acting. I know some of the developers were doing acting.
Matt Wilson: A lot of times, we start that way even in some of the early concepts ... we use all of our internal resources, because we're just trying to prove the concept. The next level is to be able to hire professional actors and actresses for motion capture, facial capture and actually be able to deliver lines and so forth. Our game is definitely going to have some exciting elements to it and some exciting personalities to it. We're going to be establishing professional personalities into our game. And we haven't announced who we're looking at yet, but there's definitely interest in that sector.
From some known actors?
Matt Wilson: Yes.
How is it that you're making an MMO shooter? It's rather like peanut butter and cheese.
Matt Wilson: How do we bring the persistent world, large-scale world, the stickiness MMOs have but really give it to a "casual" gaming audience - and I use the term "casual" loosely, because the shooter audience is our casual audience on the console play space. The technology has advanced far enough to where we can develop games that have that fast-action gameplay that single player games use to only have and deliver that in an online space. Part of that is the penetration of broadband and other things that have allowed us to deliver; but honestly, it's just getting the capabilities from the hardware like the PS3. Shipping with the hard drive and it's processing power has given us the capabilities to (1) produce a game that has the elements of a single player game, and (2) be able to update that because it has a hard drive that can continue to update on a frequent basis. So, really for us, it was the merger of technology that drove us to the idea of delivering an action game.
Then, once we started thinking about the gameplay aspects, it was a natural fit. And once we started doing focus group testing, working with people outside and trying to ask them what they wanted, most people said they wanted an MMO for the "rest of us." That was our principle from the beginning - to deliver an MMO for the rest of us. Something you can get in, get out, have fun, not necessarily have a long-term time investment while you're online, but feel like you're still progressing while you're offline.
Is the trend that brought you to this mode of MMOs the fact that MMOGs have earned their stripes as being money makers? Are you trying to bring that aesthetic to the rest of the consumers?
Matt Wilson: We're all surprised about how much money MMOs make. Even three years ago, someone might have said the MMO market is dying. I don't think the MMO market is dying. It's not dying, it's just evolving. What we're learning about new releases today is if you lower the barrier to entry, make the game fun and interesting, you will draw a bigger and bigger and bigger audience. And that's our principal ... go even lower on barrier to entry. Bring something people are excited about - that action experience. The goal is simply to make a lot of money off of that.
Are there any main points I'm missing?
Matt Wilson: It's that we're really trying to build a game that fits everyone's' busy lifestyle. That they will want to play while making something that takes a more light-hearted approach in this space ... a spy espionage genre. A lot of games in the spy space right now are pretty hardcore - gritty, very dark. We really want to take a light approach. Again, that's part of making it interesting, making it a place you want to live and exist in for a long period of time.
Using humor ... the goal is really ParaGON and UNITE - friendly rivalries. You might "hate" the ParaGON guys or UNITE guys, but they're still after the same objective. There're still global worries that they have to take care of, but the way they take care of business is completely different, and I think that's the fun part of the game. They'll be able to play it as the over-the-top mercs versus the refined spies.