Agents Under Fire
By Paul Semel
When you consider that it's their job to save people's lives, it's kind of interesting how spies are usually a solitary bunch. Sure, Sydney Bristow sometimes teams with Marcus or Vaughn, and Ethan Hunt has his IMF team, but once their missions start, these secret agents are always going it alone.
But there are new protocols for the spies in The Agency. In this upcoming PlayStation 3 and PC release from Sony Online, wannabe Bonds can go solo, but they'll really want to team up online to fight bad guys in a co-op third-person action massively-multiplayer online (MMO) that's less 'Spy vs Spy' and more 'Spy y Spy.'
At least that's the way it was described to us by Executive Producer Matt Wilson and Lead Designer Hal Milton when we interrogated them recently about this game -- though what other information they shared is strictly on a need-to-know basis.
Crispy Gamer: Let's start with the basics: What is The Agency?
Hal Milton: It's a game where people get to live the lives of elite agents within a massively multiplayer environment.
Crispy Gamer: Where did the original idea come from?
Milton: We were a company called Fire Ant, which was just five of us, and we had a bunch of ideas for games. One of them was called Espionage, and we loved that idea so much that we evolved it out into The Agency. Of all the things that have been done in the MMO space, it just seems natural to have thousands of people interacting with each other with all the secret shenanigans and hidden motives and other things that go along with the spy genre.
Matt Wilson: Yeah, we had worked on fantasy MMOs when we were at Microsoft, and so we not only wanted to get away from that genre, but we specifically wanted to aim at the shooter audience and adapt that to MMOs.
Crispy Gamer: How exactly does that work, though? From what you've described, it sounds like World of Warcraft, but everyone's a spy. But if everyone's a spy...
Milton: Actually, that's the great thing. The world of our game requires a lot of logic in order to justify itself, so early on we decided we didn't want to set it in the real world. In the real world, spies usually don't carry weapons and they're prized for being able to fit in and go unnoticed. Our world is more about the kind of spies you see in movies, so we've crafted a world where spies are so ubiquitous that the general populace is actually bored by them. Well, until they become collateral damage.
Crispy Gamer: But the footage I saw made the game look like a third-person shooter.
Milton: We actually support on-the-fly swapping between first- and third-person, since some people prefer first-person for when they're shooting and third-person for when they're sneaking around.
Crispy Gamer: Cool. But what I saw made it look like a co-op shooter -- where does the MMO aspect come into play?
Milton: When you first log in, you're in a big field office, and there are people and non-player characters (NPC) walking around. You can choose to go into that public space and interact with them, or put together a team, or maybe run into some bad guys down an alleyway. Then you and your party can go to an area of private missions, which are a lot more complicated and might include things like driving missions, shooting missions, or stealth missions.
Crispy Gamer: How many people can engage in these missions?
Milton: The team can be up to four players.
Crispy Gamer: But what if you don't play well with others?
Milton: You'll be okay. In our game, there are different levels of completion for each mission. As a solo player, you can make your way through the game at a bronze level, but if you want to finish the secondary objectives and really master a mission, you might want to team up with some other people.
Wilson: It's kind of like how in Mario 64 you could get the first star pretty easily, but you had to work hard to get the second or third star.
Milton: An example of this might be that you complete a mission where you infiltrate a warehouse and steal secrets from a safe. Now you still get the experience, you still advance your agent's rank, but if you go back and play it again with some friends and complete the other objectives in the mission, you'll get even more experience.
Wilson: We recognize the importance of solo players. We've noticed that even in MMOs a lot of people still sometimes play on their own even if they've joined guilds, so we want to make sure we support that.
Crispy Gamer: Is it then not possible to fully complete a mission on your own?
Milton: I think in some cases some really, really crafty people might be able to do it. We're not forcing you to group up, but we are encouraging it.
Crispy Gamer: How many missions will there be at launch?
Milton: I don't know if we want to answer that specifically, but there will be a whole bunch. There are two agencies in the game -- U.N.I.T.E. [United Nations Intelligence and Tactical Experts], who are James Bond-type spies, and ParaGON [Paramilitary Global Operations Network], who are mercenaries -- and they'll both have three-act world story structures, and an event structure on top of that for ongoing episodic missions, so there will be more than enough to keep people going for a while.
Crispy Gamer: What are some of the types of missions you go on?
Milton: One of the things we decided when we started this project was that there were certain moments we definitely wanted to include. The first is joining your friends to take down a madman and his paramilitary goons in the jungles of South America. The next is infiltrating an enemy organization to steal secrets or perpetrate sabotage, which, of course, is one where you won't be able to use your gun. The third one is engaging in a high-speed vehicle chase down the streets of an exotic city. After all, you can't have a spy game without some vehicle missions.
Crispy Gamer: Does the fact that there are two different agencies mean people will want to make up two spies and play as both sides?
Milton: I hope so. That was actually a conscious choice for us. In fact, that's the only time when you have to create a new character. We kind of ditched the hard class system. In some games, you'll play for a while before realizing, 'Holy crap, I hate being a wizard!' So then you go back and create a warrior. But then you have to back and play the same six hours over again as a warrior. Instead, we let people swap between different roles on the fly. If you feel like blowing the crap out of stuff one night, put on a combat outfit, play as the combat specialty, and you'll gain experience towards that title. Want to be a field medic the next night? Not a problem. Your agent is actually a superagent, capable of filling many roles. The only decision you're locked into at the beginning of the game is what your character looks like and whether you'd like to be a U.N.I.T.E. agent or a ParaGON one.
Crispy Gamer: Can you only change when you start playing or can you change before you start a mission?
