VGB Feature: The Agency Q&A with Lead Designer Hal Milton

The Agency

We were recently able to score some Q&A time with Sony Online Entertainment Lead Designer, Hal Milton to inquire about The Agency, the intriguing spy and espionage themed MMO-shooter he and the rest of SOE’s Seattle studio are enthusiastically working on for the PC and PS3. We tried to dig up dirt on hot topics like the game’s business model, cross-platform play between the two versions and possible tie-ins with PS3 Home, but unfortunately it’s still too early in the dev process for specifics to be released. Nonetheless, we were able to learn a lot more about the inspirations behind the game and its myriad of cool gameplay concepts, which we are now pleased to be able to share with you.

VGBlogger: With The Agency, you are straying away from the traditional idea of fantasy RPG worlds and moving into a sort of techno-filled hip generation of spy intrigue like Bond and Bourne. What kind of research did you guys do to help create this world, what influences did you have to make it, and why bring the spy world to MMOs?

Hal Milton: Fortunately, we didn’t have to go too far to begin researching our title. The rich history of special and secret Agents have touched about every part of film, television, novels, comics, animation, radio…heck, wherever anyone could tell a story they’ve told at least one that touches on elements within our title. We’ve also immersed ourselves in the surreal world of real intelligence, national and international security organizations. Even the NSA’s children’s website is a great place to examine spin and get a primer on basic cryptography.

As to the “why”, well, bringing together a large number of people in an online world of intrigues seemed like a natural fit. Throw in some betrayal, a few explosions, exotic locales, and a fun atmosphere and, well, we hope folks will agree it’s a really hard place to leave once they get there.

One note, as we did our research it became apparent that we didn’t want to base the game on any real world ideological struggles. There are plenty of games with the gritty world down pat. We instead wanted to make a world people wanted to run to, not away from. This led us to create an environment where Spies and Mercs are ubiquitous and their antics almost boring to the general populace; until the collateral damage starts to rack up.

VGB: What were some of the visual influences on The Agency? There’s the obvious Bond elements going on, but the visual style adds an excellent stylistic depth not found in more “realistic” looking games.

HM: Our Art Director Corey Dangel can speak more directly to this, but we were drawn to the works of Pixar, J. Scott Campbell, the cool sheen of films like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and more. The stylization is both a practical and creative decision. We wanted the look of our game to not be defined by technology, but by our artists. It sounds like common sense, but in our industry the lure of bells and whistles leads many to create games that look aged before they’re even shipped. We’re shooting for a clean, stylized look that can live on its own terms for some time to come.

VGB: The Agency will be joining the ranks of many other games like Huxley and Freestyle Street Basketball as MMOs that aren’t necessarily full-on RPGs (dare we even mention the flailing Auto Assault). Sadly, none aside from RPGs have proven to be super-successful. What does The Agency have that a lot of these other games don’t?

HM: Well, we didn’t want to omit the role playing in our game. You will play a character that has a story arc determined by their choices and actions. You will also unlock a host of other stories in the form of the Operatives that you collect and grow over time. We think that balancing the pick-up-and-play action elements with the long game components of your Agent’s career, the Operatives you collect, and ongoing stories playing out year-round will create an experience that will entice folks for quite a long time.

VGB: In terms of solo play, will gamers be able to get pretty far into the game on their own or will they need to recruit or join up with other players to complete the trickier missions? Basically, what balance are you striving for between solo and group play with The Agency?

HM: We definitely want players to be able to advance on their own. To that end we’re creating a repeatable mission system that has a variety of rewards based on the number of objectives you successfully complete. A solo player should be able to at least get the basic rating for any mission they encounter in their career. However, if they want to get higher ratings and more robust rewards, they may need to consider hooking up with some other players and trying the mission again with a different strategy.

VGB: Given that The Agency is a shooter, how will the group mechanics work exactly? Will there be any combo-type team actions, strategies, attacks, etc., or will players simply group up and blast away?

HM: We’re building the game around a series of specialties represented by outfits in our “You are what you wear” system that balance out the gameplay quite well. There are combat specialties that are, indeed, about blasting away. There are stealth specialties that are about bypassing security, distraction, deception, and more. Then there are support specialties that round everything out with abilities that should enhance a team’s ability to survive the world’s challenges.

VGB: How are you handling the balance between the game’s two factions? Are the two adversarial or will ParaGON players be able to team up with UNITE players?

HM: ParaGON and UNITE are rivals, not enemies. Most of the time, they experience the world story from two distinct angles, eschewing direct contact. However, those angles usually lead to shared enemies that are larger than themselves. So, we’re setting up select scenarios where ParaGON and UNITE agents can join into mixed teams to take down the villains and masterminds behind some of the more nefarious plots in our world.

