Captain of the Burning Sea

Allen Varney | 17 Apr 2007 12:03
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"Sometimes I think about a This Old House MMOG - a team-based game where you're crafting and building stuff together, experimenting with different technologies and tools, trying to make the coolest house ever. It's an extreme example, but why not? MMOGs really are team games, and the varieties of human collaboration are endless. Fantasy sports leagues are interesting, and yet it's like they don't exist to MMOG people; ditto other web-based multiplayer games like RuneScape or Neopets. The MMOG business has blinders on. At this rate, the game that kills World of Warcraft won't come from a traditional MMOG company.

"There isn't a game publisher in the world that would have paid us to spend four years to develop Pirates of the Burning Sea. Flying Lab is self-funded by the founders." (Lab CEO Russell Williams was an early Microsoft millionaire; he wrote code for Windows 95 and Microsoft Golf.) "It's kind of like working for Batman - international playboy race-car driver by day, computer game mogul by night.

"But that doesn't mean we eat caviar. We're going to deliver Pirates for a very reasonable budget, and we have managed our growth carefully. Even two years into the project, our staff was only about a dozen people. The key is to prototype cheap, iterate cheap and don't go big until you really, deeply know just what game you're going to ship."

Even more than he did running cash-starved Pagan Publishing, John reveres good financing. "I want Pirates to be successful enough that we can keep doing it a long, long time, and also start a second and a third project down the road, on our terms. In business, money means freedom. Look at the botched launches of other MMOGs to see what happens when studios don't have the freedom to do it right - and 'freedom' means 'payroll,' keeping those people working and iterating and making things better. Only money gives you that freedom.

"Money doesn't guarantee success - rich people make stupid mistakes every day. But it at least means you can succeed or fail on your own merits, not because you shipped six months early when the money ran out, or the publisher needed something shipped to shore up a bad quarter. We've spent four years making the game we want to make, and we have no excuses if we fail. Nobody in a suit has been telling us what to do.

"That's the dream of Caribbean piracy, after all. Pirate ships were the first true democracies the world had seen in centuries. Pirate crews drew up articles of cooperation and voted for their officers. They ensured the maimed were compensated and everyone got a fair share. They weren't under the iron fist of a national military or corporation, so they had to find their own discipline, their own motivation and their own courage. Pirate crews succeeded or failed on their own merits, and if they succeeded, they had the resources to keep going, keep striving. That's what we're doing, and if we succeed, we'll keep on doing it. I hope to be here making great games for a long time."

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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