Exclusive Interview with John Scott Tynes

John Scott Tynes is the Producer of Pirates of the Burning Sea. Today, we’re featuring an exclusive interview with him on the progress of this exciting pirate project. We also have two exclusive screenshots (below).

WarCry Q&A: Pirates of the Burning Sea
Answers by John Scott Tynes, Producer
Questions by Dana Massey

imageWarCry: At PAX you announced avatar combat would officially be in the game when it launches this summer. Why did you choose to bring it in and delay launch to accommodate it?

John Scott Tynes: It’s just such a big expectation for the whole pirate/swashbuckling genre that we decided we had to deliver on it – particularly for boarding combat, where you really want to get in there and swing your sword around instead of watching some numbers float by.

WarCry: Can you explain the basic mechanics behind avatar combat?

John Scott Tynes: It’s a skill-based system so in some regards it’s very familiar from other MMOs. The biggest mechanical difference is the Balance meter, which represents your current defensive ability. It replenishes steadily but attacks and skills can knock it down, and the result is a very different sort of combat.

Let’s take the example of a basic enemy. One on one, a standard NPC can’t do much to you. You can take him out in one or two swings and he won’t even touch you because he can’t reduce your balance fast enough to get a hit in before you take him out.

But if you’re fighting three or four guys of that same ability level, you’ve got a fight on your hands. That same low-level basic enemy, when in a group, is now very dangerous. You can’t keep your balance when fighting so many opponents, so now you’re on the defensive and they’re landing blows.

In most MMOs, if there’s an enemy who can’t touch you, it doesn’t matter if there’s one or a hundred. They still can’t touch you. In our swashbuckling system, we want you to fight lots of guys all the time, so the balance feature ensures that can be a challenge.

Players choose from several different fighting styles. You can be a formal swordsman in the classical European style, or a dirty fighter who throws sand in people’s eyes. You can fight with an elegant rapier or try out two-weapon fighting with a sword and a dagger. And if you’re in trouble, you can whip out a pistol and take a shot or guzzle rum for a burst of healing.

If you’ve played other MMOs, you may have noticed how few combat animations there are. It’s pretty much swing a weapon and get hit. We counted how many different animations were in the leading games and it’s ridiculous – you can count them on your fingers. They just throw a lot of particle effects in there to distract you.

We don’t think that’s good enough. Fighting with a rapier is totally different from fighting with a cutlass. Just having your pirate hack away with whatever he happens to be holding is lame. We’re shipping with more than 250 combat animations and we promise you haven’t seen MMO combat look this good or feel this cinematic.

WarCry: Conversely, ship combat is a very different experience. What were your high levels goals with ship combat and how is it looking?

John Scott Tynes: We wanted to bring real-time tactical naval combat to MMOs and have player skill be a big part of it. We aren’t a sailing sim by any means, but we’re also a long way from the arcade action of Sid Meier’s Pirates. What we wanted was to find an approach to ship combat that gives you the feeling of being the captain, emphasizing maneuver and wind and relative motion, so that tactics really matter.

It’s going great. The basics of combat are in good shape and we are now working really hard to tune the 50+ ships we’ll have at launch to ensure fun fights. Ship combat is the core of the game and we want it to be a very different and very satisfying experience.

imageWarCry: It seems every aspect of the game has constantly had the bar raised on it over the years of development. With the size of the team, the production values of the game and, I would assume, the cost of the project going up, what expectations do you now have for the product in terms of commercial success?

John Scott Tynes: There are a lot of gamers out there who are looking for something different. We think we’ve got it and we feel really good about our prospects. We have no expectation of being the next WoW, but we do think we’ll find a home in the short of list of successful MMOs.

WarCry: Where is the next area you hope to raise the bar and how?

John Scott Tynes: We are completely redoing our avatars right now. They’re entirely customizable, like in City of Heroes, which is great, but we are seriously upgrading their look and quality. We’re rolling out the first of those upgrades to the beta this milestone so you’ll see screenshots soon. I think by the time we launch, people will be knocked out by how much fun our characters are to play.

WarCry: At sea, the concern has always been that the pace of sailing may be a bit slow. You’ve said you’re going for fun over simulation when it comes to sailing. Can you give us some examples of how you’ve made navigation easy?

