Saturday, January 22, 2011

Will These MMOGs Ever Launch? part 1 - THE AGENCY

I challenge the developers of four once promising titles to put up or shut up

We gathered the editors to take a look at four once- promising MMOGs that now seem to be disappearing from gamers' radars. If you've begun to lose faith in The Agency, The Secret World, Jumpgate: Evolution and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning you'll want to see how the developers of these titles responded (or didn't) to our challenge to defend their games. Some of the responses are encouraging, and some of the silences less so, but you won't want to miss any of them. Read on!

The Agency is the old-timer on our contender versus pretender list. Arriving on the shortly before E3 2007, it (rather than DC Universe Online) was to be SOE’s first PlayStation 3 showpiece. Unfortunately, it’s also been the slowest developing title in SOE’s post EverQuest 2 lineup – so much so that SOE has been forced to routinely squash rumors of its cancellation.

Several shakeups over the years have brought those rumors back like a nasty staph infection. The first salvo came when console game rental company Gamefly sent out notices in November 2008 that The Agency would be removed from the queue amid rumors of the game’s cancellation. The rumors turned out to be false, but six months later another event again stoked the cancellation gossip embers. While Lead Designer Rory McGuire has staid the course, The Agency has saw a number of defections in the summer of 2009. Figurehead Matt Wilson, John Smith, and Art Director Corey Dangel left SOE Seattle to form mobile games-focused Detenator Games (on Independence Day nonetheless, as if their feelings weren’t apparent enough).

In the wake of the executive exodus, SOE Seattle vowed their steadfast determination to launch The Agency. But an implied 2008 release date slipped to 2010, and most recently we were told that late 2011 is the soonest we’re going to see this spy vs. spy shoot ‘em up. And now that the game is reportedly feature complete, 2011 seems much more tenable.

While launch delays are the expensive addiction of the MMO industry in general and SOE in particular (John Smedley recently told Kotaku that DC Universe Online was held back for a year and a half), what might relegate The Agency to pretender status is the lack of any coherent MMOG framework we’re left with for the game in nearly four years of marketing. We don’t yet see why or how The Agency needs a persistent world or massively multiplayer concurrency to achieve its single shooter-centric ends. Small-scale encounters that had us sneaking and shooting our way around casinos, sophisticated cars built by a virtual Q while your offline, text messages to alert you when it’s done - these features, while cool, didn’t exactly scream: "I need a vibrant online community around me to enjoy this!”

That’s not to say that The Agency wouldn’t make for an awesome single-player shooter with optional co-op elements, a sort-of love child between Borderlands, Goldeneye, and Team Fortress 2. At E3 2010, Rory McGuire demoed some of the class choice and visual innovations of The Agency – things like the gear you equip always shows up on your character model, and then at SOE Fan Faire 2010 we saw an impressive look at the La Signora Grande, an archetypical casino environment being developed for the game.

So, MMOG pretender versus contender? Everything depends on how The Agency ties together the compartmentalized demo coolness we’ve seen with some kind of need for other players, other than the obvious need to have them in your ironsights or, conversely, shooting in the same direction. McGuire promised just this sort of info this year, discussing the large- scale PvE environments, possibly some territory control aspects, and in general how everything ties together. But as for the here and now, we’re saying pretender. A pretender, that is, given the information we have in terms of The Agency being an MMOG shooter – a definite contender

SOE Seattle Responds
"It’s not a secret that the games business is a tough one – it’s a lot like making an airplane while you are also trying to fly it. For The Agency we are blending two genres which happen to have the most heated competition in the industry right now. A massively multiplayer world combined with the fidelity of a classical first person shooter all wrapped up in living the life of an elite agent. To really deliver on this promise puts us on the cutting edge of both genres. If we allow ourselves to get out of date, lose sight of our target or simply deliver an inferior product - the game will not last long at all...and that is not what we are shooting for.

We have flown under the radar a bit – but that’s the spy thing to do. We haven’t shown the player moving across Venice, running along the Grand Canal, snapping photos of intelligence, or donning an alias and infiltrating into an enemy area. Our goal for last year’s E3 was to show the improvements that we had made to the look and feel of the game. Our next goal is to show the complete scope of what The Agency has to offer as a playable massively multiplayer game which also happens to be a first person shooter.

"Earlier today I did a level review with one of the designers in the office. We grouped up on the Rialto Bridge in Venice and worked out which roles we were going to play, did the necessary mission setup of acquiring some intel and then headed off to our location. Part way through the mission I gained a level, and I needed to acquire some new gear. I left him to his own devices and went through one of the more hostile spaces where a few other designers were trying to get through an alias area together. Since I had already infiltrated the organization in question, I donned my alias, helped them out for a bit and ran off to my vendor.

"We will be showing these elements resonating off of each other, not just the shooter aspects, in the very near future. Keep an eye out!"

-Rory McGuire, Lead Designer, The Agency, SOE Seattle

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