There were more people crowded around the Pirates of the Burning Sea (PotBS) station both in SoE's appointment hotel area and the station in Barker Hanger than any of their other games. That being that case, I stood back and spent some quality time with Jess Lebow, Content Director & CEO Russ Williams rather than get some hands-on play with five other people breathing down my neck. We talked of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings. I am not being cryptic, but that describes of how our conversation jumped around, topics segueing to others sometimes, and sometimes jumping around as the demo on the screen changed.
Pirates of the Burning Sea looked fine. The developers were especially proud to show how well the UI had been tweaked and polished. The graphical wind direction representation on screen as well as the sectional circle around the ship allows the player to take in all of the information he needs right there in the middle of the screen.
"See the neat piratical flavor we've injected into the UI?" Russ pointed out the skull and crossbones X exit icon in the right corner of the UI windows.
"We're in a refinement period," said Jess. "We are content complete to level 50 and levels 1 - 15 are being refined and polished as we speak. Art for the 80+ towns are complete and so are the 65 ship models." Itemization is also being fleshed out, I am told. As an example, in one quest, the player is sent to kill a crime lord. One of the items obtained is his signet ring which will give you access to parts of his realm that you may not have known of before. There's the sealing wax.
PotBS has always impressed me with their focus on story-telling, on the role-playing and historical arc, but now, they were adding the supernatural. "Sailors are a superstitious lot," said Jess. So they are, I had to admit and as he continued, I also had to admit that I liked the way they were doing it. "There are rumors of a voodoo cult, and an old story of the ghost ship and crew. You may decide to investigate it." How neat! So it's s quest then. "Yes," Jess responded. "There is an area there sailors tend to avoid. Off the islands of Bermuda. You might know of it as the Bermuda Triangle. Intrepid sailors might find something supernatural going on there." To keep the supernatural element out of the historical context, all equipment earned on supernatural quests will only be usable against supernatural elements.
"It's a story we are telling, there will not be very many repeatable quests." How about the personal story arc? I asked about the story arc that would add background players and open up personal quest lines. That had always been of great interest to me. "It's being reiterated now. Oh, by the way, peg legs and hooks have to be earned again," Jess told me. We come around full circle then, as that was the decision in the time before player avatars. "Otherwise, customization can be done in tailor shops. There, you can change your clothing and have your hair styled if you wish." There are the shoes of our conversation. Since the personal story arc was in reiteration and not finalized, we talked more about the quest system. "Deep content is more difficult and time consuming to program," Jess said, telling me of how their quest design teams are tasked. "We call them 'capstone' missions. Quests that cap the story arc. They are the 'oh-my-God' quests. Bigger, more involving and the highlight of the story arc." I was also informed that some missions had difficulty sliders and that would yield rewards appropriate to that.
"We've gone away from cut scenes," Russ Williams had joined the conversation, stepping back to let about four jostling people get at the controls and try the game. "You get to participate now."
Williams went on to explain that they had AI now that made it feel like a private vision - like a single player game. "There's this one quest where a lynch mob forms. As you move along, more and more people will join up with you." They both grinned at each other, waving their hands enthusiastically as they described it. "You should see it! It's great! And a little scary." Yeah, tease me some more, boys.
Speaking of lynch mobs, I asked about the avatar combat that was developed with the help of The Acadamia della Spada (link: http://www.academiadellaspada.com/ ). "We have three different sword schools," Russ elaborated. "Cutless - which involves dirty fighting - there's move that involve grabbing dirt and throwing it at your opponent's face; we have Florentine in which you use two weapons and [gain] excellent defense, and Fencing, which is highly stylistic." Avatar combat uses a "balance" system where you want to get your opponent off-balance, and hence, off-guard. The more centered and balanced you are, the higher your defense and offense skill. Now, this I would have liked to get some hands-on time with, but my time was short, and we moved on.
"The boarding combat is being refined right now," Jess told me as Russ talked about the strategy involved. "Board too early and you risk being over-run yourself. It's not easy controlling your ship and resources while participating in avatar combat." He highlighted the point with a demonstration on screen.
By level 50, you will earn 25 ship skills and 25 avatar skills. Each nation has over 1,000 missions and they were talking about the big ones, not the little "take a note to the harbor master and introduce yourself" type. We talked about the cabbages - er... the economy. As in their original design, the economy remains totally player driven, and is an integral part of the game play. "PvP is created in game by players creating unrest. That can be created by players dumping goods and driving prices down for example, while depriving the port of other key goods and driving those prices up. Once there is unrest, the zone becomes PvP and will be shown as such on the map." So, cabbages and kings are directly related. Players can also turn on their PvP flag for freelance battle on the high seas if they wish.
There we have it. Shoes and ships and sealing wax, cabbages and kings. For a while there, Pirates of the Burning Sea seemed to have been becalmed. Numerous delays, some problems with middle-ware vendors, some with no explanations other then re-think and re-work (such as avatar combat & ship boarding), had led to speculations and mutinous whispers of "vaporware" among their fans. However all that vanished with their announcement of a partnership with Sony Online Entertainment as their publisher (although the mutinous whispers changed in tone because of SoE) and their subsequent showing of PotBS at SoE's Gamers Day.
With Sony Online Entertainment publishing Pirates of the Burning Sea, it means that all Flying Labs Software has to do is concentrate on the game, and it shows. An additional three months of polish and SoE's current position of producing polished game launches - as shown by one year expansion releases for both EQ & EQII - promises a near flawless launch in the fall of 2007. Break the champagne on the bow, boys, let her sail.