Flying Lab Software's Pirates of the Burning Sea is a newly launched game adrift in the unforgiving and busy waters of the massively multiplayer online game market. While the game is already receiving praise in Europe and North America, we're still awaiting the Australian launch in the first half of 2008. GameSpot AU caught up with developer and cofounder Russell Williams to discuss regional subscription models, the sale of giant novelty maps, and Evil Dead.
GameSpot AU: Given Blizzard's domination of the MMO market with World of Warcraft, how hard is it to get eyeballs on a fresh title?
Russell Williams: I think if we were releasing another elves and dwarves game it would be a hell of a lot harder. But the great thing is, when you're releasing a pirate game, people's eyes light up when you say the word "pirate"--people get it immediately. I don't have to explain the background or the understanding of it. People get excited about it. The fact is, Disney showed us with the Pirates of the Caribbean films that if you put out something good with pirates, people love it, and they're interested in picking it up and trying it out.
GS AU: Are you at all concerned about the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean MMO title?
RW: No, we've actually played the Pirates of the Caribbean online game. Their target market is much, much younger. This is a game where you can't chat without getting your parents' approval. They're really going after a completely different demographic. We really haven't had anyone who has played our game and wanted to go over to the Pirates of the Caribbean game online, so I'm hoping Disney will be raising a whole crop of young pirates that when they get older will come and visit us once they've outlived Pirates of the Caribbean online.
GS AU: We notice on the Pirates of the Burning Sea Web site that rather than offer a limited edition with a map freebie, you're selling two versions of a 45-inch map. What are your plans to offer the sale of other physical game items?
RW: We don't have plans to do that for the Western product. We've been doing a lot of work on getting ready to sell Pirates into Asia, and in Asia that will all be real-world money transactions because they don't do subscription pricing. In Asia they do it entirely based on always paying for items. Now that's not to say we won't offer additional physical items for sale. Just like that map which we think is a very cool add-on, we have more music. Our music is just fantastic, and putting that out there for a nominal fee lets people get a really nice high-res version of it and covers our cost for producing it, covering our cost both ways.
GS AU: You've mentioned that the subscription model works well for the US and EU markets with plans to roll out a more pay-per-item basis in Asia. What are some of the gameplay balancing challenges of offering the game's best items both as rewards for play and purchases?
RW: Asia is still struggling to work out what the right model is, because if you don't do it right, it really becomes lose for free, pay for win. That's kind of a bad situation. Our game is very PVP-focused, and we've got lots of things for the guys that don't want to play PVP. But if you've been playing PVP and somebody is just outbidding you and buying items that make them stronger, people don't like that. So what we're seeing is a model coming out where you can supplement the normal money you would collect in the game that opens up things that aren't such "I win" advantages. Things like opening up extra economic slots so you don't feel the need to have alternative characters to play the economy as much. That makes it a lot easier to balance. You look at a game like World of Warcraft, and it's very loot-based. The player who has that loot really does win, and in our game it's very player-skill-based, so even by allowing our transaction model, it still is not nearly as unbalancing because no matter how much cool stuff you've got, really good players can take it away from you, especially if they're pirates.
GS AU: Do you think offering the game client in Australia through digital distribution undermines traditional brick and mortar retailers?
RW: I think it certainly does in Australia! [laughs]
GS AU: Is there still a retail launch planned for our market?
RW: No. In Australia, purchase of the game is entirely covered by BigPond and is free for the customer. The thing we're seeing in the United States is the very strong retailers like GameStop and EB Games, and their business model is really based on reselling used console games, so we're seeing the physical space they allocate to PC games dwindle every year. The digital download market is really exciting to us. In Australia, the reason we're giving the game away for free is BigPond really has a vision for the market here for MMOs. That's why they're allowing customers to go unmetered when downloading or playing the game. They're putting all the pieces in place so Australia isn't an also market; it becomes a primary market for MMO makers.
GS AU: We've seen other Australian companies go down the same route. BigPond also distributed Fury here online. What are your concerns about distributing the game this way?
RW: Fury at one point was also free in the United States as well. The thing we want to point out is that Pirates is a AAA game. You can actually play it and see all the quality there right on the screen. The only thing I'm a little uncomfortable about is, of course, that I don't want people to perceive that we're desperate. I want people to understand that Australia hasn't broken out the big numbers. Europe used to have a metered system as well, and it really lagged behind the United States for quite some time as being the viable market for MMOs, and then they started getting more unmetered propositions, and suddenly when Guild Wars came out, Europe exploded.
GS AU: Have you ruled out the possibility of hosting Australian-specific game servers if there are enough Aussie users playing Pirates?
RW: We actually have Australian-specific servers.
GS AU: Why then do you think that Blizzard is hesitant to host in Australian data centres?
RW: Well, I said we had Australian servers. I didn't say they were hosted in Australia! [laughs] It's one of the things we've been looking at while we're over here. One of the great things about how our data storage works is that once we get the servers up to the numbers where they're viable, we can basically move server boxes over here while still running the service in the US. Then we can basically turn off the servers in the US for three or four hours, wait for the remaining replication of data, and turn it on on the boxes here. So we can move our servers over here with a server downtime of three or four hours.
GS AU: Pirates has plenty of user-generated content features, including creation of flags and sails. How important have these features become to retaining players, and what are your plans for LUA-style (World of Warcraft's user interface programming language) interface changes?
RW: Well there's two things. Whenever you put some of your creative expression into the game, it becomes a tremendous retention mechanism and it also makes the game cooler because there's all these cool flags and sails. When we were planning putting out the game, we were going to have 22 of these ships. Now we're shipping with over 60 because of user-generated content. Let's face it, booting up Maya and creating one of these ships is an enormous task. It has tremendously widened the gameplay feel for all the other players, and we continue to keep on going with user-generated content. Our Holy Grail is when we let players design their own costumes and sell them to other players. When we get to that point, I'll be happy with our user-generated content.
GS AU: Is that a feature you've made provisions for later down the track?
RW: Absolutely. It's something we're definitely driving towards.
GS AU: Looking down the barrel of 10 million active subscribers on your biggest competitor's books, how many subscribers do you foresee needing in order to establish and maintain a financially viable business in Australia?
RW: This goes back into the history of our project. If you go to the various MMO game trade conventions where we talk about how to build these things, a few years ago WOW had just come out and everybody said, "OK, if you're going to make a game, get your 65 million dollars together before you can even think about making an MMO because that's what it takes to compete." At the time it seemed crazy that very few people were going to be able to get 65 million dollars together to be able to do one of these projects, and I really think we've seen several games since WOW that have had pretty big budgets. We're talking 30 to 45 million dollars, and they came out and they had a good two or three months and started to dwindle away because they're trying to make the same damn game as WOW. If I'm making an elves and dwarves game, if I'm making a WOW clone, why would the player expect anything except WOW plus better? I've got to be offering something different to change the value equation. That's why I think what people need to be doing in our industry is start creating different tastes, different boutique experiences to basically differentiate themselves from WOW. We don't have the same kind of budget and the same kind of resources to have the kind of polish WOW had when it came out. But I guarantee you our ship combat is much, much better than WOW. It's sort of like comparing the latest James Bond movie, which is this gigantic, huge, elaborate polished production, versus a low-budget independent film like Evil Dead. You pay the same amount of money, but Evil Dead is fantastic. It may not have the same kind of music and lighting and scoring, but it's different, and people react to that.
GS AU: Russell Williams, thanks for your time.