A little more than five years ago, Flying Lab Software began nudging their pirate ship into the treacherous shoals of software development. As they navigated through the vagaries of deadlines and beta tests, constantly circled by the ever-present threat of player ennui, they made their way into the Bay of Beta Testing, and users got their first glimpses of a new, immersive world. As of yesterday, Pirates of the Burning Sea is live, and now everyone has the opportunity to participate in a battle royale between the naval forces of France, Britain, Spain, and the hordes of pirates that roamed the Caribbean in this version of 1720.
Massively had the opportunity to attend the Flying Lab PotBS launch party in Seattle, and also had the opportunity to sit down with some of the movers and shakers who brought you this phenomenal title. What does all of this mean? It means we managed to get some more information about future patches and expansion plans. Now that we're back home, we can tell you what the developers, the producers, and the CEO of the company told us. So get a firm grip on your tricorns and batten down your hatches, you swabs, the seas are fierce ahead.
The Seattle launch party was held in the Experience Music Project -- attached to the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame -- right next door to the Space Needle. John Scott Tynes, the producer of Pirates of the Burning Sea, opened the evening's festivities with a speech, in which he told us of his life-long love of all things piratical. In fact, the toy pirate pistol he'd purchased after riding Pirates of the Caribbean when he was seven years old was brought out to provide a one-gun salute to the launch. It was only the first such salute of the evening.
Valerie Miller won the "Flying Lab Quote File" prize for her contributions to the game, and picked up a Pirates of the Burning Sea messenger bag. As she'd noted in her quote file, "It's like Christmas, with less beatings!" Likewise, Rick Saada -- a partner and tools developer -- received a rapier for his contributions, but was assured that its cost was "only $600,000," the budget Flying Lab started with when they, and their crew of six employees dedicated to this project, decided to build their MMO. As Rick noted, they'd initially intended to create "a little sailing ship game" that might appeal to a limited number of players. Instead, they came out with a product that provides some of the richest game play I've had the pleasure of experiencing in years.
The real stories began later, though, when I was able to start pulling people aside and asking for their experiences with the game, and what we can look forward to in the future. Justin Miller, a server-side code programmer, was the first individual I spoke with, and he stated that his favorite aspect of the game is the Auction House: it was one of the more challenging elements he's ever worked on, but also one of the most rewarding. He teased us with hints of what may be forthcoming -- he does sit next to the design department, after all -- but he was very cautious about breaking NDA on potential spoilers.
Janice Von Itter -- or, for forum goers, "Fraxl" -- the user experience researcher for Flying Lab, has been with them for about a year, and her role is to bring player experiences, suggestions, and concerns to the meeting table. According to her, the best part of her job is bringing new people into the beta testing. "I get to hang out with the fans, and see them play the game it was meant to be played. I get to drag the others down to have them watch [the gamers] play, and use that input to make a better game. They're totally our bread and butter, and I love working with the players." She admits that she wishes she'd been involved with the project earlier, but now that she is, she's looking forward to assisting in revamping the UI based on user input. According to Janice, two big things to look forward to in the upcoming year are improved chat and more society interaction.
Drew Clowery is a game designer who took the time to speak with me about the project. He smiled when I asked him about his favorite part of the game, remarking, "that's like asking who's your favorite child." He did admit, though, that boarding combat is one element he's most pleased with. He was very forthcoming with improvements and changes they're looking to do over the course of the year, stating that one of the big-scale fixes they're working on is having the Avatar AI spread itself out more appropriately during battles. As well, they're adding more single-player content, adding to role-playing story arcs, adding to serial story arcs, and adding to group PvE game-play story arcs. They're also working on increasing grouping instances, and Player Port Governance: not only will the player be able to capture the port for their nation, but they -- or their guild -- will control the port.
John Scott Tynes has been sailing on this particular ship for five years, and he sat down with us for a few minutes to talk about his involvement with the project. Aside from remarking on the difficulties of development -- something with which anyone who has been involved in software development or game design is familiar -- he stated that his favorite part of the game is the user-content system: players can create their own flags and sails in order to help provide a sense of ownership and challenge. He also pointed out that they've done really well in large-scale integrated systems like the player-driven economy and the conquest system. They're large-scale so thousands of systems can be on at the same time, but they also all interlock, as each port provides goods and services necessary for the economy as a whole. He provided more information on Player Port Governance, indicating that players will be able to control the political system of the ports once they take and control the port. He also touched on plans for player housing, or player-built social spaces. Players will be able to have houses, warehouses, guild halls, and so forth, but they'll be integrated into the game: they'll have either direct or indirect impact on the ports, and they'll require economic input to maintain.
I asked him for the story of the background of the game, and he stated, "we think we've made something really unique in MMOs. It's not WoW, It's not City of Heroes, it's not EVE: it's something new and unique." As to why they chose the time frame and locale they did, they wanted a time when the three European naval powers -- England, France, and Spain -- were at a roughly equal strength in the waters. They also chose it because 1720 is time when piracy began its final downward spiral to Davy Jones' locker. "The British Governor Woodes Rogers arrived in the Caribbean with a mandate to end piracy. This is also the time -- 1718/1719 -- when Blackbeard died. This is our 'what if' ... what if Woodes Rogers never arrived in the Caribbean."
