At this year's Dragon*Con, we ran into Flying Lab Software's Russell Williams (CEO) and Kevin Maginn (PotBS Lead Designer) who had a lot to say about the design philosophy behind Pirates of the Burning Sea as well as the challenges of continuing to work on a live game. After its release in January, Pirates has continued growing with monthly updates, providing new game systems and new content.
How do the designers decide where Pirates is going from here? We've got the skinny on both where Pirates came from and where it's going, after the jump.
Maginn: Part of the problem with creating an MMO is that you start out by saying, "Wouldn't it be neat if we could have a system where they kept track of your crimes and gave you a legal standing, rating, and decided to arrest you or not based on all that?"
The problem with that is that you can go on like that forever. You can always say, "Wouldn't it be neat if we did an actual world model so you could throw ropes and climb ropes and swing on ropes?" Well, it would be neat. The problem is that all those would-be-neat's have to compete with critical core game features like – wouldn't it be nice if the servers didn't crash? And the critical features tend to move fun features out of the way. And you end up putting off a lot of the things that you really wish you could have gotten into the game that would be nice to have but are not super-important.
"By the end you've got a bunch of designers sitting around, looking at data files, and trying to figure out the damage potential of 18-pound long guns at 600 yards but not thinking about the big picture at all."
So by the end you've got a bunch of designers sitting around, looking at data files, and trying to figure out the damage potential of 18-pound long guns at 600 yards but not thinking about the big picture at all. They haven't stepped back and said, "How does this contribute to the fun in the game?" Once the game ships, you get a little room to maneuver. That's where we are now.
Willams: So when we say "a little room to maneuver" and "where we are now" – it took us about four months of updates and tuning and fixes to sort of solve the initial major problems that we had run into with the game. One of the things about Pirates is that we have very interlocking systems with how the economy factors into the PvP. And there is really good things about that system. You get very dynamic and emerging gameplay while still really not being as much of a sandbox game as other games have attempted to be, where the challenge with that is "Where do I find the fun. I've got to create it all."
So we did these interlocking systems with directed gameplay but the negative of that is that tuning interlocking systems is extremely difficult. You tune one small part and it seems innocuous and you wind up breaking something else that's fairly major. And it's a real challenge. So when you look at another game – let's give you an example like, say, City of Heroes. City of Heroes is ultimately sort of very instance-based and it's very much "I go on this mission and I accomplish that task." You can change a lot of things and while you might break one piece of it, the rest of the game still functions fine with it. For us, if we have a problem with the economy, that reverberates throughout the PvP in terms of how you actually replenish your losses because in Pirates players make everything in the game. So it's not just that they make some of the more... a couple of the interesting things. They make bandages all the way up to the 104-gun Ships of the Line. So it really took us, I guess, a little bit longer than probably the average game just because we had so much interlocking going on.
Maginn: So I'm going to get a little bit theoretical away from Pirates specifically, although I am going to continue to use the example. Our friends over at SOE got a lot of shit for the term "the vision." The vision is actually really important. It's probably the most important thing when you're creating an MMO, when you're creating any game. Vision is a coherent idea of what it's going to be like to sit down and play the game. And you need to all be on the same page when it comes to that vision because if I sit down and think that I'm going to play a swashbuckling, sword fighting game and you think you're going to play a naval sim we're going to be prioritizing very differently.
"What is vision? You can't log bugs against it but you know when it's missing. "
So, what is vision? You can't log bugs against it but you know when it's missing. It isn't something that you can point to and say "This game lacks vision" and point at one specific thing. But when you play the game, you get a sort of unsettled, disconnected feeling like the pieces don't really fit together the right way. Large projects have vision trouble. MMOs are large projects. MMOs, therefore, have a lot of trouble maintaining a coherent vision. You get the most solid vision out of games where there's a single, strong personality driving it, but even so, five years is a long time to remember what it was you were thinking four years ago when you invented the system in the first place.
Williams: The problem with the single strong personality driving it is that someone strong enough to drive an MMO and keep it very much their unique vision throughout a five-year process is probably a tyrant. And it's like any tyrant, right? If they're geniuses, let them go crazy. But for the most part, these projects of this scale have to be collaborative endeavors and so, if you go the tyrant approach and they have a very focused vision, then you also may have a very terrible vision that nobody can talk you out of. And there has been... we don't like to name names outside of our friends but there has clearly been one or two of those that have been released – at least one – in the last year where one man's vision resulted in massive, massive overrun and people quitting because they just couldn't deliver the damned game that they were forcing on them.