The Secret World: How Judging A Game In Beta Almost Cost Me a Great MMO Experience
“As the shore is not sea nor land, like the time between the times where the dawning is not day nor night you are between the worlds….” – Eluveitie
Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I’ve gone insane for Funcom’s new MMORPG The Secret World. I’m half ashamed to admit I’ve caught myself fanboyishly peddling the game at every opportunity. It has been a long time since a game has captured me as The Secret World (TSW) has done. I have asked myself if this is just the ‘new relationship’ glow that is so prevalent in gaming. I’m beginning to think not for several reasons. I was invited to closed beta via and Age of Conan promotion in early April 2012. I had been following the game since it was named Cabal, and participated as an active member on the Forums and a few absolutely brilliant related ARGs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternate_reality_game). The conspiracy theme, combined with myth and legend as the driving elements of the story really appealed to me. Throw in one of my favorite game designers, the extremely talented and creative Ragnar Tornquist, and I was convinced that TSW would be a game I could not miss. Then I stepped foot into Beta. I had been playing Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR) for almost a year and a half (beta time included). SWTOR is extremely accessible and a game that even MMORPG novices can pick up and play right out of the box. As a modern gamer, I had become accustomed to a certain polish and ease with which I could jump from one game to another without missing a blink. When I loaded up TSW Beta for the first time, my gut told me I was in for a letdown. To say character creation was severely lacking would be a major understatement. As hard as I tried I could not make a male or female character that was even remotely attractive. Even the process of selecting a server and creating a character was mind-bogglingly obtuse. I was aside myself in disbelief. Just 60 or so days from launch, and The Secret World looked like it would benefit from another year in development. Getting past character creation and into the actual meat of the game didn’t do much to alleviate my concerns. The cutscenes seemed amatuer compared to the highly produced, film-like story sequences from SWTOR. It did not help that voice acting was hit and miss. Again, coming from Bioware’s high budget voice acted MMORPG, this game that was supposed to be the saviour and possibly a last chance for Funcom looked dead in the water. Disappointed and disheartened, I found it very difficult to log in and test. It didn’t help that I was full throttle into SWTOR, and I didn’t see anything in The Secret World that was going to coax me away. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’d get an email from Funcom stating a new build was out. Feeling as though I had a responsibility as a tester, I’d log in only to find character creation was the same abysmal system as before. However, I started to see improvements in the core game. Enough improvements that a little spark of hope ignited in me for this game I had followed so many years. For one thing, I decided to just ignore the looks of the avatar and experience the content TSW offered. I immediately noticed that one, TSW was definitely a game for mature audiences (see the Dragon initiation scene). Two, quest writing was worlds beyond anything I had experienced in an MMO, and so well done I wanted to experience more.
As I became more hopeful of the game, basing TSW on it’s merits and not it’s visual appeal (Aesops fable somewhere in there I’m sure!) I started to talk to a circle of friends to gauge interest. Having no intention of leaving SWTOR, I sold TSW to a few as a ‘game we’ll play on the side’ to change it up a bit. A few people in the RMC (www.RepublicMercyCorps) who had also been loosely following the game pre-ordered. This optimism was short lived, as more people were invited and participated in pre-order weekends, there was an air of negativity and dismissal about TSW that overshadowed any positive opinion. Having been around for more MMO launches than I can count, I should have known better than to get enveloped by the jaded gamer banter that permeated Twitter and various gaming forums. However, I started questioning my faith in Tornquist and company to pull it off. At one point, just a week or so before launch I tweeted someone that I felt I had sold a bill of goods. Someone who I respected and now was afraid I’d never be trusted with a gaming opinion again. I went into full damage control:
To @MMOGC June 23rd 2012 days before launch: “I don’t want you buying TSW and hating it. Seeing as how others aren’t liking it, now I’m nervous others won’t. Maybe I’m not picky enough… But I like the writing and the atmosphere. It’s also way complex, and seriously after hours in I am kinda lost. But if you have doubts…cancel.”
Reply @MMOGC: “You know me, I’m not picky either LOL! Kinda funny, because I made it a point to stay away from beta for this game, because I always spoil things for myself that way with games. As long as people I know are still getting it, I can never say no to playing with friends. Who all in RMC/IMC are going to play TSW? Honestly, the only concerns I have now aren’t about the game, but with Funcom and the technical side. I’ve had bad experiences with them.”
Now I’m really worried. She hasn’t even tried the damn thing! Really need to her get in game and give her time to cancel.
Me: “Game has run well for me. See if you can spend some time in game this weekend to make sure its your cup of tea :-)”
24 hours later
MMOGC: “Played TSW tonight, loved it! I think (Mr. MMOGC) liked it even more than I did too.
Me: “Character creation still lacking, but I like the core game, and its unique. Well I feel better now.
MMOGC: “Seriously, my husband loved it. It was 1am and I was like, it’s time to sleep, and he kept going, no, no let’s finish one more quest!”
When Age of Conan launched I was working as a writer for IGN’s Age of Conan VNBoardVault. I remember vividly the backlash on the Vault forums in regards to people having major issues with AoC’s launch build, especially low frame rates and crashes. So it was with some trepidation that I took a half day off work to be home for TSW’s launch. I had pretty much convinced myself that launch was going to be a disaster. I logged in and was happy to see some improvements to character creation right off the bat. As soon as I stepped into London I coordinated with @MMOGC and another guildie (Eleison) to get @KnightsofMercy, our Cabal up and running. I continued thinking I’d just get through the initiation quests and into Kingsmouth. I mean, I liked the game, but how much was I really going to play it?
