AGDC 07: Pirates of the Caribbean Online Interview with Mike Goslin

Pirates of the Caribbean Online always said it would launch simultaneously with the third film, they just didn’t realize it would be with its DVD release. At AGDC, we spoke to VR Studios VP Mike Goslin about the revised release date, Disney’s new found love of online games and much more.

VR Studios is best known for Toontown Online, but Pirates of the Caribbean Online is just a taste of things to come from the Disney-owned MMO developer. The game will launch this fall – prior to the December 5th release of the third film’s DVD – and is aimed at a teen audience, just like the movie. Toontown was for kids and while PotCO is not primarily aimed at grown ups, it does skew towards an underserved middle-ground.

Goslin explained that the team really needed to polish “that last 10%” and for that reason they delayed. He has confidence in the game’s features, but felt much of it required work, lest it be inaccessible to the average gamer. The latest version of the game, he promises, has a completely overhauled user interface. When WarCry saw the game earlier this summer, it was apparent that things had gotten a bit convoluted and to their credit, they took the time necessary to fix them.

On top of simplified UI, they also refined the control systems and reworked the quest system so that people can see more clearly what is expected of them. Like most games, they also found that their first crack at the tutorial needed work and completely rebuilt it.

Performance is also something that is especially dear to a game that seeks a broader, non-traditional audience that only a license like theirs can provide. They wanted PotCO to work on extremely low-end, value PCs. It took a lot of work, but they believe they’ve made it happen.

At the end of September, Goslin expects the game to hit Open Beta and hopes people will judge the game on its own merits. It’s not just skewed to an older audience, it’s also bigger, more complex and has more to do than Toontown.

He noted specifically that while he believes a fan of World of Warcraft could have a lot of fun in his game, it’s not who they’re looking for necessarily. Instead, they believe a good number of casual players who are fans of the franchise are really going to keep them strong.

To Goslin, the highlights of the game are the ships, its active combat system and authentic in-engine cut-scenes that feature the likeness of the movie characters. As players go through quests in the game they meet Jack Sparrow and friends along the way, but unlike many MMOs where the famous ones are lifeless NPCs, the players experience these characters in lively, cinematic cut scenes that place their own character right in the middle of the action.

All of this is to help them “deliver on the IP”, as Goslin put it. One potential knock against that plan, though, is their reliance on sound-a-likes rather than the real actors. Aside from actor Kevin McNally – who played Sparrow’s first-mate Joshamee Gibbs – all the actors are impersonators. From the limited sample I’ve seen though, they appear to be quite well done. Earlier this year I saw Will Turner in a cut scene and while I suspected it was not Bloom, I had to ask.

Goslin told us that he is not worried about the lack of real actors. In his opinion, while it could have been a great selling point for them, their lack of presence does not at all detract from the overall experience. He added that to date in Beta, the feedback on their voice acting has been positive.

Changes earlier this year in the corporate structure of Disney have changed the outlook for VR Studios. Michael Eisner was replaced by Bob Iger as CEO and this has been good news for VR, Goslin told us. Iger has renewed the company’s emphasis on technology – a TIME Magazine piece earlier this year explored the new CEO’s technical inclinations – and the internet. This has moved VR Studios from a small-scale side-project to a large scale enterprise. They brought in Club Penguin just before AGDC, an MMO most hardcore gamers likely have never heard of, but that has more players than most the games they have. They’ve also begun to ramp up their development team so they can do multiple projects at the same time. The ultimate goal is to provide MMO universes for any Disney property that the company believes needs one. In some ways, it’s like moving the theme parks online.

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