Did The Secret World Have Too Much Innovation or Not Enough Commercialization?

Hiya Players. Today we’re going to take a look at the current influence and acceptable range of innovation in an MMO environment, versus the commercialization of a product to make it more familiar to fans of the genre. Our primary focus will be on The Secret World, which made a less than anticipated splash when released. This can be a highly debated topic, so we welcome your feedback in the comments.

The Secret World LogoLast week Penny Arcade posted an Interview with Martin Bruusgaard, former lead designer for FunCom’s The Secret World, discussing many reasons why he feels that TSW wasn’t as successful as they had previously hoped. The main focus being that the game strayed too far from the typical MMO cookie cutter and wasn’t commercialized enough. This can can be both the reason they have subscribers, as well as why they don’t have as many as they wanted.

Did The Secret World offer too much of a good thing?
Gamers are always asking for more exciting and innovating changes to the standard MMO cut-out. The Secret World did this in many aspects of the game, which (though they weren’t as refined as they should have been) made the game interesting enough to catch the attention of many people in the MMO community. TSW’s character leveling system in a good example since there isn’t one… sort of. Players’ characters do not have a level but do gain points as they progress to distribute where they like – Letting them choose if they want to advance weapons, armor, abilities, etc. One player may have put all points into getting a high quality-level shotgun, another all into armor to be a tank, or another could balance it out; The possibilities are vast. To judge a character’s strength Smart players easily said “Average QL level 5”, which can be compared to as an iLvl in many other games. Most players are used to this in an end-game scenario, just not while leveling. However this was a turnoff for the mouth-breather who will feel emasculated if they don’t see the giant number beside their name to flaunt over lower level players. Unfortunately since MMOs consist of a large number of these players, they shied away from TSW.

Outside of the leveling system The Secret World also introduced a fairly new/unseen type of quest into the game which was received with mixed results: Investigation Quests. These quests required the player to research the information for the quest, often outside the game itself, in order to determine the answer – These most often had you use a web browser to research, visiting webpages created by Funcom on behalf of in-world parties. An example of one of these quests involves a laptop requiring a password, with a hint of “My Wife’s name”. In game this can’t be found. Looking near the laptop though you can find a company ID badge of the laptop’s owner. If you navigate to that company’s website, on the ‘About’ page, you’ll see a brief bit of info about the owner of the badge – Including the name of the owner’s wife. It’s a long step to complete a quest, but extremely rewarding to those that put the time in. Observant people love this type of quest, impatient people tend to get frustrated and go to other games.

Those are just two innovative techniques The Secret World tried out and either were praised or got slack for – Depending who you ask – That begs the question ‘Why bother?’. As Martin said in his interview “I have to stress I really like the game the way it is now, but if I’m thinking about making the game a more commercial success, I think we should’ve gone more commercial”. Regardless of the innovations, at the end of the day TSW is still a niche game with adult-orientated content. That said, the sales numbers were still low for the genre.

The Secret World Zombie
Could they have made more money if this was a Warcraft clone with Zombies instead?
I’m going to say no, they couldn’t. I’d like to think the MMO community is tiring of the standard cookie-cutter MMO game we’ve been spoon-fed for years and we’d like a change, but TSW just gave us too much of it in one bite. We’ve seen a rapid increase in dynamic quests and world events in the MMO world after successes like Guild Wars 2 and Rift, raising the expectation to see these types of events in more MMO titles. We’ve also seen voice-over cutscenes increase in the past two years, such as in The Secret World and Star Wars: The Old Republic. I’d like to think that Investigation quests will also be something that will be taken and applied to future MMOs as well. All of these games stand on their own merit based on these included features, and would easily have fallen short if they had simply tried to be a ‘WoW-clone’. If Funcom had aimed to be a cheap Warcraft knock-off with zombies, those adventure seekers that checked them out simply because they’re different would have looked elsewhere.

Why then did The Secret World fail?
The answer is because most gamers aren’t ready for a sandbox MMO like TSW, and likely won’t be for years (if ever). People are getting dumber, lazier and don’t want to think or spend time on things anymore. Take World of Warcraft for example, they’ve streamlined their entire leveling process because people became too lazy to put in the time to level. With that in mind, who would put in the time to build up a player to extreme lengths in a sandbox environment when one method will be ‘enough’ to access the content? There is a group of gamers out there that will put the time in, but the numbers aren’t high enough to support a big-budget game based around them.

So What wins – Innovation or Commercialization?
If I was a betting man I’d go with commercialization. I don’t want to, of course, but right now that’s where the players are putting their time and money. Games like World of Warcraft are still selling “2.7 million” copies in their first week as well as keeping a subscription fee active – According to Blizzard they’re still over 10 million subscribers. Where as innovative games, such as The Secret World and numerous indie games have nowhere near that many players, let alone subscribers.

Currently the evolution of MMO gaming is a gradual process, as many developers aren’t willing to go all-in and make a game completely off the wall. Though the games are evolving it’s an incredibly slow pace due to the over-saturated MMO market of bad games and loss of adaptation from other successful genres. In the near future, I can’t imagine seeing a successful game with enough innovation and content to pull from those that simply market better.

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