Swashbucklers, ships, and high seas hijinks: KingsIsle talks Pirate101

Recently, KingsIsle announced that the world of the Spiral was going to branch out into the high seas in the studio's newest MMO, Pirate101. There are many things about Pirate101 that will feel familiar to Wizard101 fans, but the game has several features that definitely make it stand apart as more than just a sequel. Combat is not card-based; it's more like a tactical board game. Companions, rather than trading cards, play a key role in the pirate arsenal, and of course, players will be traveling (and fighting!) on their very own pirate ships.

Massively had a chance to talk with Pirate101's Lead Creative Designer Sam Johnson to hear more about what players will see from KingsIsle's upcoming MMO. So grab your cutlass, don your tricorne, and read on for more details!

Massively: First off, it sounds like the world of Pirate101 is an extension of the Spiral of Wizard101, and I noticed some familiar names like Marleybone and Grizzleheim. Could you talk about the background story a bit and the connections to Wizard101?

Sam Johnson: Pirate101 takes place in the same universe (the Spiral) that Wizard101 does, so in that sense it is indeed an extension. However, I'm a little hesitant to use the word extension as Pirate101 is truly its own game with its own unique storyline, characters, combat, etc. When we first started developing our main storyline, we proceeded from a few core assumptions: first, that the Spiral is a big, big place, and second, that much of it isn't directly touched by "the affairs of Wizards." We also assumed that the two games are happening at roughly the same time; we leave it a bit fuzzy, but everything in Wizard101 is real for the Spiral of Pirate101 and vice versa.

For our background story, we looked at the great Age of Sail (the Age of Exploration and the Napoleonic Era) for inspiration. This is a time when advances in shipbuilding and newfound knowledge have really opened up the Spiral, and ambitious nations can spread out, make a lot of money in trade, found colonies, and forge an empire. About a decade ago, there was a massive war between all the Great Powers, a conflict that shook everything up and created lots of opportunity for shady characters to get rich and famous through piracy. That war is now over, but the new peace has brought with it some unexpected consequences.

One thing I didn't see on the official site was any mention of a trading card game. Will there be anything similar to the card-based gameplay of Wizard101?

In Wizard101, the primary collection quest of the game is to gather spell cards of increasing power and add them to your magical deck. In Pirate101, players collect and train companions instead of collecting spell cards. There are hundreds of possible companions to gather.

Is character progress level-based? If so, what's the planned cap for launch?

Character progress is level-based, but players will also have to make important decisions about how to distribute training points across the wide variety of Companions they will collect in the course of their journey.

The character class choices look fun (I'm intrigued by the Witchdoctor). Will there be something similar to the Book of Secrets to help determine which class players select? Also, it sounds like each class has its own unique storyline. Can you explain how that will work in game?

Our game begins with the character being rescued from the brig of an Armada prison barge. His or her rescuer asks three questions: what happened to your parents, where were you raised, and what crime did the Armada lock you up for? These answers ultimately determine a player's class and influence which Companions he or she will acquire down the line.

Pirate101 is built around one core storyline; all players will be taking part in the same "main quest." That said, there is a lot of class-specific content in Pirate101. Taking a page from Wizard101, we have trainer quests and special missions that only members of a given class can undertake. The other class-based content arises from Companions. Just as Companions are central to Pirate101's combat system, they also drive a lot of stories. We divide the Companions into tiers or grades: There's a group of "A list" companions, ones that get lots of dialogue during play. Like all Companions, these can be upgraded, but players can only upgrade A List Companions through quests. These "promotion quests" are some of the longest, richest, and most involved in the entire game.

The flying ships look impressive in the trailer. How will players be able to get a ship in game, and what sorts of things will players be able to do with them? Will players be able to ride each other's ships?

Players gain their first ships by progressing through the storyline of Pirate101. More powerful ships will become available as players grow in power.

Companions seem to have a major role in the game, particularly when it comes to combat. How do players get companions in game, and is there a limit to how many a player can have?

There are going to be multiple ways to acquire Companions. Many Companions are granted during play, usually as a quest reward. Ultimately, a player's roster of Companions is finite but pretty respectable in size. Keep in mind that the number of Companions that appear in any given fight is very limited. Managing one's army to ensure the best mix of Companions is Pirate101's equivalent of deck-building.

It sounds like Companions can be trained and promoted. How does that work, and will you be able to train and promote more than one Companion?

You can measure a Companion's power two different ways in Pirate101: by level (just like PCs, every Companion has a level), and by tier. Most companions can upgrade, changing their appearance and gaining new abilities as they move into higher tiers. So Companions can be both trained (to increase their level) and upgraded (to shift to a new tier).

Players train Companions by spending Command Points, gained through playing Jobs (what we call side quests). Spending these points to keep as many Companions as close to the player's level as possible is an essential part of Companion management.

Combat looks to be different from that of Wizard101, and it looks like there's more strategy involved. What made you decide to create a new system for Pirate101, and how does it work in general?

In Wizard, combat is based on dueling circles and spell cards. Essentially, Wizards are playing an elaborate card game. In Pirate101, combat takes place on a battle board, in a form that is similar to a tactical board game. While initial battles in Pirate101 are straightforward, additional strategy and planning are required as players gain more abilities and enemies become more formidable.

Are the subscription plans the same as they are in Wizard101? Will families with active accounts be able to use those to play Pirate101?

The subscription plans will be the same in Pirate as they are in Wizard101. One cool new twist is that players who want to play both games will be eligible for discounted membership rates.

What do you feel are the most important lessons you learned from the development of Wizard101, and how did they influence the design of Pirate101?

From a purely story standpoint, we learned that humor works, that a light, welcoming tone is absolutely critical, and that the right kind of humor can create experiences that resonate with both kids and adults. We also learned that "side quest" content must be clearly distinguishable from the Main Story; players must always be able to easily tell what they have to do next and not fear that every little quest they find is required to finish the big story.

When might players who have signed up on the site expect to see closed beta begin? Do you have a timetable for the official launch?

The only thing we've said so far is that we plan to launch Pirate101 this year. Stay tuned for more information!

Thanks to Lead Creative Designer Sam Johnson for taking the time to speak with Massively! You can follow the latest on Pirate101 and sign up for beta at the official site.
This article was originally published on Massively.