During our meeting at PAX with Flying Labs, we spoke with Associate Producer, Janice Vonitter and Game Designer, Greg Hanefeld about Pirates of the Burning Sea: Power and Prestige.
During our meeting at PAX with Flying Labs, we spoke with Associate Producer, Janice Vonitter and Game Designer, Greg Hanefeld about their rum drinking ... and Pirates of the Burning Sea. The first expansion is tentatively called "Power and Prestige" and although it currently has no set release date, we've been told that it will definitely be released in 2010. Check out all the details in to Power and Prestige which was been nominated for one of our PAX awards.
ZAM: We understand that there's a new expansion that you guys are talking about at PAX. Can you tell us the name and some basic information?
Janice Vonitter: Yep, it's called "Power and Prestige." It's centered on influence and control over the Caribbean, and parts in it. The main feature in it is the player governed ports. So you can run to be a governor of the port, and if you get a bunch of people to support you, and they put you up for Governor, you can be elected. Once you are governor, you can do a lot of things that actually affect how the port performs, economically and defensively against other players when they try to take it over.
ZAM: What are some of the lesser features of this expansion?
Greg Hanefeld: We have a lot of these factions, NPCs, where there aren't a lot of rewards for. So we're going to create a ton of new rewards and new content for people who are really well liked by a faction. So if the British East India company are your best buddies, they're going to have some sweet swag for you, and they're going to have a bunch of special missions, only for you. It's going to add a whole new level of depth to the game, sort of a "gotta catch 'em all."
Janice: Another thing that we're putting in is that there's a brawling skill line right now, but we're going to make that a full skill tree, so you can specialize to be a brawler. Right now we have three sword schools; Fencing, Florentine and Dirty Fighting. We'll be adding brawling to it.
ZAM: What will players be expecting with character progression in this expansion?
Janice: We're not raising the level cap, if that's what you're asking.
Greg: We kind of decided a little while ago that adding more and more levels of character progression, not necessarily raising the level cap, but just increasing the character progression doesn't offer as many interesting options as broadening the spectrum. Giving players more game systems to play with is a more interesting way of offering that kind of new progression. That's kind of one of the ideas we had with port governance.
Janice: And one of the interesting things about port governance is that it adds an entire new level of social gameplay, because it's all about getting to know the people in the game and knowing who you like and who you don't like, and who you should support and who you shouldn't support.
Greg: I mean, its politics, really. We're throwing this whole new metagame on top of the existing game mechanics, so it should be pretty cool.
Janice: But it has actual impact on the world, so each server is going to be different, each region of the game is going to be different based on the politics that are happening there.
ZAM: Is this going to be a retail expansion pack?
Janice: It's free with a subscription, so it's a free expansion.
ZAM: So if players get a new copy of the game and the expansion will be included?
Janice: Yep. We really wanted all of our current players to get the benefits of the expansion.
Greg: And it's not something that we wanted to segregate off. A lot of other games, when they do an expansion, it's like, "here's the old stuff, and here's the new stuff, you can't have the new stuff," and it's no fun. We want everybody to have the new stuff.
ZAM: So players aren't going to jump to the new content, they'll still have to go through the old content?
Janice: Yep, exactly.
ZAM: What are you doing to enhance the old content, and keep that fresh?
Greg: Actually, it's funny that you should mention that. One of the things that we really want to spend a lot of time on is to smooth out all of our levelling content. We have a ton of content in our game, thousands and thousands of missions, and not all of it is set up to be a guiding hand as the players level up. We want to go back and re-tune that stuff and place it in a specific way so that it's more intuitive - better for players, better experience.
Janice: It's also worth mentioning that, since we've launched, we've had 18 patches, all of which have had new content, new features, fixes to old stuff. Our release notes, since launch, are like 150 pages long. We've been adding new stuff all along, it's hardly even the same game as when it launched.
ZAM: How long ago was that?
