Sid Meier's Pirates! Designer Diary #2

Firaxis CEO Jeff Briggs tells us why realism isn't all that it's cracked up to be when making games.


Famed designer Sid Meier seems intent on revisiting his gloried past, starting with Sid Meier's Pirates!, the remake of his classic strategy/adventure hybrid of the same name. In the original Pirates!, which came out in 1987, you played as a pirate who was seeking fame and fortune along the Spanish Main. You could sink or capture enemy ships, plunder coastal towns, perform missions for various colonial governors, romance the governors' daughters, and engage in stylized swordfights. In essence, Pirates! captured all the swagger and adventure of the buccaneering life without any of the downsides. The remake will attempt to recapture the essence of the original game while updating it for modern gamers. In the latest chapter of our Designer Diaries series, Firaxis Games' Jeff Briggs explains why Meier and the design team have once again chosen to eschew realism and aim for a more romanticized game about piracy.

When in doubt, stick them with the pointy end.
When in doubt, stick them with the pointy end.

Reality: Threat or Menace?

By Jeff Briggs
Firaxis founder and CEO

When Sid Meier and I decided that Firaxis would rerelease Sid Meier's Pirates!, the Firaxis design team began doing intensive research on the subject. This included playing the original Pirates! game a lot, watching pirate movies, and a trip to the Caribbean (we love our jobs). We also reread a bunch of the historical documents on pirates and piracy, which reminded us of a number of things:

1. A pirate's life was usually wretched, brutal, and horribly short.
2. Many pirates were little more than common murderers, and some were obviously insane.
3. Sea voyages were tedious, boring, uncomfortable, and dangerous, and you often lived for months on rancid meat and rotten biscuits.
4. In the 17th century almost nobody had a full set of teeth.

Much of this stuff is quite fascinating in its own way, but it reminded us once again of why our Pirates! game should take a less realistic and more fun approach to the life of a pirate. There are a number of gritty and realistic games out there, but Sid Meier's Pirates! has and always will take a more cinematic, lighthearted view of the world. In this game, pirates never brutally murder their victims, they always get the girl, and they never die of the pox. Can you see Errol Flynn cutting off a prisoner's ears and nose to get him to reveal where the rest of his family is hidden? We can't, either. Our pirate is a hero, not a villain! So we had to leave a lot of cool, historically accurate stuff right out of the game.

It turns out that governors' daughters have a thing for scoundrels.
It turns out that governors' daughters have a thing for scoundrels.

Here are a few examples of the kinds of details we felt we had to discard: First, nobody likes a fair fight. Most pirates were little more than highway robbers at sea. They were not in it for the glory; they wanted to make as much money as possible with as little risk as possible. Most survived by preying on weaker ships; when confronted by a stronger opponent they turned tail and ran as fast as they could. That is not to say that pirates were cowards--they were tremendously brave and they'd fight like cornered rats when they had to or when the prize made it worthwhile. But a fat, slow merchant ship was always far more enticing than a frigate, and any pirate captain who thought otherwise would quickly find himself voted (that's how they did it) out of a job.

In our game, caution doesn't pay; the big rewards fall to the pirate with the most guts. The player's pirate is a noble fellow with the heart of a lion. He's never happier than when he is taking on an enemy twice his size.

Death Happens. A Lot.

A pirate's life was unbelievably dangerous. Ships were wretchedly unhealthy places, especially in the disease-ridden tropics, and it was not unusual for a ship to lose half its crew to some plague or other illness in a matter of weeks. The medicine of the day often did more harm than good, and even the simplest infection could kill. Starvation was a popular way to die, as was dysentery, and, of course, a pirate faced death every time he got into a sea battle. If captured, a pirate faced immediate execution at the hands of his captors, or, if he was lucky, he would be transported to a city where he'd be put on trial, found guilty, and then executed.

Pirates wear those lightweight, willowy blouses for a reason.
Pirates wear those lightweight, willowy blouses for a reason.

In Pirates!, it's a lot harder to die. Plague isn't much fun, so it doesn't exist. (Neither does dysentery, thank heavens.) And a pirate who is captured is thrown in jail, where he'll either escape or be released after a few months' time. Basically, we feel that a player will attempt mad, heroic actions when he knows that his pirate won't have to pay the ultimate price for failure.

In the 17th century, pirates spent far more time on mundane survival tasks than they did on actual piracy. In the warm Caribbean waters hulls quickly became covered with weeds and barnacles while the sails got moldy and rotten. To maintain the speed and maneuverability necessary for success, pirates were continually repairing and refitting their ships, and careening a large vessel to clear its hull took weeks, if not months. Further, the methods for preserving food were very primitive. There was no refrigeration, of course; the best you could do was pickle things, pack them in salt, or dry and smoke them. No matter what, after a few months at sea you could be sure that everything on board would be rancid, moldy, and/or full of bugs.

While of paramount importance in the real world, in Sid Meier's Pirates! we basically ignore these unpleasant facts. What fun is it to have to scrape barnacles off of the bottom of your ship? What's the point of making the player deal with the mold problem belowdecks? We want our players to spend their time on action, adventure, exploration, and battles, not on housekeeping.

Religion was also an issue back then. The Spanish Inquisition was alive and kicking in the 17th century, and it was very active in the Caribbean. At the time, Europe was divided into Protestant and Catholic factions, and the two religions were engaged in a terrible and seemingly unending war for survival. Woe betide the Catholic prisoner who fell into the hands of a Protestant pirate. He might be killed immediately, if he was lucky, or he might be tortured, mutilated, and then killed. And Catholic pirates would do the same--or worse--to Protestant captives. Of course, the native populace was seen by both sides as godless heathens, and while some might try to convert the natives, many others felt that they deserved an immediate and painful death.

While ferocious religious conflict might be appropriate for some games, it isn't for Pirates! We don't give out bonus points to the pirate who burns the most infidels at the stake--it's not fitting in a game that is about heroes.

He's fallen and can't get up.
He's fallen and can't get up.

When deciding what concepts to leave in and what to leave out, we asked two important questions: first, is it any fun? And second, does it fit in our heroic world? If the answer was "no" to either question, we discarded it. At heart, Sid Meier's Pirates! will always remain a game of high fantasy. And we hope that you like it that way. If not, don't worry--we're holding onto all of that real-world research. Maybe some day we'll do a gritty, realistic game about pirates. But I doubt it. Realism is not often as fun as it seems. Maybe people love games to escape reality...

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