The Soapbox: A belated The Secret World post-mortem


This weeks marks the eleventh anniversary of the launch of The Secret World. While the game is still playable (for those with existing accounts), it has been relegated to the semi-death of maintenance mode. It’s easy to find opinions on why games failed from those who never liked them in the first place, but I thought it might be interesting to do a belated deep-dive on why the game failed according to a superfan — me.

And no, it wasn’t the combat. At least not the way you think.

I’ve spent years defending TSW‘s combat from its detractors, here and on my personal blog. My opinions on the matter haven’t greatly changed over the years, but they have refined, and I think I’ve developed an ever-clearer idea of what the true problem is.

Of course, there will always be those who dislike the combat for purely subjective reasons, but given that TSW‘s combat mechanics were not greatly different from other, similar games of the same era, I feel like that can only account for a small amount of the immense hate its combat engendered.

To avoid repeating what I’ve written in other pieces too much, I think most of the complaints came from people who simply weren’t playing the game correctly.

And to be clear, this is not an indictment of those people or their abilities. I am somewhat frustrated by people saying the combat was bad when that probably wasn’t the real problem, but I don’t blame people for not figuring out how to play effectively. It’s the game’s responsibility to teach you how to play, and TSW failed hard on that front.

The ability wheel, while one of TSW‘s greatest strengths, was also overwhelmingly complex for new players, and the only guidance the game provided on how to navigate it came in the form of faction decks, pre-made builds with cosmetic rewards.

There’s a joke that I’ve heard that says the way to find Simpsons fans at a party is to shout “dental plan” and wait for the chorus of “Lisa needs braces!” I’m sure other fanbases have their own versions of the joke, and the TSW version would definitely be a call of “I’m new to The Secret World” followed by a chorus of “Don’t use the official decks!”

I can’t overstate how bad the official decks were. If memory serves, at least one had an ability that did literally nothing in the build. You could pretty much throw darts at the ability wheel and get a better build.

Later, the game added starter decks, which were a little better, but Funcom didn’t change the faction decks, so there was still the implication you were meant to grow into them. The decks needed a total redesign and never got it.

Finding a good build was also not just about effectiveness but about finding a playstyle you liked. That could take a lot of experimentation, and not everyone’s willing to do that, nor were there any guides to help.

But the more time goes on, the more I think understanding the ability wheel wasn’t even the main issue. I think the gear system is what really tripped people up.

Discussions of builds in TSW, even among those who know the game well, largely revolved around the ability wheel, but gear was also a part of your build, and it was just as important, if not more so.

In most games, gear isn’t something you really have to think about. Choices become meaningful only when min-maxing for endgame content. Otherwise you can just throw on the highest level gear that has the right core stat for your class. TSW didn’t have that familiar clarity.

And unlike the ability wheel, which had nearly endless viable options, gearing in TSW offered very little flexibility. If you wanted to efficiently solo open world content, there was really only one right way to gear: mostly attack rating, only a little health and/or heal rating (and some skipped even that), and only hit and penetration for secondary stats. Crit and crit power became viable only with endgame stat budgets, after you’d capped hit and pen, and defensive secondaries were never, ever worth it for a solo player.

I don’t have any data on how many people in TSW were gearing wrong, but anecdotally, it seemed a very common problem.

I remember at one point late in the game’s life, I discovered one of my Facebook friends was a TSW player and did some content with her. I was surprised to see her running about three times more HP on her gear than she should have been. To be clear, she’s a smart woman who had been playing the game for quite a while. If she got it so wrong, that’s a testament to how easy a mistake it was to make.

The complaints about TSW‘s combat always baffled me. The way its critics described it bore no resemblance to the game I was playing. I’ve heard many people cite time to kill for average mobs as being in the range of 30 to 60 seconds, far in excess of anything I experienced outside of the hardest nightmare missions. At times I wondered if this was just an example of the usual gamer inclination to wild hyperbole.

But if everyone was running around with 5K+ HP and bad secondary stats… suddenly all those complaints start to make sense. The way TSW‘s critics describe its combat is exactly how the game would play if you were geared wrong.

The more time goes on, the more convinced I am that this is the root source of the “combat is bad” narrative. Maybe it wasn’t the problem for everyone, but I wager it was for a whole lot of people.

And again, this is ultimately a failure of the game, not the players. It is a testament to the incredibly poor tutorials of TSW. This is a game that needed more instruction than the average MMO, but it had less. It just threw you into the game with naught but a few vague instructional videos that I suspect most people skipped.

That I managed to avoid all these potential pitfalls as a new player is mostly just down to luck and spending too much time on the build forum rather than any particular talent on my part.

So I think the lack of proper onboarding is the biggest gameplay flaw that drove people away from the game, whether they realize that was the problem or not. But I still don’t think that’s ultimately what killed the game. For that, you’ll need to wait for the second half of my post-mortem.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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