Janice: About a year and a half. But since then, we've done three epic missions, which are high level group missions that are really hard and really awesome.
Greg: They're kind of like the raids of our game.
Janice: We've done three of those, and we've done a bunch of new systems; buy orders, ship storage, and a huge overhaul of all of the UI.
Greg: I think we are happier with the game now than we have ever been.
Janice: On one hand, I wish we could launch now, with what we have now, but on the other hand, the last year and a half of growth has been so amazing. We've gotten so much good feedback from our players about what they like and what they don't like.
Greg: That's kind of why we've chosen now to work on expansions. We're really happy with the state of the game; we've been working at this breakneck pace for the past 18 months - patch patch patch patch! And now it's time to just take a step back and really spend time on this big chunk of the expansion.
ZAM: How long have you been working on this expansion?
Greg: We're starting work on it now, basically. It's not conceptual, though. A lot of it has been in the works for a long time. Like, the port governance feature is something that we've wanted to do since before we launched the game, but it just didn't fall in the right timeline for other features that we wanted to push through, and things like that. So now's the time where we're going to just put all of our resources behind it.
Janice: We actually just finished a six month long content push as well. That just ended, so now it's the most obvious time for us to start.
ZAM: Pirates of the Burning Sea has always been extremely story driven. How is the story involved in this expansion?
Greg: That's actually one of the things Janice just talked about. For the last six months, we've been doing a big game-wide storyline called "Black Flags and Dread Saints." It's about Bartholomew Roberts - "Black Bart." He's one of the most notorious pirates that ever lived. He was badder than Blackbeard. He captured more ships, he killed more men, and he looted more treasure. He is THE pirate. So we've created this big storyline where he's trying to take over the Caribbean and sort of depose the leaders of the pirate nation and make it his own. Of course, it's the player's job to stem the tide of pirates streaming in.
Janice: That was six months of content coming out each month, it was episodic.
ZAM: How does that translate into the expansion and how does that control the storyline of the expansion?
Janice: A lot of the new content for the expansion will be based around the player governed ports and the factions.
ZAM: They'll expand on it?
Janice: Yes, and there will be missions involved in that, and all sorts of content will be inbred into the system. It's a very cohesive package of storyline features.
ZAM: You're starting work on the expansion now? Any idea about a release date?
Janice: There's been some work on a lot of it already, but next year - we don't really have a date set.
ZAM: Sometime in 2010?
Janice: Yep, definitely in 2010.
ZAM: Curious, how are you going to test it? Are you going to do it on a test server?
Janice: Yeah, we have a special test server for it - it's not up yet, but it will be.
Greg: Yeah, it's definitely going to be something that the player base will have a lot of warning about. We really want to get their feedback because it's such a game changing feature. We want to get it out there, let them take a look at it, let them test it, play around with it.
Janice: We actually have our live game, we have a test server for the live game, and we'll have a separate test server for the expansion.
ZAM: Will you be upgrading some of the graphics?
Janice: Actually, we're doing huge amounts of optimization, primarily. We're making it a lot smoother, and a lot less graphics intensive.
ZAM: Will the game look different, or just perform better?
Janice: No, it's just going to perform better. We might be doing some other improvements. Right now we're improving a lot of our towns, like the environments for them, so players will see some new towns in the game and some other stuff like that. I don't know exactly which ones yet though.
ZAM: If somebody wants to run for Governor, how do they get started?
Greg: Every time a player generates experience in the game, they also generate influence, and influence is sort of the currency of the port governor system. Whenever you generate influence, your society (guilds in our game), every person in this society is generating influence for this big pool.
Janice: As they progress up in their regular levels.
Greg: So the society has this big weight of influence on it, and it can pledge it to a person. And this person then goes and puts a bid on a port, and says, "I want to start an election, I want to be governor of this port." And then the bidding is sort of open. Anybody can bid and potentially become governor. They outbid each other.
