Summary: Who would have thought that 17th century pirates would become a pop culture icon in the last few years? It's in this kind of atmosphere that Flying Lab Software has been living in as they develop their upcoming MMORPG Pirates of the Burning Sea. FiringSquad got a chance to chat with the game's producer John Tynes to get a progress report on the game.
John Tynes: Even in the days of real piracy, the pirate life was attractive to many sailors. Given that navy ships could impress them for years of service, the fact that pirate ships tended to be very democratic was appealing. Journalists and authors soon romanticized them further, conjuring up a life of freedom and adventure. There was also the lure of wealth, the vast fortunes that pirates were imagined to possess buried beneath the shifting sands.
Early movies adapted the works of adventure writers like Robert Louis Stevenson and Rafael Sabatini, and had the good fortune of putting Errol Flynn in there to make pirates sexy and cool. Those films established a set of visual cliches that have persisted, merging romance with fashion and daring.
At the heart of it all is the figure of the pirate, the eyepatched scoundrel who flirts with the governor's daughter, steals from the villainous aristocrat, and follows a powerful code of honor. He's the likable rogue, the anti-hero with a heart of gold, and of course a great guy to drink with.
The pirate genre has certainly gone through cycles of popularity. When we started work on our game in the fall of 2002, pirate movies were dead and buried. But we believed the inherent coolness of pirates would win out, and happily Johnny Depp proved us right. :)
FiringSquad: How hard has it been to make an MMORPG that has such a different setting and gameplay than your normal fantasy themed game?
John Tynes: Very hard. In the field of tabletop RPGs, there's long been a phenomenon where people who were fed up with the rules of Dungeons & Dragons would make their own homebrew game systems, to "fix" the problems of D&D, and then publish them. This made for dozens of copycat fantasy games, each of which was just yet another reinvention of the wheel. Why? It's far easier to start with something you know and alter it than it is to create something new from scratch.
It's been the same thing in MMORPGs. Actual innovation is rare. People have been "fixing" the likes of Ultima Online and Everquest since the day they shipped and in general, it's a lot easier to start by designing a game that is based on one you know intimately. We see this in other areas such as the first-person shooter or the real-time strategy game.
We had to solve a lot of problems: real-time vehicular movement and combat was the biggest. It took us almost two years of constant iteration on those systems before we got to a point where we were happy. The technical issues weren't the biggest hurdles at all -- it was really just finding a way to make naval combat fast and fun without overwhelming the player with complexity.
The genre elements are still something we're working on. We are spending some time right now putting more pirate flavor into the game, trying to make the experience more immersive, colorful, and with a sense of playfulness. At times we take this stuff too seriously so we're trying to lighten up. :)
FiringSquad: The game has also taken a long time to develop. Was the decision made to extend the amount of time to add more aspects to the game?
John Tynes: We've made that decision several times, actually! Initially we were planning for a very simple niche game, something we could do with a small team in about a year. But we swiftly expanded our vision for the project. At various times we have looked at what we had, decided we weren't dreaming big enough, and raised everything up to a higher level.
FiringSquad: How much historical research was done to give Pirates of the Burning Sea a realistic look and feel while still be a fun game?
John Tynes: Quite a lot. A major area of learning for us was the ships themselves: how they were made, why they were designed the way they were, and how they were sailed and fought. Our lead designer, Taylor Daynes, immersed himself in books on ship design and naval warfare until he could talk about bowsprits with ease. I spent a lot of time learning about the Caribbean in 1720, researching the histories of individual islands and understanding the nature of this new world. And we all watched a lot of pirate movies.
John Tynes: Players choose from three careers: navy, adventurer, and pirate. Within those, they further specialize their style of ship combat into Scout, Hunter, and Dreadnought. Careers have access to different ships -- pirates can't go out and buy massive navy warships, after all! But pirates, unique among all careers, can capture ships they cannot buy.
