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Originally published Monday, May 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

In Bellevue, they're taking a cue from Bond for this gaming mission

Sony Online Entertainment's game studio in Bellevue is on a mission with "The Agency," a James Bondish thriller it has been developing since...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Sony Online Entertainment's game studio in Bellevue is on a mission with "The Agency," a James Bondish thriller it has been developing since 2005.

The mission's getting less secret by the day — especially since the Sony division boss will talk it up during a games conference in Seattle this week — but it's still pretty intriguing.Sony is hoping "The Agency" creates a new genre that blends the action of first-person shooting games with the immersive experience of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games.

Gaming in general is becoming more of an MMO experience, with all the major games now serving as starting points to expansive, online multiplayer communities. It's similar to the way productivity software is no longer tethered to the desktop and now connects users online as well.

But so far the MMO hits have been mostly Tolkienesque fantasy adventures such as Sony's "Everquest" and Blizzard's "World of Warcraft."

Now Sony is hoping "The Agency" is the breakout title that brings mainstream players into the fold.

"We're not really the mainstream yet, but we're headed there, and I think it's titles like 'The Agency' that are going to be the trailblazers in that direction," said John Smedley, Sony Online Entertainment's San Diego-based president.

Smedley's flying to Seattle this week to keynote the ION Games Conference, an industry event Tuesday through Thursday at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel.

Sony's Seattle studio was established in 2004 when Smedley bought a little studio started by a handful of former Microsoft game developers who wanted to build MMO titles specifically for video-game consoles, and not just convert games originally written for PCs.

"It was funny ... there was like four of us and one little workstation in a 15,000-square-foot building — we'd drive around in our Segways and scooters," recalled Matt Wilson, executive director of development.

Now the studio is up to 91 people and growing like crazy, hiring five to seven people a month to finish and support "The Agency."

By fall, it will reach capacity with about 120 employees spread throughout a nondescript office park alongside Highway 520, not far from Dixie's BBQ.

Wilson used to develop MMOs for Microsoft but left after the company lost interest in that sort of game after Sony's huge success with its "Everquest" series.

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Now it's looking like MMO is going to become a core feature in many video games — something taken for granted, a label that's no longer necessary.

"I think the word MMO is going to be like the word '3-D accelerated,' " Wilson said, recalling a term used about 10 years back in his game career. "I remember when we would go, 'Hey, this is a 3-D game,' but those things are gone. ... I think MMOs are exactly the same thing."

"Rock Band," "Grand Theft Auto" and other hit games are pointing in that direction. The key elements are online communities and persistent features, such as leaderboards and statistics that players build on over time, similar to the way players in MMO games progressively gain items to advance in their virtual worlds.

"I think that is the future of the gaming space — online community, the MySpace equivalent," Wilson said.

"Everybody wants to share things, everybody wants to show off their stuff, everybody wants to grow to that space. Definitely, we use the MMO word. I'm hoping over time that goes away and it's just like, this is 'The Agency,' this is what the game is and here's the features."

Getting the game done

But first Wilson and his team have to get the game done. He wouldn't give a timetable — he only said it's in alpha phase, and beta is in sight — but I'm guessing it will be released sometime in 2009.

The studio is clear that it's going to be released globally on both the PlayStation 3 and the PC, but it's still trying to figure out how much online play you'll get with the initial purchase. It also sounds like Sony's interested in making a movie based on the game.

Even at its maximum capacity, the studio needs far more people to build and run a complex game where hundreds of thousands of people can play in realistic, real-world locales like Prague or Panama. Wilson said he shares resources with other Sony studios and outsources work to outside production shops locally and in Asia.

"When we think about building MMOs, it's like building an aircraft carrier that's going to launch the space shuttle — the complexity's super high," he said.

Don't be misled by the outsourcing, though. There's still a good economic-development story with MMO studios, assuming the games do well.

That's because the games are like an ongoing show, requiring lots of people in the studios to keep churning out new content to keep the game fresh and players engaged, according to Hal Milton, lead designer for "The Agency."

"It's always alive, it's always changing so the game is never just 'you ship, you go on vacation and then you think about the next game that you're going to make,' " he said. "We're going to be working on this game for a very long time — it's living having a series, essentially."

"It's waiting for you"

When the studio set out to build a crossover MMO, Milton came up with all sorts of concepts. But it settled on a spy-espionage theme because of its broad, global appeal, tapping into the popularity of franchises like the "James Bond" and "Bourne Identity" movies.

The theme lets the designers build game missions that revolve around universal villains, avoiding geopolitical sensitivities, and it gives them leeway to build a familiar world for players to explore.

Because it's not a far-out fantasyland, it's also a place where real-world companies might pay to insert ads.

Similar to the way "Grand Theft Auto IV" lets players send text messages from inside the game to buy songs from Amazon.com, "The Agency" will also cross platforms to keep players involved, even when they're away from their PCs or consoles.

In the game, players work with operatives (think of the "Q" character in "Bond" movies) and ask them to perform assignments, including building a gadget or investigating an evil crime syndicate. When they're done, they'll give you a call.

"If I've opted in, I'll get a cellphone text message from one of these guys telling me about the status of their assignment," Milton explains, "so the guy I've sent off to build stuff says 'That weapon you were waiting for? It's waiting for you.' I've got to get back in and see this thing!"

That community feeling

The game's mechanics are also designed to be more accessible and appealing to casual players, Milton said.

"We're not making a game that's a going-to-work simulator — we don't want you to feel like you're tethered to the machine, and in order to keep up with your friends you have to play for two, four or six hours," he said.

"We want players to always be able to make games, know that they're part of this community and experience the story at their leisure, as opposed to some mandated power-progression curve."

I hope Milton's not too leisurely finishing the game. I'm waiting for my text message saying his assignment's complete.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays.

Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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