There has been one MMO that I’ve been interested in for a long time and that’s The Secret World (TSW). I joined the forum back in June 2007, but my account had issues with posting in threads, plus I’ve long since got over my interest in taking part in the “wouldn’t it be cool if…”-style posts that dominate pre-pre-pre-launch MMOs so I wasn’t a particularly active forum member. (Tip: Those forums don’t matter to the game at all when it comes to launch time and your suggestions don’t have any impact except on your post count.)
My interest in TSW is mainly due to the setting – dark modern with a solid twist of conspiracy theory behind it. It offers up a lot of potential areas to explore, plus is unique in that there hasn’t been a AAA MMO that’s ventured into that territory (nor with the apparent nearly-complete shuttering of World of Darkness Online will there be another competitor in that space for a while to come).
Dark Demons Cry “Meh”
But here we are, about two months to launch (on June 19) and I have almost no interest in TSW anymore. Here’s why:
Pay For Pre-Order to Beta: If you pre-order the game, you automatically get into the beta from here until launch. A beta that sill isn’t launch-feature complete according to Internet rumour. I’m sorry, but… no. Beta access shouldn’t be a pre-order bonus because it distorts what beta should be about – developers getting systems stress- and field-tested while players work out if the game is for them (because if the game isn’t for them when it is completely free, they aren’t going to be putting money into it when it goes live).
You throw in payment for beta access and it’s a case for inflating pre-order figures on the developer side while players aren’t treating it like a free test but instead a service they’ve paid for on the other. Player feedback shifts even further from the “here are the issues I’m having and some suggestions to fix them” mentality to the “THIS GAEM SUX AND WILL FAIL” pit fight when you take money from their wallets.
It Is Using A Subscription Plus Cash Shop Payment Model: Unlike most people, my issue with that isn’t the cash shop side, it is the subscription side. Because here’s a simple question: is TSW significantly better than either World or Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic?
If the answer to that question is “no” (and I’m 95% confident that “no” is the correct answer for the mass market without even playing one second of TSW) then after the initial burst of sub-paying players at launch, those active player numbers are going to fall away. Subscription-based models for MMOs work if you are the best game in your class, but there really isn’t much room at the top as WoW and SWOR duke it out.
There are lots of free-to-play (F2P) options that only have a cash shop to deal with if you feel that putting a few dollars in. TSW is going to struggle under its current pay model, where it should be launching as a hybrid buy-to-play with cash shop (much like Guild Wars 2 is planning) that is F2P with a $15 month offer (like every converted sub-into-F2P pay model MMO has).
TSW is going to go F2P because that’s what all of Funcom’s titles have done. I don’t know who is thinking that TSW will be the exception to that rule, but they are wrong.
Outdated and Outgunned: TSW has been formally in development since 2006-ish. What seemed like an innovative or distinctive design decisions in (say) 2008 are now already available on the market.
- TSW is trying to be attractive on story grounds, but the “hey baby, look at the size of MY fourth pillar!” posturing of Star Wars: The Old Republic has a pretty strong hold on that territory.
- ‘No levels, no classes’ is a dog whistle to certain MMO players, which makes it a popular claim for developers to make (even if the reality is that the game has levels and classes by another name, or implements them due to player demand). TSW is making this claim, but the flexible character development system is something that RIFT has already launched with and Guild Wars 2 is going to launch with.
- Action combat is also an attractive claim for a MMO to make, but the entire genre has moved in that direction. It’s no longer a unique thing to offer, nor is the claim of “over 500 powers from which to choose from” given how often the majority of those powers are re-skins or duplicates of existing powers. Funcom’s own claims that some current beta animations “are placeholders” aren’t reassuring when it comes to combat either, given Funcom’s own history with getting the female model animations wrong at launch for Age of Conan.
Which leaves TSW’s most unique feature as being the setting, which isn’t enough to be a major drawcard if the gameplay isn’t up to scratch. Now, maybe Funcom have got the game mix just right and actually delivers on the above elements, but there have been too many cases of MMO studios making claims about their title only for the reality of gameplay to be very, very different.
Current video of the gameplay experience doesn’t look bad, but it doesn’t stand out either:
You Can Have Too Many Secrets: Oh, and launching a pay-for beta access service while still holding the NDA up is insulting. Using the Mark Jacobs MMO Quality Confidence Scale, if Funcom was confident in TSW, they’d be dropping the NDA for beta testers right about now. They aren’t.
Which leaves a lot of information about TSW unknown, because Funcom hasn’t released it. In some ways it makes sense for a game based on secrets and conspiracy to be quiet about what it will deliver on, but then it also a game based on secrets and conspiracy with its own Facebook promotional game.
I don’t need to know everything about a game before launch, but I need to be convinced that a title is offering something worth buying. Funcom have failed to do that with TSW.
Going Too Far Old-School
All-in-all, it seems like TSW is following the MMO launch book from 2006 – 2010, not realising how much things have changed. It’s no longer enough for MMO studios to say, “Trust us – the game is great. Buy it on launch!”. They’ve got to show the evidence, and providing evidence means not keeping things secret through holding the NDA up until close to the launch date. The pure sub-based payment model is on the decline and what TSW is offering was unique a few years ago, but hasn’t held up as competitors leapfrogged ahead.
I’m still interested in TSW and will be looking to see the reviews at launch time. But it’s a title that is going to struggle, right up to the point it goes F2P (and maybe beyond, depending on the quality of Funcom’s execution).