Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Last Days Are Taking Forever : The Secret World

So, Funcom are getting out of the MMO business. They must be exhausted. Nothing ever really went their way, right from the start.

It must have been sixteen years ago that a beta CD for Anarchy Online dropped through my letterbox. I never did get it to run but I bought the game anyway. That barely worked, either.

AO was the genre's first MMORPG with a science fiction setting or so its wikipedia entry alleges. Despite a first  few weeks so terrible the experience would stand as the benchmark for MMO launch disasters for a decade and more, the game must have done well enough in the end. Funcom went on to develop another, this time using a major fantasy IP.

Age of Conan launched in 2008, leaping onto the MMO stage in a blaze of glory that exploded into accusations and acrimony once players leveled past the extended tutorial. It was a turbulent but not unsuccessful time for the company and clearly MMOs were still where Funcom wanted to be.

Four years later they were back for a third bite of the MMO pie, this time with another self-developed project: The Secret World. TSW took the proposition that Everything Is True and ran with it, offering Lovecraftian horror and conspiracy theories in a contemporary setting, together with some of the best writing and voice acting the genre had seen.

With three AAA games on the slate and their expertise and confidence evidently improving, Funcom was indisputably a major player, a pillar of the industry. Yet none of the three MMOS they created and curated had really set a fire. As a developer, Funcom somehow always seemed to be somewhere off to the side of the real action.

Anarchy Online, which had limped so badly out the gate , trundled on mostly forgotten. Age of Conan, which had burned brightly for such a short time, faded into the background hum, one of those many MMOs that keep on going though no-one ever talks about them. The Secret World, smaller, more focused, more finished, very much a niche product in a market that wanted to be mainstream, never really found its place or its pace.

Funcom's third entry in the field in just over a decade had started well enough. Take-up was strong, reviews were favorable, word of mouth was positive. The thing they didn't have was luck. Or timing. Only two months after TSW arrived Guild Wars 2 opened its doors and suddenly no-one was talking about The Secret World much any more.

That sort of thing happened a lot back then. Still does. It was the age of MMO tourism and the Three-Monther. Players swarmed like bees to every new flower in the field but few settled. Now Funcom had three low-key MMOs, each with a dedicated but ever-shrinking audience. Having "MMO" attached to your product was fast becoming a liability not an asset.

2012 was the highwater mark of World of Warcraft's tide, the one that was supposed to lift all MMO boats but mostly saw them flounder and sink. At that time everything had to be an MMO. Just the acronym printed money or so everyone seemed to think. Except it didn't. Turned out no-one could bottle lightning twice. 

Around then a lot of MMO developers were seeking salvation in the accounts department. Funcom had been one of the very first Western developers to adopt a Free to Play business model. Anarchy Online went F2P as early as 2004, supported perhaps uniquely by a system of in-game advertising placed on virtual billboards that integrated surprisingly well with the futuristic setting.

It wasn't long before all Funcom games ran under one form of F2P hybrid or another. Over the succeeding years the company experienced a number of financial problems but somehow weathered them all, arriving in 2017 with its trio of MMOs all up and running. Just about.

Interest and commitment to the genre Funcom helped found seems to have been waning for a while now, at corporate level as well as among the diminishing playerbase. In the last eighteen months most of what the company produced hasn't been directly in the MMO sphere at all.

First there were two standalone spin-offs from The Secret World, "The Park" and "Hide and Shriek". Both were successful. At time of writing The Park rates three and a half stars and "Mostly Positive" on Steam while Hide and Shriek does even better, with a Very Positive rating and four and a half stars.

That must have set minds working at the studio. Updates for the MMOs dried up but new, non-MMO projects continued to appear. In January of 2017, somewhat later than expected, Conan Exiles, the first Age of Conan spin-off entered Early Access.

A much larger project than either The Park or H&S, Exiles joined the ever-growing army of "open world survival games", a strange phenomenon, in which it seems neither polish nor content are required to print money the way MMOs were once said to do.

With the new direction clearly paying off, the writing was on the wall for Funcom's MMOs. A press release a month ago announced that Anarchy Online and Age of Conan were both entering "maintenance mode", meaning the servers stay up but no new content will be created for either game.

For a month it looked as if The Secret World would escape a trip to the stasis pod. More than that, a whole "relaunch" was promised for the five year old game. And then, a couple of days ago, we got the details.

When Funcom said "relaunch" they meant exactly that: a whole, new game. Secret World: Legends is no revamp of the existing MMORPG. Indeed, it isn't an MMO at all. Funcom describe it as "a shared-world action RPG" because, presumably, the MMO tag is seen as the kiss of death these days.

