Q&A: Pirates of the Burning Sea

Lead designer Kevin Maginn from Flying Labs sails into GameSpot to discuss the swashbuckling MMO.

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!

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Discussion

19 comments
desolation00
desolation00

Heh, I'm just a bit worried of handing over money to SOE. It might do them some good to be the backbone distributers for other developer's online properties, instead of developing in-house. Just hand them a good online game, and let them provide the background servers/distribution channels. May want to keep your companies separate on the books, however. Takeovers/buyouts too often turn the small companies into like-minded drones of their big support companies.

blacksox2k6
blacksox2k6

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

im_certified2
im_certified2

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

RobARich
RobARich

Kudos to Flying Labs on a tight MMO out of the box. You wouldn't know this game is in it's first month based on the quality of the game. Not mentioned in the interview is one of the game's best features, the complex and dynamic player economy which brings a deeper level of strategy to both character development and the innovations in PvP play. Awesome, must play game for any MMO or RPG lover.

Valhakar
Valhakar

The game is a great mix of PvP, strategy, and finacial sim. If you want to log in and blow things up, it is not your game. If you want to play 22 hours a day to make everyone else look like they are losing, this is not your game You can see this by the "1337 d00dz" posting below about the game.

Azwhtknight
Azwhtknight

Good luck in the flooded MMO market. I just hope it can survive long enough to contribute to future game endeavors as it apears to have a few good concepts.

fghiba
fghiba

After years of searching, I've fnally found "my game": there's always something to do every evening, defend or attack aport, trying to break a blockade, port battles, crafting. I really love it, well done FLS for trying something different than the normal clickfest mmorpg!

Chief_Kuuni
Chief_Kuuni

heard this was a good game, but most likely won't get it though

karriston
karriston

Bart247: Yes, we do know it, there's this little thing called a beta test. Unless they've completely changed the gamesince then, this won't be very fun. It just doesn't work.

mopeyking
mopeyking

Love this game!!!! but be warned it has a steep learning curve and it takes some time before you really understand how everything that works. For example i see so many people who don't know how to customize there ships : ) every time i tell them they enjoy the game so much more, because they can make their ships all interesting to look at. It's not really a complicated game at all, it's just new players can be turned off rather easy if they don't try to understand the game.

Gruug
Gruug

I keep walking past the box for PotBS on the store shelf and have been really tempted. I really don't care if the land component is not up to par at the moment as I think this will be fixed sooner then later. I just don't know which of the other two MMO's I am playing right now I should drop.

acej2000
acej2000

Played beta, won't be buying this, I wish it was just ship combat and no avatar cr4p.

Alaris83
Alaris83

The ship combat in POTBS is awesome, the avatar combat.....not so much.

jazilla
jazilla

This is a really fun game where the ships look great and so does the open sea. The rest of the game looks terrible. While it is still fun, a game that is released in 2008 should look a lot better than this. The swashbuckling is broken as well.

Bart247
Bart247

karriston, we don't know that yet. So shut it. Anyway, if I was ever to play a pirate game, I'd play some rock songs relating to pirates while playing the game. Let's say "Seven Seas of Rye" by Queen? This game looks good, however I'm not big on PC games...yet.

Kh1ndjal
Kh1ndjal

interesting, i might try this one out

karriston
karriston

This game looks and plays terrible, I'd advise anyone that reads this to avoid it like the plague.