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Developer Journal #4

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Developer Journal #4: Pirates of the "Asian" Seas

I’m filing this dev log from Beijing, which is the fifth Asian country I’ve visited in three weeks. So far, I’ve hit Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Along the way, I’m doing 29 presentations of the game, which makes it a very busy two weeks! The purpose of my trip is to find domestic partners who will bring Pirates to their territory. Ever since the numbers in Asia started exploding, American companies have dreamed of moving into this space -- but other than World of Warcraft, few have done so successfully.

There are a couple of problems, but the biggest one is making the game right for the market. I don’t just mean localization here, I mean the feature and content changes that take a Western game and make it into one suitable for Asia. A common example of this is a simplified avatar face. Western games typically go down the Everquest 2 model, which tries to make the avatar faces as real as possible. Asian games tend to have simplified, stylistic faces for their avatars (such as those seen in World of Warcraft). But there are more issues than just the cosmetic. For example, smoking is very prevalent here and players like to be able to play MMPs one handed so they can smoke with the other. The list goes on and on. While some of these are easy tweaks, others can require deep architectural changes.

One of the differences between success and failure is how much you’re willing to change the game to appeal to Asia. Games based on a license are often unable to change because their license has content guidelines and restrictions. (This is especially true of licenses from Hollywood, where big name actors can have final approval on how they look in a game.) Other games have a design that’s antithetical to the Asian market (complicated UI with a difficult to learn game), and find it difficult to change to be Asian-friendly without losing the core of the game. Still other companies simply aren’t willing to allocate resources to the project, assuming (quite arrogantly) that if it works in the West, it’ll work in Asia.

We’ve taken the other tack with Pirates. When we chose our setting, part of it was dictated by the fact that Asia has a very strong naval tradition. The Chinese treasure ships, the Korean Turtle boats, the Japanese junks, all represent an opportunity to provide a setting that is uniquely Asian. In fact, we’re looking for a partner who will co-develop an entirely separate area which we call Pirates of the Asian Seas. This would be all new content, including a new map, missions, avatars, and ships, that would let the player go back in time to visit the historical Asian seas. In every respect, we want the game to feel like it was developed by an Asian company. Of course, we also think that our Asian players will enjoy the Caribbean setting as a change of pace. Likewise, we intend to localize the Asian Seas back to the Western servers. So, a player on a US server would be able to travel to a port on the outskirts of the world and pay for passage to the Asian Seas all on the same US server. While they would take their character, they would leave behind their ships as we want to keep each area distinct with its own ships (so that junks, for example, don’t start showing up everywhere in the Caribbean).

Finally, we want to make sure that companies understand that we take this commitment very seriously. That’s why I’m doing the trip personally, coming out to meet them, and why their first point of contact when they try out our beta will be me. While we’ve got great people at Flying Lab who could also do this, companies take their direction from the top. When they call me up at 4 am our time to ask for help, and I’m the one they get, then they know just how serious we are about this project.

Of course, while I find Asia fascinating (since it’s taken up every waking hour for me for the last three weeks), the crowd back at Flying Lab have been busy getting the beta together. We’ve worked through the Steam integration issues (with Valve’s timely help) and we’re working on the beta build right now. Choosing the specific build is always a big moment. Even though we’ll be producing a lot of beta builds from now to release, this is another big step forward in putting the game into external hands and so it’s always a little scary. We're almost ready to notify the first round of beta testers and get a build into their hands. As a common refrain for me these days, it’s very exciting and scary to essentially be on the outside of this process. While I’m here in Asia, I read all the check-in email and design discussions, but I can’t actually play the game myself. The first beta is going to go out without my review, so I’m going to be seeing a lot of it for the first time just like our beta testers. Let me tell you, it’s not in my nature to be gone during a moment like this. (I postponed my wedding so I wouldn’t be AWOL during the endgame for Microsoft Exchange.) It’s not so much dedication as it is my program manager’s DNA, irresistibly compelling me to be at work. I’m investigating medical treatments for it while I’m out here.

We’ve also been hiring! We believe very strongly in the World of Warcraft mission frequency: to whit, you should always have missions and should be able to level up through the whole game playing missions. While we’ve been getting better and faster at making missions, we realized we weren’t going to have as many as we’d like for the first release. We did some projections, and decided to bring five new mission designers aboard. The good news is that hiring has been going a lot faster this time, although it’s always nerve wracking to me to bring aboard people that I haven’t personally interviewed. Still, I trust my crew, so I’ve been dutifully forwarding offer letters for them to send out. We’ve got two new people joining us at the end of this month, but we still need three more. This is an entry level position, and if I were a smart kid out of college trying to get into the games industry then this would be my dream job.

In other news, we’ve finally had an opportunity to start filling in some obvious holes. Some of them are small (our walk animation is a bit languid), and some are kind of big (our camera controls were developer friendly, user hostile). While we’ve had some big areas we’ve been implementing, a lot of these pieces are relatively small tasks (2-4 days) but have a huge payoff (mmmm, smooth camera controls!). This is the insanely fun part of a project. At the beginning, your team spends weeks putting together the architecture for some feature, and at the end, an excited dev calls you over to show you some tiny checkbox that comes up when he runs some debug command. “See? See?!” he asks, waiting for your tears of joy. “Uh, yeah, that’s great. So when I can I see a cannon go boom?” you ask. It’s not a happy time. But now I hear that we’re about ready to start some long awaited big feature, and less than a week later, it’s in. It’s very, very fun to start seeing the features roll in fast and furious, which is really good because we have a LOT of features that we’d like to do.

That’s it for now. I’ve got a bunch more presentations to do, than it’s off to Austin, TX for a conference on MMPs, and then finally, after a month of being gone, home to my wife, cats, and a big backlog of work that I need to do. Ciao!

- Russell Williams, Executive Producer

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