John Scott Tynes, longtime designer and publisher in paper gaming, wrote a monthly column, “The Contrarian,” for early issues of The Escapist. (See, for instance, “Nintendo is Doomed,” “Fight the Future” or “Growing Out of the Stone Age.”) “I had a great time writing that column,” he says, “but ended it because I just got too busy. It’s funny to look at it now and see how wrong I was, which is always great comeuppance for a pundit.”
John has earned his enlightenment at Flying Lab Software, working on an independent massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) he calls “something of a contrarian position”: Pirates of the Burning Sea. This summer, soon after the release of Disney’s third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Flying Lab’s MMOG finally launches – after four years, four years, in development.
Four years! What has that been like? “It’s like I went to the best grad school in the world,” John says. “I’ve done tons of game design, learned the basics of 3-D modeling, learned enough programming to code our first mission system, created sound effects, tracked down and hired an Oscar-winning sound designer to replace the crap I made, founded the content creation team and hired 10 people to staff it up, done a lot of business development, and eventually became producer for the entire project.”
That won’t surprise anyone familiar with John’s career. At 19, while still in college in Columbia, Missouri, he started an excellent gaming fanzine, The Unspeakable Oath, supporting Chaosium’s Lovecraftian tabletop roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu. Forming a company, Pagan Publishing, he edited and published many amazing RPG books, notably Delta Green. Best described as “John LeCarre meets H.P. Lovecraft,” Delta Green makes CoC players part of an illegal conspiracy inside the U.S. government that fights Mythos corruption. Originally published as an Oath article in 1992 – long before The X-Files, please note – Delta Green appeared in book form in 1997. Powerfully conjured, amazingly useful, it remains one of the roleplaying field’s best regarded campaign books.
John also designed the surreal “New Style” RPGs Puppetland and Power Kill and (with Greg Stolze) the highly regarded postmodernist horror RPG Unknown Armies. Working freelance for Wizards of the Coast, he edited a version of the CoC rulebook using Wizards’ d20 system. John’s book line, Armitage House, published Chris Jarocha-Ernst’s useful Cthulhu Mythos bibliography as well as his own Delta Green novel, Rules of Engagement.
Finally, though, 12 years of cash crunch wore him down. In a 2002 Gaming Report interview, John announced his retirement from paper gaming; he called publishing Call of Cthulhu supplements “a labor of love, not a reasonable business endeavor.” On his blog, he announced plans to write movies. He and a partner even sold a horror screenplay, Red Zone, which was never produced. Yes, he was preparing to work in the one other realm that treats writers almost as badly as paper gaming: Hollywood.
Fortunately, as it has rescued other penurious talents from the paper world, computer gaming rescued John Tynes.
He joined Flying Lab in 2002, shortly after the Seattle-based company shipped its first game, Rails Across America. “They were big fans of the work I’d done at Pagan Publishing,” he says. “One of them was having a birthday, so Russell [Williams], the CEO, e-mailed me and asked if I’d be their guest at dinner. It was like hiring a celebrity impersonator to entertain, except it really was me. Running my own little starving-artist company, I was in no position to turn down a free gourmet meal, even if I’d had to jump out of a cake.”
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.
“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.”