Captain of the Burning Sea

Allen Varney | 17 Apr 2007 12:03
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Hitting it off, John and Flying Lab worked together to adapt Delta Green as a videogame. "We spent a year building prototypes, but no publisher was willing to commit to the project." (The Delta Green website is fossilized but still up.) "We decided our next game needed to be something we could control and even publish, and Pirates was born."


Set in the Caribbean in 1720, Pirates of the Burning Sea makes every player captain of his (or her!) own ship. Players can play not only pirates, but also naval officers, privateers, traders and smugglers. The Pirates features list includes tactically rich player-vs.-player ship combat, swashbuckling battles, an extensive loot system, a player-driven economy and interesting realm-vs.-realm strategic conflict involving English, French, Spanish and pirate factions.

John started low on the project, writing missions. But on a small team, as Pirates had at the time, nobody does just one thing. John's previous paper game work called for many skills: editor, art director, graphic designer, webmaster, business manager. Working like that, he says, "You go through a sort of mental expansion where you lose all fear of scrambling up yet another learning curve. When our lead programmer said, 'OK, learn this language and code our mission system,' I sort of gulped and dove in. I was a terrible programmer, of course. But I could get the work done and keep things moving, because I'm just not afraid of work in any form. Spending a decade as an entrepreneur means you face the world every morning and think, 'Bring it on!'"

Hardscrabble gumption, fostered in paper gaming, helped John thrive in the cushier environs of computers. Over three years, he took on more and more varied tasks at Flying Lab. In early 2006, aged 35, he became the Pirates producer. "I'm now running a team of 63 people. As producer, I interact with every team on the project all the time, and I pretty much know what every member of our staff is up to. It's a lot like the jack-of-all-trades thing, in that my work as producer is hands-on and interdisciplinary. But unlike Pagan, there are dozens of people I can delegate to."

After sailing the barren waters of roleplaying for a decade or more, John has finally found in online gaming a sheltering, if not yet safe, harbor: "This is the best job I've ever had. While the last four-plus years were long ones, I've learned so much I don't regret a single day. I am glad every day to work on a project like this: different genre, different gameplay, different art direction and stable, independent financing.

"On the other hand, it would be great if my next project didn't take four years!"


While Burning Sea burned slowly toward beta, the Pirates of the Caribbean movie made pirates cool again. Now we can spy a packet, if not a flotilla, of imminent swash-and-sail games: not only Burning Sea, but Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean Online and a Korean import, Tales of Pirates. All join the pioneer in these waters, Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates.

"We started work on a pirate MMOG well before the [first] Disney Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out," John says, "just because we thought doing yet another elves-and-dwarves game was a terrible idea. And it was a terrible idea indeed - for everyone except Blizzard!"

He hopes Burning Sea and its piratical companions, if they succeed, will confirm online games can find an audience outside fantasy. "City of Heroes already did that, happily, so it's up to us to prove they weren't a fluke. I really, really want more genre diversity in online games. There's absolutely no reason why an MMOG has to conform to existing tabletop RPG genres, which is pretty much where they've been so far.

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