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The Secret World and the tough road ahead Exclusive
 The Secret World  and the tough road ahead
October 1, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

October 1, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Design, Production, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

Funcom's The Secret World is in a tricky spot, after seeing only about 200,000 purchases in its first two months. Of course, an MMO's post-launch period can be expected to be tricky, as a service-oriented model increasingly relies on launch feedback and adjusting course as it goes.

When that initial release doesn't catch fire, the challenge gets steeper: How do you adjust for early issues -- and attract players who might've been turned off by early reviews to give the game another go? MMOs receive Metacritic ratings based on launch performance, but as of now, it's not as if the critics' score can increase even if the game improves.

Hoping to nurture the game into something sustainable, Funcom recently moved lead content director Joel Bylos into the position of game director, to work alongside Ragnar Tornquist, who continues as The Secret World's creative director. Together, the pair hope to lead improvement and expansons on the game -- and tackle the challenge of winning potential players all over again.

Getting more hands on deck at the high level is a place to start: "Ragnar has been juggling the work of three people for a long time," Bylos tells us. In addition to executive producer and creative director, Tornquist also handled the game's writing and voice direction. "He has been a keystone of the project, but that also takes its toll."

Along with producer Scott Junior, Bylos' first task is to reshape and orient The Secret World's team for live operations -- presumably that's part of why the company had to institute layoffs as part of its overall recovery effort.

It's a jungle out there

Part of the challenge is that the MMO marketplace is crowded, after several major releases just this year. And many major video games must necessarily shift into a model that creates a longer-term and broader relationship with its players: Diablo III and Borderlands 2 aren't MMOs, but they're designed around the goal of creating potentially-infinite experiences. Whether MMO or not, many big games now rely on becoming a player's most significant daily hobby and sustaining that attention for some time, so the competition is even steeper.

"It's very hard for a new IP to stand out in a landscape of sequels and big-name franchises," says Bylos. "From a business perspective, the challenge is to get more copies of the game into the hands of players. From a development perspective, the challenges are more about settling the development team into a good rhythm going forward."

Bylos says the team is on track now with its schedule of monthly updates, and plans for content and feature patches on a regular basis are well underway. A key component of this process starts with identifying the most impactful features for players -- and potential players -- with a focus on what the company calls its four pillars for The Secret World.

Perhaps most interesting of these pillars is The Secret World's modern-fantasy setting, partially oriented to help it stand out in a genre that generally favors high fantasy. One goal for the game's team is to continue enriching that world, focused on a sense of helping make progression meaningful through a strong storyline that involves conflict among differing factions.

As for Tornquist, now that he doesn't need to balance three different jobs, he's looking forward to some positive change in his daily work. "Joel will be shaping the creative direction for the game, and that's something players will see in the months ahead, but he and I have been working together on The Secret World for a long time, and our goals are quite similar," Tornquist explains.

the secret world.jpgThe trajectory of an MMO is made more difficult by the fact that investors often still expect to see the same types of success signs as they would expect in a commercial game. How will the team handle that communication challenge from a business standpoint and from a player standpoint, so that everyone understands the nature of a live operation that is a work in progress?

"I think most of our players are very aware of the nature of MMOs as constant works in progress. They definitely have a lot of patience and that's reflected in our user scores, which are consistently high," Tornquist notes. "The players, in general, are happy with the game, and they're happy with what we're doing on an ongoing basis to make The Secret World an even better and more engaging experience."

Tornquist says the game's existing community has been incredibly patient and a willingness to invest in the process. "From a business standpoint, we would of course have liked to see The Secret World perform better right from the start. Our slow launch has definitely had an impact on the team and on Funcom," he says. "At this point, however, we're also seeing a commitment from everyone in the company to give the team the time and the investment they need in order to reach a wider audience, and to keep our existing subscribers happy and engaged with constant content updates and new features."

