Brent Carr Ellison, Game Designer
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The Polaris

"The Polaris has the poise of many years' experience in its balancing and eventful, rhythmic delivery of trash mobs and bosses of escalating difficulty and complexity."
- Oli Welsh, Eurogamer

As a Senior Designer on The Secret World, it was my job to head up development on the game's first dungeon. Based on what we learned from iterating on this content, I developed rules on encounter design and flow for the rest of the team (example).

For this level, I wrote the concept and level design documentation, blocked out geometry in our proprietary editor, scripted and designed all encounters and AI, and worked with artists, animators and sound designers to complete the experience.

Players arrive in The Polaris by taking a helicopter from The Secret World's starting playfield. Thus it serves as the first group experience in the game.

This meant that in addition to wowing players into falling for our instanced content, we also had to ease them into the new challenges of working with a team.

For a detailed account of the Polaris' design and development, check out this doc.

The title of the level comes from the name of a massive container ship run aground on an island off the New England coastline and infested by the mutated corpses of drowned sailors, the draug.

With such an impressive asset at the center, I made sure to put in plenty of opportunities to show off its size and clearly establish the player's relative location in the level.

The first big encounter is simple, but dynamic. The Varangian leaps down from the cliffs above and periodically sinks into the water during the fight to appear from behind.

At the halfway mark he runs away to another arena where the group must fight atop containers while leaping over electrified water.

Handling testing and feedback for all dungeons was my responsibility, and this boss ended up being an early success in a process where we iterated repeatedly to ensure that mechanics were both fun AND clear.

We used a variety of tools and metrics during development to get the right experience, including heat maps and intensity curves. This proved invaluable for more quickly producing future content.

In The Polaris, the peaks of the bosses are offset by quieter stretches such as the trek into the belly of the container ship.

We were careful to introduce major elements of co-operative strategy slowly over the course of the dungeon.

Towards the end of the dungeon, the Primordial Dweller is the first boss to feature add monsters that attack simultaneously with the boss.

This requires players to take on additional specialist roles ("add duty") for the first time.

After the second boss, the dungeon pulls a bait and switch on the players when a helicopter arrives to take them home.

As the group watches their team of characters in the helicopter, the Ur-Draug flies up from out of nowhere and swats them out of the sky.

The Ur-Draug is a brutal opponent that requires strong teamwork. I made it an early design goal with this fight to really try to elicit fear from the players and therefore designed toward particular user stories.

Nathan Grayson from IGN made it clear the process had paid off when he described the encounter exactly the way I'd hoped:

"...when we gave the fight another go, it was incredible. During dimension shifts, we all huddled behind giant rocks, frantically shuffling left and right to avoid the Ur-Draug's death gaze. And all the while, we clumsily typed things like “He's right next to you! Move! Move! Move!” It was actually scary. TSW successfully managed to inject an element of horror into an MMO boss fight."

Check out this doc for further design details about this fight and others.

Next: The Ankh