Last week we gave you an extensive preview of the intriguing world of Pirates of the Burning Sea, an exciting massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), being developed by Flying Lab Software. This week, we have part one of a two part interview with John Tynes, a game designer at the company.
Beta Test: In the next few months
Estimated Release: Fall 2003
Pirates of the Burning Sea Interview (Part 1) with John Tynes
JustRPG: Tell us about your company Flying Lab Software and the team behind the game.
John: Flying Lab Software was founded by two ex-Microsoft employees four years ago. Our first game, Rails Across America, was named Best Multiplayer Game of the Year by Computer Games magazine. We are a small company in Seattle, Washington, self-funded and dedicated to making good games on our terms.
JustRPG: How would you describe Pirates of the Burning Sea?
John: It’s a game of adventure and achievement, where you earn your reputation through your actions and build the life your character deserves. We have a very robust tactical ship combat system, a dynamic economy with great opportunities for merchants, and a classless skill-based system that always leaves you free to chart your own course.
JustRPG: What were the main goals in creating this MMORPG?
John: We wanted to build a game that was a departure from the rest of the market. First, to get away from the swords-and-sorcery genre; second, to jettison the level treadmills and lousy first month most games offer; and third, to offer real roleplaying opportunities by emphasizing reputation, group play, and international intrigue.
JustRPG: What has development been like since you started this project?
John: We’ve been working steadily since the fall of 2002. The design phase took several months, during which time our lead programmer, Joe Ludwig, built the foundations of our database and client-server architecture. At this point in time we have combat, sailing, and the economy implemented. We can each sail our ships around the same world, firing cannons at each other and cruising past islands. There’s still a lot to do, however.
JustRPG: I am very fascinated with the pirate theme and historical period of this game. What was your decision behind choosing this particular setting over others?
John: Who needs elves and spaceships? We believe our setting of the Caribbean in 1720 offers more adventure, action, intrigue, and romance than any fantasy or science fiction theme. It’s an amazing time of empires rising and falling, and developments in technology that made for fast ships and powerful cannons. The lumbering old Spanish galleons are fading into history, and sleek new vessels are breaking records. Meanwhile, the wealth of the West Indies has brought the great powers of Europe into conflict time and again. It’s a time when anyone with adventure in their heart and a ship to command could make a fortune, start a war, or become the scourge of the sea.
JustRPG: What graphics engine are you using for this game and what special effects can it produce?
John: We are using the Alchemy engine, which is now produced by Vicarious Visions. It’s a very well-architected engine, which has made it a dream to work with. In recent tests we pushed over one million shaded polygons in the engine at 20fps on a GeForce FX, which is some serious power. Of course, it supports the latest DirectX 9.0 and PixelShader 2.0 specs, which we will be using in our game to take advantage of the new generation of cutting-edge video cards.
JustRPG: What music and sound effects can we expect in Pirates of the Burning Sea?
John: We have a very rich sound environment thanks to the SoundMax sound system (link: http://www.audioforgames.com/). SoundMax supports great features like positional audio (for surround sound) and dynamic soundscapes and effects. Just as an example, you will never hear the same cannon blast sound effect twice. SoundMax lets our sound designer build a system for producing cannon blasts with a number of variables built into it, generating the actual sound effect from scratch every single time the cannon fires. So no more repetitive effects! Our ocean ambience (waves, wind, sails rippling) is generated the same way. You won’t hear the same loops repeating every two minutes because it’s all assembled on the fly with tremendous variety and realism.
Another major sound area is dialogue. We don’t want the player to ever forget that they’ve got a crew on the ship, so you’ll hear your crew talking about what’s going on, and when you order complicated actions (raising/lowering sails, firing cannons) you’ll actually hear the crew singing real shanties to organize their efforts.
We chose not to include background music because it would interfere with what we’ve got. We do, however, have a theme song that we’re very happy with, created for us by Performance Anxiety Music (link: http://www.anxietymusic.com/) . It’s in the glorious Old Hollywood style of Erich Korngold, and you’ll be hearing it in video clips and at game launch.
JustRPG: I am very impressed by all the research that seems to have gone into all aspects of the game's creation, from doing extensive research on the ships featured in the game to using satellite imagery to accurately represent the Caribbean islands. Tell us more about this.
John: Once you set out to do a historical game, you have a responsibility to invest some serious time in research. We are not, however, going for 100% authenticity. Our timeline diverges, for example – wars will break out on each server when the players’ actions make it appropriate, not when they happened in real life. Our goal is to research first, then balance that realism with playability. When we decide to do something that is not historical, we have good reasons for doing so instead of just making arbitrary decisions out of ignorance.
Our ships are a point of pride, to be sure. Taylor Daynes, our lead game designer, went to the Seattle Public Library and didn’t emerge for a couple of weeks. He’s learned the sailing ships of the day inside and out. We’re tracking down plans from across the world for numerous ships – both historical diagrams and modern wooden model kit designs – to use as reference. And I should give special mention to an amazing four-volume research work, The 74 Gun Ship by Jean Boudriot. (Link: http://www.ancre.fr/vaisso02-e.htm ) It covers every aspect of sailing this marvelous vessel in our time period, from the tying of knots to the rigging and operation of each sail to the use of leeches by the ship’s doctor. This is a superb reference work full of beautiful illustrations and diagrams, and is really the foundation of our research for the whole project.
