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Interview with Daniel James

Dana Massey Posted:
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Daniel James of Three Rings answers our questions about the status of Puzzle Pirates, the unique puzzle-based MMORPG with a distinctive pirate flavor.

MMORPG.com: Puzzle Pirates has been around for years, but just recently got published by UBISoft. Can you tell us a bit how this deal came to be and what it means for existing players? Also, what are the advantages to buying the box when you can still download it online for free?
Daniel James:

Aye. We had of course always wanted to ship out Puzzle Pirates to stores, as most MMORPG’s have done very well by going that route. It took us a whiles to find a good partner in Ubisoft, who understand the game.

There’s really no change for existing players, although many of them have bought the box in order to get the included, unique hat or sword, along with the included month with the box.

MMORPG.com: For the completely new, run us through a basic newbie play experience?
Daniel James:

Puzzle Pirates is a very simple game to get started with; your introduced to the game when your pirate is rescued from a desert island, and shown one of the first and simplest Puzzles; the Bilge Pumps. After the introduction you’re taken to an island and encouraged to do Missions for the Navy, which pay you some gold and show off the different ship Puzzles. You can also practice Swordfighting, or just head to the tavern to enjoy a game of Hearts.

The major ‘graduation’ for new players (greenies, as we call ‘em in the game, because their names be green) is when they take a job with a player crew out Pillaging. This is the fun at the heart of the game, working together with your mates to tackle other ships and bring in the Booty. Once a player finds a good crew they join up and then more aspects of the game open up.

MMORPG.com: Tell us a bit about what makes Puzzle Pirates different and why fans of MMORPGs in general should give you a shake?
Daniel James:

Puzzle Pirates is a unique kind of MMOArrrPG for a few key reasons. The Puzzles are the heart of the game, which means that much of your achievement is to do with your personal skill at the various Puzzles, Card games, etc. rather than just inching up a statistic on your character. Similarly, while most MMORPGs are centered around bashing monsters to gain experience, in Puzzle Pirates the core gameplay is much more mentally engaging, as you’re playing a Puzzle game that exercises your mind. Having played many MMORPGs, we definitely set out with Puzzle Pirates to make a game without the ‘grind’, and many hardcore MMORPG players love it. Fortunately, in addition, many more ‘casual’ players love the game, so we have a much more diverse audience in terms of age and sex than your typical hardcore game. That all said, Puzzle Pirates has all the depth of the best MMORPGs. There’s fun to be had in groups or solo, there’s an incredibly deep player-driven economy (complete with trading, crafting puzzles, etc.) and high-level politics, leading to island blockades and PvP.

MMORPG.com: Can you explain how you came up with the idea of having players perform actions through puzzles and why you think it is a good thing?
Daniel James:

The idea came to me when my girlfriend and I became addicted to online puzzle games like ‘Bejeweled’. One day I left her playing in bed on the laptop, and when I came home many hours later, she was still there. ‘I can’t move!’ she complained. This tipped me off that there was something very compelling in the puzzling experience (who hasn’t droned out playing Tetris for hours?) but that it left one feeling empty afterwards – ‘What have I done with the last three hours?’

MMORPGs seemed to have the opposite problem – the core gameplay lacked interest and fun (clicking on monsters gets dull) but the context was fascinating. The marriage of this focused puzzling with the context of an MMORPG seemed like a good one!

Not only do I think the puzzles provide a more exciting and engaging core game mechanic, but as I mentioned above, they make the gameplay fundamentally skill-based, which I think is very healthy.

MMORPG.com: Now that you are in the retail domain, do you plan expansion packs and other staples of retail MMOs?
Daniel James:

Possibly, but our primary commitment is to keep expanding the game for our subscribers. That’s why they’re paying a subscription fee!

MMORPG.com: Tell us a bit about the legendary Puzzle Pirates community and what you think will be most apparent to a new player.
Daniel James:

Puzzle Pirates tends to attract mates who are helpful and mature in their outlook. We don’t have much tolerance for mates who are publicly rude, spammers, scammers and other such lowlife.

Most apparent to a new player may be that everyone speaks pretty Piratey on Puzzle Pirates. It’s easy to throw out an ‘Ahoy!’ and a ‘matey’.

MMORPG.com: The most obvious aspect of Puzzle Pirates is that it is not 3D. Why did you do this and how do you believe this benefits you?
Daniel James:

We didn’t think 3D would make the game any more fun, and there were good reasons to do a 2D game, particularly to allow people with slower machines etc. to play. I think Puzzle Pirates looks a lot better than many 3D games, which often end up looking rather similar. It also removes us from the ‘graphics race’, which is a game that we have no interest in playing as our competitors have many millions of dollars to spend on fancy engines and vast amounts of content.

MMORPG.com: For established fans, what should they expect to see new in the game over the coming weeks and months?
Daniel James:

Right now it’s a fairly open secret that we’re working on player Housing. New Pirates will start with a tumbledown shack and can work their way up a glorious Mansion. Har!

After Housing we will probably be adding some more fun stuff to the pillaging and sailing around experience. I’m not saying what, quite yet, though. More games and puzzles are always on the list, too. We have a new Drinking game coming out soon, and some others waiting in the wings.

MMORPG.com: Currently you have a doubloon ocean and a monthly fee ocean (an ocean is a server). Can you summarize the differences?
Daniel James:

On the Subscription Oceans (Midnight, Cobalt) you get a free trial of seven days and then have to pay a subscription fee (monthly, quarterly or annual) to continue playing. The Subscription Oceans are kind of a ‘Premium’ experience.

The Doubloon Ocean (Viridian) is free to play, but in order to buy certain items or have certain game privileges (such as the right to be a Captain of your own crew) the player needs to spend Doubloons. Doubloons can be bought with a credit card, or traded for the pieces of eight that players earn pillaging. The Doubloon Ocean is a kind of ‘pay as you go’ or ‘pay for features’ ocean, but because of this trading aspect, it’s possible to play there entirely free and just trade for the things you need. We feel that this is pretty innovative – indeed, it’s still an experiment for us. Hopefully it will work out well.

MMORPG.com: At GDC you announced that you would open 40% of your codebase. What do you think this will mean to the game and the average player?
Daniel James:

Aye, at GDC we announced our ‘Game Gardens’ toolkit and hosting service (see www.gamegardens.com ) where you can download our multiplayer game code and then upload and host your own games. These are the same libraries we used to make Puzzle Pirates, but most of the game-specific code remains closed, not least because we don’t want private servers all over the place! We are partly doing this because we believe in open source and, having used lots of open source software ourselves, want to contribute back to the betterment of the world with our own code. Also, we hope that people will make games, put them online, have people play them, and build up a community there. It’s also quite likely that we will adapt games from Game Gardens into Puzzle Pirates, or other games we produce in the future. We’re certainly excited to see what people can come up with, as we believe that the games business could benefit from much greater experimentation!

Thank you to Daniel and happy sailing!

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Dana Massey