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Life After the Server Merge

By Carolyn Koh on May 07, 2008 | General Articles | Comments

Life After the Server Merge

“What server merge?”  Russell Williams, CEO of Flying Lab Software deadpanned, comfortably seated in his office on top of Queen Anne hill in Seattle, WA.  “Didn’t you read the follow up announcement?  Our web servers were hacked.  Ha!  Gotcha!” 

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Russell really wasn’t trying to pull one over me, but was simply joking, this sunny morning in the Pacific Northwest that I was visiting to talk to the team.  Take a temperature reading, find out the whys and wherefores of the server merge in Pirates of the Burning Sea and what they had planned for the future.  One thing I know about Russell, having interviewed him several times previously, is that he is candidly honest and would provide a wealth of information.  I lusted surreptitiously at the model of the Yamato (among other toys) he has in his office, pondering once again how I could tuck that under my coat when I left, then urged him to “tell all.” He did.  Starting with what went wrong.

“We have integrated systems – our economy is player driven and economy play affects the PvP play and vice-versa, and we underestimated the server density required to sustain the game.  We were also far too conservative about how many players each server could viably sustain.”

Russell compared the Pirates model to Eve as the closest available.  Most games are all content, but Pirates really did have a player driven economy and integrated systems where the PvE play affected the PvP play and vice-versa, so it was a learning process and coping by being agile enough to change quickly.


“There is a lack of history and knowledge about integrated systems.  Specifically, content is relatively easy to emulate and predict – and cuttable if it gets out of control,” said Russell.  “When you are developing from scratch, you don’t know how much work is required to get it to good, so scheduling it out is extremely difficult.”

Further, Pirates has so many inter-related systems that they could not postpone one if it was not coming together to their satisfaction.  Pirates turned out to require a huge level of commitment and no flexibility.


Russell pondered if they did not see the scope of the problems because their beta players “got” what they were trying to accomplish, bought in and played the game as the designers intended, but live play, it turned out, proved to be “whoppingly different” from beta.  “It has been illuminating and we’ve had to adapt quickly.”

The game had simultaneously launched in France, Germany and Spain.  The Spanish launch never really occurred and Flying Lab has yet to find out why.  There was virtually no advertising and the boxes are nowhere to be found.

“We haven’t even been able to buy one to add to our collection,” said Russell, “and the only place that supposedly carries our game says that it’s temporarily out.”

They had expected a good influx of Spanish players due to it being one of the playable nations in Pirates of the Burning Sea.  Instead, they were to find that both the Swedes and the Danish players outnumbered them two to one.  The resulting server - Bellamy - was severely under populated.  Without the required server density, the economy could not be sustained.

“We had to do something for those poor guys, and while we were at it – creating the software tools and reviewing our hardware capabilities, we decided that merging servers would create much better game play for all our players, so we did it.”

The merge created higher player density on each server and the result is sustainable player economy and hence PvP, and what Flying Lab really wants – happy players.

“It’s great!  The forums have been very positive.  People are talking about actually playing the game, not about their inability to find say… buyers for their product or players to buy materials from to create their ships.”

The server merge was a sound business decision despite the fact that server mergers are often considered the “death knell” in an MMORPG.  It is indeed a bold move by Flying Lab.  Despite the amount of forum “chatter” and surprise caused, this early move has created a much better player experience.  The server merge circumnavigated some in-game strategies that no amount of game balancing systems could have done – one of them being the imbalance of gamers playing certain nations.  The current server density reduces the advantage of a bigger nation.  A much stronger nation can no longer keep a port in contention indefinitely by “econo bombing” nor will there be PvP battles with “no-shows” from the weaker nation.


Russell was not shy about listing “what else went wrong” in retrospect and what problems they are currently working on to fix.  Indeed, he was far more cruel in his criticisms that I would have been.

Avatar animation problems – visuals are being fixed.  Check.  The UI is getting lots of love and polish.  Check.  Then I touched on the avatar combat system.  “Why do players think it’s about button mashing?”  That, it turned out, was something he was displeased with.  Russell was pleased with the depth of the system, but they had made it too subtle, and the tools were not there to teach the gamer to play it properly. 

