Chaos Theory: The Secret World’s enhanced player experience
Amazing story, awesome cutscenes, phenomenal atmosphere, compelling missions, incredible NPCs… The Secret World definitely has a lot of good things going for it. It is an MMO in a class by itself, unlike so many of the MMOs we’re all used to. But that last positive is also a negative: There are some former players who never got far enough into the game to really experience all it has to offer. Some of the unfamiliar aspects of the game were too unfamiliar to get used to, and some things were just plain difficult (Ak’abs, anyone?). The learning curve was steep enough to put many players off, players who might otherwise have loved the setting and uniqueness of the world.
That’s where the newly released “Enhanced Player Experience” comes to the rescue. I sat down with Lead Designer Romain Amiel and Communications Manager Tor Egil Andersen to talk about these quality-of-life improvements and get a few behind-the-scenes details about this patch. Of course, you know I had to ask about Issue #11 and beyond as well!
If you’re like me, you’ve been wondering who would take over the game director position now that Joel Bylos has vacated it. Personally, I’ve even been a little worried that someone new who does not have a deep understanding of the uniqueness and vision of TSW would be brought in. So I asked Amiel who would be filling the spot. The answer: no one. Amiel explained that the vision and direction of the game was already discussed as a trio; while Bylos will certainly be missed, the other two (including himself) will carry on the direction of the game. Amiel also noted that he and Bylos had already mapped out the direction of the game for years to come and even have contingency plans if certain features don’t quite work out. What kind of plans? Not unexpectedly, Amiel wouldn’t answer that!
Where to start? At the beginning
An interesting tidbit to introduce the Enhanced Player Experience is the fact that these improvements came directly from Amiel’s personal list of things he wanted done. When the time came to improve things, he grabbed his list and started there!
When talking about the changes brought in this new patch, I had a hard time picking where to start; there simply are so many improvements in so many areas! So we’ll just start at the very beginning of your combat career. The first major change in this area for any new character is the fact that you get to start the game with two weapons. Previously, when you went into your faction’s weapon test area, you could experiment with all of the weapons but could select only one to keep; getting your second weapon was a matter of a lucky loot drop or a mission reward. Even then, your second weapon was dependent on what you could find, not what you wanted to actually play! This method put players out on the streets of Kingsmouth at only half strength. Now players will select and keep two different weapons, allowing them to start deck building right away and giving them an immediate power boost.
What good is starting the game with two weapons if you are stuck with those beginner ones forever? Amiel explained that too often players couldn’t progress through the story of the game (obviously one of the pinnacle features!) because they lacked the necessary strength to continue. So one way the team tackled this is by improving the loot dissemination. Andersen explained, “The loot has basically been streamlined to give you what you need to play through the regular missions and the story missions. It’s easier to craft your character for the challenges in the story.”
No longer are players totally dependent on the RNG of mobs. To ensure that players have the tools necessary to succeed, the story missions will now give really good loot, most notably weapons. In fact, completing the Transylvania story mission arc will now net players a nightmare-level weapon. Already done? Don’t worry about missing out; all players who completed that mission will be given the value of the weapon in bullion. Additionally, all main missions will now give equipment like talismans and weapons that players can farm to use or deconstruct for crafting materials. Amiel pointed out that earlier in the game the gear will be hybrid in stats for solo play, but as players move through Transylvania, they’ll have choices and will need to start thinking in terms of group dynamics.
More mobs is not merrier
But those aren’t the only changes that players will see involving combat. Regular mobs have also been rebalanced. Amiel explained that this change was intended to address the walls that players ran into, the first one being in Savage Coast and the second one in Blue Mountain. Mob difficulty was adjusted — hit points lowered, density altered — making it easier to progress through both the maps and the actual story missions themselves (great news for anyone who struggled with Mara at the end of Transylvania!). To illustrate, Amiel said the time-to-kill in Kingsmouth was reduced by almost 50%:
“We made that curve a lot more linear so now you won’t feel a difference when you go from Savage Coast to Blue Mountain. As long as you progress your character normally, get your normal abilities, and start getting your gear, the monsters will feel just about the same to you. You will get more powerful as they get more powerful.”
Here’s another way to look at it: Ak’abs will no longer be the death machines they were before. (A fun piece of trivia: Ak’ab dashes were all Amiel’s idea!)
Another combat change that actually had some players nervous was the AoE nerf. Amiel explained that the nerf came not because people could solo scenarios but because AoE abilities were always meant for three or more mobs and everyone was using them even for single encounters, making the single-target abilities useless. “We want people to use single-target abilities when fighting one or two monsters,” he said, “and AoEs when fighting actual groups of monsters of three or more.” By adjusting the AoEs, those abilities are closer to their intended purpose. To do this, overall AoE damage was reduced a bit. On the plus side, the changes do not affect leech abilities, and AoEs also hit six now instead of five, so there won’t be that one straggler in swarms that doesn’t get damaged. Also Amiel noted that 90% of elites got an actual boost in power.
