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Developer Journal #6

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Troy Hewitt and Taylor Daynes talk about the game's Navigation Zone

Imagine the bow of your frigate crashing through the azure Caribbean water, dolphins swimming and playing below, with the bright blue sky above, studded with pristine white clouds. Spin around and see the sparkling white sails of passing ships – merchantmen, warships on patrol, fishermen and smugglers. Up ahead lies Puerto Rico, and the rich and fortified capital of San Juan.

Welcome to the Caribbean – this is how you’ll be sailing from island to island in Pirates of the Burning Sea, the upcoming Pirate-themed Massively Multiplayer game from Flying Lab Software.

As you can imagine, the biggest challenge with any sailing game is the sailing, itself. How do you make sailing fun when your world encompasses all the Caribbean islands, and the continental coastlines from South Carolina to French Guiana? Sailing is fantastically interesting when there’s something exciting going on – a fight or a storm – but it’s terribly boring to sail around the Caribbean in real-time when nothing is happening.

That’s why we decided to adopt the Navigation Zone model. The Navigation Zone allows us to shrink the world and speed up the ships at the same time, making voyages between islands quicker, and getting to get to the action that much faster.

The Navigation Zone is by far the largest environment in Pirates of the Burning Sea. The Nav Zone’s two million polygons cover almost seven million square miles of the Earth’s surface – nearly as large an area as the United States and Europe combined. Between the continents and the 200+ islands, there are over 130 ports for you to visit (and conquer!) The file is so large that our artists have split it into eight sections that are stitched together when they’re imported into the game. But despite the gargantuan size, the Navigation Zone is built for fun – we feel it’s far more important to get you to the good stuff – missions, battles, friends – than to have hour-long travel times between islands. With that in mind, the time to cross the Caribbean is currently tuned to take just 45 minutes.

And of course, you’re not alone out there – hundreds of other players and non-player characters (NPCs) have taken to sailing the seas as well. As the captain of your own ship, you can prey on any NPC you want, but be careful! Some of those same adversaries will hunt you down as well.

If hunting other players is more your style, the PvP Hotspots surrounding contested ports – regions of the world open to Player vs. Player battle – are the place for you. While sailing in one of these hotspots, you can freely attack players from other nations, and they can attack you! If you get into a fight, you and your foes are thrown into an Encounter Zone, bringing the world into full-scale view. Sailing and maneuver speeds are tuned to make combat exciting – not speedboat fast, but again, not as slow as reality.

The history books talk about frigates spending days maneuvering for position before firing a shot. That jockeying for position is fascinating, and a large part of the strategy of naval combat, but the timescale is terrible! That’s why we’ve moved tactical, pre-combat maneuvers onto the Navigation Zone – you only get to the slower-paced Encounter Zone once the battle truly begins. This way you get the best of both worlds –speedier strategic maneuvering and more realistically paced tactical battles!

We’ve had a prototype Navigation Zone in our game for some months now, but we recently decided we would finally solve some of the problems we were facing. The biggest problem was the size of the thing. Our previous attempt assumed the entire world would be loaded at the same time. In order to be able to keep the entire Caribbean in memory, the resolution and detail of the Navigation Zone graphics were pretty basic. We don’t like basic graphics, so Joe Ludwig, our Lead Programmer, decided we should move to a dynamic method of scene loading.

That great idea, and a little bit of work later, and now we divide our Navigation Zone into smaller chunks that are loaded into memory as you approach them, and unloaded as you sail away. Not only does this help our performance, but it also allows us to pack more detail into our terrain, making the coastlines smoother, and the island terrain much more realistic.

Heidi Gaertner, our graphics guru, also created a better ocean shader for our new Navigation Zone, complete with blurred reflections, specular highlighting, normal mapping, transparency, and fresnel effects to simulate depth. I’d been pushing for a transparent ocean, but we were all surprised by how big an impact it ended up making. Watching the ocean floor slip past below my keel, feeling the parallax change as I sail into the shallows; it’s the kind of experience that takes your attention away (and causes you to collide with large land masses!).

Of course, once we had transparent water, we had to have sea life! Dolphins, whales and sharks weren’t officially on our task list, but it proved too strong a temptation, and a weekend later, we were treated to sight of sharks prowling just beneath the surface – not just on the Navigation Zone, but also in ports. Remember that when you’re wishing you could jump off the dock and go for a swim!

Then Bruce Sharp, our Art Director worked with Joe and Heidi to give the Navigation Zone a more flexible camera. Prior to this change, you couldn’t angle the camera low enough to see the horizon. Nobody liked this setup – it was very claustrophobic, but we were bound by technical constraints. Between the three of them, we’ve now got a much freer camera, and a gorgeous blue sky.



Bruce, master of color and light that he is, then went in and tweaked our lighting model. Heidi likes working with Bruce because he always knows exactly what changes he wants, the changes to the code are small, and when Heidi is done making them, Bruce always manages to use them to produce something beautiful that wasn’t possible before. With a sun color change, a tweak to the ambient light, and a different fog color, Bruce turned our Navigation Zone into a tropical paradise.

Now its time we ask for your help! You see, while the term Navigation Zone served us well in our internal communications, we feel as though it lacks a certain… romance. Navigation Zone just isn’t poetic enough; it doesn’t evoke the charm and allure of seafaring adventure.

This is where you come in: The Pirates of the Burning Sea dev team wants your help in picking a new name for the Navigation Zone! We will be taking your suggestions on our forums (link), where we will pick our top five favorites, following up with a community poll to pick the Navigation Zone’s new nom de plume! We will be considering your submissions for about two weeks, so hurry to our forums and inspire us with your ideas!

- Taylor Daynes and Troy Hewitt, Flying Lab Software

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Guest Writer