Posted Wed, Feb 25, 2009 by RadarX
For centuries the romantic tales of pirates and their adventures have enthralled and entertained the hearts and minds of millions all over the world. While fiction and fact may be polar opposites, that hasn't prevented people from continuing the tradition. We've moved on from mere books, to movies and even videogames. Almost everyone playing PC games in the 1980s played Sid Meier's Pirates!, a game that catapulted Sid Meier to fame and set the tone for every pirate themed game in the future. Why don't we see more MMO games with pirate themes? Are there certain advantages or disadvantages and what have we learned from the games already released?
Pirates of the Burning Sea Looks the Best So Far
Flying Lab’s Pirates of the Burning Sea is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a pirate MMO game. Developed by Flying Labs and released in early 2008, the game was the first AAA initiative in the gaming world. The areas were beautiful and reflected the early Carribean world perfectly. Ship to ship combat was engaging, dynamic, and most importantly fun after a brief learning curve. Missions had a pretty clear line of progression and increased at the appropriate time when the player was at an appropriate skill level.
But there were some shortcomings with this title. The first was the "land" portion of the game. While piracy is largely about sailing the beautiful blue sea, moving in open featureless areas can get a little boring. Putting random encounters in various places can help, but even this becomes repetitive. The only alternative is to add content to islands either in forts, caves, beaches, or native tribes. That said, they have made an incredible number of enhancements since launch.
While I still assert that PvP must be consensual in a game heavily-focused on PvE, Suzhou Snail Electronic’s Bounty Bay Online avoided this altogether by making the game primarily PvP. I can’t say that I’ve personally played it, but from everything available on their website it appears everyone is a pirate. Sure, you can be a merchant or explorer but these are just hobbies when you aren't plundering someone’s ship. They also avoid the class issue by making advancement mainly skill based so anyone can do anything they want. It’s probably to late to have mass appeal here in the West, but the system they have certainly works.
These challenges have not kept other companies from trying to build pirate themed MMO games. IGG's Tales of Pirates bring players into a light hearted world where you spend as much time on land as sailing the sea. Combat is more intricate and item progression is more varied, although it is free to play game. The only sacrifice Tales to Pirates makes is the depth and strategy is more through a complex RPG system and less action based.
So why haven't we seen more pirate themed games? Development issues like these make them more difficult to design but far from impossible. Can mass appeal be reached on a level like World of Warcraft or EVE Online? Even mediocre success would lend credibility to the future possibilities but with only a few companies taking the risk it hasn't even been properly explored.
One obstacle is the popularity of pirates in general. While they are a staple of any true geek, the genres isn’t as accepted as fantasy or science fiction. We may love Mutiny on the Bounty, but it's no Star Trek or Dragonlance. With the release of Disney's Pirates of the Carribean movies a few years ago, the timing was perfect for a mass of pirate MMOs, but without future movies or TV shows, there will be higher risk as time goes on. It's much safer for development companies to stick with the tried-and-true fantasy genre.
Tales of Pirates is Simpler and More Functional
Another significant problem that developers face is that of class choices. Many developers have tried to overcome this by making their games skilled based, but frequently this leaves players with less of an identity. In traditional MMORPGs, we speak of ourselves as rangers, healers, or bounty hunters, but in the pirate world swashbucklers, cutthroats, and buccaneers really aren't all that different. Without a variation in classes, can you have a wide assortment of gear? Sure your bandanna or hat might be different colors, but everyone carries flintlock pistols and a rapier. There are at least a dozen types of ships in the historical pirate world from the Barq to the Galleon but once you pick a type there isn't much you can do to distinguish it.
This unfortunately does not bode well for the future of pirate game development and the likelihood of similar products seem to be getting slimmer. With a closing window of opportunity and more profitable opportunities in other genres, it might be awhile before we see another good pirate themed MMO game. Is all hope lost? What do you think? Eh, what do I know? I'm just the Comic Book Guy.