For all those who've dreamed of being a pirate--sailing the seven seas, following treasure maps, jumping on tables while swordfighting, and plundering a sloop--their dreams came true in January. Well, virtually, anyway.
Pirates of the Burning Sea is, not unexpectedly, a pirate-themed massively multiplayer online role-playing game set in the Caribbean in the 18th century. Gamers can choose between being a pirate, a naval officer, a privateer (a kind of legal pirate), or a free trader. From that point forward, before you can even say "ahoy there," it's a mixture of sailing, battles at sea, swashbuckling, and land-based exploration.
Developed by Flying Lab Software, which previously worked on the real-time railroad strategy game Rails Across America, Pirates is the studio's first foray into the MMO sphere. GameSpot boarded the Flying Lab ship to ask lead designer Kevin Maginn about why the time is ripe for convergence in MMOs, people's insatiable fascination with pirates, and, most importantly, whether or not his game has parrots and rum in it.
GameSpot UK: Why did you make the decision to make a unique type of MMO rather than another World of Warcraft clone?
Kevin Maginn: When we looked around at the market back when we started, we saw a lot of games that were very similar in content and tone. We believed then--and still believe--that players are looking for a wider variety of game styles, and that not everyone wants to play an elf. Pirates seemed like an exciting but underserved genre, and not long after we started, both Master and Commander and the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie hit the theaters and vindicated our assessment of the genre.
GS UK: Do you think the market is saturated now with these fantasy "orcs and elves"-style games?
KM: Not anymore, no. More developers and publishers are branching out into new genres, and even within the fantasy genre, we're seeing a lot of exciting new approaches, new game systems, and new ideas. And honestly, "saturation" implies that there's no market for new fantasy games, and I think there still is a very sizable market. Fantasy's a fun genre that suits the MMO space well.
GS UK: What is the fascination with pirates, do you think?
KM: Partially, it's the idealized romanticism of the pirate era. Pirates, it seems to the modern observer, lived in a time of adventure and freedom. The truth is, of course, much grittier (not to mention smellier), but that mythology of fortune and infamy persists. I consider pirates to be one of the great iconic pulp-adventure themes, right up there with Westerns and noir.
On the other hand, I think it's also a cultural meme, endlessly elaborated upon by fans arguing the merits of pirates vs. ninjas, pirates vs. zombies, and pirates vs. robots. I'm not ashamed to ride the coattails of that zeitgeist.
GS UK: Some 80 percent of the missions can be completed solo. Why did you decide to do this?
KM: I like grouping and I like group content. I also like to be able to log on and immediately play, without having to either find a bunch of strangers or wait for my friends to show up. My pedigree as a player includes Everquest and Final Fantasy Online XI, and in both games I found that I eventually drifted away, not because I'd reached any sort of completion, but because it was just too hard to get a group together to do anything. I don't want players logging on and feeling that there's nothing for them to do; it doesn't take many instances of that for a player to not log on again ever.
GS UK: Do you think gamers dislike being coerced into having to find groups to complete quests?
KM: They do and they don't. The amazing thing to me about FFXI is that it was so successful and compelling, given the degree to which it absolutely demanded a group. I mean, we're talking about a game that's almost unplayable past the first week without a regular group. I've heard horror stories of players with low-demand characters standing around for multiple hours trying to find a group. Nevertheless, the group gameplay was so engaging and interesting that people were willing to wait.
I think there's a constant tension in MMOs between solo and group gameplay. On one hand, we don't want to be dependent on other players all the time to have fun. On the other hand, group gameplay--especially well-designed group gameplay--is far more interesting than solo gameplay. There's a temptation to try to ensure your players are always having peak experiences, involved in groups, and attacking difficult challenges. The temptation leads to things like FFXI's mandatory grouping. On the other hand, if you can always solo everything, while you avoid that problem, you never have those peak experiences. What we're trying to do with our new content--Red Tide, a challenging low-level mission, and the upcoming Bey's Retreat, a very difficult midlevel encounter--is strike a balance between the two. You can level up solo, but at the same time there are these handcrafted, involved, complex pieces of content waiting for you to get a group together and attack them.
GS UK: How have you made Pirates of the Burning Sea unique?
KM: Tactical ship combat. Movement, maneuver, position and range all matter in profound ways in ship combat. Practically, this means that player skill can often trump character skill--that a smart player can defeat much higher-level enemies by using his strengths and exploiting the enemy's weaknesses.
GS UK: You decided on a subscription model--why was that?
KM: The kind of gameplay we're offering best fits with the traditional revenue model. We've discussed other pricing plans, but ultimately we think--in the US and EU, at least--that the subscription model is the right one for this game.
GS UK: Any plans to introduce other revenue streams like microtransactions and/or in-game ads?
KM: We're talking about microtransactions in the context of localizing the game for Asian markets, where it's the standard revenue stream. We're not considering in-game ads at all.
GS UK: How often will you be adding new content?
KM: As often as possible. We're planning for monthly updates, with the really major content updates coming every few months. There's new content in every significant patch, but these major updates include things like the new French capital city, the group-focused encounter Bey's Retreat, and new game systems.
GS UK: When's the first patch due, and what can we expect to be in it?
KM: Our producer, John Tynes, is posting a series of developer logs on the upcoming patch. We're expecting it to arrive later this month. It's mostly bug fixing; we've been working on it since before launch, and it includes a lot of the minor features we've talked about in the past but that didn't make it in for launch. We're adjusting the logout system to make it a little more sensible and friendly; we're adjusting the unrest-generation missions to make them less open to abuse and more obviously useful; we're tweaking the UI to make it more accessible.
GS UK: Planning to do anything special for International Talk Like a Pirate Day?
KM: We're actually the official game of Talk Like a Pirate Day, and we've actually met with Ol' Chumbucket and Cap'n Slappy to develop avatars based on them and add them to the game. So you can meet the TLAP guys in Pirates of the Burning Sea.
GS UK: Is there guild creation in this game besides picking up three different nations? Can you form your own guild and name it and fight (PVP) with your guild buddies?
KM: Absolutely. Our societies are the basic guild structure for the game, and as we move forward we'll be adding more-advanced guild-management functionality as well as guild-based PVP mechanics.
GS UK: What is the gameplay difference between when it's normal and hot? What other weather effects are there?
KM: The first draft of our weather system is based on random effects that can show up when you enter a combat on the Open Sea. In hot weather, your crew recovers from morale loss more slowly, making it difficult to use your captain skills. In stormy weather, your accuracy falls off and your masts become more vulnerable to damage. At night, your accuracy falls off significantly. We've got more plans for weather in the future, as well.
GS UK: Who are you trying to appeal to with this--people who've never played an MMO? MMO players bored with the likes of WoW? People who loved Sid Meier's Pirates?
KM: All of the above. We're targeting a broad spectrum of potential players, from naval enthusiasts to pirate fans to veteran MMO players and competitive PvP gamers.
GS UK: Would you consider a single-player version?
KM: No; most of the excitement of the game's mechanics comes from playing with and against other players.
GS UK: Are there parrots and barrels of rum?
KM: Of course; you can get your own parrot by picking up the official strategy guide, and as for rum, build your own rum distillery and make as many barrels of rum as you like.
GS UK: Arrrr!