ZAM: So this is going to be something that will continue to change hands on a day to day, or a week to week, or a month to month basis? Or will there be some kind of limitation?
Greg: Yeah, there will be some limitations. When a governor is elected, there will be a dead period where no more elections can happen for a week or two, and then it's up again. So if you don't like the governor, you gotta kick him out of office.
ZAM: What sort of things can a governor do to customize his society?
Greg: Some of the biggest stuff is really on the economic side of things, because we have this massive player driven economy. He'll be able to adjust the tax rates for the town, independently, for each nation. So he can say, "Hey, you guys should come make goods in my port, because I'll keep the tax rate low." And money from the tax goes into the treasury to help pay for other goods, so there's some balance there. He can adjust the infra-structure to make it easier for players to produce goods there, like reduce the cost it takes to produce those goods. He can also adjust the port defences so that, when other players attack the port, it might be easier or harder for them, depending on how he spends his money. He can also take a salary out of the treasury, a little embezzlement.
Janice: You can put your society's name or your name under the port name, so that everybody in the game knows that it's your town. You also get a governor title in front of your character name.
ZAM: So there's going to be an elitist group of people keeping someone in power?
Janice: And they get special clothes and everything!
ZAM: Can you give us some examples of a governor making good decisions and really making the port awesome, or a governor making bad decisions to become popular, like "no taxes!" I mean, what are some of the positive outcomes and negative outcomes based on some of the decisions a governor can make.
Greg: Oh man, that's like a rabbit hole. It really depends. It's sort of like Sim City. You want to lower the taxes to get people to move into your port, so you can slowly raise taxes to make the money back from it. That would be the ideal way; lower the taxes to entice people to come in, and then hike it up so that we can rake some more money in for some more upgrades. Another guy could just get really mad at other people in his nation and say, "screw you guys! I'm going to make the tax rate really high! You guys won't be able to produce in this port; you'll have to go somewhere else!"
Janice: Or he could lower the defences of the port so that they'll be really susceptible to being taken over. Like a jerk!
Greg: We really like those player-centric features, and this is such a great example.
ZAM: What kind of anti-griefing plans do you have to prevent someone who's super rich from coming into power and screwing ports up left and right?
Greg: Well, everything has a cooldown on it. You can't just do everything at the same time. You can only change the taxes once every couple days, or once a week.
Janice: And changing all of it costs money.
Greg: So he might have enough money to do all of those at once, or he'll only be able to do so much damage before they go, "hey wait a second! This guy's crazy!" And they can hold another election to kick him out.
ZAM: Right, but if he/she has enough money, and enough friends, and enough mules to keep himself in power...
Janice: He would need to have a LOT of friends who are all levelling up a lot and getting a lot of influence.
ZAM: So even for the best guild, the best players, it's still going to be hard? If players don't want him in power, will they be able to have that voice?
Greg: One of the things that is sort of built into the system, in order to safe keep that, is because influence is generated by experience (levelling up), the people who are at the level cap - you know, those big powerful players who have lots of money - they don't have lots of influence because they're not levelling up anymore.
Janice: Well, they don't generate a lot of influence.
Greg: Yeah, they might have some influence, but they're not going to have nearly as much as newer players, who are just going to be fountains and fountains of influence. So they might have the money, but they don't have the power. The power is sort of decentralized.
Janice: It gives societies a really good reason to recruit new players, because they need them to generate more influence, to put governors in powers. So if there's one guild with one guy who's griefing, that's one port. It's pretty foolproof but that sort of thing happens in MMOs.
ZAM: Where do you guys think you'll go next? I mean, this is the first big expansion so far. Do you have anything else planned?
Janice: We're definitely planning for the long term right now. We have this expansion planned out, and the one after that is pretty well thought out, and a couple more after that are sketches. We've got some long-term plans.
ZAM: So you've got the game where you want it to be right now, and you're ready to expand on it.
ZAM: Sounds great. Thank you so much for your time!
Andrew "Tamat" Beegle