JustRPG: How is the interface and control being handled in the game?
John: Our interface approach is pretty typical for MMORPGs. There are numerous floating palettes you can summon and dismiss at will, a hotkey bar to store skill icons, and the like. To sail your ship, you can raise and lower the sails and set the rudder. To use your cannons, you have complete control of each battery of guns or you can chain batteries together with hotkeys. By learning additional skills – or teaching them to your officers – you can execute a variety of sailing maneuvers and combat tactics.
JustRPG: PCs and NPCs will both be in the game. What is your philosophy behind this? How do you feel these elements will be different in your game over other MMORPGs?
John: NPCs play an important role in fleshing out the world. NPC navy ships guard ports and hunt down pirates. NPC pirates attack merchants. NPC-run ports consume and produce goods in the dynamic economy. NPC merchants move goods between those ports. They do many of the same things players do, in fact, though not as well. By fleshing out the world and building a larger, more stable society, they ground the world in reality. Strictly player-run economies and societies are often problematic, because players do things all the time that real characters in that setting would never do, resulting in unstable economies and poorly structured societies.
As an example, crafting characters in many MMORPGs have to rise in level quite a ways before they’re making anything that other PCs want to use. There’s no market for the very simplest things a crafter begins making. But in a game with a meaningful NPC population, there is a market for basic crafting items such as pants or lanterns. You can make such basic goods and turn a profit on them, just like in the real world. The NPCs provide the market depth that supports such work, giving players useful activities.
JustRPG: Another impressive feature is the story engine that you have created for the game. Describe it for us and its importance in the game?
John: The story engine has undergone a lot of changes in our development process. Some of our ambitious plans for it have been put on hold for future releases.
At present, the story engine is a very robust mission system. Our mission system is dynamic and interactive. Most importantly, available missions are visible to all players but can only be taken by one. So if there are six players in a tavern, they all see the same mission list. If the list has something good on there, the first player to accept the mission gets it and it leaves the list at that moment. The other players can’t take that mission because it’s now been snapped up. Our missions are sort of like auction items on eBay – the value of a mission keeps going up until someone accepts it. This makes for pretty interesting gameplay. For example, it’s worth going to the more obscure ports because they’re more likely to have older missions sitting around, which have increased in value. And missions you fail soon go back on the list they came from, now with a bigger reward for the next player who takes them.
Although our basic mission system pretty much consists of deliveries and hunts, they feed into different gameplay elements in interesting ways. Some missions improve your legal status, teach you a new skill, or increase your rank as a Navy officer. You can carry diamonds to San Juan, transport a convict to Barbados, or sink a valiant Naval captain in the waters near Grenada. The nature and rewards of missions depend on where you get them from. Missions supplied by the Admiralty are different from those you get at Trading Companies, Courthouses, Magistrates’ Offices, Taverns, Black Markets, and so on.
Our mission system also supports groups very well. Any mission in the game can be accepted as either a solo or group mission. Group missions automatically divvy up the reward among all the players using an intelligent system to analyze who completed his or her part of the mission and how much they deserve to receive. Group missions will be a lot of fun.
Missions also serve the various agendas in the world. If you work for a trading company, you can get delivery missions that increase the company’s standing in the economy, or hunt missions where you sink the merchants of rival companies. Naval officers are offered pirate hunts, and during wartime there are missions to engage enemy warships. For pirate characters, there are black market missions where pirate-hunting naval officers are targeted.
All these missions feed into the overall server stats. They affect the economy, the success of the trading companies, the relations between countries, and the progress of war. Our mission system is tied into almost every aspect of gameplay.
JustRPG: List some of the things that await players in this world? What kinds of jobs and missions are you planning to include? What kinds of fortunes and careers will players be able to seek?
John: Our game system is skill-based, not class based. There is no “Pirate” class, for example. If you want to be a pirate, start committing crimes! And if you want to reform, take community-service missions that improve your legal standing. You could work your way up through the ranks as a Naval officer, then turn pirate for a while, eventually redeem yourself, and become a merchant. We look at these things as careers rather than classes, and there are always ways of moving between them.
The reputation system is important to all of this. Other players can see how dangerous you are, how successful a merchant you are, and other stats that affect how PCs and NPCs react to you. Many ports will prevent criminals from entering, for example, but on the other hand there are missions you can’t accept unless you are a criminal.
We expect a great deal of PvP action. But in our game, PvP can take different forms. Economic competition is huge, with both the large trading companies and independent free traders doing whatever they can to get ahead. Pirates prey on them, but then there are those who prey on pirates. Navies go to war in large fleet actions with massive battles.
What we are not doing is providing the sort of canned story content seen in other games. All of our missions are generated on the fly, for example. There’s no endless NPC dialogue that leads to the same delivery mission for every player. Every mission is unique. We believe the best stories are the ones that players create themselves, just in the course of going about their business, making allies, fighting enemies, and building their reputation.
We are building a big sandbox for people to play in. We aren’t building an obstacle course that everyone goes through the exact same way.
Pirates of the Burning Sea Preview at Just RPG
Official Pirates of the Burning Sea Website
PIRATES OF THE BURNING SEA SCREENSHOTS