Kevin "Isildur" Maginn, Lead Designer for Pirates of the Burning Sea, has written a nonexclusive devlog explaining the original concept of ambush gameplay, or in other words, a gang of pirates sneaking up on a merchant vessel on the high sea. In the devlog he describes how the original design concept failed in practice, degenerating into what can more accurately be described ganking, and their current efforts to reduce the occurrence of ganking.
Rusty asked me what we think about ganking. Ganking has a long and difficult history within our design and development process, so it’s a hard question to answer with a simple ‘we hate it’ or ‘we love it.’
The term I’ve preferred to use is ‘ambush gameplay’, which sounds nicer and has different implications for the user experience. In the earliest days of the Pirates design, one of the scenarios we envisioned and tried to support was the lone pirate or group of pirates catching an unwary merchant by surprise, defeating him, and looting him before reinforcements could arrive. That’s ambush gameplay—rewarding for the pirates, disheartening for the lone merchant. In some theoretical world before we actually started building the game, it made sense. You’d sail out from port, hoping to avoid danger, but there would be a sail on the horizon. Was it a friend or an enemy? Before anyone could come to save you, the sail would turn out to belong to a pirate, and you’d be fighting for your life.
Then we changed our world structure in a fundamental way: we implemented the Open Sea. Suddenly, that scenario didn’t work anymore. You could see lots and lots of people on the Open Sea. When you left port, you could quickly scan the area around you for threats. And with the introduction of the PvP areas, you could look for potential attackers before entering the red circle.
This began a cycle of design changes that has continued to this day, all with the intent of somehow recreating that ambush gameplay scenario. Stealth was a powerful early component—the idea that pirates could hide on the Open Sea and leap out to attack merchants. Limitations on battle entry were another element; early in their implementation, we had arcane and bizarre rules that gave you very narrow and somewhat unpredictable times you could join a battle. Later we changed that to our current system that allows you to enter a battle for a while, then closes that battle—unless it’s a PvE battle, and you’re a group member, or there was a call for help, and not if you’re the wrong nation… In other words, the systems we were tying together were becoming increasingly Byzantine, all in an attempt to create that early design goal scenario.
The worst part, of course, is that it didn’t work. I won’t say there’s never been a pirate who ambushed a merchant and got away with it. I know for a fact that it’s been done, many times. Unfortunately, it’s far more common that it’s not one pirate; it’s six pirates. It’s also not even pirates—it’s anyone. Full groups of any nation attacking weaker enemies isn’t the interesting ambush scenario we’d imagined. It’s ganking.
So what Rusty was really asking was: is this experience what we want for the definitive PvP experience in Pirates? Joe had a follow-up question a week later: how important is ‘ambush gameplay’, really? We’ve done a lot of strange things trying to make it happen; is it worth it, ultimately?
I thought about this for a while, because it’s been part of the canon of how our game works since before I was even on the Design team—that a lone pirate can ambush a weaker merchant and get away with it. It’s part of a lot of fundamental assumptions—it’s why you have to move goods around to build ships, and it’s why so many valuable items are unsecured cargo. You might get attacked by a superior force, and you might lose your items. It’s where the idea of ‘no crying in the red circle’ came from, and how we ended up with a primarily PvP-centric endgame. This ambush scenario was the silent designer in the room in most of our design meetings, an unspoken axiom that we incorporated into our decision making over and over again.
So my answer to Joe was: Ambush gameplay isn’t as important as we think it is, and it’s maybe not important at all. And my answer to Rusty was: We shouldn’t support ganking to the degree that we do.
Why? Here are the fundamental beliefs I hold about PvP in Pirates:
• PvP battles are the most fun part of our game • PvP battles in Pirates are more fun than PvP in any other MMO • PvP should involve an element of genuine risk • PvP should involve significant tangible rewards • PvP is fun for winners and losers when it’s a fair fight • PvP is less fun for the winners in an unfair fight • PvP is not fun at all for the victims in an unfair fight
The conclusion I come to, looking at these beliefs: unfair fights—ganking—make everyone have less fun. The ambush gameplay scenario that had lurked at the back of all our decisions was making the game less fun for everyone. Sacred cow or not, it was actively hurting the game.
What does this mean in practical terms? In the short term, not much. Our workload is nailed down long before you see its results, and the 1.5 patch is already more or less settled. You may see minor tweaks to systems—for instance, we’re discussing a battle-start timer that will allow everyone to finish loading into the adhoc instance before anyone can move—but no major revisions in the very short term.
Longer term? We’re going to make ganking go away. There’s an implied ‘to the best of our ability’ attached to that claim, of course, because I don’t actually believe that we can eliminate it entirely. There’s always someone in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there’s always a lurking predator somewhere. But ganking isn’t going to have the protection we’ve been giving it under the guise of ambush gameplay.
This means we may never see the idealized one-on-one pirate vs. merchant scenario again. On the other hand, it means that we’ll see the six-on-one murders a lot less, and that’s a much more realistic goal—a goal worth pursuing. It means that we’re explicitly designing to increase fun, instead of designing to an arbitrary and possibly unrealistic vision.
And that means a better game for everyone.
Read this article at the original source here.