2008 has been a wild year for the MMO industry, seeing three highly-anticipated and competitive MMO releases meet with varying degrees success (Pirates of the Burning Sea, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, Age of Conan), huge changes for old mainstays (particularly EQ/EQII) and the fall of one game that released with such high expectations after just one year (NCSoft's Tabula Rasa) citing a "failure to meet performance expectations."
Of the three big 2008 releases, two of them were well received in their first few months and then came under bombardment from what seemed like non-stop bad feedback, negative word-of-mouth advertising reverberating down the Internet tubes in every major online gaming community. Indeed, in some circles it's difficult for people to say the words "Funcom" or "Age of Conan" with a straight face and there are still people who seem not to have even heard of PotBS! The third of them, Mythic's WAR, only released in September but, while it's still too early to tell, there have already been signs of disappointment among those who had hoped for the rise of a "WoW-Killer".
But while everyone can't have the success of a World of Warcraft, and no company publishes their "performance expectations," if one year is the point at which an MMO game company throws in the towel then it must be that Pirates of the Burning Sea, which went live January 22, 2008, has at least met Flying Lab Software's first year expectations. But what about player expectations? In developer logs and forum posts leading up to release, the FLS devs hinted at some great elements they expected to implement within the first half of 2008. They promised a Skirmish system and Port Governance, for example. Unfortunately, a number of unexpected issues have gotten in the way of such additions since then - nearly all of which can be filed under the "Unintended Consequences" category. By my definition, Unintended Consequences are the things that happen as a result of a development decision that were not necessarily supposed to happen. One example would be Unrest Bombing, where a port could be taken from zero unrest to 10,000 unrest instantly, giving the port's owning nation no opportunity to resist or defend against the port flip. Of course, while we all love pretty red PvP Zones on the Open Sea, this 'tactic' was outside of the intended spirit of the Unrest mechanic and needed to be changed immediately; and that's only one example.
In any PvP game, particularly games where there is a risk of losing the time and effort you've put into your virtual equipment when you lose a fight, balance is always a very important and delicate thing and PotBS has been no exception. In the early Milestone patches, were several big changes to game balance from ship stats to the functionality of Captain and Swashbuckling skills and modifications. The first such change came in the very first Post-Release patch (184.108.40.206), in fact. Without getting too deep into how the old AvCom system worked, it used to be that if your balance was high, you couldn't be hit. When combined with items to boost your Block score, a high +Balance rating would make players impervious to damage in AvCom so in the first live patch the following change was made:
"Whenever you block an attack, you now lose 4 Balance points. This has no real effect on combat, but it does resolve an exploit where you could stack Block and Balance buffs and actually become invulnerable. This slight Balance penalty is enough to resolve that exploit."
-220.127.116.11 Patch Notes
This seemingly minor change would be but the first in a long series of much larger changes to the overall balance of this mostly PvP-focused MMO.
The 18.104.22.168 ?patch carried with it not only changes to the characteristis of many popular PvP ships and outfittings, but also a rebalancing of Captain skills for all four of the existing classes (Buccaneers did not exist yet) and a lot of the Swashbuckling skills. Some people went as far as to say they had to literally re-learn the entire game with this patch, such was the extent of the changes FLS had made to their game. Indeed, around this time Pirates of the Burning Sea began suffering from the effects of a mass exodus of players who were frustrated with the progress (or lack of progress) of numerous aspects of the game, such as the still-missing Skirmish and Port Governance systems. For many of these players, some of whom had been playing since the BETA phase of PotBS, having to completely re-learn the game was the last straw. Not only did this exodus hurt in-game systems that were largely reliant on having a healthy server population, it also hurt FLS by creating a flood of negative word-of-mouth only months after its release.
This caused a slowdown in the number of new subscribers and killed what was left of any remaining "new game buzz", so that instead of slowly but steadily gaining new players, Pirates of the Burning Sea was steadily losing players! Of course, that led to more negative word-of-mouth and the problem seemed to snowball out of control until the court of public opinion proclaimed Flying Lab Software's first MMO attempt dead. The April server merges did nothing to help this perception. Two weeks later, in a move that many viewed as "too little, too late," FLS announced the Milestone 3 patch (22.214.171.124). In Milestone 3, FLS made several further balance changes to ship/item stats and character skills but the showcase item was the addition of the Duelling mechanic, billed as the first instalment of the larger Skirmish System still in development. This had the effect of slowing down the haemorrhage of accounts, but it was only a partial solution to the numerous issues plaguing PotBS' early months.
And then, in Milestone 4, they turned the game on its ear (again) with the introduction of a second Pirate class: the Buccaneer. Of course the addition of another player class meant completely rebalancing all of the other classes, which meant re-learning the game yet again, and still there was little to no word on when Port Governance would be delivered, nor was there any indication to when the rest of the Skirmish system would be ready. Instead, changes were being made to the way group PvP on the Open Sea was handled that created what came to be known as the "SuperGank" in Milestone 7. Cue frustration and /ragequits, round two!
Yet, while all of these changes (and more!) were being made, the folks at Flying Lab Software were also processing the flood of information they were receiving from new Milestone Surveys as well as new Exit Surveys taken from people who had decided to cancel their subscriptions. This new data was apparently providing a much clearer picture of what existing features were causing the most frustration to the most players. So, naturally wanting to make the changes that would keep existing players happy (after all, if you can't retain them, getting more players won't help), the addition of new systems like Port Governance have continually been pushed back in favor of changes, fixes and outright overhauls of existing systems intended to create a more enjoyable, fun game experience for those who decide to take a shot at Pirates of the Burning Sea. The biggest such change is the AvCom Revamp that went live December 30, 2008 in Milestone 11 (patch 126.96.36.199), in which the entire avatar combat system was rebuilt from the ground up.
Some players feel that this isn't the direction the FLS team should be moving (gamers are a passionate lot when it comes to our hobby, after all), preferring that the developers work on the in-game economy or delivering the long-awaited Port Governance or Skirmish systems instead. But it's clear that the game currently has the highest player population since April's server merges. This is most readily apparent on the two most active servers (Antigua and Blackbeard). Milestone 11 marks a turning point in the development of Pirates of the Burning Sea, coming at the end of a three month period of major changes for FLS including moving to a new, larger office space and the hiring of additional artists and developers to work on both PotBS and a mysterious new project. When asked about the prioritization of projects and the future of the game, FLS CEO Russell "Rusty" Williams alluded to three years' worth of projects on the to-do list and hinted that the implementation of a complete Skirmish System might be ready within the first half of 2009 now that the era of major system revamps is at an end!
Some gamers will argue that we've heard such promises from Flying Lab befre, and in fairness that is certainly true. However, given all of the changes that have taken place to bring Pirates of the Burning Sea where it is today, I think the outlook for 2009 is very bright indeed; it's shaping up to be a very happy new year for PotBS and all of its players!