Flying Lab Software's MMO title Pirates of the Burning Sea has been in development for some time and we have done interviews with the dev team before. However the company recently announced that Sony Online, through their Station Publishing business, would be distributing the game to retail stores. Because of this new development we decided to get an update on the game by chatting with Flying Lab's co-founder Russell Williams
FiringSquad: First, how did the deal come about for Sony Online to handle distribution of the game? Did Sony approach you or was it the other way around?
Russell Williams: Weirdly enough, it was a third party that brought us together. Akella is a studio in Russia who makes a lot of sailing games and they modeled many of our early ships for us. They also publish EverQuest II over there and they’re on good terms with SOE. We made a deal with Akella for them to publish Pirates of the Burning Sea in Russia and while we were talking, they ended up bringing us and SOE together. That was actually a year and a half ago and a lot of time passed before we were ready to talk seriously about a deal, but we kept in touch and gave them a demo now and then, just as we were doing with other interested publishers. As time went on, SOE got more and more excited about working with us and we felt the same way.
FiringSquad: How much will having Sony Online handing the marketing and distribution of Pirates of the Burning Sea free up Flying Lab to handle other aspects of the game?
Russell Williams: It mostly means we can keep doing what we’re already doing, which is what we’re good at: making a great game. If we had self-published, we would have had to quickly develop a lot of expertise and find a lot of partners to help us with marketing and distribution. This way, we stay focused.
FiringSquad: There is some worry that the game might end up in Sony Online's hands similar to what happened with Sigil Games and Vanguard. It was mentioned that you guys have a lot of funding behind you but don't you also need the game to have a solid subscriber base in order to keep the game going?
Russell Williams: Game studios need money to operate – typically, millions of dollars. Fifty people working on a software project rack up a lot of paychecks every month. This money usually comes from game publishers, who advance the studio their operating costs on a regular schedule in exchange for satisfactory, demonstrable progress on the game. Then when the game ships, the studio is out of money – their royalties are devoted to paying back the publisher and not to keeping the doors open and the next project financed. This is why you see a lot of news stories every year about a studio shipping a game and then going out of business.
From what the leaders of Sigil have said in interviews, it sounds like they had a lot of debt to pay off when they launched from outside investors and couldn’t borrow any more money. There’s nothing weird about that – technology startups end up in that situation all the time and shut down. Both Microsoft and SOE put money into Sigil, and I guess other investors did too, and in the end it’s just business: people won’t keep giving you money if they no longer believe they’re going to make it back.
We’ve done two things that have gotten us to this point. The first is that we’re self-financed. We write our own checks and we take our own risks. We have no outside investors or publishers who are keeping us afloat. We’re very fortunate to be in that situation. Of course, ask any Hollywood producer what the first rule of making movies is and they’ll tell you it’s that you never spend your own money to make a project; you always use someone else’s. We broke that rule and we run the risk if we fail, but it also means we have the autonomy we need to succeed on our own terms.
The second thing we’ve done is to be very smart and very cautious about growth. We started this project five years ago with a staff of six people and we kept the team small and focused for a long time. In the last two years we’ve gone from about thirty people to more than seventy, ramping up as we got more and more of the big pieces of the game in good shape. A lot of new MMO studios seem to think you need seventy people on day one and that’s just a huge mistake. You need to stay small and focused while you iterate on your core gameplay, architecture, and pipeline.
Starting small and staying small for much of the project also puts constraints on what you can do, and constraints are good for creativity. They drive you to focus on doing fewer things better instead of having a large group of people charging in a hundred directions all at once.