The game's Metacritic score was lower than the team hoped for, Tornquist admits. "Being different can sometimes be a big disadvantage, particularly when the threshold for losing patience with a game is low," he says. "We don't blame the reviews, of course. It's obvious that The Secret World is quite divisive, and it's also obvious that we could have done more to ease players into the reasonably complex mechanics in a smoother and more user-friendly way."

Tornquist says he has a hard time understanding why the game has been so divisive. "If you read most The Secret World reviews you'll see that nearly every critic found a lot to like and love, but for various reasons the scores would sometimes end up somewhere between 60 and 80, which naturally affected our Metacritic average," he says. "Curiously, we also have a lot of reviews in the 80s and 90s -- and even a couple below 60 -- which boggles the mind. That one game can be so many things to different people, from the 'best game ever' to a 'great disappointment', it's almost incomprehensible."

Given that kind of polarity, and the clear challenge reviewers seem to have with achieving consensus about a long-term game, maybe there's something to be said about the idea of re-reviewing MMOs into the launch window. Bylos thinks it might be a good idea: "Three or four months down the line... you'll often see where the game is heading, whether the developers are working hard to evolve the game, add content, and take action where needed, or whether the game is being left to rot and die," he says, citing the over ten-year lifespan of Funcom's own Anarchy Online as evidence that these games can have incredible variety over time.

So could Metacritic scores potentially be destructive to online games, since the game's condition at launch can be hard to judge and have such little relationship to the long-term nature of the product? "I wouldn’t say that it is destructive, but it is very much an influence on window shoppers," says Bylos.

"The fans know what the game is about, they have read up on the features and most of them had the opportunity to try it in beta. But there are hundreds of thousands of people who will be looking for a game to play, see something about The Secret World, be intrigued by the premise, but then will dismiss it on the basis of a low Metacritic score," he says. "Steam does everyone the favor of posting the score right next to the game in the store."

But it's "not fair" to blame Metacritic, Bylos continues. "The reality is that the game had mixed reviews and as such is indicative that the game is divisive," he says. "There is plenty to be learned from reading and watching professional reviews and taking away points of the game that could be improved."

At Funcom now, there are "a lot of eyes" on sorting out where to apply evolution and change. In addition to usual feedback avenues like user feedback and playtesting, "our community team provides the development team with top ten lists of what they are picking up as the most talked-about and most pressing issues that need to be addressed, and we get the same from QA -- although their focus is, of course, more on bugs," says Bylos. "On the development team itself, there are constant discussions and team management keep constantly updated lists of what they want to address."

Primarily, though, the team values making judgment calls on its own instincts after sorting all the feedback. "It's hard to make a game for everyone, so we have to start with ourselves," says Bylos.

Change for the better

In a "state of the game" letter that Tornquist released to the community, he stressed the importance of meaningful evolution versus change so drastic that the game becomes something it is not. But in a time of needing to be so focused on features and how users respond to features, how do you isolate the elements that identify your game?

"There are strategic meetings where managers and directors sit down to map out the road ahead -- based both on player feedback and the team's own ideas and wishes -- and then they see how that fits into the vision and direction for the game," says Tornquist. "Anything that doesn't support those four pillars is often discarded. That doesn't mean we're unwilling to expand the game in other directions, of course -- player housing, for example, is something that's being discussed -- but again it needs to stay true to our game, to the game players and playing and enjoying, and we definitely need to avoid knee-jerk reactions to other games."

There'll be no elves in The Secret World anytime soon, then -- "Or, at least not elves as you know them," says Tornquist.

"I've always said that The Secret World has a soul," Tornquist reflects. "It's the job of the leads and directors to really understand and know what makes The Secret World what it is... it's that vision, that direction, informs everything we do. It evolves naturally from our focus on feeling, being, looking different, having a soul, not trying to copy every other MMO out there."

It's that intrinsic knowledge that helped Tornquist understand it was time to redefine his role on the project, he says. Player requests range from major features, like player housing, to balance issues and cosmetic ones, like different hairstyles. Some players have asked for more of the same, like investigation missions, story features and sandbox elements. The individual teams that tackle each area are asked to focus on that community feedback.

