Pirates of the Burning Sea Interview

By David Craddock, Apr 03, 2007 10:00pm PDT

Perch your parrot, strap on your scimitar, and iron your puffy shirt--you're gonna be a pirate. This June, Flying Lab Software's Pirates of the Burning Sea will give MMO gamers the opportunity to swashbuckle and raid to their hearts' content, a breath of fresh air from all of the fantasy-themed MMOs due out later this year. I had the opportunity to speak with Kevin Maginn, the game's lead designer, to find out how the game is coming along.

Shack: When and where does Pirates of the Burning Sea take place?

Kevin Maginn: Pirates of the Burning Sea takes place in the Caribbean in 1720. In the real world, this was the closing of the Age of Piracy; Woodes Rogers had just cleaned out the last stronghold of piracy in the region by taking over New Providence. In our setting, the pirates are better-organized and better able to defend themselves; they've banded together under the flag of the Brethren of the Coast. This sets the stage for a three-way battle over control of the region, between France, England and Spain, with the powerful pirate nation acting as a spoiler and kingmaker.

You can be a citizen of France, England, Spain, or you can be a pirate. Pirates have the special ship capture abilities described above, as well as the ability to engage in PvP more easily than the other nations, and throughout more of the game world.

Nations also have exclusive clothing options, ships, outfitting, and mission content. Additionally, the economies of each nation are distinct; in the north, France controls most of the wine production, while in the west, Spain has a lock on the coast of Mexico.

Shack: Do players start out as lowly deckhands, or do we get our own ship right from the start?

Kevin Maginn: We don't like the idea of having to grind through boring content to get to the fun stuff. We make you the captain of a ship from the start, because ship combat in our game is exciting and fun. When you buy the game and log in for the first time, you're expecting to be able to sail the seas and fight pirates. If we [fail to deliver on] that expectation, we're not providing the best [possible] game experience.

Shack: Can players upgrade their ships?

Kevin Maginn: There are two ways to customize your ship. First, you can use our user content system to create your own flags and sail patterns, and display them on your ship in-game. Second, you can equip outfitting, which is analogous to the avatar equipment from other MMOs. Outfitting includes enhancements to your guns, sails, and hull, as well as general outfitting that can modify your ship in a variety of distinct ways. For instance, you can equip extra quarters for your crew, allowing you to carry more men for boarding combat, or an extra powder magazine to increase the damage of your shots.

Outfitting can be obtained as quest rewards and loot drops, but most outfitting is produced by player crafters through the economy. In fact, you don't really level up your ship. You can improve your ship, and you can purchase newer, more powerful ships.

Shack: Is it possible to customize or upgrade the player's avatar?

Kevin Maginn: Your character improves in two ways as you gain experience: as a ship captain and as a swordfighter. We call the former your "career," and the second "swashbuckling." Your career skills focus on ship combat as well as more general gameplay such as economic production. Your swashbuckling skills focus exclusively on melee combat, whether during a boarding action or while on land.

You improve in both areas with experience, so you never have to make a choice between being a competent captain and being a competent swashbuckler.

Shack: How do players control their ships?

Kevin Maginn: Our control scheme is something I think of as "fun realism." We start from a realistic foundation, and then we tune it to be fun to play. For instance, we model the effects of the wind on your ship in a somewhat realistic way. But in real sailing, you simply cannot sail upwind. In our game, we found that this limitation frequently led to dull gameplay.

You control your ship's speed by raising and lowering the sails, and you turn by setting the rudder. We map these controls onto the familiar WASD keyboard scheme, so it's quick and intuitive to learn. Wind affects the speed of your ship; each ship performs differently in the wind. Some ships, such as the Xebec, are designed to sail close to the wind. Others, like the big three-mast square rigged ships, are best at sailing 90 degrees off from the wind. Our UI makes it clear where your best point of sail is for your current ship.

Shack: Let's say I get tired of my ship. Can I sell it, or perhaps acquire a new ship in some way--maybe steal one or buy one?

Kevin Maginn: Anyone can buy new ships--[which] are crafted by players. The ship construction process is complex and requires the coordination of many players working together. Pirates also have the unique option of capturing ships after defeating them. Players may also be able to receive ships through mission rewards.

Shack: How many ships can players own?

Kevin Maginn: While you can have unlimited ship deeds, you will normally have three ships at a time--the one you're currently sailing, and two others in dry dock. However, some careers have skills allowing for an extra ship berth.

Shack: Is there any way I can unwillingly lose my ship?

Kevin Maginn: Every ship has a number of durability points. Each time you're sunk or captured, you lose a point of durability, and are sent back to the nearest friendly port. But if you run out of durability, your ship is lost, and you're sent back to a port where you have another ship waiting.

Of course, if you have no other ships, and you run completely out of durability, you'll be in a tight spot. In this instance, we provide "fallback" ships, which are appropriate to your level but slightly weaker than the player-constructed versions. This allows you to keep playing and earn enough money to replace your lost ships--or, if you're a pirate, to go out and seize a better ship from an unwitting NPC.

Turn the page to learn more about Pirates of the Burning Sea.

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Shack: Is the ship crew NPC-based, or manned by players--or perhaps a blend?

Kevin Maginn: Everyone in the game plays a ship captain. Your crew is abstracted in the sense that your commands to the game are orders that your crew carries out. So when you press W, you're giving the "raise sails" order, and your crew is assumed to be carrying those orders out.

Shack: Do you hire crew members, or are they provided for you?

Kevin Maginn: Crew is not explicitly hired. We've got a fairly intricate system for managing crew and officers, but it won't be in the game at release.

Shack: Is it possible to band together with other ships for large scale battles?