John Scott Tynes: For starters, your ship is controlled with the WSAD keys, a mechanism familiar from lots of games. Of course, ships move differently than people, so you’re not stopping and turning on a dime like you can in an FPS. But it’s comfortable and familiar and uncomplicated.

Our ships move and turn a lot faster than in real life. We really aren’t willing to have a one-on-one naval battle go on for forty-five minutes, so we keep the pace quick. The added speed makes for a more intense fight, since you’re making tactical decisions moment to moment.

WarCry: You’ve like been in beta longer than some MMOs get in production. What is the value of such a long beta test and what are some of the big affects it has had on the game?

John Scott Tynes: By the time we launch, we’ll have been in beta for a year and a half. It’s been a great way for us to learn what it’s like to have real players who love or hate various things we do. Being in beta means that problems we didn’t notice in our daily work are exposed as huge issues in the beta, and it drives us to solve those problems quickly.

A few months into the beta, we formed a beta live team that meets every week. We discuss feedback from the beta and that in turn drives work to change things and fix problems. That kind of responsiveness has made a big difference, especially last spring and summer when the beta had some real issues that we had to solve.

We participate in the beta forums regularly. I gather this isn’t normal in MMOs, but our programmers, designers, artists, and management regularly post in the forums to answer questions, debate decisions, and just hang out. We’re extremely transparent in how we operate and we communicate directly to our players every single day. We aren’t afraid of letting devs talk to players, and we learn a lot about our game this way.

I think a short beta is a bad sign. You really need time for your game to mature and ripen with players playing it. We have beta testers who have now been playing Pirates of the Burning Sea for a full year! These folks are true veterans and they can critique our work in useful ways.

WarCry: Like many of the most visually sophisticated MMORPGs, the game looks very, very clean. For a pirate game, this seems a bit off-putting. Do you intend to go back, particularly to your land environments, and grit things up a bit?

John Scott Tynes: Heh. We just finished a scuzzy pirate town and when I took a look at it, I asked our art director to make it even scuzzier! We do want that adventurous flavour and try to get it in where it’s appropriate.

WarCry: What kind of fluff features do you have in mind? Any chance I can have a pet parrot or monkey, for example? Gambling? Drinking? Other pirate-like distractions?

John Scott Tynes: I must admit, we haven’t spent any serious time on fluff. (Hmm, that sounds odd!) We’re pushing on some ambitious and innovative game systems including the real-time tactical naval combat, the player-driven economy, the PvP/RvR system, and swashbuckling. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for fluff!

But one thing I’m excited about that qualifies is what we call Lively Town. This feature populates our towns with NPC pirates, soldiers, drunks, gamblers, harlots, aristocrats, and much more. These characters do all kinds of funny, cool, and surprising stuff. We’re recording tons of voice dialogue for them as well, so when you get near the gamblers you’ll hear them talking about who’s winning, and the British soldier languishing in a pirate jail cell will plead for his life. This stuff is background ambience – we aren’t making our mission patrons read all their text to you like in EQ2 – but it’s really fun to discover. We want our towns to feel like a theme park ride full of characters and situations, and it is working great.

WarCry: You’ve had players creating ships for you over time. Can you highlight one of the most impressive player created ships and talk about how they got it into the game?

John Scott Tynes: It would not only be impossible, but entirely unfair to pick just one of our player’s ships- simply because no matter how simple one ship may appear, the devil really is in the details. Our Shipwrights have used real plans, painstakingly rendering each bowsprit and jibboon and doing so with a very strict polygon count to contend with. Right now, we’ve got 19 user created ships and that list continues to grow! From the tiny Yacht to the gigantic Trinity, our fans have worked very hard modelling their creations and we appreciate each one- and you can too by visiting The Captain’s Ship Guide at http://www.flyinglab.com/pirates/shipguide/UserShips.htm

WarCry: Is this summer still realistic for launch and do you have any distribution plans you can share?

John Scott Tynes: We take our June release date very seriously and fully intend to meet it. As for distribution, that’s still under discussion and I don’t have any announcements yet.

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