"One of the areas where we have received a large amount of feedback is the faction conflict in the game," Bylos notes. "Players currently feel that both in PvE and PvP, the factional conflict does not quite come to the forefront as we originally planned. The development team has assessed this and are currently planning both changes to the current faction conflict in the game and also developing new features that really allow players to dig into the intrigue between the factions."

the secret world 2.jpg"We do internal reviews of feature designs and the vision holders are on hand to provide feedback and point out anything that seems to slide outside the scope of the game," he adds. "Of course, The Secret World has a brilliantly large canvas to draw upon and it is very easy to adjust ideas to keep them within our framework. The team is very invested in the world of the game, as well, so there is rarely any internal conflict about the integrity of the setting."

From here, the team believes that if they can satisfy current players, more will come. Additionally, the company has more community and PR initiatives planned to raise awareness and stay in the conversation. With Bylos in the role of game director, Tornquist plans to invest part of his efforts in ambassadorship to the community. He believes that as a passionate fan of the game himself, he can share that with others.

At the same time, says Bylos, "it is absolutely possible to operate an MMO without the massive numbers of World of Warcraft, and to turn a tidy profit from that. I think some companies are still -- and have to be -- focused on a massive user base, because of the way they're set up and how they operate their games. Funcom is different in that way, in that the company has such extensive experience running relatively smaller MMOs, and ensuring a steady profit from such games."

The team remains "one hundred percent focused" on The Secret World, according to Tornquist, "and will remain so for a long, long time. Funcom does have other projects in various stages of production -- including the new LEGO online game -- but those teams are separate from The Secret World team, and there is no disruption in terms of the development focus. The Secret World team is smaller now than it was before launch, and that's only natural."

"Fewer people are needed to run a live project than to develop the core game, but that doesn't mean the team is small," he continues. "It's still a pretty sizeable project, dedicated entirely to churning out new features and content, and on fixing bugs and issues as they pop up."

Focus is essential now, the team believes. And there will be more staffing changes, with some team members moving to new projects and new hires in the future, but change is inevitable the further the game gets away from its launch, says Bylos. "Some of the best employees Funcom has had are people who've played the games and wanted to work on them," he says. "Those guys bring so much passion to the project and the team, and I'd love to see this happening with The Secret World in the long run as well."

Overall, Tornquist believes it's "definitely harder" to launch an MMO now than it was three years ago. "There's a lot of competition, a lot of really good, really polished games out there, and players have more choices than ever," he says. "And yes, MMO developers have learned a lot in the past three years, particularly in terms of polish and stability. Compare recent launches with launches three years ago, and it's a world of difference. The games feel polished, solid, fun -- from day one. We don't see a lot of server issues, performance issues, and while all MMOs have bugs, there are few game-breaking ones. The bar has definitely been raised."

Of course, that makes it harder for new entries to the market, especially given that these games are so tough to get right. "There really aren't a lot of MMO developers out there capable of building and releasing large-scale, AAA games -- but we are seeing a lot of smaller scale MMOs, of course, and that's a good thing," says Tornquist. "I'm not sure there's room in the market for a lot more traditional, large-scale MMOs at this point."

So the company will continue to invest in The Secret World, but: "Funcom has already stated that The Secret World is probably the last MMO of this size and scale we will ever create, so we may be seeing the end of an era," Tornquist says.

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Ron Dippold
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I think your major problem here is that people have learned not to buy Funcom games at launch. I did so for Anarchy Online and Age of Conan.

Not this time.

c anderson
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Absolutely, I only was burnt by Age Of Conan so I can't speak to AO. The initial patches only made it more and more unplayable; so where it was "fun" if broken at the start after 2 months it was just frustrating. I would have forgiven them if Funcom had looked at their records and maybe figured out that there were seriously unhappy people and make meaningful make up offers. The only offer I ever got from them is 10 free days.

