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Avatar Combat Revamp Interview

Carolyn Koh Posted:
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Pirates of the Burning Sea: Avatar Combat Revamp Interview

MMORPG.com's Carolyn Koh recently visited Flying Lab Studios' new offices in Seattle to talk to the team about the upcoming Avatar Combat Revamp for their nautical MMORPG, Pirates of the Burning Sea.

The imminent launch of Pirates of the Burning Sea’s Avatar Combat Revamp seemed to me to be a good excuse to visit Flying Lab Software in their new digs in downtown Seattle. After a quick tour of the new offices with Community Manager Troy Hewitt and exchanging greetings with many familiar faces, I was seated in CEO Russell “Rusty” Williams’ corner office.

“You must be meeting goals,” I said to Rusty and Producer Misha Williams as I looked around the office. Rusty smiled and spread his hands. “What can I say? New digs, larger staff, new projects…” indeed, it speaks for itself.

“We’ve had wonderful retention numbers with the free trial,” he said. Pirates of the Burning Sea is Russell Williams’ first MMO and as such, some of the performance metrics expected of an MMOs of this scale are not familiar territory for him. “We asked SoE if we were doing alright and although I can’t mention numbers, it’s far better than SoE had expected.” The number of returning players was also far greater than expected.

Pirates of the Burning Sea was launched on January 22nd of 2008. In less than 3 months after launch, they performed a server merge. Now, less than a year after launch, they are about to revamp the entire avatar combat system. A bold move? Certainly, but let us first go into the history of Avatar Combat in Pirates of the Burning Sea.

The public got their first view of PotBS in May at E3 2005 when MMORPG.com and other MMO sites gave it Best Graphics of show. When I first visited them in February of 2006, PotBS was still being conceived as a “vehicular” game much like EVE Online or Car Wars, but had only just decided to provide avatars and customization thereof in response to feedback. Players of MMO games liked to have avatars they could identify with even if it were just a paper doll. It soon became apparent to the Flying Lab team that Avatars had to be more than just “paper dolls” but had to be an integral part of the game. From there, grew the concept of the personal role-play story lines and avatar combat.

“We’ll launch with Ship Combat followed later by Avatar Combat.” Was still the mantra in early 2007 but soon it became apparent that player expectations were such that they had to push Avatar Combat forward in order to launch with it.

“What do you expect when you think of Pirates?” asked Lead Designer Kevin Maginn who led the Avatar Combat Revamp project, “You think Captain Hook, Bluebeard, Jack Sparrow. You’re thinking of swashbuckling and derring-do. Our ship combat is amazing, but… and there’s that BUT… players wanted and expected avatar combat in a Pirate game.”

Avatar combat was added to the game just about 18 months before launch. Kevin has had this project in his lap since a month after launch and has had the largest team working on avatar combat in the last two months than has ever worked on it. This was ramped up even in the last month with almost everyone in the studio working on it. New hires were also placed under his disposal.

“We finally had the luxury to budget enough time to do it right,” said Kevin. “I’ve even spent additional time on it and moved the launch date back a couple of times.”

Rusty had always been candid with me and he was no less today. “Avatar combat wasn’t where it should be when we launched.” He said.

“It wasn’t fun,” said Misha. “I never knew what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong in the old system.”

“Button spamming was our fault,” added Rusty, “We didn’t get it right and didn’t teach the players right. Those that did get it were true terrors on the high seas but they were far and few between.”

“The old system also made tuning very difficult,” continued Misha, “but we have a new tutorial system and new daily missions to allow players to learn the new system. It’s easier to learn, but not necessarily easier to master.”

“Actually, Misha got good.” Said Kevin. “She never played Avatar combat before in the old system. But she got so good in the new system that she was telling the Mission designers that missions were too simple, where as some of the guys was getting eaten in the play-through.”

So what has changed essentially in the Avatar Combat system?

“We got rid of gimped,” said Rusty with great satisfaction. It was much too easy in the old system, explained Kevin, to create a character that was ineffective. Players had to pick the right combination of skills to make a character that was effective in Avatar Combat. If you missed out on the “verbal tradition” or the spoiler on the forums on the right skills to choose in each school, you could indeed, “spoil” your character.

