Exclusive Interview with Jess Lebow: History and Inspiration

Jess Lebow is the Content Director of Pirates of the Burning Sea, but in this latest edition of our Q&A series, we talk to him about what inspires him and what made it into the game from history and reality. Lebow – who is also a novelist – gives us in-depth responses on all fronts!

WarCry Q&A: Pirates of the Burning Sea Interviews 4
“History and Inspiration”
Answers by Jess Lebow (Content Director)
Questions by Dana Massey


WarCry: What have been your prevailing influences in designing Pirates, in terms of history, literature and pop-culture?

Jess Lebow: Wow, well, to be honest, the list is long. We play a lot of games at Flying Lab (and we have some very serious pop-culture junkies). So off the top of my head, here’s a less-than-comprehensive list…

Video Games:

  • Sid Meier’s Pirates!
  • City of Heroes
  • Guild Wars
  • Monkey Island
  • And in terms of storytelling-anything Bioware has made (we’ve played them all)


  • Patrick O’Brian
  • C.S. Forester
  • Dudley Pope
  • Rafael Sabatini

Literary Figures and Books:

  • Captain Blood
  • Captain Hook 🙂
  • Horatio Hornblower
  • Treasure Island
  • Pirate’s Guide to Freeport

Non-fiction Books:

  • Under the Black Flag
  • The General History of Pirates

Real-Life Pirates:

  • Blackbeard (of course)
  • William Kidd
  • Black Bart Roberts
  • Anne Bonny
  • Mary Read

Hey, look at that! A ready-made Xmas shopping list for the geek in your life 😉


WarCry: Often, we’re told that when history and fun collide, fun wins. While that makes perfect sense, talk about some of the areas where historical accuracy has endured.

Jess Lebow: I think the biggest thing is the sense of freedom and danger that were so prevalent in the Caribbean at that time. If you take a look at the map and you think about the political climate in 1720, you realize that the conditions were absolutely perfect for piracy. It’s a huge area, dotted with islands-which means there were plenty of places to hide. The fastest form of travel is via sailing ship-which means that a pirate in a small ship is likely as well equipped as even the British navy and in many cases too fast to catch.

Add to this the fact that none of the European powers have enough ships to be considered the one true authority in the Caribbean. (As an example, the Royal Navy in 1714 had only 214 ships world wide. If you assume the other nations’ navies had similar numbers and that only a fraction of those ships were stationed in the Caribbean, you start to see that it was nearly impossible for them to maintain order.) And of course, they bicker amongst themselves, oftentimes taking each others ports-which means they have to divide their limited resources between fighting the other European nations and hunting down pirates.

Anyone who sailed the open sea was taking a tremendous risk with every voyage they undertook. But with that risk came reward for those who had the might or the negotiating skills to capitalize on it. And pirates were free to do whatever they pleased-as long as they had the strength or the speed to get away with it.

In PotBS when I’m taking a load of iron ingots and black powder into a contested area, I’m taking a similar risk. I’ve spent time and in-game currency to create these goods, and if I get attacked by pirates or privateers while I’m on my way to market, then I could lose them (and a point of durability on my ship). Of course, I have the choice to take my wares to another location, so I can avoid this, but only if I’m willing to take less money or allow my nations enemies to deter me.

We’ve tried really hard to preserve this emotional sense of freedom and danger that organically comes out of the reality of this time period, and we’ve succeeded.

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WarCry: The game world itself is clearly based on the actual Caribbean, but obviously not to scale. Take us through the translation of real places to a compelling video game world.

Jess Lebow: There are really three different levels of scale for PotBS. The first is the instances. In battle, the game world is pretty close to scale, that is to say, the ships are in rough proportion to the waves and the coastline as they would be in real life. The second is the towns and persistent avatar areas. These are mostly proportional, but since we don’t want players to get lost, we’ve provided spaces that fit the needs that players have in towns (buy goods, talk to trainers, interact with other players, visit the tavern, etc…). The third is the open sea. This is our fast travel zone, and it is in no way to scale. It would take days to sail across the entire Caribbean, and I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like fun to me. So we’ve truncated the whole thing to make it take anywhere from 30-minutes to an hour to sail from one end to the other-which you won’t likely never do in a single play session.

No matter which of these scales we’re working in, we start with several different things in mind. Playability is the largest factor. Each of the “rooms” as we call them (a room could be anything-a fort, water from horizon to horizon, an indoor tavern, the outside courtyard of a town, etc…) is designed to fit a particular need inside our game. Once we know what sort of gameplay is going to happen there, then the artists and world designers will spend a fair amount of time researching what the area looked like in real life. Sketches are good, when we can find them. Pictures of ruins are examined. But oftentimes we have to rely on written descriptions of what the area looked like, and work backward from what a town or local looks like now.

What we’re really looking for in our research are elements we can use to flavour the area so that it feels right. For example, we recently redesigned Port Royal, the British capital. In real life, Port Royal was hit pretty hard by a couple of earthquakes (one before 1720 and one right after). So we incorporated some of the destruction into the town art. The docks that players encounter when they first arrive have been built out from the remaining ruins of the front part of the town.

We give this same treatment to all the environments in the game. Our environment team is really great. They’ve done some super cool stuff. Wait until you get a chance to run through Tortuga. 🙂


WarCry: One advantage of a pirate setting is that a lot of the lore that makes it popular is old enough to now be in the public domain. Tell us about some of the famous pirates and situations the game has in store?

Jess Lebow: To round out the four “nations” in the game, we’ve created what we’re calling the Brethren of the Coast, which is really just a loose affiliation of pirates who have allied to collectively fight the European powers. While France, England, and Spain all have their respective heads of state, the Brethren have instead William Kidd. (Okay, so in real life there really wasn’t a pirate nation and William Kidd was hanged, but play along for a moment.)

While facing the gallows, the rope used to hang Kidd broke (this part really happened). The lucky pirate was said to have received the “Lord’s Pardon” and with the help of some sympathetic folk, he managed to escape (that’s the part where we diverge from history). In PotBS, Kidd has returned to the Caribbean and has become the head of the Brethren. Players will eventually get to meet him and run missions for him in the name of the Brethren of the Coast.

We have plans to run live events with many of the other famous pirates you know. Be on the lookout for Blackbeard sometime in the near future. And at launch, Captain Blood can be found creating trouble at select locations all over the Caribbean.

WarCry: Sailing has been simplified for ease of gameplay. Is there anything there for the nautical purist to enjoy?

Jess Lebow: Oh sure.

Wind plays a huge factor in sailing and combat tactics. There are several different types of rigging in the game, and each changes the way a ship handles along with its angle of attack. Trying to sail close-hauled will reduce your effectiveness, as it would in a real ship. The sails will actually turn when you move through the point on the compass where the wind hits them in a different direction. And, among other things, our ships have been created using actual plans from sailing ships of our time period.

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