VGB: What plans are in place as far as player-versus-player content is concerned? With players being able to form joint agencies, can we look forward to agency-versus-agency action in some form? I can only imagine how cool it’d be to join up with fellow agents and cook up a scheme to infiltrate another agency…

HM: I can’t wait until I can talk about the Joint Agency gameplay we’re planning. All I can say right now is that we have some plans in mind that folks should find very interesting, indeed.

In the interim, beyond the meta-game content of the future, I can talk about the basic concept behind PvP anytime. Players will be able to take a break from their career at any point and participate in a series of casual and official matches that will allow them to play with or against their friends in a wide variety of maps and game types. During your career, you may encounter some optional crossover content where you’ll need to watch your back while pursuing an objective or three.

VGB: Since there is no definitive “class” system, how will players go about creating and advancing a unique agent of their own? Will there be skill/ability trees to progress on or anything along those lines?

HM: Players will be able to choose from a variety of specialties that are equipped by selecting the right gear. As they complete missions while in those specialties they’ll earn new titles that unlock new skills. In addition, our weapons and gadgets have a use-based experience system that allow players to master many different families of gear and unlock skills specific to individual items. Players will be able to develop their own Agents based on the outfits, weapons, and gadgets they most use over time.

VGB: Given The Agency’s “You Are What You Wear” approach to character development, can we expect the game to have an in-depth “crafting” system for developing personalized spy gadgets and weapons?

HM: We feel that elite Agents would have folks do that for them. That’s why we’re developing the Operatives system. Players will begin collecting Operatives of various types based on the missions they complete, and the influence they raise around the world. Operatives themselves have a variety of specialties that enable all types of crafting. Players will contribute to this by discovering the intel that leads to the schematics and blueprints required to build the latest weapons, weapon components, gadgets, and more. Of course, Agents will also have to supply their Operatives with key resources if they ever want to see that fancy new gadget get made.

VGB: In terms of vehicles, so far there are some nicely tricked-out cars, but will we see other gadget-packed additions such as jet packs, mini-copters or perhaps well-armed snowmobiles or watercraft in the game?

HM: We want to get a little farther along before we spill any more details on this topic. Suffice to say, elite Agents have to occasionally get airborne, waterborne, and burn rubber on city streets. We’re working on a number of fun challenges that should fit the bill nicely.

VGB: The idea of underground spy networks in an MMO game is quite a big idea, and very cool as well. What details can you give us about how “networks” work in The Agency?

HM: I would, but I would have to kill you. Operative Networks are the foundation of your pocket Agency. How these networks will interact with you, with other players, and with other Operatives is something we’ll share more on in the future. I wish I could say more…however, I’d prefer to show you, rather than just blab about it. Plus, there’s that whole having to kill you thing.

VGB: With The Agency in development across both the PC and PS3, will there be crossover play between the two platforms? If so, what steps are being taken to ensure the gameplay experience is balanced for all players? Many would argue that PC players would have a competitive advantage over console players with cross-platform online shooters given the greater precision of keyboard and mouse controls over a game pad…

HM: Those are valid arguments. There aren’t any real technical reasons the two platforms can’t play together. It really comes down to design and logistics. The design team is agreed that we will not compromise the gameplay for one platform just to support both. We’re still investigating possible solutions, and there is no official stance yet.

VGB: We’ve seen voice-over IP showing up by default in recent MMOs like Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online, and the idea of people communicating vocally over headsets seems logical within the world of spies. Are you guys planning on taking advantage of this with The Agency?

HM: Absolutely. We’ll be providing text, voice, and other communication options to players to allow them to have the community and gameplay experience they desire.

VGB: With any MMO one of the first things most gamers wonder about and are eager to know is whether or not they’ll have to pay a monthly fee in order to play. Can you confirm anything at this time regarding possible subscription plans or pricing structures, if any?

HM: We understand that business models vary based on platform and built in expectations. We’re discussing a number of options right now, and once we decide on the one that’s right for we’ll make an announcement.

VGB: Are there plans or ideas being kicked around to link The Agency in with Sony’s upcoming PS3 Home service in any special ways?

HM: We’re all itching to get our hands on PS3 Home. As it stands we’re cooking up a number of ways to hook in our gameplay, and now we just need quality time with its guts to determine how far we can push it. We don’t want to get into any specific ideas until we’ve fully evaluated what we can actually do.

VGB: And last but not least, do you have any general timetable in place on when you hope/expect The Agency to be ready to launch?

HM: As a designer, I’m required by law to say: When it’s done. SOE has made a huge commitment to the quality of The Agency, and nothing impacts quality more than rushing towards an arbitrary date. My personal hope would be that everyone was playing the game yesterday. Unfortunately, no one on the team has been able to engineer a time machine capable of realizing that fevered dream…yet.

VGB: Thanks so much for your time, Hal. We can’t wait to see more of what you guys have up your sleeves for The Agency!

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!