"The Secret World" did look interesting ... and I might have given it a chance if I hadn't been burnt before.

Michael Rooney
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I think it's generally that way for subscription based mmos. It's hard to justify a launch day subscription in the current market. I think as far as subscriptions are concerned they should give away level 1-20 for free and then pick up subscribers after they are invested already. Not sure how you do this without levels? limit the personal story quest or max number of points you can earn?

The problem is that MMOs thrive off their community, and a big community can make you overlook a lot of problems. An MMO launch should be more about growing a community than a money grab like it is with most other genres. It's similar with f2p models because you get more money by sustaining a playerbase rather than selling copies of the game.

Maria Jayne
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The way this game was marketed and monetized actually drove me away from wanting it. I started out following its development and wanting to play it but by the time it was available I didn't. The most anti mmo consumer experience I have ever had.

Phillip Skelton
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I had a similar experience actually. I didn't hear about the game until shortly before launch, but on the face of it, the setting and the levelling-free system seemed like the kind of thing I'd been wanting to see in an MMO. And then, the more i saw of the marketing and the 'new character' gameplay videos, the more it put me off. (Well, that combined with having a small baby which makes me have a rather higher threshold for committing to a monthly subscription, when my free time is already a limited resource).

I'm not entirely sure *how* they managed to make an interesting concept look so off-putting, but they did.

Anna Atkinson-Dunn
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I had wanted to buy the game but I have had nothing but trouble with Funcom's customer service. I sent many emails to them and never had any response. They lost my purchase with such terrible contact.

Philip Michael Norris
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Whenever I had technical in-game issues (2 or 3 instances I think) I was contacted via Funcom's live chat service right away which was very convenient. So I do think they are remedying that front.

I will say that one of my personal deal-breakers w/ TSW was not only that it's a subscription-based model, but their MTX items are WAY overpriced. If I am paying out 15/mo just to play, I don't want to spend that same cost towards customizing my toon. This is part of why Torchlight 2 was a nice change after playing D3- granted D3 gave the option to buy/sell gear with in-game currency.

Paul Peak
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The point about their sub/cash shop deal is something I agree with. F2P monetization is something that does not belong in a subscription based game unless your gonna be handing out some currency with that sub. Its tricky to fit that with the regular content updates they are managing though so I'm not sure what they could swing financially.

Michael Rooney
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I agree completely. One of the more surprising things is that it's not a cheaper subscription than anything on the market either.

I think that turned a lot of people off (not necessarily me). It's hard to justify a subscription >= competitors subscriptions and a cash shop on top of it. They might have gotten away with a really low subscription and a cash shop.

David Fried
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I enjoyed playing it during the free weekend, but I have no time to invest in a subscription model game anymore in order to feel like I'm getting full value. Go free to play and I'll definitely give it another go. Just make sure you monetize ethically so as not to piss me off and drive me away again.

AI Campbell
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The problem is they continually state their game is "different" when it is not.

It is still the same tank, heal DPS dungeon crawler. I really wish they just admit it's not different at all.

Paul Lenoue
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The game is Windows-only, which is akin to flipping the middle finger to 30%-40% of your prospective players. Yet they're confused as to why they had such a disappointing start?

scott anderson
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Many MMOs are Windows only, and I don't think the Mac game market is 30%-40%, even though it is sizeable. I didn't mention Linux because, afaik, there are no large commercial MMOs with official Linux clients.

I'd imagine that 5%-10% of players would like to be able to play on a non-Windows machine, and the percentage of potential paying players that don't own or refuse to use Windows to play the game, but still really want to play it is even smaller.

Adam Bishop
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Guild Wars 2 launched as a Windows-only MMO and it had such good sales upon release that they had to temporarily stop selling digital copies of the game until server loads stabilised.

