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.
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.
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.
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.