The headwinds of the Secret World

It’s at times like this, when I’m accepting a mission from a 12,000-year-old mummy who dresses in expensive businesswear and is downright cordial that I hear that familiar refrain in my head: “Why aren’t more people playing The Secret World?  They’re missing out, they are.”

And it’s true.  The more I dig into the Secret World, the more I keep discovering how this is a diamond in the rough of MMOs.  It’s been dismissed too quickly by some and avoided by others, but even with the awesomeness of Guild Wars 2 out, I’m still inclined to say that this might be the MMO of the year.  It’s certainly the gutsiest, but its difference from the rest of the pack is part of its incredible allure.

I remember reading someone who said that TSW wasn’t really that innovative aside from the handful of investigation quests, and that statement’s chafed with me the more I’ve played it.  The whole questing system is a lot more involved than typical MMOs, and often quite challenging.  Stealth quests reward strategic approaches and non-linear thinking.  Even your standard “action” quests often involve puzzle solving and thoughtful approaches.  Just barging in is a recipe for getting oneself killed, and quickly.  I’ve also come to cherish every quest (excluding the sidequest) acceptance, because the quest givers deliver very memorable performances and stories that get you right into the mood of the game.

It’s not all perfect and I certainly don’t begrudge people forming an opinion based on personal preference.  For me, I’m very comfortable in saying that The Secret World is a great game, and I’m not going to swing over to the critics’ side to preface that statement with a bullet point list of perceived failings.  It’s messily brilliant, and I’m glad it’s on the field.

TSW really was destined to be a niche title, but I think it could really flourish if Funcom accepts that and stops trying to tap into the mainstream dollar.  It’s no secret (har) that TSW is struggling mightily with underperforming sales and a highly competitive market.  When I ask myself that question above, I already know the many answers.  The Secret World has a very strong headwind blowing against it, and it’s going to have to struggle for every inch of success from here on out.  So here are the four biggest issues I see for TSW gaining wider acceptance and greater profit — and what the solution to each might be.

1. Subscription-only

I can see why BioWare decided to go sub-only for SWTOR’s launch, but it’s really hard to understand Funcom’s reasoning with The Secret World doing the same.  After all, both its other MMOs have free-to-play options, so the studio is not unfamiliar with the doors that F2P opens.  Maybe the execs fooled themselves into thinking that very strong beta numbers were going to translate into the same amount of subscription-paying players.

In any case, that’s not what happened.  It’s a shame, because TSW has all the pieces for F2P (and Ragnar Tornquist pretty much said its an inevitability at this point anyway).  There’s a cash shop in place, and the game is segmented nicely into different world zones.  So just make the first (Solomon Island) free and charge for Egypt, Transylvania, and so on.  Or beef up the cash shop with loads of tempting cosmetic purchases.

Solution: Go free-to-play, and do it soon.  If we don’t hear Funcom making the announcement of this transition by the end of this year, I’ll be very surprised.  Personally, I’d love to play TSW without a sub fee, and the F2P launch will give people a second opportunity to hear and try the game.

2. Mature rating

It might not be a major sticking point for some of you, but I can imagine that this gory and decidedly adult-themed MMO has turned a few away with its subject matter alone.  It’s an R-rated spectacle in a sea of PG and PG-13 MMOs, and that limits its playerbase in much the same way as movies do.

Solution: Huh… perhaps give parents and players a language/gore filter, but that would have to cover some substantial spoken/written dialogue and pervasive images.  It just might not be something Funcom can tone down, even if it would want to.

3. Unfamiliar genre blend

A large, large majority of MMOs are fantasy, and no matter how we moan about that fact, a large, large percentage of players flock to the familiar.  The Secret World is a strange blend of contemporary settings, horror, science fiction, conspiracy, and occult.  Those don’t have the widespread appeal of fantasy and haven’t made significant inroads into the MMO genre yet.  TSW is pioneering in several places, but it’s a tough sell for players who look at it and go, “What is this?  I don’t get it.”