“My overarching vision for the Avatar Combat can be summed into two words,” said Kevin, “More action.” The original system did not provide a very active combat system and there was no visceral sense of “I hit a button and some bad guy died.” The new system looks impressive. The fight sequences have gotten “cinematic” as the ability to cut through swathes of enemies getting to the big bad guy and then going head to head with him is finally available to the player. Kevin has ramped up the excitement level of Avatar Combat system in PotBS.

In a nutshell, here are the major changes:

Changes to Skills Skill chains: Skill chains are now much longer and reduced to the three archetypical skills in MMOs – Offense, Defense and Control (healing being a different issue in PotBS)

Kevin has tried to eliminate “fillers’ and has tried to make every skill a powerful, functional skill. Almost all skills are now Area of Effect that may be 90, 180, 270 and even 360 degree cones. Even the first skill you gain is an AE. None of this one-point plinking “basic attack” weak scratch here! Following any skill chain will make an effective character as will mixing and matching the skills. But the final skill can only be gained from one chain. With fewer skills, it was easier to tune each skill and to ensure that any permutation and combination of the skills that a player could choose would make an effective character.

There are also optional skill chains available, apart from the Offense, Defense and Control of each school of fighting, and these are:

Gun skills, which launches at the same time as the revamp. “Point blank” is the first skill available in this chain and is usable in close combat. “Cross shot” is the only AE ranged skill and a grand opening move, I am told, and the final skill of the chain allows you to really “kick butt” with guns as it provides rapid reload and fire.

Brawling is another optional skill chain, and is all about hand to hand combat. This will be available at a later date, and

Supernatural skills is something they are taking a longer look at. No promises at this point in time on how or when this skill chain will be available.

There is an emphasis on skill chain combos with synergies within the skill chain as well as cross synergies within the group. All these will be apparent with the improved UI. Buffs are now more obvious, and every combat school has a few group buffs.

“Buffs aren’t subtle effects anymore. They are more like a punch in the gut,” said Kevin, “The result is that there’s increased interaction between players.”

To ease player acceptance and understanding, Flying Lab has released and will continue releasing articles on their website about the changes to Avatar Combat. It is playable on their test server now, and daily missions in the form of Pit Fights are good training missions. Avatar dueling is also available to players and the cost of respeccing has been reduced drastically, allowing players to try out different builds at low costs.

“We want to make this as painless as possible with the largest possible pay-off,” said Kevin, none of this get back all your skill points with no tips or hints as to what the new skills do.

Other changes in Avatar Combat Initiative: Initiative is now front loaded. Players start off with full initiative so the fight can be opened with a big flashy move. Some skills require more initiative than others, others boost initiative and initiative will regen during battle.

Balance: Balance has been replaced by Guard. Guard acts like a ship’s armor and is basically your Armor Class in other MMOs. Except that in PoTBS, you don’t have to wear plate to get better AC. Skills and equipment can affect it and it regens over time as well.

“Those are the basic differences in Avatar Combat,” Kevin concluded. “It is different and dramatically so. It is better in every way, and it is the product of a more thoughtful approach, the product of the six to eight months more that the system really needed.” Software Test Engineer Kate Field ran me through a few missions to show me the new combat system. She was a player before she became an employee at Flying Lab.

“It’s so empowering,” she enthused, “Everything you do, you know what you did.”

“We’ve also revised the entire set of animations,” said Kevin, “The ability to see what you did and what happens provides you instant visceral feedback.”

With the new combat revamp, I was warned that NPCs also do different things now, but with the revised animation set, players will also be able to get quick visual cues of what they are and what they are doing or about to do.

“You’ll be able to see that this guy’s the Brute, that’s the Commander and be able to quickly decide which one you need to address first,” continued Kevin.

The Content Team has also been very pleased with the new Avatar Combat system and have used it extensively for the next story mission, “Black Sails and Dread Saints.” The two story missions currently in game will also receive updates dues to the revamp. This is not just a respeccing of skills for a class or two, but really, a game changing improvement. Every avatar combat mission had to be reworked and retuned, and players will find that boarding and combat on board ship will also be very different.

With this upcoming milestone (M11), Avatar Combat will come into it’s own in PotBS. No longer just a “side-line” item, Avatar Combat will stand proud and equal in importance to Ship Combat and PotBS becomes a dual combat game. By land and by sea, two equally kick-butt combat systems in a single game.


Carolyn Koh

Carolyn Koh / Carolyn Koh 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.