Milton: You can actually decide whenever you're somewhere that allows you to change outfits, which will mainly be when you're in your field office before you start a mission. Odds are, if you're in the middle of a mission, you won't be able to change, though there will be some missions where we've put in a changing area.
Wilson: One good thing is that if you've just finished a mission, and your medic has to leave for some reason, you can then switch over and play as the medic -- which is really good for the hardcore players, who are going to want to build up every aspect of their character.
Crispy Gamer: How long will each mission be?
Milton: We're building three kinds of missions. The most common will probably be about a 10-minute encounter, but there will also be bigger missions, which will be 15 to 30 minutes long, as well as our big signature missions, which can last anywhere from 30 minutes to more than an hour.
Wilson: There will also be little diversions you can do while you're in the public space. For example, if you're waiting for a friend to log on, you'll be able to do little things like play cards.
Milton: Yeah, you can't have secret agents without card games.
Crispy Gamer: By the way, does it matter whether you decide to be a male spy or a female spy?
Wilson: No. It's not like if you chose to be a woman that you'll have a limited lifting ability or if you're a guy you won't be as smart.
Crispy Gamer: Now a big part of spying, at least in the movies, is being able to seduce people. Will you be able to do that in the game?
Milton: We are developing some mechanics for that kind of stuff. To go back to what I was saying about the moments we wanted to have in the game, one of them was that we wanted people to have a whirlwind affair with an agent who's marked for death, so one of the things we're working on now is our conversation system, into which we're incorporating persuasion and intimidation. Some people will respond better to persuasion, some will respond better to intimidation, and some people will only respond to blackmail.
Crispy Gamer: Are you going to allow for same-sex seduction?
Milton: We haven't worked that out, yet.
Wilson: I think it will all depend on what Artificial Intelligence (AI) you're trying to persuade.
Milton: Yeah, there may be some AI that responds more favorably to one gender vs. the other.
Crispy Gamer: And you're also going to be able to recruit people, right?
Milton: Yes, you will be able to collect NPCs who will be able to provide you with goods and services, even when you're not playing. For example, I can task an operative with making me a vehicle, which will take him a while. And I can actually get e-mail or text messages and they will tell me how it's going.
Crispy Gamer: Do you mean a text message in the real world, or that my character in the game gets a text message?
Wilson: Real cellphone.
Milton: And the thing is, you might simply get a message saying your vehicle is ready, but let's say you asked an operative to investigate a group -- you might get a message saying. 'Yeah, I found them, but they caught me. They're asking for a million dollars or they're going to kill me. Text '1' to pay the million dollars; text '2' to let him die.'
Crispy Gamer: So what other games do you consider to be the big influences on The Agency?
Milton: Among MMOs, I'd say some of the games from the SOE library like Planetside and EverQuest II, as well as World of Warcraft. For action shooters, we love Rainbow Six: Vegas, Team Fortress 2, Counterstrike, Halo, and Call of Duty. And for our long game mechanics, we took pages out of older games, collectible card games, Japanese RPGs, and other longer, 'thinky' games.
Crispy Gamer: What about the car stuff?
Milton: We're still working on the car challenges, but I think you can expect them to be more arcade-esque, like Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row, or Crackdown.
Crispy Gamer: How about movies and TV shows, what non-game spies do you consider to be an influence on the game?
Milton: James Bond, of course. 'Alias.' Jack Bauer from '24.' 'The Bourne Supremacy.' Even 'The A-Team.' And some older stuff like 'The Third Man' and 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.' But at the top it's really James Bond meets a big action movie.
Crispy Gamer: One of the striking things about the game is its look -- it has a very stylized look about it.
Milton: Well, it's a game that's supposed to be playable for a long time, and if you go for something full of all kinds of technological bells and whistles, it really ages immediately. So instead we're taking a different approach.
Wilson: This is a fun take on the spy world, it isn't super-serious, so we wanted to make sure the art style was also fun.
Milton: We actually made a specific call to not represent any real-world ideological struggle in our game. The real world can be a dark and terrible place at times, and we want people to feel like they're heroes, not facing off against the issue du jour. You're not going to be going after jihadists or Osama Bin Laden.
Crispy Gamer: Does that mean that my spy won't be outed by the current administration as a way of getting back at my husband?
Wilson: Oh, that's a good idea.
Crispy Gamer: No it isn't! So what were the influences on the art style?
Wilson: I remember looking at 'The Incredibles' and trying to get some of that in the game.
Milton: Yeah, god bless Team Fortress 2. It was really difficult to convince people that we were on the right track with that art style, so it was good that another game validated that style. We also looked at things like old James Bond posters and the comic book 'Danger Girl,' etc.
Crispy Gamer: Now the game is coming out on both the PS3 and the PC. Will there be any major differences between them?
Milton: The primary difference will be the controls, of course. And people can plug a keyboard and mouse into their PS3s if they want to, but we've developed a pretty tight control scheme for the PS3's controller.
Crispy Gamer: Will there be any cross-platform play?
Wilson: Right now there isn't any technical reason why we couldn't do that, but we want to be able to update the game fairly frequently, and since the PS3's certification process is longer, and updating things on the PS3 is done differently than on a PC, we're working with Sony to resolve those issues. So we want to have some of that, we just haven't figured out how it will work just yet.
Crispy Gamer: What about the way people will pay for the game? People on consoles aren't used to the subscription-style payment that MMOs typically use.
Wilson: We haven't announced anything, yet. We're exploring a lot of different pay structures, but we do want people who buy the game on the PS3 to feel like they're getting a good amount of gameplay for their money.
Crispy Gamer: Finally, what kind of people do you think will be most into The Agency?
Milton: I think the core people will be gamers who like action shooters but are looking for a little something more and MMO players who also like action games and are hungry for something other than a science-fiction or fantasy game.