Kevin Maginn: Absolutely. Our final port contention battles, where players fight to see which nation will take control of a port, are intended to be at least 25 versus 25. As we continue to do more performance optimization, we expect that number to keep rising.

Shack: Does the game feature any "landlubber" segments, or are players aboard their ship the entire time?

Kevin Maginn: We've got extensive land-based gameplay. Raiding ancient ruins, attacking fortresses, sacking towns, and so forth all make an appearance. Swashbuckling is a core component of our game.

Shack: What all can I do while on land in addition to raids and sacks?

Kevin Maginn: In addition to our swashbuckling combat systems, our towns are detailed and full of color and life. As you walk down a street, you'll see a group of sea dogs gambling, a pair of beggars fiddling for a few coins, a pair of naval officers dueling to settle their differencesÂ… Our environments are very detailed and provide a complex backdrop for whatever age of sail role-playing or socializing you want to engage in.

Shack: Can you give an example of a mission?

Kevin Maginn: In one mission, you're tasked to go into the jungle and recover an ancient idol from a Mayan ruin, and there's a nasty surprise waiting for you when you do. In another, you're negotiating a truce between the Admiralty and the Barbary Corsairs, and if you don't show proper respect to both sides they'll ignore your pleas. In yet a third mission, you have to rescue a fellow pirate from execution, and then fight your way out of the town square.

Shack: What are the benefits of completing missions?

Kevin Maginn: Missions are the primary means of gaining experience, doubloons, and reputation.

Shack: What professions are available?

Kevin Maginn: There are four possible careers. Naval officers are focused on defense, escorting duties, and ship battles in which they stand and fight. Freetraders are focused on trading, production, and ship battles in which they can evade enemies or use their greater resources to win. Privateers are focused on unpredictability, boarding combat, and ship battles in which they can outwit and outmaneuver their enemies. Pirates have a smattering of the capabilities of every career, as well as many uniquely pirate-flavored abilities.

Shack: Can players undertake more than one profession?

Kevin Maginn: Only in the sense that as a naval officer, you can still participate in the economy; as a free trader, you can still engage in effective ship combat, and fight for your nation.

Shack: How does the game's economy work?

Kevin Maginn: It's hard to go into lots of detail; the economy is a large and complex beast. In brief, the economy is player-driven and production-based.

Player-driven means that the players create everything in the game. They harvest the logs, cut the planks and timbers, grow the hemp, weave the canvas, mine the iron and cast the cannons, and finally put it all together to build ships, outfitting, consumables, and everything else you can purchase in the game.

Production-based means that there's no grinding. Players aren't personally nailing each chair together, or sewing each shirt, so they can increase their skill and make bigger and more complex chairs. From the beginning, if you're involved in the economy, you're the owner of a trade empire. You build structures such as logging camps, forges, shipyards, and so forth, and those structures produce the goods you choose to manufacture.

Goods are traded in local markets, or moved to one of the eight major Regional Markets for sale to a wider customer base.

Shack: Trading is fun and all, but I'm a pirate at heart--I want to steal stuff! Can players conduct raids or anything of that sort?

Kevin Maginn: When you defeat a player in PvP, you can loot goods from his cargo hold. Additionally, pirates can capture ports in a way similar to other nations; ports they capture in this way are raided, and pirates from all over the Caribbean will flock to the raided port for their share of the booty.

Shack: What happens if a player is killed?

Kevin Maginn: In swashbuckling combat, your friends can revive you after the combat's over; otherwise, you wake up elsewhere in the zone, having lost consciousness in the meantime. The combat is meant to be cinematic and flamboyant, not gritty and realistic.

Shack: Would you mind describing a combat scenario for us?

Kevin Maginn: A ship combat begins in the Open Sea, which is an environment that includes the entire Caribbean at an abstracted scale. You target your opponent and intercept him; you have to be fairly close to initiate a battle. Once you've done so, you and your opponent (and your groups, if you're in groups and they're nearby) are pulled into a battle instance. This is a full scale environment that reflects the nearby terrain--scattered islands, coastlines, bays, coves, trackless sea, and so forth. Your position and your opponent's position are determined by where you were when you attacked on the Open Sea; maneuvering before the battle is joined is important, if you're going to have advantageous wind conditions.

Combat is a matter of maneuver, position, speed and cannon fire. Ships are more vulnerable to damage from the bow and stern, and can only fire effectively from their port and starboard sides. A small, agile ship can keep out of the firing arcs of a slower, larger enemy, and pour cannon-fire into him. That larger ship's guns are heavier and more powerful, though, and if the small ship finds himself pinned down by wind or terrain under the guns of the larger ship, he's likely to be sunk.

As you fire at your target, you inflict damage on one of his four armor facings--port, starboard, bow, or stern. A smart opponent will turn a more damaged side away from you, hoping to be able to repair it somewhat while you whittle down his other side. Once you've destroyed his armor, your shots inflict damage directly on his structure--and losing structure is potentially a killing blow. When your structure runs out, your ship sinks, and you go down with it.

A smart pirate, though, will refrain from sinking his target, because the rewards are much greater if you can grapple him, send your boarding parties over, and butcher the enemy crew in hand-to-hand. Boarding combat is a swashbuckling encounter in which you and your crew square off against the enemy captain and his crew. It's fast-paced and dangerous, but if you win you receive not only additional loot, but the opportunity to seize the ship as a prize ship--or, if you're a pirate, as your own new flagship.

Shack: Thanks for your time. Anything else you'd like to add?

Kevin Maginn: We're going to be ramping up our beta program significantly, and we're releasing a new build of the game in the near future that will contain major new features and a lot of amazing content. I'd encourage everyone who reads this to go sign up for the beta program, because the game has gotten a hundred times more awesome over the past month. You can do that by visiting our site at www.burningsea.com.

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