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AGC Progress Report

Dana Massey Posted:
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From AGC – A Conversation with Daniel James

The growth of Puzzle Pirates was one of the biggest revelations of the Austin Game Conference. On the secondary market panel – and later confirmed in an interview – Daniel James spoke of how his company had grown from bringing in $500,000 to $2,000,000 this past year. Daniel James is the CEO of Three Rings, a San Francisco development company that released their first game – Puzzle Pirates – in the late 2003.

Puzzle Pirates is unlike the typical MMORPG. Rather than the traditional systems for fighting, sailing and other things you’d expect in an MMO pirate game, players must work at mini-games (puzzles) to do things like sail, fight, etc. In this way, the game is unlike any other MMORPG.

Over the past year, the game has steadily grown in popularity. For the first time box copies began to circulating, published by UBISoft, but a large reason for its growth was really the micro-payment based “Dubloon” servers.

Puzzle Pirates is a transitionary game for North American MMORPGs. It began – and still is – a subscription based game. Two of its “oceans” (servers) carry the familiar monthly fees.

However, a year ago, James and Three Rings launched their Doubloon oceans. On these servers players do not pay monthly fees, but instead can buy dubloons – currency – with real world money. Most items on the server require a combination of Doubloons and the regular game’s currency “pieces of eight”.

Players are not required to spend money to buy dubloons for the most part. Some restrictions include outfits, but if someone prefers to play for free they can earn traditional money and exchange it for dubloons. Currently the exchange rate is approximately 1000 to 1, whereas it costs about twenty-five cents to buy one.

The popularity of the Doubloon servers has unquestionably helped Three Rings. The game now has four servers, with comparable populations that can reach as high as 16000 simultaneous players at peek hours. Over the last year they have brought in four new full time developers, to go with fifteen part time customer service people who work at home and provide the game with around the clock support. The company is also hiring, seeking artists (3D and 2D) and talented engineers.

On the horizon is “more stuff,” according to James. They just rolled out housing and are looking to do more live events. They have also been looking at the new player experience. Typically, the company shoots to do a large (free) content patch every three months. He was coy on what is coming, but did say there has been “talk of seas monsters”.

That covers what is coming for Puzzle Pirates, but what about Three Rings as a company? Well, in addition to Puzzle Pirates, they’re hard at work on a second game: “Bang! Howdy”. This one is online, but not an MMORPG. For fans of Daniel James’ quirky style this should be a treat. The setting is “cowboys and robots”. It is essentially a casual friendly online RTS/turn-based hybrid that aims to be easy, quick and fun. It is free to play, but building on what he learned with the Doubloons servers will involve micro-payments, where players can buy currency to expand their forces for future games. You can read more about it at http://www.banghowdy.com/.

Daniel James is truly one of the characters of the MMORPG industry. At E3, he is easily identifiable in full pirate regalia and even sported a pirate hat for the Austin Game Conference. He also gets my vote for most inventive press swag. Typically at these events we showered in a seas of t-shirts. James handed me a deck of Puzzle Pirates playing cards.

“I’m the king of hearts,” he said with a grin.

Thank you to Daniel James for making the time.

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Dana Massey