While others chase the Tolkien-ripoff dream, one MMOG company cast its eyes to different seas. Three Rings went a different route, producing a game steeped in sea lore that caters to the puzzling crowd. They followed Puzzle Pirates with Bang! Howdy, another unique spin on a genre. Bang! Howdy put the traditional Three Rings humor in a world of cowboys and steampunk robots dueling on turn-based strategy ground usually occupied by complicated (and serious) Japanese titles. Their next project is Whirled, “a web-based social world for chat, games and player-created content,” though, hopefully, without the flying penises of previous efforts. At the center of it all is Three Rings’ CEO and Designer, Daniel James, known for his unique vision and piratical apparel.

He says his background is “mostly start[ing] companies. I started MUDding on Essex MUD – the one written by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle – in 1982. It used to run on the university DEC 10 between 1:00 and 7:00 a.m. On the weekdays, I would get up around 5:00 a.m., before school [to play]. On the weekends, I’d stay up all night. I made Wizard and wrote my own MUDs with friends on the school BBC Micro network.”

His first company was related to these late-night hobbies. “My first company was the commercial text MUD Yehuda Simmons and I started in 1990, Avalon. It ran out of the back room of my mum’s house.” Avalon used “eight phone lines and 2400-baud modems that would periodically melt and fail, necessitating me shuffling the dead ones to the back of the line. The game ran on an Acorn Archimedes, an old RISC computer, with a 286 as the multiplexer. We had some terminals, and my friends would come over and play until 6:00 a.m., when they had to leave, lest my poor mum awake to discover them bleary-eyed in the dawn light.”

1992 brought what he calls “Hostplay.” He describes it as “an Avalon PC-Baang [with] 14 phone lines and 14 terminals, before going on ye olde internet in 1994. We had a 64KB leased line, which cost over

Puzzle Pirates “started with pirates,” James says. “I was invited to a pirate party, and it was ridiculously fun. Everyone knew what to say and the outfits were awesome. I knew I had to make a pirate MMOG, to [call it] Yohoho!, but I was lacking the core game mechanic. You had to sail around on a ship together as a crew, and everyone had to be doing stuff that wasn’t whacking a monster … but I wasn’t going to have a clickfest like bad MMOG crafting – click the wheel, drag the slider, click the … Oh, God.

“Then, Bejeweled shipped, and my girlfriend at the time, Brooke Pannell, and I got addicted. She deserves a credit on Puzzle Pirates for beating me at Super Puzzle Fighter at the dime arcade on our third date.” On one particular day, “I left her playing on the laptop in bed, and came back five hours later. She was still playing. The pieces fell together; bling bling! Puzzle games had a flow of intensely fun concentration but left you feel[ing] like you’d wasted hours. MMOGs had the long-term achievement and social dynamics but lacked a fun core game mechanic.” Adding the pirate aspect gave it a “strong accessible theme,” which seemed like sure success.

With the idea and mechanics nailed down, they started building the game itself. “Puzzle Pirates was built by six people: three engineers, two artists and me. It took around 18 months to get to closed alpha testing.” Alpha testing took them from an online population of 10 up to 100 over nine months, and during beta, that climbed to 1,000 simultaneous players. “We probably could have started charging with a mid-alpha version,” James says, “but we were building a subscription game, so we felt that we had to get up over the $10/month ‘cliff.'”

During that development time, he says they were “funded by Michael and I and a few friends and family. Nobody would have funded us back in 2001/2002; angels, publishers, VCs, nobody. Things are different now, kids! Because of this relative financial freedom, and the lack of a fiasco-oriented external factor” – their motto during this time was “Nobody can *@!# this up but us” – “we were able to take our time and have a very smooth development cycle and launch. We did work very hard, though, especially Michael, who deserves (another) prize.”

The launch and success of Puzzle Pirates servers didn’t keep Three Rings from trying new things. They’ve been one of the few developers to make a successful go of the micropayment model. On some Puzzle Pirates servers, Three Rings sells Doubloons for in-game items in lieu of charging a subscription fee. “We wanted a new model for Puzzle Pirates that would have an easier conversion path than a $10 a month commitment,” James says, adding that they’d considered several different options, “but we very much wanted an indefinite ‘Free to Play’ offering. Around the end of 2004, we settled on the Doubloons model we have now.”

Overall, it has “worked very well. Over two-thirds of our revenues are from Doubloons. That said, we have a lot more players on the Doubloon servers, and overall revenues per new user are comparable. Revenue per individual customer is much higher, because Doubloons allow a smaller group of well-endowed players to subsidize the play experience of the vast majority of free players. This is facilitated by our support for transactions between the attention/time currency – Pieces of Eight – and the Doubloons (hard currency).”