“It was the worst of both worlds.  People could button mash right up until the content gets harder, then they would get killed because they hadn’t really learned how to fight, and players who do learn the system become incredibly effective against everyone else.”

They are currently re-tuning how it works and creating a more significant differentiation between the skills by implementing more variables and effects.  The time line for the avatar combat upgrade which was confirmed by Lead Designer Kevin Maginn, is small tweaks in update 1.4 with the real journey beginning in update build 1.5. 

I asked about the ongoing upgrades to the cities and again, Russell was not ashamed to admit that there were mistakes made.  “We designed Tortuga and Point-à-Pitre from the artistic point of view.  The cities visually beautiful but hard to navigate.”  He also spoke of the amount instancing; much of it, he admitted was not necessary, especially for the smaller towns.  These are issues being currently worked on.  NPCs will be moved closer to the coxswains, the towns will “open up” for exploring with more open area outside the town, some instancing will go away in favor of seamless integration – I’ve finally found out why there are so many dogleg tunnels in MMOGs.  This is so that the art is encapsulated and doesn’t overtax your video card.  So, more dogleg passages will be seen, less instancing, new outdoor areas and new avatar combat areas.  From the aesthetic viewpoint, older cities are also being revamped to approach the visual beauty of the new ones.

“Happy players on the servers.  That’s my goal,” declared Williams, so I asked what else players had to look forward to and Troy “Aether” Hewitt was pleased to gather the design team, Lead Designer Kevin “Isildur” Maginn who kept a stiff upper lip about short term economic inflation, keeping his eye on the goal of long term economic stability in the near horizon, Drew Clowery, David “Taelorn” Hunt who introduced himself as the “Nerfmaster” and Gavin Irby who is focusing on consistency in Outfitting.


In 1.4, players will have a new Pirate class, the Buccaneer, to play.  This addresses the issues inherent in a single class “Nation” and although they are viable for solo play, Kevin tells us that the Buccaneer will most effectively play as a support class in Pirate groups.  In 1.5, Pirate players really get the goodies.  Pillaging comes in.  Currently, Pirates do not have much incentive to capture a port.  With pillaging in place, once the Pirates take a port, for three real time days, that port turns into a “Pirate theme park” and Pirate players will find a multitude of quests and opening up there for them.

A player skirmish (akin to battlegrounds in other games) system which creates an equal odds situation and allows more than 24 vs. 24 is in the works, as are more ship dungeons.  Outdoor settings are being reworked for more variety and missions are being replaced.  Pirates shipped with a great number of missions, but most were based on templates which players quickly found predictable.  As these missions are replaced, players will find that they are less “cookie cutter” and more varied with custom encounters and differing landscapes.  More unique missions for each of the careers are also in the works.

 


Troy “Aether” Hewitt promised more Live Events but the glowing jewel in the crown is the work being done on the elder game for PvE.  This is something that was originally envisioned – Port Governance.  Kevin’s eyes glowed for a few moments before he mourned, “I’m not allowed to talk about it.”  Fortunately, Russell did expand just a little on it for us.  Essentially, there is only a single gold sink in the game right now – ship sinkings.  Without player governed ports, there isn’t an elder game for the PvE players, nor a realistic economic gold sink.  The economy will be inflationary for a while until Port Governance goes live.  It is all planned and in the works. 

Server merge and Pirates aside, I wanted to know what Flying Lab was doing.  “We’re looking for a larger office space,” said Russell.  “Our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness.  That of ambition.”  Flying Lab pride themselves on being small and agile.  In retrospect, he thought that they should have begun smaller; perhaps shipped the game with only ship combat as originally envisioned, adding avatar combat as a module later and working thusly on smaller scale projects as add-ons to the game.  The present and future is Pirates of the Burning Sea and where that leads is yet to be seen, but right now the ship is trim, their sails full and the horizon looks bright.

 

Carolyn Koh / Carolyn has been writing for MMORPG.com since 2004 and about the MMO genre since 1999. These days she plays mobile RTS games more, but MMOs will always remain near and dear to her heart.
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