It’s not just the genre that blends, but the gameplay itself.  The classes blend, the types of quests, the range from action to extreme puzzle-solving.  It’s just not something we’ve had on the market to this point.

Solution: Honestly?  Time.  I firmly believe that TSW is the type of game that not only requires people to invest time into it in order to become apologists for it, and that word-of-mouth will be the most significant factor in enticing friends and others to it.

4. Unfortunate timing

The Secret World came out at one of the worst times ever for a new MMO — just weeks before Guild Wars 2.  People flocked to it, were gushing about it, playing it, and then just abandoned it in droves for one of the most anticipated MMOs of the past five years.  It was something we saw coming, as many people said something along the lines of “This is my tide-me-over game until GW2 comes out.”

Even though GW2 and TSW are in different genres and have different business models, they do compete for each other’s time and population.  TSW simply did not have enough time to settle in and establish itself before facing a very tough fall of GW2 and plenty of expansions.

Solution: Again, time.  TSW needs to survive the year, polish up, and continue monthly updates to beef up the content.  Time helps to make a level playing field, and once the newness of these games wears off a bit, TSW might have a second chance at regaining or drawing new players to its fold.

5. Mismanaged marketing

TSW actually did a great job getting people all riled up about it before launch, with a huge beta and lots of press.  Since then, that’s all died down, and after playing the game myself I have to say that Funcom did not market its strengths so as to draw in the types of players who would really appreciate this style of game.  Nowhere did I see the studio say, “Hey, this is an adventure-RPG online!” which it actually is.  It’s the first of its kind that I know of, and that’s something to trumpet.  The studio’s been all over the map with marketing, and has ended up making TSW sound like every other MMO out there because of it.  That needs to change.

Solution: Targeted, focused marketing.  Embrace the niche and find players who are looking for horror, for contemporary settings, for adventure-style gameplay, for free-form character development.  Contrast against the limitations and stifled innovation elsewhere in the field and give players a reason to root for your success.

Conclusion

TSW has a long ways to go, but I truly hope that it’s there for that long haul.  It’s a game that I really, really hope is around years from now, because I haven’t gotten enough of it yet, and don’t anticipate doing so for a while to come.

Postscript

Someone in the comments made the good point that while TSW was marketed as a conspiracy/secret societies game, it’s way more horror than anything else.  I totally agree.  Doesn’t make it bad, but I do wish there was more conspiracy/mythological elements in it.

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21 thoughts on “The headwinds of the Secret World

  1. I’ll be back as soon as it goes F2P or Freemium, which it will. That was always my intention – play for two or three months on a sub then wait.

    I do think there’s a problem with the theme and setting in that it was promoted as a “Conspiracy Theory” MMO but it turned out to be almost entirely Horror-themed. More mystery, less gore would help a lot, and very definitely take the focus away from undead/demons. Something more like The X-Files than Call of Chthulu would be welcome.

  2. Here is the reason why I don’t play TSW, and why my friends do not play either. And I think their biggest problem is, that the demographic that we represent are the one the game is aimed for.

    We are all 30+ well educated – love gaming (in most forms) and love everything C’thuluesque. As I think everyone who grew up watching the x-files do -to some extend :)
    Problem is, that when TSW came out, all of us are finding ourselves in a part of our lives where the timeinvestment needed from a game like TSW is just beyond what we can give. Most are starting a career, having children ect ect.

    Personally I loved tsw, but chose to stick to wow. Why? Practicality. I can play wow w/o headphones on. So I can hear if mini-dwism wakes up at night.
    I think that the generation who is ready and willing to pay a sub for an online game are getting to old to be bothered with playing mmo’s. As another example, I used to play in a wow guild that had 3 40-manned raid-groups. Now there is barely 1 25 manned. And most of these? work and or kids.
    And I think that even though wow’s numbers have not dwindled all that much, I think the subscriber base has. It is now a lot more of PuG -dungeons and raids. You don’t really see those really big guilds where people plan and do things together. At least not on the servers I am keeping track of.
    And these are the people that TSW is tailored for. At least in my optics.