One forthcoming story arc he mentioned is the death of Blackbeard, and the players' ability to find out what happened, who killed him, and how it occured. John also noted that the jumping-off point with Blackbeard's death is going to introduce a lot of important historical characters into the game, so speaking as someone with a vested interest in the era, it's going to be interesting to see what they bring to the table. According to Flying Lab, you'll actually be able to Google the names and titles of pertinent NPCs in the game and see that they actually existed.
Kevin Maginn, lead designer for the game, has been with the project almost since the beginning, and he states that even though it's been a challenge, the collaborative atmosphere of the project has been what's made it all worthwhile. As he notes, "we get a lot of very strong game systems that come out of the process, and we get total buy-in on what we're developing." Looking into the future, he's stated that they've planned for a patch coming out within the next month to address a number of current concerns, and that -- over the next year -- some truly impressive additions will be made. They're planning on a lot of ship combat changes, for example, and he mentioned the Player Port Governance, as well. He went into a bit more detail about the player housing, indicating that it's going to a full social environment for networking between individuals and guilds. He went on to request that players at least attempt the PvP system. "We think the ship combat PvP is the strongest element of our game. Just give it a try. You can, as a new player, find a group who'll show you the ropes of PvP, and you'll fulfill a useful role in that group.
David Hunt is another game designer I tracked down, and he agrees with Kevin: his favorite element of the game is Group PvP. As he indicated, you can see every element magnified in the PvP, and your skills and accidents are magnified in group PvP, as well. He spoke about the forthcoming Skirmish System, as well: they want to let the players choose the map, the number of combatants, the rules set, everything. As well, as part of the Skirmish System, the goal is to allow players to set their level of risk: this will allow novice players to experience PvP without risking their ships, but will allow more seasoned players to build up to a high-risk, high-reward encounter and a hyper-competitive battle system.
Joe Ludwig isn't just a snappy dresser, he's also the Director of Development for the project. He's been with Flying Lab for eight years, and he's been involved with Pirates of the Burning Sea since the beginning of the project. His favorite element? "Ship combat: we've completely replaced it about seven times, so with that many iterations, we've really had the opportunity to make it kick ass. It's the most polished part of the game, and I'm really proud of it." When I asked him what we can look forward to over the next year, he indicated that all forthcoming decisions will come down to what his team can deliver in the way of tools. He's looking at driving a lot of environmental tools, providing better tools for mission development, and assisting with conquest system enhancements, and that's just the start of his plans.
Last, but certainly not least, I was provided with the opportunity to speak with Russell Williams, the CEO of Flying Lab. According to him, his favorite element is tied in with his favorite memory: "before E3 2004, we got a new art director who went a completely different direction. He made it more colorful with a lot of texture. It was like night and day, and we went with that direction." Then again, E3 also led to some concern, with a decision made to change the ocean dynamics two weeks before the show, and work on the ocean proceeding until the night before the demo was shown. When I asked why there was so much "pop" in the game -- such a focus on making the graphics so lush -- he indicated that he felt people are focused far too much on technology and shaders, and they've moved away from what matters: the interplay between light and darkness, and how it relates to beauty.
When I asked him what we had to look forward to, he provided a grin that would have made the Cheshire Cat take notice. At this point, while the game has an incredible breadth, they're looking to build for depth. Moving forward, instead of the nineteen separate instanced battle types they have, all new mission encounters will be hand-crafted and unique. As well, each of the missions will be different from one another. Speaking of differences, most -- if not all -- of the towns will be revamped, making sure that they're distinct locations. They're building much larger contiguous zones, and using instancing when it makes sense, and seamless when it makes sense. He pointed to Tortuga as an example of the town of the future, and once you visit it, you'll see why.
He's also planning on continuing improving everything he can think of: the goal is to provide more play for free traders, and more for the combat-based players who have for longer-range goals. Smugglers, for example, make out -- if you'll excuse the expression -- like bandits. At one level, you'll find the introduction to one story line; then, after you've completed unrelated missions, when you come back, you'll find out more of the story, and get in a little deeper.
He mentioned, as well, the Skirmish System, and pointed out how the initial setup of the skirmishes may well follow the guidelines of Sun Tzu's "Art of War," allowing you to choose not only your battlefield but your opponent. And speaking of choices, he gave us a description of their planned Officer System: "the intent is to make the face of your crew be your officers. You'll go through the world and find them. For example, your navigator -- you find him, he's had a hard life, he's drunk, he was drummed out of the Navy, and you go on a series of missions to fix his issues, and then he joins your crew, and you can assign him to where he's the best fit for your crew."
When I asked him his time frame for all of these changes, he stated that they have years of features that they have planned, and that they're always looking to improve the game. One means of improvement -- the best, in Russell's opinion -- is through user input. As he stated at the end of his interview, "I encourage players to use the forums. We love being able to hear from them and talk with them. And I love being able to watch how the fans play: it's so unbelievably fun."