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PAX Preview (Avatar Combat)

Dana Massey Posted:
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Pirates of the Burning Sea: PAX Preview - Avatar Combat and More!

The big news out of PAX was that Pirates of the Burning Sea will launch in June of 2007 and that the feature list now includes avatar combat. We played the game and sat down with Producer John Scott Tynes at PAX to discuss exactly how avatar combat works.

“[We] made the decision a few months ago that we were going to release in ’07,” explained Tynes as we sat in a Bellevue Subway. Once made, that decision allowed them to pursue something they’d always wanted, but never felt they had time to do correctly: avatar combat.

Even as we spoke at PAX, Tynes admitted that they had a playable internal version, but felt that it wasn’t quite ready for public eyes.

Avatar combat promises to be extremely tactical and comes in three forms:

  • Musketry: The good old art of guns. Movement is the main thing once must consider. If you stand still, you’re easier to hit, but also far more accurate.
  • Fencing: In this style, players compete for “initiative”. Essentially, this is a meter that you should control if you wish to prevail. It is not a direct tug-of-war between you and your opponent, but moves do steal it from your enemies. It aims to represent the art of getting the upper hand in classic swordplay.
  • Brawling: Ever seen a pirate smash a beer bottle over another’s head? Maybe not in real life, but everyone can picture it. Brawling is a hand-to-hand combat style more about chaining moves together.
As far as the character is concerned, this is a skill based system. Players can work at any or all of these skills. The potential exists to draw a pistol in a bar fight. While, obviously “character skill” is a prime factor in hand-to-hand combat, player skill is also extremely important. The game considers three major factors when determining your defensive and offensive abilities in a particular situation:
  • Movement: Players who move around a lot with muskets won’t hit very often, nor are they likely to be hit. The same applies to sword-play and brawling.
  • Positioning: If you force your enemy back against a wall (and you can through feats), then they wont have much room to maneuver and their offensive and defensive output suffers. Essentially, the game considers a radius around the character. Thus, players must be keenly aware of where they are and where they want to force their enemies.
  • Facing: The way you face will be very important. Players will be in deep trouble if they let themselves get surrounded.
The system itself was heavily inspired by their ship combat system and applies these basic principals to land combat.

So, when do you use avatar combat?

Tynes described land missions as “avatar combat-arama”. They obviously designed these quests, originally, without avatar combat as an option. Now that they have it, they’re putting it in as situations demand it. Ironically, the lateness of this decision may benefit them. Rather than making missions all about combat, it unfolds more cinematically in specific situations. This should add more variety to their land missions and ensure the game doesn’t rely on combat as a crutch to replace storytelling, puzzles and human thought.

And now, what you’ve all been waiting for: boarding. Currently, when you grapple a ship there is a straight mathematical calculation based on the relative sizes of crews. Soon, that will not be the case. Tynes did note though that all of this is at a design stage and is subject to change.

When two ships grapple, they’ll be instanced off to an area with two decks tied together. These decks may not be able to perfectly represent the two ships (practically, many ships sit at different heights in the water, but that wont work in a deck battle), but hopefully it will be close. There, you control your captain and run the decks operating just as you would in combat on land. You’re joined by your crew, who have their own AI and do their own thing.

The two crews fight in brutal hand-to-hand combat. No decision has been made on the scale of the combat. Theoretically, you could have a crew of 200, but it is unlikely that they will actually render 200 guys on either side. Instead, expect to see the numbers scaled down, while retaining the relative sizes.

The goal is to kill the enemies and their captain. Then, you have yourself a new ship and a lot of loot, just like the old rules when you captured a ship.

Beyond this major feature, the decision to move to 2007 largely allowed them to add more content and polish to the game. One other move they’re excited about is the addition of epic adventure sites. These zones support up to 100 players and 100 NPCs and are larger than anything they’d done before. They are public instances, in that they may instance if the demand is enough, but once inside everyone can see and interact with everyone else. There first such zone, on display at PAX, is El Dorado. The entire zone carries a distinct flavor and feel, in this case a return of Mayans, and provides players with a wealth of quests and missions to complete.

PAX’s player-first environment also meant that we got to play the game. Unfortunately, Community Manager Troy Hewitt thought it would be smart to pit me in PvP against Lead Designer Taylor Daynes. I won’t say he cheated, but I think he definitely benefited from his role as creator of the combat system. I’ll get you next time Daynes!

In playing and talking to fans, Pirates of the Burning Sea definitely suffers from a weird situation. The game doesn’t look terribly exciting on a demo screen, at least when they’re at sea, but when you actually sit down to try it, there is a nervous energy and excitement to it that could not be replicated in a fast-paced game. I saw hosts of gamers dismiss it out of hand, and then change their mind after a turn at the demo station. They seem to have achieved a good pace to sailing and simplified it enough to make it easy to use.

On the business side, they’re in a rare situation. They’ve decided the game should be distributed in stores and are seeking a distribution partner, but unlike most, do not require any money to complete the game. They’re fully funded through to the end and are expanding. The project began with six people and now the Seattle studio employs 46 on-site employees and a host of outsourced contractors, such as Akella who helps create boats.

They hope to reach roughly 60 developers before launch and have moved to find more people with concrete MMORPG development experience. They recently hired Jess Lebow, the World Designer for Guild Wars.

They’ve also been very pleased with their community-driven content production. A group of fans have taken on the task of building ships themselves. FlyingLab has supported them and even formed a Steering Committee, comprised of senior fans and overseen by one developer, that gives interest amateur artists the historical and technical information they need to model real ships. At first, they expected dinghies from the program. Now, they expect over half their vessels to have been modeled through this program.

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Dana Massey