Flying Lab Software on Pirates, part 3

"We always have this vision of what we call 'ambush gameplay.' I called it 'ambush gameplay' because it sounds a lot nicer than 'griefing,' which is what it really was."

Maginn: We always have this vision of what we call "ambush gameplay." I called it "ambush gameplay" because it sounds a lot nicer than "griefing," which is what it really was. We explicitly supported six pirates finding a solo merchant, pulling them into combat and killing them. Well, it turns out that merchants don't like to be killed like that when they have no chance of escape. And it turns out also that nobody actually enjoys these fights at all. The six pirates don't enjoy it because it's such a tedious grind, you know. You kill another merchant who had no chance of success. The victim's obviously not going to enjoy it. Nobody enjoys it. It turns out that what people really enjoy is large fights against opponents who are actually pretty tough. So here we had that we were going to support ambush game-playing and I killed it. We stepped away from ambush gameplay and came up with some new ideas for how to handle battles on the open sea. We let reinforcements join much later, which means that if you're sailing along and you see a merchant being attacked by a group of six pirates – and that battle may have started five minutes ago, which is an eternity in the game, or should by that time – but you can still join in and help them out.

We're also adding more sides. We're making it so that if you see a Spanish and a pirate going at it and you're British, you can jump in and support the Spanish guy or support the pirate, allowing for players to create their own alliances. This is a real sticking point for players in that they want to ally together the weaker sides of one battling together. They haven't been able to and now they can.

We have also created a system that tries to algorithmically recognize when a gank is happening. It says, "OK, there's six of you and two of them. You're trying to gank them." And when that happens, we open the battle up so that the side that is getting ganked can actually bring more people in. Their maximum population of the battle is much larger, which means that suddenly it could become a ten-on-six battle. Relatively drastic changes, all of which pretty much entirely sabotaged the idea of ambush gameplay. It essentially no longer exists and, even though I loved it when I thought of it in theory two years ago, practically it was the wrong thing for the game.

Avatar combat. We've had a lot of criticism for the avatar combat system. People don't like it and there is a hard core of people who really enjoy it but, frankly, most people avoid it. Well, I sat down and started playing with it and decided that, in fact, it was pretty much what I wanted in terms of how interesting and complex it was. It was just, essentially, totally unplayable. And we'd continued it. So I couldn't make it playable by tuning it. So we actually stepped back and asked ourselves, "What is our goal with this avatar combat system? Are we actually trying to innovate here? Are we trying to create a totally new kind of sword-fighting gameplay? Do we really think that that's what the world needs is another sword-fighting system?" And the answer turned out to be no. We don't think the world needs a better sword-fighting system. We gave the world a better ship combat system. We gave the world, in fact, the best ship combat system. With sowrd-fighting, what we want is for it just to be fun.

So, this is what I've been doing with the last two months. I mean, non-stop, the past two months this is all I've been working on. I ripped out the core of avatar combat and I replaced it. Simplified a lot of the mechanics. Simplified the stats. One of the things that really frustrated me was that you would be able to open your character sheet and see these numbers and they all looked really interesting but they didn't mean anything to you. I open my character sheet in WoW and I see a bunch of numbers and I know exactly what they mean. They're big numbers and they go up by a lot when I improve. So I sort of have an order of magnitude sense in how important character stats are, which we didn't really have – so I simplified them.

We had a lot of skills. Most of them were pretty useless. They had very limited uses or very technical uses. There wasn't anything that was sort of the raw fun ones like Sunder Armor, where you know what that does – it hits the guy, breaks their armor, and puts them on a threat level. We had skills where you were trying to think, "OK, maybe this will work or maybe it won't. Maybe I need to lower the balance more." I ripped all that out and I replaced it with more accessible skills, more effective skills, simpler skills, much easier to play an avatar from that account.

"When we started Pirates, we had anticipated making a much smaller ship-only game. And we thought if it was successful we'd go out later and make avatar combat and put in cities you could go to."

Williams: So, a little history. Why did avatar combat come out like it did? The reason is that we essentially had very changing scope throughout our project. When we started Pirates, we had anticipated making a much smaller ship-only game. And we thought if it was successful we'd go out later and make avatar combat and put in cities you could go to. We could add on to it.

Basically, two things really changed. One – we got a new art director. He came in and made some simple tweaks to our technology and suddenly our game was just gorgeous. The water has beautiful reflections. We had a fantastic color palette. And we went out to E3, I think it was like 2005... and we showed the first revamp of sort of what our art work was like. And as people would walk through E3 they would stop and look. Every single time. We had huge crowds.

Around that time as well, and this will probably settle the questions of what year this was, Pirates of the Caribbean came out, the movie. And before that, Disney's last effort was Treasure Planet. When we had actually started doing Pirates, people were like "Pirates? What the hell is going on with pirates?" We're like, "Pirates are cool. If you just do something good with pirates, people will love it." Treasure Planet came out and people said, "See, nobody likes pirates." And then, of course, Disney fixed that problem and made a fantastic, kick-ass film.

So we sort of saw this resurgence in our subject matter and we were getting really, really good reception and so we decided to expand the scope out to where we could do avatar combat and add the stuff.

The problem is that, as Kevin says, we tried to do an innovative and very different combat system. We had a lot of great ideas that – the Balance and Initiative were the main ones – that sounded great. And when we built the avatar combat system, we essentially had time for one iteration of the avatar combat system, one major iteration.

Maginn: Compared to ship combat where we iterated five times. When pushing the ship combat system out, we started it over five times.
This article was originally published on Massively.