    I think that the people who do have the time (college/highschool students -again maybe thats just me?) are part of a generation that are very much used to f2p mmo’s.
    (also in the f2p mmos old guys like me, who do not have the free time, but do have the cash, can pay to keep up).

  3. I really hope it’s around for a long time to come, too. If I wasn’t so stuck on GW2, and it didn’t have a sub (for a gamer like me who enjoys playing multiple games, a sub cost literally feels like a waste… I’d much rather drop $ on some points or whatnot and play that way), I’d be right there. I loved it in beta… they nailed the creepy, horror atmosphere, and I’d love to see what they can come up with, especially in a 21st century setting. However, box + sub + shop is the wrong way to go. They don’t even have to go full-free… just drop the sub, and still charge for the box and shop.

    If GW and GW2 has taught us anything, it’s that the sub is a fully outdated model, but people are still willing to pay for a box, people are willing to pay for zones and content, and are willing to buy points for frivolous items.

    So, just like yourself, I really hope it goes F2P soon. It could be a real killer if it does.

  4. Subs-only isn’t helping them. I’m still baffled that they went that way.

    The M rating does put me off. I was hoping for some fun X-Files conspiracy theory stuff, but that’s not the direction they went. *shrug*

    I hear there’s a lot in the game design that I think I’d like, but it’s just not worth wading past those obstacles to get to the good stuff.

  5. problem for me was high box cost + subscription with Guild Wars 2 around the corner couldnt justify it

  6. Nice, in-depth review! I haven’t heard much about this game, but your write-up makes me curious. Sadly, GW2 owns my soul for a while… I’ll have to keep this in mind if I need a change of pace.

  7. I actually think the marketing was pretty brilliant and a sophisticated use of social media in particular. I imagine the loyal players are those who most invested themselves in the mystery – unless they didn’t have as much fun playing as they did unraveling the puzzle.

    I think it’s mostly #1, though counter to Dwism, I think there’s a growing number of aging gamers, especially parents and those of us in multi-gamer households, who aren’t willing to pay sub fees simply because we’ve grown to see it as frivolous when there’s less costly options for gaming that now offer a comparable experience. I’d expect sub fees to be less oft-putting to younger players with less financial responsibilities. I was actually following TSW for a time because I’d taken for granted that, excepting WoW, sub fees had gone the way of the dodo.

  8. I wasn’t going to touch TSW. Then I decided to give it a shot anyway. And, honestly, I just couldn’t figure out what everyone was raving about.

    The character build options were open and flexible, but the gameplay was still Holy Trinity. The vaunted investigation missions weren’t much more than a throwback to days when quests didn’t hold your hand as you were going, and the adventure game element was definitely there, complete with “I know I’m in the right place, which pixel am I trying to click on?” I absolutely LOVED the conspiracy element – but as bhagpuss says, there really wasn’t any actual conspiracy to it. It was horror at best, and the same old hack/slash/boom with different beasties at worst. My first “stealth” mission was a joke, as I crept through a museum basement which was for some reason armed with laser-detector mines and self-sensing cameras.

    In the end, as someone who gave up on it, I think TSW has two problems. First, the early parts of the game don’t really offer much new. They don’t show off what they’re supposed to be showing off. There’s no “Something strange is going on under the surface”, it’s “Watch the aggro radius of these ten thousand zombies/draug/whatever.” But even more than that, what it’s supposed to be doing, it does WORSE than most other games out there. Yeah, the idea of stealth and investigation in an MMO are kinda new, but none of my group wanted to try TSW, so I was playing solo anyway, and their implementation sucks compared to other modern games. Compared to other similar mechanics/games such as Deus Ex, Arkham Asylum/City, or Assassin’s Creed, their version of “stealth” and “investigation” is clunky and dated.