What differences there are between a persistent, online open world that allows people to share the same virtual gamespace while pursuing solo and group activities and "an MMO" I guess we will just have to wait and see. From what little I can glean so far all it seems to mean is a central hub (a revamped Agartha) and fewer people to compete with over quest mobs.

However SWL turns out, the one thing it will most definitely be - may already have been - is the death of The Secret World. The existing version will remain playable but will never see another update. I've seen it claimed that it will also be impossible to create new accounts for the old game but I can't find anything from Funcom to confirm as much, neither in the SWL FAQ nor any press release or interview so far.

Even if it is technically possible to make a new TSW account, though, no-one will. Why would you? Daed gaem...

Reaction to all this has been surprisingly mixed, polarized even. Longtime players with deep commitment to the game in both time and emotion are devastated. Tyler F.M. Edwards puts it best and Sylow, in the comments there and elsewhere, exemplifies how difficult a transition this is going to be for many. The official forums are running very heavy in negativity, as you would expect.

On the other side of the argument are many people who would have liked to like TSW but somehow never quite could. People who couldn't get on with the combat or those like Isey, who thought the game should never have been an MMO in the first place.

One thing that isn't in doubt is the degree of risk involved in Funcom's decision. The inevitable comparisons have been made both to Star Wars Galaxies NGE and the FFXIV reboot: this is different from both. Funcom isn't sitting atop of a stack of much more successful, profitable games like SOE and SquareEnix were back then. Nor do they have a powerful outside partner giving them orders or a totally disastrous error to make good to give them a pass on bringing down the world to make it anew.

No, this is an act of desperation, a wet-palmed roll of the dice in the casino of last resort. Or it is as far as Funcom's future as a developer of MMOs goes, at least. If they pull this off then Funcom becomes  a game developer with several successful non-MMO properties and three dead MMOs gathering dust on life support. If not, that smoke you smell is all of Funcom's bridges burning at once.

And where do I stand on all this? On the sidelines, I guess. I like The Secret World a lot but I hardly ever play it and when I did I almost always played it on my own. Mrs Bhagpuss, whose idea it was to buy it in the first place, bailed after a month or so, finding it too unrelentingly depressing. Plus she was one of the ones who hated the combat.

I carried on until GW2 launched and played it sporadically thereafter but I haven't logged in for a year or so. I got stuck about 85% of the way into the main story and lost heart. I found it too hard to be fun and, yes, it was the combat again.

As long as a server stays up, TSW will be as available to me as it ever was. I probably still won't log in often and when I do I'll probably just wander around taking screenshots. I love my character but I feel she's mostly at the end of her journey. So long as I can visit with her on a whim I'll be fine with that.

As for the new version, of course I'll try it. But, like MassivelyOP's M.J., I don't enjoy reticule-based, mouse-locked action combat. This may be a fix to the combat issues of the original for some people but for me it smacks of frying pans and fires.

Then there's the starting over. That's not a turn-off. I enjoy beginning again in MMOs I already play and in TSW, as is so often the case, some of the strongest writing and most fully-realized gameplay is in the opening zones. As a DIKU fan I also welcome the moves towards clear progression based on levels and gear. Not to mention that having a fresh, clean inventory will be a pleasure in itself.

It's almost certainly too late, though. I may play out of curiosity but even if the solo-friendly gameplay is significantly easier I very much doubt I'll be working my way all through that long, complex storyline to get back to the part where I got stuck, just so I can find out whether I'll get stuck in the same place again.

The Secret World had its chance to hook me five years ago. It gave it its best shot but it didn't land the punch. In taking such a drastic move towards slash and burn Funcom are gambling there are a lot more people out there who would love TSW if only it wasn't an MMO than there are people who did love TSW while it still was one.

I think its a five year old game with a reputation for being weird and awkward and strange and difficult and a re-badging isn't likely to change much about the way people think of it. The move has, however, gained Funcom great deal of media attention, something they have been consistently good at acquiring over the years, if less effective at converting into profit.

There's a strict NDA on the beta, for which I haven't bothered and don't intend to sign up, so we will know nothing other than what Funcom choose to tell us until it soft launches. Supposedly that will be sooner rather than later.

I'll reserve further opinions until I get a hands-on that I can talk about. Until then, my commiserations to the people who loved this unusual and enigmatic MMO. I hope things turn out better than it looks as though they will.

There may still be hope. After all, FFXI gets more updates in "maintenance mode" than TSW was getting in full development and although everyone can't be Square Enix, Funcom have shown an admirable loyalty to their aging MMOs thus far.

This story may not be over quite yet.

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