One change players won’t see right now is allowing others to join them in solo parts of the story missions. This is partly to avoid spoiling integral parts of the story for others; having a group member move ahead and trigger something could seriously spoil it for the next person in the group. Amiel also explained that there are very some very strong storytelling elements that just won’t work in a group, such as the dreaming prison sequences. He did assure that Funcom “tried to limit them as much as possible.” However, all that said, Amiel added,
“As far as boss fights are concerned, we can potentially revise them to make them multiplayer compatible. That becomes a question of time and priorities, but it has been on my watch list, and I can definitely bump it up and have a look to see whether it is worth doing.”
Amiel emphasized that all these changes are to allow casual players the chance to follow the story through Transylvania without bumping into impossible encounters. Nightmare dungeons and lairs were untouched, ensuring that those who seek the challenge of these encounters still get that challenge. One related change, however, is that the elite/nightmare status of some single missions sprinkled throughout the map — like the Quarry in Blue Mountain — was removed. Instead, these more difficult creatures were added to other areas of the map clearly marked by Filth (much like Lairs are marked with fire).
Finding your way
Speaking of the map, you can’t talk about this EPE without mentioning the expanded usefulness of the map! (Fun fact: Bylos wanted to call it EPEEN, for Enhanced Player Elite Enjoyment Nirvana.) Players can now clearly see at a glance where missions (including side ones), vendors, NPCs, dungeons, region transitions, and anima wells are located. Even better, you can turn each one off to allow you to find things by exploration instead.
And who isn’t eternally grateful that the death train method of travel has been derailed? Players can now select an anima well anywhere on the map at any time (as long as it has been discovered!) and pay to jump to it instead of using /reset and offing themselves. The one place this is feature not available is in PvP maps.
Another change related to finding your way involves sabotage missions. There is a new Unseen achievement players can get for completing these missions without being detected. Players who collect the achievement on every sabotage mission currently in-game will get a meta reward. Talk about increasing the replayability of those missions!
One of the best changes is the fact that everyone who has progressed to the appropriate spot in the storyline can now physically travel to Tokyo! Although players who don’t own Issue #9 will not be able to participate in any missions there, they will be able to do the story mission arc up to the point of entering the city, allowing them to wander and explore (and die on) the streets of Kaidan with their very own Aegis device. Even better, players now have to complete only one single scenario in order to earn the certification to go. That’s right, just one! All of this can be done without purchasing either Issue #8 or #9; to advance the story past just entering, however, players will need Issues #9, #10, and the soon-to-come #11.
Get your dancing shoes on!
The awesomesauce of TSW is the little things and the attention to details. This next little bit was so cool that it is actually what Andersen started our interview off with! There is something new in the item shop that will make roleplayers and anyone who loves to bust a move with friends rejoice: the shoes of synchronicity. For only 480 Funcom Points or bonus points (with the 20% grandmaster discount), this fluff item will allow groups to dance in sync. If you’ve missed the group performances of Star Wars Galaxies, now is your chance to relive that, albeit in a much spookier venue. It’s Thriller time!
To perform some stellar choreography with your friends, make sure everyone in the group is wearing a pair of the shoes. Then the group leader activates and selects dances. It’s as easy as that! The only drawback is that besides owning the shoes, everyone needs to have the actual dance emote the leader selects. Players who don’t will just stand there. (Now is the time to really regret if you missed getting one of the achievement dances like I did!)
Not all fluff is relegated to the item shop. There is also a new clothing vendor in London that will rotate available stock daily. Don’t see anything you like now? Come back tomorrow! Amiel shared with me that the stock won’t be random but will be on a weekly rotation. So if you didn’t have the PAX to buy what you wanted on Monday, you can go back and get it the next Monday. Amiel added, “We’re hoping in the future to keep adding to it to keep people interested in those vendors and going back and checking regularly.”
A peek at the future
Obviously I asked about future plans, like what kind of areas we can look forward to in upcoming issues. Andersen and Amiel both said that there are hints as to what’s coming up already in the game, but that’s as much as they would share. Amiel did tell me that the team knows there is still an issue with nightmare abilities where players won’t use certain ones because of elements that interfere with the tank’s job, and there is a plan to address it. He explained, “We’re looking into ways in the future to avoid those elements, to make sure that even the nightmare players will want to use those abilities despite the fact that they hinder or afflict or any kind of an impair or state they might apply. [The abilities] will still be useful in nightmare dungeons.”
Wondering about the overall direction of TSW? There’s no need. Amiel told me, “The biggest thing about the team we have here is everybody cares so much about the game.” He says he is personally very excited for the chance to share the story with more players. As he put it, “The story always has to come first.”