We're three months in on a new year and positive changes seem to be coming more frequently for Pirates of the Burning Sea. Despite a dip in the active population as players pause to enjoy recent releases Empire: Total War and Darkfall, the Nation vs. Nation action continues largely unabated. Forum dramas unfold as one nation's societies make shady, backroom deals with another nation's societies in an effort to find every possible edge. Renegades and loose cannons continue to ignore the efforts of their virtual countrymen's video game politicking in favor of a more simplistic desire to visit electronic violence upon their enemies' internet sailboats.
Among the positive changes are a number of minor tweaks generally regarded as unimportant to the progress of the game, but which should help provide just a little extra polish - by polish, I mean that not-quite-tangible quality of wholeness that good, finished games have (and which on some levels PotBS has been conspicuously missing). But beyond the small, cosmetic fixes are changes of much greater impact: Population Incentives, the Economy Revamp and the implementation of the long-awaited Skirmish system which may have been accused of being vaporware almost as often than some other games have recently been.
FLS has given the players their first look at the new Skirmish system in the TestBed version of build 1.13. While there are still a number of quirks that need to be worked out, such as the behavior of the "guard ships" which have been put in place to discourage and prevent spawn camping in Skirmishes where respawning is enabled, it's much closer to completion than many expect it would be. Whether it's close enough to make it into the live build for Milestone 14 remains to be seen, though; Milestone 15 or 16 may be the safer bet. Nobody wants to see it delayed further than it needs to be, but you know what they say: "Good things come to those who wait!"
For many of us, the most interesting thing about Skirmish is that cross-nation communication isn't restricted inside of the Skirmish and that you can even team up with enemy players. It isn't very often that you see French ships of the line sailing in close formation with Pirate flagships without shooting at each other, but when Skirmish goes live we might see all of that and more on a regular basis!
The Economy Revamp continues, with new advanced structures for Freetraders and additional cargo capacity for many of the game's merchant vessels. So far, it seems to be having a positive (though necessarily temporary) effect on the price of items on the open market as the people who were participating in "market PvP" find that there is more product to compete against and lower their prices accordingly. However, if creating a situation where economic players had more product than they could conveniently transport was meant to encourage more use of the open market, it does not seem to have succeeded. The chief complaints from Freetraders regarding the new "streamlined" economy have been that Advanced Structures don't have the same extra oomph they used to (this is to be corrected in 1.14) and that having so much extra product with no extra hauling capacity has led to more inconvenience than anything else. If you suggest putting the excess on the Auction House for a profit, many of these industrial players look at you as though you had two heads!
Maybe the single most effective change FLS has made to date has been the addition of Population Incentives. With PotBS being included in SOE's StationPass package and now offered for purchase via Steam, it's difficult to determine which low level players are legitimate newbies and how many are alts or re-rolls because there are so many low-level characters without the Trial Account icon beneath their names.
What isn't difficult to determine is that the increased experience for low-population nations (Spain and France on all servers except Defiant, which benefits from the bonus for all four nations) has drawn the attention and the re-rolls of players who otherwise wouldn't have considered it. Some well-known players and in some cases entire societies on Roberts, Antigua and Blackbeard have switched sides for various reasons ranging from a desire for more challenging PvP to insurmountable disagreements with other members of their former nations. Regardless of individual variables, the doubled loot/experience has been cited by every one. And as a player who switched from Britain to Spain and made it from level 1 to level 50 in under 36 hours one weekend (yes, I DID sleep), I can see why!
The end result of all the transferring and re-rolling has been a more evenly distributed population on all of the servers with a much more competitive Nation vs. Nation landscape. On Antigua, Spain recently bagged a map victory in record time after falling to last place in France's victory last round. And that was after the same Antigua Spain had won three rounds back-to-back (before Population Incentives were added). On Blackbeard, a previously dominant Britain has become something of an underdog as the population shuffling catapulted Blackbeard Spain to their first map victory in forever and lifted Blackbeard France to a more competitive footing. When you've got four factions and only two of them are heavily loaded with the sort of cultural mass-appeal that PotBS's Britain and Pirate nations have, you may never find a "magic bullet" to solve all of your population imbalancing woes. Keeping that in mind, it looks like Flying Lab Software has found the next best thing by making it easier for PvP enthusiasts to get their characters in fighting shape after changing flags.