Virtual currency and item sales have numerous detractors, but James “believe[s] that the virtual currency and associated ‘item’ sales model is the future model for the online entertainment industry,” primarily because “it provides the commercial relationship that people will expect with a virtual world; it’s another country with a currency that can be exchanged. Developers will make money by renting or selling real estate, items, taking a rake on the exchange, etc.” As for his own players, he says “the Pirates have not moved a lot between Doubloons and Subscriptions. Certainly some have, but the subscription and Doubloon oceans are separate servers, so people tend to stick where they got comfortable.”

Three Rings’ latest release, Bang! Howdy, also embraces the micropayment model, but they weren’t just trying to make a sequel to Puzzle Pirates. It stemmed from “a number of ideas for a sequel to PP – code-named SOY for ‘Son of YoHoHo‘ – but Michael was keen to not do another full MMOG right away. … Instead, we decided to take a stab at Bang! – a Korean-style ‘casual’ game – and develop our experience with 3-D and the pay-for-item model. Bang!‘s actual design emerged from Mike’s experiments with strategy game designs that avoid the ‘build up for 30 minutes, battle for five, then wait 30 minutes to be crushed’ syndrome of most RTS games. The theme fell out of a group brainstorm; we couldn’t resist steampunk cowboy robots.”

Indeed, Three Rings’ games always have that sort of whimsical element to them. Puzzle Pirates‘ swear filters turn obscenities into hilarious sailor slang. James was too coy to lurch into windy vision statements when I asked what makes a Three Rings game, saying, “Hah! We’re just a bunch of dorks. I’m not sure that I’d care to put a label on what makes a Triple-O game, but you will definitely see some different things from us. We’ve only made two so far, after all. Maybe the next one will be very, very gray and serious.” I’m not too sure about that, though, especially after he adds, “We’ll get the Ministry of Silly Walks right on it.”

In future games, they’d like to “make spaces that actively facilitate people reaching full potential. This has creative, spiritual, intellectual and sensual aspects,” though before he reaches full-blown Visionary, he heads back to Earth and adds, “That said, mostly, I’d like to make some fun games. I think our future leisure-lover will have a giant brain the size of a planet; if you can make something fun for them, you’re rocking all of the above.” He was tight-lipped about how they planned to do that, but would say 2007 “should be an interesting year.” Some weeks after we spoke, Three Rings announced Whirled, which may just challenge Second Life for the player-created content throne.

They’ve also been busy working on free software. There are several free programs on the company site for enterprising programmers to take advantage of, and they count contributions to FreeBSD and MySQL among their accomplishments. On top of that, they also run the Game Gardens program, where they offer free tools and hosting to a community of budding game developers. “Game Gardens actually emerged from our practice of having potential engineering hires devise a ‘challenge’ game,” which Three Rings pays for if they hire the person or not, “using our tools. We wanted somewhere to put them.”

James comes from a distinguished group of former British MUDders currently busy pushing the envelope – KFR from RedBedlam and Paul Barnett from Mythic being two more – and I wondered if there was something in those old MUDs that encouraged experimentation. “Maybe it’s because we got our goblin-bashing grinding out of our systems back in the mists of ye olden times!” he cracked, but it is undeniable that Three Rings is chasing a different sort of player than most MMOG developers.

“We set [out] to make Puzzle Pirates for the classic U.S. ‘casual gamer’ audience, that is, mostly women in their 30s and up. We also thought we’d do well with the MMOG players, but we didn’t want to aim for that audience. This has worked out – we attract about 50/50 male/female, and a very broad spread of ages. We’ve got a lot of teens playing. It can be hard to integrate the two (or three) audiences.”

As for the typical MMOG crowd, he describes them as “absurdly over-catered-to. There’s a plethora of free MMOGs, along with gorillas like WoW. The publishers who are investing tens of millions of dollars to compete by making yet another whack-a-goblin game, in my humble opinion, are crazier than us. I believe that MMOG players are looking for new and innovative experiences like Puzzle Pirates,” though he adds, “We probably would’ve made more money from a men-in-tights game, so perhaps we’re the crazy ones.”

Speaking of crazy, the Three Rings crew – James included – has been known to indulge in little bits of madness, be it making a casual puzzle MMOG or, well, dressing as a crew of pirates. While he won’t name a favorite in-game swashbuckler, saying, “Cleaver can’t be playing favorites. The wenches will get upset,” Calico Jack Rackham is his favorite real-life swashbuckler, “because of the Tintin books and his fraternizing with two legendary female pirates.” He’s forthright about the reasons for his occasional outing in the rags of an old sea dog. Why dress like a pirate in an industry that can be very serious business? “Because we can! Yarr!” And if there’s anyone who can get away with the unexpected, it’s Three Rings.

[em]Shannon Drake is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist and changed his name when he became a citizen. It used to be Merkw

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