The Agency: An Interview with SOE
We infiltrate Sony Online Entertainment to discover its PS3- and PC-bound project - potentially, a shooter like no other.
Sony is frequently accused of coming late to the online party, and with some justification. Having failed to anticipate the significance of Microsoft's Xbox Live, the once-irresistible PlayStation platform has been left to play catch up over the past few years, with many of PSN's best tricks - not least the Achievement-esque Trophies - lifted from the North American competition.
What many commentators overlook, however, is that Sony was popularising the online experience when Live was but a bottle-green twinkle in Buffalo Bill's inner eyehole. Established in 1995, Sony Online Entertainment laid the foundations for the likes of World of Warcraft in the form of the EverQuest series, and was recently honoured at the 59th Annual Technology & Engineering Awards for advancing massively multiplayer online gaming as an art form.
With its dashing spy movie homage The Agency, unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show last year for PS3 and PC, SOE is hoping once again to kick-start a new breed of massively multiplayer entertainment. Where Everquest off-shoots on PlayStation 2 were clearly attempts to fit a PC-native square peg into a circular console hole, The Agency is a melting pot, taking its cues as much from the likes of Call of Duty or Splinter Cell as it does the developer's desktop back catalogue. This is by no means a game to which mouse and keyboard are central. SOE Seattle's Kevin O'Hara, Senior World Designer, makes that apparent from the get-go when we stop by to check out his project in motion.
"The Agency is our online persistent shooter," he says. "We're not generally using the term MMO, although we do put a lot of MMO abilities that we've learned from our other projects into it. We really want to first and foremost be an action shooter as a game, which means first person or third person view, which really brings in the crowd who like that type of visual experience where when you aim and shoot your skill is important."O'Hara paints the point a little bolder later on: "that's the primary audience we're aiming for - people who just like to go in and cause mayhem and lots of explosions.
"Although you'll have different character skills you can deploy to help you through, a headshot's a headshot. In a Player versus Player game, even if I play for two years and you start today, you're going to be competitive with me if you're a shooter fan. If you're not a shooter fan, then certainly getting those skills will help you to advance."
This choice of target demographic will have ramifications for SOE Seattle's business model, though O'Hara claims that aspect is still to be determined. "We're acutely aware that shooter players are not used to playing monthly fees, so I doubt we'll go for an outright $15 a month, which works on some of our other projects. So we're checking out Free Realms to see how they're going to do with their micro-transactions, and we might incorporate some of that. We'll definitely have some ad revenue models. The Agency's the perfect place for some in-game product placement." If this latter statement sets any suspension-of-disbelief-related alarm bells ringing, don't worry - the developer won't be ramming context-less Pepsi merchandise down your throat. "We don't want to go over the top with it."
The Agency does, however, go over the top in other areas, the premise being one. "The game takes place throughout Europe and also in Central America - we've got a number of cities we're going to be visiting. We want to make sure you have that jet-setting superspy feel as you play through. And in our world spies are ubiquitous, so everywhere you go there's danger around every corner, there's things blowing up, you know. The common populace have just gotten used to people in dark clothes and shades walking around." The aesthetic is both technologically and visually undemanding: rather than throw resources at jazzed-up textures or uncannily realistic shadows, SOE Seattle has opted for a clean cartoon look comparable to Valve's Team Fortress 2.