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Sharks, skulls, and ships: One year of Pirate101


Pirate101 is a strange beast. It is a family-friendly, free-to-play, colorful MMO with silly characters, simple design, and quirky environments. Adventuring in Pirate101 sometimes demands that you investigate the secrets of a city that literally sits on top of a flying whale or that you and your friends (a fencing crab, perhaps, or a sharpshooting fox) leap onto a flaming, flying pirate ship in order to punch sharks in the face and steal their treasure.

Hidden underneath the silliness, however, is a relatively deep turn-based strategy game designed to engage younger gamers while ensuring their adult counterparts have a good time. KingsIsle Entertainment isn't in the business of making kids games; instead, the studio strives to create titles that kids and parents can play together. The success of Pirate101 in its first year demonstrates that KingsIsle might just be on to something.

Let's take a little peek back on the last 12 months of Pirate101 to examine its major milestones.

The expanding world

Pirate101 is set in the world of The Spiral, a universe that will be familiar to players of KingsIsle's first big success, Wizard101. Each area of Pirate101 exists on a floating island; players move to and from these islands via customizable pirate ships that float across the skies in the same way real-life pirate ships float across the sea. The bright color palette and cheery characters were high points in our initial impressions and first hands-on with the game, and a year later they remain one of Pirate101's greatest strengths.

No MMO can survive if the world remains stagnant. KingsIsle launched Pirate101's first (and only, so far) big expansion back in May of 2013, bringing two new worlds into the existing universe. Marleybone and Aquila, both realized in some fashion in Wizard101, brought new quests, new NPCs, and new challenges to Pirate101. The game's sense of humor is evident in the new content as well; quests in Aquila follow Greek myth paradigms and introduce players to characters like Hawkules, Eagilles, and Medusa the Gorgon. The expansion also brought big changes to some core facets of Pirate101's design, including a raise on the level cap and the introduction of an in-game bazaar.

New encounters were introduced; a new tutorial, special group-based turret bosses, and transporters all came with the first expansion. Overall, the first Pirate101 expansion included most of the things one might expect to see in such content without shaking up the status quo with any crazy ideas or innovations from left field. New zones, new features, new characters, and other expansion-template additions abound.

Special occasions

While development on Pirate101 seems to follow a slightly more low-key and slow schedule than development for some of the world's AAA MMOs, KingsIsle has worked to keep the game updated and interesting along with regularly engaging its player community. The studio maintains that it is committed to contributing to real-life causes whenever it can and has seen a couple of high-profile moments related to its focus on charity and reciprocity.

In January, KingsIsle announced that it had raised $100,000 for Texas charities (the studio is based in Dallas) by selling an extra-hilarious ice-skating llama mount in both the Wizard101 and Pirate101 cash shops. The press release from the announcement noted that the new money brought KingsIsle's total charitable contribution to $326,000 since its inception.

In July, KingsIsle worked with the Make-a-Wish foundation to help one child live out his dream: an all-access tour of the studio. Eleven-year-old Ryan, afflicted with brain cancer, was able to explore KingsIsle with his family in addition to playing Pirate101 with its developers and participating in a voice recording session in the studio's sound production facility. The KingsIsle team also created a new Pirate101 NPC by the name of Ryan the Relentless; he is voiced by Ryan himself and mans a Yum-n-ade stand in-game.

Looking forward

KingsIsle hasn't released any information on potential new expansions as of yet, but it's safe to assume there's new content on the way. According to the studio, Pirate101 has earned five million registered players in its first year, matching the total playerbase of Wizard101. The game continues to grow and thrive, with new families discovering it and falling victim to its charming voiceovers, surprisingly challenging strategy combat, and all-ages design approach.

Pirate101's next big confirmed leap will be onto the Mac OS X platform. Testing for the Mac client began in September, and while the game has yet to officially go live for Mac users, it is only a matter of time. The holidays are also fast-approaching; Pirate101 is currently celebrating both its birthday and Halloween with birthday balloons, a haunted galleon, spooky companions, and other festivities. Players have until October 31st to join in on the anniversary/Halloween shenanigans.

Pirate101 has demonstrated that games don't have to be violent, gory, or "adult" to be interesting. The success seen by KingsIsle is a solid example that where fun games exist, gamers of all ages will follow. It is also an excellent example of a game that differs from the crowd of current offerings. Pirate101 isn't an action-bar World of Warcraft clone or yet another tri-lane MOBA; it is its own little game that borrows heavily from the adventure, strategy, and fantasy niches. It is equally accessible to kids and adults, and the driving philosophy of "fun-for-all" is evident in almost every part of its design (except the cash shop, which has been accused of being a touch predatory).

We don't know where Pirate101 is headed next, but it's safe to assume that wherever it goes, everyone will be welcome to come along. Quality, engaging, family-friendly MMOs are tough to find, and its exactly this dearth in the industry that has allowed Pirate101 to succeed as it has. KingsIsle's focus on building worlds where families can play together should ensure that Pirate101 remains the curious, hilarious, and enjoyable experience that it has been since launch last year.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?

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