    And that, more than anything, may be the problem facing a lot of MMOs. MMO gameplay has always been, in a word, atrocious. It’s been dull, simplistic, and repetitive, relying mostly on the addition of social elements. But the rest of the gaming world has caught up on the social side – any of the console networks let me chat with friends while playing co-op or against, or even just while we’re doing our own single-player games. The social element of MMOs is no longer unique, but their gameplay still sucks.

  9. I am at a point where I think I will be turning off my monthly sub for TSW for a bit. Love the game and have enjoyed the drastic change in atmosphere that it offers but the next few months I am going to be focusing so much on single player titles like Dishonered that I can not justify the $15 any longer.

  10. Like many, I can no longer justify a subscription for any game. There are just way too many goods ones without a subscription. It’s a dead business model.

  11. I don’t know if I was as much “put off” as “unimpressed” by the “adult themes”. The one character I tried in beta managed to score some oral sex (girl on girl) before killing her first rat-equivalent. One of the other beta impressions I read on the blogs indicated that their faction was dropping f-bombs every which way. I’m sure the intent was “badass and edgy”, but what I got was “lazy and uncreative”.

  12. I really wanted to try TSW, but my computer doesn’t even meet the minimum system requirements. On the other hand, I’m running GW2 decently on medium settings — not even low. Runs Rifts really well on medium, and single player games like Skyrim. It doesn’t make sense to me, but I wasn’t about to spend 50 or 60 bucks on the game only to find out it wont run. I wonder if anyone else was turned off just by the system requirements.

  13. I like this game a lot. It is perfect game for duo or more friends. I’m playing with my husband, and we are trying to get our friends into game, but TSW needs really strong machine to run. No one want to upgrade their still working computer just to play one game.

  14. Interesting write up. I want to give TSW another go because of all the games released this year, it’s the one that, on paper, appealed to me most. Unfortunately, when it came to playing it, so many of the design decisions put me off that I couldn’t justify to myself why I’d pay a sub for it, let alone a sub that was 3-4 GBP more expensive than most other sub-MMOs. If you’re going to ask that much more then you’ve got to deliver that much more and, in my opinion, they didn’t.

  15. Like others, I think, i have a love/hate relationship with TSW. I bought it. I subbed for a couple of months but then quit when GW2 came out.

    I had a number of reasons for cancelling my sub. One thing that bothered me, though, and which I don’t see coming up often in discussions around it, was that I, personally, kept feeling as though my good will for the game, Ragnar, and Fucom was being exploited. I was prepared before TSW came out to pay for the game even if I didn’t like it much. (I hadn’t loved it during the beta weekends.) I thought of my purchase and my sub being similar to paying a little extra for local or organic food, or forking out some extra money to support a struggling indie band. I respected that they were trying to do some radical, innovative things in TSW, and I wanted to reward that adventurousness.

    But I kept feeling as though this good will was being exploited. For example, I hated that the game was released with a cash shop. I know… I know… I’ve heard all the arguments in support of it. Still, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that my goodwill for the company (being willing to pay $50 for the game and a $15 sub) was being abused (i.e., if you really want to customize your character, then you’ll fork out another $5 for this cool costume). Another example: I hated that the game restricted you to only three characters. I know… I know… I’ve heard the arguments for why this restriction made sense. (The main one being that the incentive to level up alts didn’t apply because of TSW’s deck system.) Still, if there was ever an MMO that I really looked forward to actually roleplaying in, it was TSW. The fact that I couldn’t whip up a bunch of alts for rp purposes stung. It felt to me that I was being set up for a future purchase down the line. (“You can buy another character in our item shop this month for only $10….”)

    So, yeah, for me, the interesting thing about TSW was how it alienated me, as a player, not because of its mechanics or story line or its advertising but mainly because of costs and its treatment of its player base.

