Ten Ton Hammer: Avatar combat: what are you planning to revamp, exactly? Is it animations, stats, abilities?
Williams: Yes. (laughter) So here are the things we found to be a problem with avatar combat. One is that the players often felt disconnected from the skills; skills are a little too subtle so players didn't get a sense of the interplay. So new players thought it was just a matter of button-mashing. The problem becomes, ok it's button mashing, and then one day they go out and meet someone that knows what they're doing in a PvP boarding action and they get their ass kicked. I guess we could say, 'HaHA, it is not button-mashing,' but it's obviously a lose condition for us because what we should be doing is showing them and training them as to how combat works so you can learn how to do combat more organically as you level up.
A second thing that we're changing is that the animations used to look really terrible all of the time. We were surprised by this, but we had a limited amount of time to fix just core gameplay and we just had to go. The animations, at times, looked really good, so we were trying to figure out what it was. As it turned out, it's really two things. One: the animations were a little bit too affected by latency. So the timing of them - since they were a little bit longer in duration - if you had bad latency, you'd get the animations to stack up on each other and override and that would be a real problem. Two: we just hired a new systems guy and we asked him to take a look at this. It turns out that we didn't have animation blending turned on. I was skeptical when he told me this, but yea, apparently its like MSG, it just makes everything better. He fixed it in a week. It's one of those things that makes you want to put a bullet in your head. (laughter) Why couldn't we have found that before? Its a classic example of things that get lost in the launch shuffle.
Another thing we're doing is changing how the balance system works. Balance is how you defend yourself, and currently it goes up and down depending on what you do and what your enemy does. And it has such a strong multiplier (because we try to even out the differences between the levels) that we couldn't really tune for it. It was just too wild a swing. So about 20% of the time combat felt perfect, and the other 80% of the time it felt way too long (I'm hitting this guy time after time and nothing interesting is happening) or way too short (I'm mowing through these guys like the wrath of God - why am I even playing?). We've changed how balance works so now it's like ship armor, it starts high and goes down. You can do buffs to boost it back up, but ultimately it's on its way down. That makes things much more predictable when we try to tune combat, and combat feels just about right a majority of the time, and that with a very different mixture of people.
We're also making the skills have more visual effects and more pronounced effects. Sorry, I forgot to throw that one in there.
The great thing about this is that we haven't had to touch any of our avatar combat missions except to fix the broken ones. The problem is that since we did the avatar combat very late in development, we sort-of built it thinking its a WoW-type combat system and built the encounters using the same sort of path lines. Then we built a completely different combat system and the missions just don't feel right. They're not very interesting, they're a little bit too similar, and so on. We've been wanting to go back and re-do them. For example, with our ship missions, we don't do any more templated ship missions. The templated missions were there to give us a breath, and now we're going back to do missions all by hand, each is a custom encounter. So they feel much more varied. With avatar combat we haven't been able to do that because we knew this major revision was coming. So now that it's out, we can go back and start adding a lot more variety, a lot more fine-tuning, and start giving you a much richer combat experience.
Ten Ton Hammer: What's the status of the Pirates of the Burning Sea storyline now that writer Jess Lebow has moved on?
Williams: We were sad to see Jess go, and he's actually down with Carbine Studios. I'm not sure how much I can say about that because I'm not sure how public they want to be. Our new Creative Director is Chris Pramus, and he actually runs a pen and paper outside of Flying Lab called Green Ronin. So Chris is pretty cool; he's actually done a supplement called Freeport - it's pirates in a fantasy setting. He's been writing about pirates for a number of years and is a really smart guy.
As far as storyline goes, we've actually been sitting back and saying, 'OK, now that we've built what we've built, where do we want to go with it?' When we first started this, my big thing was that I didn't want to have the empty Hollywood blockbuster storyline that everyone does. 'It's me, I'm saving the world again.' It just gets so dull to me. I really wanted to be a little bit more thoughtful, a little bit more offbeat. And I think I created a monster a little bit because what we've got is a tremendous amount of thoughtful offbeat and no summer blockbusters. We're actually going back in and putting some of those bigger storylines in. I do enjoy going to see The Dark Knight and Ironman, I just wanted more of a mixture. It's sort of an interesting line that we walk, and I think we're doing a much better job of nailing it right now.
It's hard, by the way, to see what you're actually building as you're building it. You're playing it every day, but it's almost like you've gotta ship it and sit back about three months and say, 'So what was that we did, anyway?' Let me give myself some abstractness through the passage of time to sort of look at it with clear eyes and without saying, 'I have to do this... I have to do this.'
Ten Ton Hammer: So, with all of this within reach finally, do you feel like you're ready to start actively campaigning for new players again?
Williams: Yea, actually. We've been waiting for 1.7 with the tutorials. We basically targeted 1.7 as the build that we get it together, and it actually turned out to be 1.5. But 1.7 - we've started doing free trials and more marketing. We haven't done any marketing since launch. The way that SOE approaches the launch marketing is that they sort-of market it as a single-player game - it's all about moving those boxes. So they do a very concentrated marketing approach for a very small window of time.
We're going into a more constant, pervasive marketing mode, which I think is what we need. The thing about Pirates of the Burning Sea is, it's a very different game. There's a lot of people out there that haven't tried it but are going to love it. And it needs to find those people. But those people are also often burned by getting a game that's really not to their liking. So I think with the free trials, we let people very casually try it out and see for themselves, and we think that people are really going to enjoy it. So we'll just keep doing that until the end of time.
Ten Ton Hammer: Has the game continued to grow despite the lack of marketing?
Williams: We have ebbs and tides as other games are released, but our numbers have been growing. We don't like to give timeframes, but this is why we say that 1.5 was a good release for us.
Ten Ton Hammer: So we shouldn't all become conspiracy theorists and think that the free trials are a bad sign?
Talk Like a Pirate Day (Sept. 17th):
Williams: The conspiracy theorists - it's hard to address them or please them. But we don't have layoffs, we're producing a major patch every month, neither are we particularly strident in advertising. We basically decided not to do advertising until 1.5. If we were concerned, we would have started doing advertising sooner regardless. But we feel like we have a great product, and we have the polish level that we need now, so its time to start getting the word out there. We want our marketing dollars to do the best they can for us.
We're also a very different company than a lot of the ones out there. Part of our weakness is that we did Pirates of the Burning Sea on a very reasonable budget. Part of our strength is that we did this on a very reasonable budget. We're not laboring under gigantic amounts of debt, and we're hiring right now. We could really use two new devs and I'd like to get three if we found a really good person. The other thing is we have other projects in the works. We have a casual flash game, though I can't say anything about that yet.
Basically, we're here for the long haul.
Our thanks to Rusty Williams, CEO of Flying Labs Entertainment, for taking time from a busy events schedule to talk with us.
To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Pirates of the Burning Sea Game Page.