MMO Family: Pirate101 and the Pixar effect

MMO Family Pirate101 and the Pixar Effect
Back at the ranch, it's been a pretty busy (and off the grid) summer. We've spent the bulk of it at the grandparents' house at the beach, complete with snorkeling, beach combing, hikes to a nearby island, and lots of late nights discussing the finer points of the Harry Potter series. That made for many late nights, but a couple of weeks ago, I suddenly didn't have to struggle to get my kids to go to bed. Turns out, they wanted to play a certain game to wrap up their day, and that game was Pirate101. What's interesting is that they liked it for different reasons than I do, and I actually found myself rethinking my approach to games by watching them play.

In this week's MMO Family, we'll look at some first impressions from a kid's-eye view and explore how KingsIsle is able to hit all of the right notes (again) to make a compelling game for both kids and adults.

Starting off

I always loved how Wizard101 starts you off by answering questions about your favorite things. For younger players, that helps to create an immediate connection with the character they're creating, and in Pirate101, the devs struck gold again (no pun intended). You're asked to make choices about your family background and your character's storyline, which fits nicely with the beginning of the tutorial. The art style is fun but not too serious, and the art has a roguish touch that fits the pirate theme perfectly.

As you work through the tutorial, you're introduced to your first crew companion, and each class has a different creature with different combat skills. It's fun to see the various combat animations for each creature, and you start to see a little personality in each one. In fact, the kids rolled up several characters just to see what companions each class had (their favorites were Bonnie Anne and Nanu Nanu).

Combat

As Beau explained in his first impressions article, the combat system in Pirate101 is different from the card-game-based combat of Wizard101. Each round, players control their crew and decide where to move and what combat ability to use. For younger players, this works beautiful because they can set up instructions for their character and crew and then enjoy the animated combat rather than constantly be consumed by fast-twitch buttons and spamming hotbar abilities. When there are other players (and other crew members), the combat rounds turn into something reminiscent of a swashbuckling black-and-white movie action-sequence (I keep expecting Errol Flynn to suddenly swoop down on a rope from the masthead). Both players and crew members have special combat animations, and the kids really got into the spirit of battle when they saw some of the cool moves on display.

MMO Family Pirate101 and the Pixar Effect
As for the level of challenge, there is some strategy involved, as players can move, use boxes, and hide behind objects to take advantage of line of sight. There's even a bit of a chess mindset in working the board when it comes to luring lure enemies to where you want them or isolating an enemy from the pack. I love that the game embraces the slower pace of classic board games in its approach to combat because it's both challenging and enjoyable for all ages.

Ships are great, and I especially love the twist in the storyline when you finally get your first ship. Combat reminded me of Pirates of the Burning Sea, only simplified a bit to give younger players a chance to learn how to maneuver and use key abilities. It's largely auto-fire, so kids can work on steering, but you have a few tricks in your bag as well as special abilities that work the card game back in. The Crowns Shop offers booster packs that give you some vanity items as well as cards that you can use during ship battle. Just in the ones I looked at, I noticed there are some cards that perform special attacks and some that repair ships as well.

Old vs. young

I have to confess, I got impatient when others joined my combat because it meant a longer fight and more mobs. I wanted to get the battle done so I could get my update and level up. The kids, however, relished it and even sought it out. For them, it's not about the race but about enjoying the game for what it is. The combat isn't a hurdle; it's the reason they play the game, and it made me step back and rethink my approach to gaming a bit.

In the early levels, you get your ship, but it's mostly about the board game. As Beau said, there is a certain grindy feel to Wizard101, and the same holds true for Pirate101. If you buy into the storyline, it's not an issue, so for my kids, that didn't come up as a complaint. For me, I wanted to sail right away, so not only was I frustrated that I had to do a quest to get a leaky raft, but I wanted to break free from the questline to just sail free and explore. I'm a jaded old gamer, so I'm not the best target audience, but if the the questline is done well enough, I doubt many younger gamers will complain.

MMO Family Pirate101 and the Pixar Effect
Pirate party!

What struck me most of all is that my two young beta testers had more social experiences in Pirate101 than I've had in my recent MMOs of choice. They're both able to read now, and while typing is still difficult, the drop-down menu made communication simple. They connected with many friends and were excited about their shared adventures, both by boat and on land. I'm assuming the chat filter is the same as it was in Wizard101, and while we didn't have any issues with friends saying inappropriate things, it was nice to know that safety net was there. It's like a delay on televised programming: just enough of a buffer for parents to step in and shut things down if it looks like they might get out of hand. Meanwhile, it was nice to sit back and let my children take the reins, and the game definitely makes that possible. KingsIsle makes it easy for them to jump in and help someone else in combat or lend assistance during a ship battle, and the kids often ended up making friends and continuing to explore and hunt after the fight was over. The social part of the game is natural, and it's just something you do rather than something you have to go out of your way to do in so many adult MMOs.

Overall, the kids loved the colorful world, the lively combat animations, the ease of making friends and doing things with other players, and of course, trying out a wide variety of pirate outfits on their characters. Meanwhile, I loved the board-game, turn-based approach to combat, the freedom of sky-sailing by ship, and the whimsy of the pirate world (my favorite was Captain Ahab, the pelican in Jonah Town). As with Wizard101, KingsIsle has once again made an MMO that's fun and challenging for both kids and adults.

The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to karen@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.