The horror genre has always been popular with gamers, but there have been relatively few horror MMOs. While games like Hellgate and Dark Eden were earlier examples of MMOs which tried to fill this niche, it wasn’t until The Secret World came along that the genre got its first, and arguably only, game to put not only horror imagery but horror gameplay at its fore.
Another core element of The Secret World which set it apart from its competitors was its modern-day ‘real world’ setting. Players visit locations from across the globe, with the only difference between this world and ours is that in The Secret World, every conspiracy theory is true. Accordingly, players must join one of three factions at the start of the game – the Templars, the Illuminati, or the Dragon – each with their own ideas on how to handle a world overrun with zombies, demons, and Lovecraftian entities.
Guiding The Secret World’s development was Ragnar Tørnquist, the acclaimed creator of adventure games The Longest Journey and its sequel Dreamfall. Initially teased by Tørnquist as The World Online, the game that would be revealed later in 2007 as The Secret World had been in development as early as 2002 under the name Cabal.
Following a mysterious poem posted on the Eurogamer website, a hidden secret code sent players to a forum that unveiled the game to the public for the first time. Further details on the game following its formal announcement were similarly eked out via an alternate reality game with fans scrabbling around the internet for clues. This set the tone for the game’s quest design – something which would become its most lauded feature.
As the ‘kill 10 rats’ style of quest became the genre’s most tiresome trope, The Secret World attempted to differentiate itself from its competitors by incorporating ‘investigation’ missions into its gameplay. These quests took inspiration from the modern adventure game that Tørnquist had helped to usher in with The Longest Journey. Rather than giving players a task and pointing them in the direction they need to go, The Secret World might present players with a piece of famous artwork – the artist of which players would need to find out if they wanted to unlock a nearby computer terminal whose password is the name of said artist. Other quests required players to decipher morse code, translate foreign languages, or even fold origami.
Because of this complex questing – fully voice acted by a cast which included recognisable names like Jeffrey Combs, Tim Russ, and Tara Strong – the game launched with a focus on quality rather than quantity. The three starting hub areas of London, New York, and Seoul would lead players to New England, Egypt, and finally Transylvania. Tørnquist had plans for a further 10-15 years of content which would see players reaching the highest levels of their respective secret societies.
With a lack of endgame content and only a scant few PvP maps at launch, players and critics alike were worried whether the game would suffer with retaining a large enough playerbase. Its faith in the subscription business model also seemed misplaced given the fast-spreading popularity of free-to-play and hybrid models being deployed throughout the genre.
Reviews were otherwise largely positive, with praise being heaped on the game’s investigation quests and world-building. The reception to its classless, horizontal character progression was mixed, with the consensus being that while it was a positive step forward for an element which had become a stale part of the MMO experience, some found it overly complex and not as radical as it had been hyped up in the pre-release marketing.
The Secret World presented its major updates as Issues, receiving a total of 15 between 2012 and 2016. With the launch of Issue #9: The Black Signal (November 2014), the game opened its fourth adventure location: Tokyo. While the next issues would continue adding content to this new area, Issue #10 would be followed by a sizeable patch in March 2015, dubbed the Enhanced Player Experience.
Yes, a studio really did give their update this name 10 years after the debacle of Star Wars Galaxies’ NGE. Although the combat changes in the EPE were generally well-received, as it would happen the patch was something of a CU to Galaxies’ NGE, with a bigger revamp to the game coming two years later.
The launch worries that The Secret World would struggle with player retention turned out to be not entirely unfounded. Some six months after launch the game shifted to a buy-to-play model, with a cash shop added alongside it. To generate further revenue for the game, later Issues were available as paid DLC rather than free updates, although this angered certain members of the community who had paid a considerable sum for the ‘Grandmaster’ lifetime subscription to the game.
By 2017, key members of the game’s development team – including Tørnquist and Game Director Joel Bylos – had departed the game, new content releases were becoming further spaced apart, and Funcom was emerging on the other side of several financially challenging years.
In an effort to revitalise the Secret World brand the studio released three small-scale spin-off titles (Hide and Shriek, The Park, and Moons of Madness), optioned the rights to a television series adaptation, and rereleased The Secret World as Secret World Legends.
Legends replaced the horizontal progression of the original game with a somewhat more traditional level-based system and changed the combat from a click-to-target to an action combat system. The biggest change of all though was the decision to finally make the game fully free to play.
But such a thing requires a large critical mass of players to support, and unfortunately within just a few months player numbers had levelled out to how they were before the revamp. The first major content patch, which took players to South Africa, wasn’t released until almost a full year after the relaunch.
Active development silently ceased thereafter, with the game’s story being left on an unsatisfying cliffhanger. The next planned location for the game was the Congo, with other locations, including the moon, having been teased over the years, but sadly never delivered upon.
Following the release of Secret World Legends, the old version of the game remained playable, but only for those who had already purchased it before the relaunch. With some players preferring the older version of the game and with no way to transfer characters from the legacy servers into SWL, the playerbase has been split ever since.
Thus, distinct communities have built up around the two versions of the game, both of which remain in maintenance mode.
Although these communities are small, the game’s legacy has only grown stronger in recent years, with the investigation missions and the story still being touted as some of the best that the genre has ever offered. Even if its Whedonesque dialogue falls a little flat a decade after the game launched, there’s still a lot to love in The Secret World, and it’s a shame that its failure has perhaps contributed to the genre’s continued unwillingness to venture beyond the safety of fantasy and sci-fi settings.