Paul Lenoue
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The MMOs that are open to both platforms report that 30% to 40% of their regular players are Mac users. Furthermore, games that allow player-created content that are open to both platforms usually report that 60% to 70% of said content are made by Mac users. Keep in mind that the large majority of windows machines out there are business, while most of the Macs are bought for personal use, so the "gap" in gamer usage is a lot smaller then usually reported.

Guild Wars 2 had a lot of hype behind it's launch, as did Conan, LoTR and others. Despite good initial sales these games died off because they seemed to only attract hard-core players who quest the hell out of them for a month or two, hit the level cap, then move on to another game, treating them like AAA console game du jour.

If you want staying power you need to make the game available to as many potential gamers as possible, including casual gamers, those who don't like subscriptions, those who _do_ like subscriptions, those who like raids, those who hate raids, and so on and so forth. Alienating a large segment just for platform choice is a sure sign they'll be laying off employees in nine months and struggling to survive next year.

Michael Rooney
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@ Paul

When did LoTR die off? It switched models, but it didn't die off. It has an expansion coming out this month actually.

And where are you geting the 30-40% stat? All the numbers I see are in the 10-20% range on the high end.

"Keep in mind that the large majority of windows machines out there are business, while most of the Macs are bought for personal use, so the "gap" in gamer usage is a lot smaller then usually reported."
more than 95% of steam users use Windows.

Adam Bishop
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"If you want staying power you need to make the game available to as many potential gamers as possible, including casual gamers, those who don't like subscriptions, those who _do_ like subscriptions, those who like raids, those who hate raids, and so on and so forth."

No. This "everything to everyone" approach is terrible. It makes for ill-designed games that don't really appeal to any of those groups. WoW has been able to diversify to some degree because it hit an unusual critical mass that allows it do all sorts of things because of audience inertia. MMO developers need to stop trying to make WoW 2.0. Guild Wars 2 is succeeding precisely because it isn't doing that, and the MMO space would be a lot healthier if we could stop getting a bunch of games that aren't very good at being WoW and start getting a bunch of games that try to form a unique identity that they can properly live up to.

Paul Lenoue
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Michael, you're right, LoTR is doing okay, it's another fantasy MMO I was thinking of. That's the problem with posting before your morning coffee combined with far too many generic fantasy MMOs.

The 30%-40% number comes from numerous in-depth articles, non-biased research and contacts within the industry. There's variations with each and every game, but the average shows there's much larger Mac presence in MMOs than most people believe.

Do you think the fact that Steam was windows-only for so long might have something to do with the small number of Mac users? Most Mac users have written Steam off for good and don't even know they can now join it.

Adam, many of the games that try to appeal to all camps do it wrong. Sometimes they spend too little effort in all the areas, giving the game a half-assed feel to it. Other times they pour most of their effort trying to appease hard core raiders while tossing bread crumbs to the PvE players, which offends the casual gamers while only temporarily satiating the AAA junkies who jump ship as soon as a new game comes out. It's a tricky balancing act, to be sure, but most of these MMOs are convinced they have to go for a singular demographic and give minimal service, or outright ignore, all other gamers.

This is also why a good (emphasis on "good") player-created content MMO would succeed. The players would create, influence and promote what they're interested in, which changes over time in ways the standard game creation model can't keep up with. It will be a while before someone gets it right and shows the rest how to do it, but it looks to be inevitable because the more players get a taste of making their own content the more they demand it.

Adam Logghe
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Sadly I see no mention of the actual combat mechanics as something they want to address.

The one consistent complaint that I've noticed about the game is that the combat is just bad, combined with boring mob fights every 5 feet.

I personally hope the era of wow tabtarget is coming to an end, but it's obviously going to take a few years for word to get out.

Philip Michael Norris
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I thought the combat is one of the areas TSW actually prevailed :/

Michael Rooney
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I think the combat has potential, but I didn't like that they replaced auto-attacks with manual-attacks with about the same meaning as auto-attacks. If you have to manually attack for every attack, each attack should mean more, but I never got the feeling that my manual-attacks were anything more than a more difficult auto-attack.