Three hours later realized I had been so immersed in the game I was almost late picking up my daughter from daycare. The client was running in gorgeous DX11, smooth as butter, without a hitch. I was blown away. Combat, which I felt was very uninspiring in Beta, was fluid, refined and fun. The topography of the game world, combined with incredible attention to detail in architecture, was some of the best work I had ever seen in any game, ever. Most of all, the quests were unique and thought provoking. The puzzles and sleuthing required to solve many of TSW quests is really what sets the game apart from other MMORPGs. There is an intelligence in the design and a quality of writing I have not seen in the genre before. While first glances make TSW appear to be just another MMO with a horror theme, the reality is the game is much deeper and varied than most of what we have been playing over the last several years. It was then that I realized I had made a huge error in beta. I had judged TSW far too early. I had done a disservice to Funcom as a tester, and almost bypassed what was looking to be one of the best gaming experiences I had had in years.
All the sudden, everyone seemed to be talking about TSW. In my circle of gaming friends, there was a buzz about TSW that I did not see when SWTOR, a much more anticipated MMORPG, had launched. What is going on? It was really incredible to see word of this new niche game spread like wildfire. Our Cabal of five, which is all we really planned to see migrate to TSW from our guild, suddenly had twelve members (we stand currently in high thirties). Over the course of launch week, gaming forums and news sites were buzzing overwhelmingly with positive talk of Funcom’s new MMO. “Wow did you see that house in the Savage Coast or, such and such was an amazing quest!”. Sure there are small nagging bugs and some systems that need to be fleshed out more, but people were generally overlooking these things because the core game design had come out of nowhere and grabbed them. The Secret World was special, and the game was growing not by marketing dollars, but by the even more powerful word of mouth. All my worries had been for naught. TSW, while probably forever to be a niche MMO, looked to be a sleeper hit and success.
Which leads me to one of the main reasons I wanted to write again after probably a year on hiatus. I’m not sure I want to participate in any more Beta tests, as difficult as it will be if I get an offer. I was in SWTOR Beta for approximately a year, starting in a very exclusive group. Here I am 8 eight months after launch and I’m somewhat burned out in a game I still have a lot of love for. I also started playing live by spacebaring through many a cutscene because I had run the content so many times. I think my enjoyment of SWTOR at this juncture would be far greater had I only had a week or two in open beta.
The case for not participating in beta is even stronger when it comes to Funcom’s The Secret World. The game I experienced in Beta just sixty days before launch is like night and day when compared to the live client we are playing now. I have been in more high profile beta tests than I can remember, and I have never seen a game change so drastically for the better in such a short amount of time. Add to this the fun of solving a puzzle for the first time, or experiencing Polaris with new guild members not knowing the dynamics in advance. To have ruined these moments in testing would make a huge difference in enjoying the unique gameplay The Secret World offers. I know someone has to test content, I just don’t think it will be me anymore.
Because of my experience I’m a little worried that many people who played beta and did not like what they saw are going to miss out on what I consider to be a phenomenal MMO experience. In this case, I think Beta did Funcom a disservice and was probably a detriment in some ways. I know the first rule of beta testing is that ‘This is Beta!’. However over the last five years or so most people I know (including myself) judge the final product with their experience in testing. When companies keep beta tests closed up to launch, there is a tendency to believe “They are hiding something”. Somewhere in our gaming culture Beta became less about the testing and more about the test drive. I’m beginning to think companies should revert back to the days of very closed, exclusive beta testing for this reason. I imagine there would be some backlash, but if this became the norm over time, I think it would be better for the business, with one caveat: two weeks prior to release, all NDA should be dropped. This would at least give prospective buyers an idea whether or not they still want to invest in a game.
It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything and this piece is kind of all over the place. I wanted to include so many more pictures but I don’t want to spoil a single experience for anyone who might play The Secret World now or in the future. TSW is remarkable in many ways. The game went from being ‘”more of the same’”to “where did did this game come from!” for me. So much so that I bought a Lifetime subscription. Even if I do not realize the money I invested, I’m happy with my decision. I very much want to support games that do not take the safe road to profitability. I liken my investment to the few Kickstarters I’ve given money to. I love to see people take a chance at bucking the system, to try something new.
With it’s Mature rating and no handholding nature, Funcom has certainly done this with The Secret World. Ragnar Tornquist has created something he and his team should be extremely proud of. Sure there is a lot of room for improvement, and some major quest blocking bugs that need to be addressed. However, despite these issues the game has me logging in every moment I can, and when I’m not playing I’m thinking about this puzzle or that class build. Our Cabal has grown into a tight knit family faster than I’ve experienced in any MMO. I truly believe this is a testament to the game design of The Secret World. Not often do you see an MMORPG where you can go back to the starter zone as a much more powerful character and get your ass handed to you, let alone send a wave of chills down your spine, or cause your arms to break out in goosebumps. Combining the unmatched atmosphere with one of the best gear systems in the genre, incredible mini raids, and thought provoking questing, places The Secret World in a class all it’s own. So I will continue to promote The Secret World as much as I can. I’m not trying to recoup my Lifetime sub (though that would be a plus). I really think this game is a work of art. I very much want it to succeed and be profitable, so that we see more diversions in the genre from the Blizzard model that so many companies have made the mistake of trying to emulate. The MMORPG world needed a kick is the ass, and Tornquist used steeltoe boots.
Now back to saving humanity.