Since Monday's Virginia Tech shootings, my zest for playing video games and writing about them has been zapped. I fiddled with "Pokémon Pearl" a little more during my subway rides to and from work. I went to NYU to watch a student deliver a video game thesis project. But until Thursday (April 19), I'd stayed away from anything really involved.
Thursday morning, I started focusing on games again. A pair of game designers from Flying Lab Software stopped by the MTV offices to talk about their upcoming massively multiplayer online game, "Pirates of the Burning Sea." We met on the 20th floor in a conference room looking out to the Hudson River and New Jersey. Frankly, it was a relief to talk about things like peg legs.
The developers were showing me how players could customize their pirate's beard and hat. I wanted to know about peg legs. Players will get them or hooks to replace hands only by completing tough missions. "This is the only MMO where you have to earn your own disfigurements," Flying Lab CEO Russell Williams said.
Somehow we got through an hour-long demo without discussing eye patches, plank-walking or scurvy. Maybe I was still off my game, or maybe it was other distractions like a malfunctioning graphics card that made the laptop brought by the Flying Lab guys display the game at something less than its best.
Williams and team picked pirates as their subject matter about five years ago after dismissing some science-fiction ideas. "Everybody thought we were idiots," Williams said. "But elves and dwarves were pretty much saturated." These days, Johnny Depp has brought pirates back in vogue, and Flying Lab's timing suddenly seems impeccable.
They've set their MMO in the Caribbean, circa 1720. Players will be able to choose among four sides: English, British, Spanish or unaffiliated pirates. At one point, I asked if there had been any surprises from the players during the game's current one-year beta test. "My biggest surprise is how many people like to play as the French," Williams said. Whichever side they play, gamers will get their own boat to command out to sea and into broadside cannon battles against other players' ships. Conquering the enemy at sea can be done with a sinking or a boarding, the latter approach supporting multiple boardings of a single ship from a swarming fleet of vessels. Read the direction of the wind with a simple dial interface, use four keys on the computer keyboard to move the ship toward the other ship. Hit the space bar to let loose the cannonballs. Sail closer to come aboard. Woe to those who board in still-dangerous waters, though, because a boarding ship is an easy mark for someone else's cannons.
Better players will enable the purchase of better ships. During the beta, players have volunteered to make their own ships, submitting 90,000-polygon warships developed with Maya 3-D design tools to Flying Lab. Player-made ships are making it into the finished game. There's also a system for fighting with swords and pistols on land. There are towns to visit, supernatural oddities to explore, goods to trade and lovers to court. Which parts of the pirate checklist are missing? They're leaving sea monsters out until an expansion pack. And they're not letting other players join in to serve as a crew, a feature that has been shown in previews of Flying Lab's MMO rival, Disney Online's upcoming 2007 "Pirates of the Caribbean Online." Williams said his team felt that players would prefer to have their own ship.
The Caribbean of Flying Lab's "Pirates" is up for grabs by the four factions. Towns and harbors will be susceptible to economic unrest that then provokes — in what the developers estimate is about three days' time — full-scale combat. Players will be encouraged to vie against others until a winning faction for an unsettled port is determined. Total victory of the game's more than 80 ports in the Caribbean by a single faction will force a restart of the entire map. The developers are toying with the pacing of the seawide struggle. They're currently backing a six-week cycle between necessary reboots of all the ports.
The flickering, malfunctioning laptop we were forced to use for the demo prevented me from appreciating the beauty of the game, but the developers told me they're trying for something significantly more advanced-looking than current industry standards, which, of course, means "World of Warcraft." They're excited about more detailed faces and more nuanced animations.
The game had been slated for June. Now they're looking at September or October. Delays are a natural part of the process and not an altogether bad thing for MMOs that need to run well when the first rush of people interested in them jump online at the same time. Those interested in joining the beta can find out more information about it here.
I've never met a game developer who didn't light up at the mention of pirates. But aside from Sid Meier's old computer favorite "Pirates!" and the quirky "Puzzle Pirates," I've never heard of an acclaimed pirate game. Not having played Meier's game or the "Puzzle" one, my only pirate point of reference is a pirate level that appears late in the genre-mixing "Sly 3." I liked boarding rival pirate ships in that game as a thieving raccoon. But I couldn't have a peg leg or a hook hand in that game. I'm ready for a game that gives me that chance.