    Just a thought.

  16. Agree, 100%. TSW is a great game suffering from bad marketing and timing.

    That said, am I playing it right now? No. Not because I wouldn’t like to, but because I just don’t have the time. Once the frenzy of GW2 dies down I’ll be back, even if it’s still a sub game at that point. I’ll certainly come back whenever it goes F2P, as then the time-to-cost benefit analysis no longer comes into play.

  17. It’s a great game. What amazes me the most is that the voiceovers and dialogue is so much better than in SWTOR, and SWTOR had it mostly pretty good.

    The main quests really pull you in, and the tier system in questing is a great innovation. I don’t know if any other mmo has done this, but it’s great that you can drop a quest and there’s this “save point” where you can continue it later. I only wish you could pick these paused quests later from your journal, rather than running back to the questgiver.

    I love the ability wheel. The amount of options makes it possible to really choose your playstyle down to last detail.
    One of the huge problems why it turns people away, is that there is no hand-holding. I mean, yes there are “Deck options” but what they tell you is end game ability sets. Before you get there, you need to get huge amount of ability points. They should have hand-held the whole way to the “End-deck”, that would have helped the learning curve for many people.

    The bugs in some of the quests on launch didnt help either, but I think they are mostly fixed now. In TSW it’s actually hard to know if the quest bugs or you just dont get the clue and that was annoying sometimes.

    Now I have to wait for my wife to catch up, as she started later on.. although we just got a baby, so that will propably be awhile..;) I’m still paying subscription for support though.

  18. I was also disappointed the game currently features the traditional gear grind/endless raiding end-game. It also doesn’t help that the game lacks the level of polish that any AAA MMO should have on its release. Bugs are expected… but, as with any Funcom release, there were a nice, healthy staple of bugs upon release. Its definitely rough around the edges.

    With that said, I find the game extremely enjoyable. The “journey” is engaging and fun. I think the game does cater to individuals with limited playing schedules (such as myself). I’ve been playing here and there since release and I’m not even “halfway” through a bulk of the content.

  19. It is a great game. I think it’s more bold in its design choices than anything that’s come out in the last 2-3 years, easily.

    About the M rating, even a profanity filter or something like that can’t really cut it. With missions like Into the Darkness and Virgula Divina, and even all the disturbing imagery you get (you’ll know what you get to Transylvania), it’s very hard to ignore the grittyness of whole game. But to be honest I don’t think that the M rating hurts them all that much. The majority of MMO players are adults, after all.

  20. Syl over at Raging Monkeys rightly points out that the only reason ever to support an endeavor of this sort is that you enjoy playing. I don’t generally go to horror movies because I don’t enjoy them. I don’t watch contemporary character dramas for the same reason. I do enjoy the time I spend playing TSW though. However, it’s not “light reading.”

    I think a lot of people looking for “innovation” don’t really know what they want. For example, the setting itself of TSW is innovative. Name another MMO with a simialr setting. Whether it’s a “good” innovation or not remains to be seen. The Ability Wheel is a great innovation, IMHO. But, like much of the rest of the game, there is a nuance to it that may be a little offputting to those not interested in studying that detail. (Having the preset Decks helps with that. The actual combat? Perhaps not so innovative, but certainly not as cringeworthy as some have made it out to be. Frankly I find it on a par with most games I have played, and encourages (forces?) movement while not worrying too much about limited range cones and such.

    You’re completely right, Syp, in saying that Funcom was somehow hoping for “Mainstream” numbers when they had produced a niche game. I hope they give it time to develop the niche audience it deserves.

  21. The immediate pre-launch marketing was very good, which is how I found out about the game. Unfortunately before then and after launch, marketing has been almost non-existent. I agree with most all of Syp’s points and suggestions, especially about the marketing. I’d emphatically recommend use of the trailers for advertising, as they are very well done.

    I hope TSW eventually finds its footing and thrives; it’s a great game.

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