FiringSquad: The characters get their missions from towns inside the game. How interactive are the towns and townspeople in this mode?
John Tynes: As much as in any MMORPG. In port you meet up with other players, shopkeepers, and mission patrons, which might be town magistrates, pirate crime lords, imperious naval officers, or desperate smugglers. There are even roleplaying missions where you have interactive conversations with the NPCs that affect the course of the plot.
FiringSquad: What are some of the dev team's favorite ships and weapons to use in the game?
John Tynes: Well, we're going to have about 40 different ships when we launch, so opinions really vary. :) I'm fond of the Xebec, a beautiful pirate ship that packs a mean punch. With our outfitting system you can equip all kinds of gear on your ship to modify its performance, much the way you would in a car racing game. I tend to modify my ship to get the fastest reload time, though that can cost me some maneuverability. I'm also fond of using grapeshot in my cannon, since it will kill the enemy crew and make the ship a better target for a boarding action. Yar!
FiringSquad: How do characters evolve as they play the game and what kinds of extra content will they have access to as they level up?
John Tynes: At rank 15 you make your choice between the Scout, Hunter, and Dreadnought specializations, which opens up some skills and locks out others. You gain skill points very frequently as you go, so you're always expanding your repertoire of combat abilities. Achieving higher ranks also makes you eligible to captain more kinds of ships and unlocks missions and outfitting.
One thing we don't do is factor your rank into the combat math. Leveling up doesn't change your ability to hit a target or how much damage you inflict. It's up to your choices of ships, skills, and outfitting to determine yourcombat capability.
FiringSquad: Will there be an overall story arc in Pirates of the Burning Sea and will the story advance as the game moves on?
John Tynes: We have several large storylines, actually. There's the career story arc, which is your character's own story as he or she advances from ranks 1 to 50. You'll have your own supporting cast of sidekicks, enemies, and love interests, and you'll make real choices that affect how the story goes. The serial story arc begins after we launch and it's an epic international adventure of conspiracies, secret bloodlines, and a massive competition to become the king of the pirates. Then there's our 1000+ missions all over the Caribbean, containing both minor and major stories, for you to discover as you play.
I believe our PvP system is very different from what's on the market and is something that even PvE players will come to enjoy. By default, the entire game world is PvE. Players working together can force an enemy port into contention, which opens up a PvP area in a large radius around that port for three days. At the end of that period, 25 attacking players and 25 defending players are placed in one big battle to determine who will have control of the port going forward.
In this way, PvP happens where players want it to happen. Once it starts, it remains for a predictable period of time. The outcome can change the strategic balance of the game, moving valuable economic resources from one nation to another by seizing the ports where they exist.
We expect the RvR system to be long-term gameplay for veteran players, but it's easy for even novices to participate.
FiringSquad: The game's visuals are already impressive. What new graphical features does the dev team plan to add to the game before the game's official launch?
John Tynes: We're getting a new version of our particle effects engine this summer, which will enable Nick, our effects artist, to really make some cool stuff. Recently we added rain and lightning to the game, which is really fun.
FiringSquad: What can you tell us about timings for beta tests and final launch plans for the game?
John Tynes: We've been in beta since December and it's going well. Our testers have been really pleased with how stable and complete the game feels. But they're also giving us great feedback as we add new features and content. We recently had a beta-only IRC chat just to answer questions from our testers, and we're very active in communicating with them on our forums. Beta testing is fun!
We will be announcing our release date at the Penny Arcade Expo this August.
FiringSquad: Is the plan still to release the game via Steam or are there also plans to release the game in stores?
John Tynes: We are looking at a lot of options for releasing the game, including retail. We expect online sales to be an important part of that, but Steam isn't the only solution for that these days.
FiringSquad: Finally is there anything else you wish to say about Pirates of the Burning Sea?
John Tynes: It's a blast. We are having a lot of fun with this project and are also really sweating bullets to make it the best game it can be!
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