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The Game Archaeologist interviews Puzzle Pirates' Matt Jensen


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Two weeks ago, we opened the book to a strange game indeed. The odd combination of swashbucklers and minigames has sentenced Puzzle Pirates to the fringe of MMO society, yet it's thrived there as an offbeat title that caters to a... very select and fanatical crowd.

Which is totally cool with me, by the way. I love MMOs that take a path less-traveled.

Today I got the pleasure of sitting down with Puzzle Pirates Lead Developer Matt Jensen to talk about what it's like to work on the lovechild of Captain Hook and Bejeweled. If nothing else, he convinced me that it would be awesome to work at Three Rings Design because the dress code every day is peg legs and frilly blouses. His team also has one of the coolest offices ever.

The Game Archaeologist interviews Puzzle Pirates' Matt Jensen
The Game Archaeologist: How did you come to work on Puzzle Pirates?

Matt Jensen: I've been at Three Rings for over four years now. Despite the recent Sega acquisition, Three Rings remains a relatively small operation, and we still structure our organization based on the traditional method of mutinous single combat.

Last August, I defeated the previous lead, Arcturus, in a duel at dawn. For the record, he is the one who insisted that we strip to the waist first. It was an unpleasant sight, but fortunately, it was still relatively dark in the wee hours of the morning. Arcturus fought honorably, and hence I prevailed, but only after throwing several cowardly fistfuls of gravel in his face. His life was spared, and he is now kept bound to his chair two desks over where we can question him about Puzzle Pirates code and force him to work on other projects. Occasionally, we even remember to feed him.

So what do you enjoy about the role?

I like to see when and if players will notice little details that we've slipped in. They worked out that werewolves only appear on days when there is a full moon, and they found the grave of an old NPC that grants a trophy for paying your respects. It's fun to watch people discover these mini-Easter eggs. Just recently we hid a flying sheep somewhere.

What do you see as the biggest attraction to Puzzle Pirates for gamers?

Whether you're pillaging with your crew, swordfighting in PvP, showing off in your new clothes, arguing on the forums, throwing a party, playing cards, or flirting on the docks (or in the bushes), I think it's the social aspect of the game that keeps people coming back. Some players have known each other for years, and a few have even ended up married.

Why does this bizarre combination of game and setting work for your players?

Avast, who ye be callin' bizarre? And yer sayin' LEGO Indiana Jones be normal?

There are hordes of great puzzle games out there, but because they are casual, they can be a bit unsatisfying. You may be the best player ever to open the game, but what do you have to show for it after playing for a few hours?

Puzzle Pirates takes puzzles that are already fun to play in and of themselves and rewards you for your skill and time. You increase your standing relative to other pirates. You earn trophies, bragging rights, and shiny treasure to buy a ship of yer own. The puzzles are your pirate's "job," and that job supports their lavish lifestyle.

Pirate ships also lend themselves nicely to cooperative gameplay. Each pirate has a duty to perform, and that contributes the overall success of the vessel as a team.

The Game Archaeologist interviews Puzzle Pirates' Matt Jensen
Why is pirate geek culture so infectious?

Pirates are fun. Plain and simple. Try really saying, "Yarrrrrr!" with your best piratey accent and not be happy. You can't do it. If you can, it's a pretty clear indicator that you are a not a fun person and should be shunned. Oh, and skulls. Skulls are inherently cool, even if some of our skulls can tend to be somewhat on the adorable side...

Otherwise, pirates tend to be infectious because they did not bathe regularly or have proper access to modern antibiotics.

What's your favorite pirate pun in the game?

I personally like "Pirate Plumder," which we used for a plum-colored promotion. It's truly awful.

Why did the studio decide on a split subscription/free-to-play business model, and what did you learn from being one of the earliest MMOs to dabble in F2P?

Puzzle Pirates started out as subscription only, and our subscriptions still continue to offer fixed price, all-you-can-eat access. Our free-to-play Doubloon servers, launched way back in 2005, were originally an experiment meant to attract new players by letting them play for free. If folks liked the game, perhaps they would become customers some day, though we do have several long-term players who take great pride in never having paid us.

Doubloons allow players to pay a la carte for just the specific premium content they want. Players who have less time to invest can spend a little money to get out of their starter rags a little more quickly and into a fine pair of boots. Players on our Doubloon servers are somewhat more likely to convert to pay, perhaps because they can approach purchasing in smaller increments. Unlike subscriptions, [an a la carte system ensures] there is no natural ceiling on how much a player can spend on Doubloons each month.

In any case, the more pirates we can get into the game, the better. Free players create a richer world by providing jobbers for ships and employees for shops and more friends to chat with.

What are some of the challenges and delights of working on an older MMO?

The players feel a strong sense of ownership over the game, and long-term players often recall the golden age of the game before we added poker or pets or an assortment of other changes. We are constantly trying to make improvements, but as you will notice whenever Facebook changes its interface, people love change. Even making small cosmetic changes can have that "New Coke" effect. You are tinkering with something that a player has become accustomed to and may even love, and so it can be understandable when he takes to the forums to describe in exact volume how much a recent change made him vomit into his waste basket.

This can tie our hands in some cases. Even if we can think of better ways something can be done, it might be unfair or confusing to actually make the change because that is the way it has always worked.

Could you share one funny behind-the-scenes stories from life with the dev team?

This is a fairly ancient story, but one of the developers once accidentally misplaced a comma in the code, reversing our chat filters. This caused phrases such as "tart" or "harmonica lesson" and "bilge drinker" to get mapped to their obscene equivalents in chat, rather than the other way around.

It has also practically become tradition that every new member of the dev team mistakenly abuses his or her admin powers at some point. I personally stole a player's pet crab.
Bungleton sailed off with someone's ship. Greenbones was kind enough to pay the rent on someone's shop. Forculus accidentally gave out a black monkey (black monkeys having been unofficially declared "too awesome" to be allowed in the game). We wear Santa hats in the middle of summer, wander into places we shouldn't be, and generally get ourselves reported to support for hacking.

The Game Archaeologist interviews Puzzle Pirates' Matt Jensen
What's one of the coolest things you've ever seen the community do?

They once minted their own doubloons! They have also sent us handmade knit dolls of our pirates and other crafts over the years. It's all very impressive. I also really enjoyed this comic. It skewers us pretty well. I had just recently been trying to create a recipe to craft a box of chocolates without using "brown enamel," so this kills me.

What have been the biggest developments and changes to the game in the past few years?

Probably the biggest change is that we merged some of the oceans earlier this year, allowing pirates to sail between them. We've added more expeditions, which are basically mini-missions, to break up the routine of pillaging a bit. We continue to add new puzzles, like Rigging and Weaving, and we're currently working on a Sail Patching puzzle to be released shortly.

What do you see as Puzzle Pirates' greatest legacy to the MMO industry?

Advancement can be based on increasing the player's personal skill rather than grinding for character experience. Combat gameplay can be more fun than just point and click. A game can be successful without any actual blood and gore (other than the occasional zombie). You don't need dwarves or pointy ears (or even noses) to make an MMO.

Thanks for speaking with us!

When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

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