Also, different animations/effects go a long way in combat. It was really mundane unlocking a new awesome skill and having it have the same animation and effects as skills that are unlocked at level 1.

Combat was probably one of the reasons I stopped playing.

edit: I think part of the problem is that the effects/animations on your own character are something you see constantly. It made the game feel like it was still in Beta to me, and it's hard to justify a purchase and subscription for something that doesn't feel finished yet.

Kyle Redd
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It's such a unique world that I'd actually like to see a full single-player game come out of it, with a structure along the lines of the Elder Scrolls games. I guess that's the ultimate not-gonna-happen fantasy.

It's really shameful that seemingly every major publisher appears to have completely abandoned those sorts of deep, complex offline experiences forever, at least when it comes to RPGs. With that, The Secret World could have had the sort of lasting life and longevity that Skyrim has. Instead, it's more likely that Funcom will shut it down within a year and in two it will have been forgotten by everyone.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Jake Shapiro
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I hope this doesn't discourage developers (and publishers) from releasing MMOs with unique concepts in the future. But it probably will.

scott anderson
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At this point I think publishers and developers are turned off from starting new MMO projects at all.

Philip Michael Norris
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I think the next evolution for MMO devs is to include user-created content as a means to keep up with player demand. Otherwise it is way too expensive and time-consuming to turn out fresh content in-house. I believe Cryptic is doing this with their future MMO releases, which will be interesting to see unfold.

Robb Lewis
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Would more people play TSW if it went free to play?

Joe McGinn
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Certainly they would. Who goes subscription-fee in this day and age with a new MMO? Even Bioware Star Wars couldn't make a go of it. Nothing wrong with this game that the right business model wouldn't fix.

Mike Morrison
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TSW's story and its attempts to break out of the standard-mold MMO grabbed me, but the character models/animations and combat action turned me off. Players spend so much time with their character in the middle of the screen running, casting, shooting, performing melee attacks, etc., yet it seems like most MMO developers don't make a bigger priority out of getting this aspect of the game right.

warren blyth
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I won't pretend to understand the complexity of their situation. but I keep obsessing over a couple zany suggestions:
* they should go free2play for existing classes, while introducing a new class that requires a subscription. This new class should be based around the builderberg conspiracy angle (that a small group of rich people run the world).
The story of their world seems like it would support the concept. And you might foster a new dynamic where the existing classes desire p2p against the rich.
They could then seek press coverage about their dark metaphor of class warfare, and the 1%. They could even get a little meta when discussing which group the developers are favoring (let the rich purchase more health in the middle of a fight. let them fight dirty. make them a real bitch to kill. But also have them drop some amount of valuable in-game currency when defeated. play up this in game imbalance as a conspiracy that the company is fighting).

* they could sell items in their store that are purposefully mysterious/obscured. (maybe they already do?). Its fun to daydream about a game tackling recent eastern legislation head on (Japan is making it illegal to sell digital items, if it isn't clear what you'd be getting?). I'd love to see this game getting headlines for confronting social grey areas head on, around the world.

* I'd love to see one class geared towards clicking/queuing attacks (for people who want to grind), while another class is geared towards complicated button mashing fighting.
It'd be fascinating to support these two different gameplay approaches in the same game, and see which people are drawn into.

I know it's too late to actually tackle anyof these ideas. but. snarky useless comments are free! HA HA HA.

[I've been excited about TSW since it was first announced (great ideas, and cool style). But my brain wasn't built for MMOs. i'm waiting for it to go free to play so I can check out some of these story missions that the Giant Bomb guys said were pretty great].

Joshua Yu
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Trying something new is great, but when a company releases a game with such glaring issues expecting players to "play through the bugs" to see the great content, is not the best way to approach the business. An MMO's leveling system usually tend to be only about 1/4 - 1/2 of the content in the entire game. So giving reviews without really experiencing the full amount of content is a little premature, but at the same time a developer cannot expect players to sit there and play through issues just to see the end game content.