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While everyone was in Las Vegas for CES, SOE took the opportunity to hold a launch event for Pirates of the Burning Sea. It was the last chance to talk to the developers before launch, and gave us a look at their preparation for the big day on January 22nd and at how their pre-order launch had run.

During the head-start launch for pre-order customers, Flying Lab Software capped the game at level 21 and hopes the hardcore players already at sea kick start the game’s player run economy. To support the soft launch, FLS has an impressive 11 servers available for players to use. While all are not full to the target of 2,000 per server, FLS CEO Rusty Williams characterized himself as happy with the reception. When you compare their 11 soft launch servers with the three fully launched servers required to support Tabula Rasa, it’s clear they’re doing OK.

“In this case, [the target of 2,000 players per server is] more of a design goal than a technical goal,” they told us. At that level, there are more than enough people to support the game’s economy, but not so many that shared spaces are over-crowded or that someone cannot carve out their own niche in that economy.

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The first launch went smoothly, with only small server-side patches required. By and large, the game and its servers have held up to demand and while nothing ever launches perfectly, their extensive Beta test is largely credited for the smooth rollout.

In December, the team began work on the first post-launch free content update. At this time, it’s about two months away and the focus is rather simple: “more”. The design team didn’t want to delay and anticipated the worst case scenario where most of the developers would be hard at work on technical problems. If that’s not the case, all the better, but as such, the first content update is focused heavily on more content that the team can produce with limited support from code.

Once the level cap drops on launch day, the designers believe the average reasonably casual player will take about two to three months to reach the level cap, but while this gives an idea of the game’s curve, they do not believe it is as important a stat as in most MMOs.

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“One of the things I like about our game is that level is not the be all and end all,” said Game Designer Drew Clowery.

In actuality, the difference between levels is not that big of a deal. While it certainly cannot hurt to grind out those last few levels, it does not hamstring a character who chooses adventure over the cap.

The game itself has thousands of missions, but most are of the rather generic variety. Now that they have enough to satisfy even the most absurd appetites, the focus has shifted to hand-crafted missions. The goal of these is to keep the player entertained and on his toes; many of the quests are disguised as typical quests, but then lead to something altogether unexpected.

One example they showed off was a mission where the player got on a primitive submarine. It takes the player down to a shipwreck to recover some object, but once there, another looter shows up and the two fight hand-to-hand in the sideways cabin of a ship that has developed a convenient air bubble. The fight comes complete with a timer for when people run out of air.

They also hope to add new pirate gangs in an effort to increase the number of identifiable enemies in the game.

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As I’d seen the game a few dozen times over the years, Williams and Co-Founder Rich Saada made an effort to show off a few things I may never have seen before. One was Tortuga, the Pirate capital. It’s five times the size of the next biggest city, so much so that they added “smuggler’s routes”, which represent shortcuts, but are in reality teleports through the city. The architecture is that of a salvage yard, a city carved out of the debris of thousands of ships. It serves all the functions of a capital and is loaded with quests for pirates to undertake, but also has some neat spots of its own.

One example is a combat arena where players can fight a series of PvE fights, which culminate in a very Peter Pan battle with an alligator. These are some seriously high level encounters – Williams got annihilated a few times for my amusement – and they get harder as they’re completed. The arena itself sits in the bowels of the city, far below the ground in a crude arena on a precipice the leads to the lava flows below the volcanic island.

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They also showed off Port Royal, which in history suffered a major earthquake and thus in the game’s timeline has just begun to pull itself back from the destruction. It’s much like the other colonial ports, but in this case, the coastline is ruined and much of the city has fallen into the sea.

They even took the chance to show me something never before seen: a prototype village for Pirates of the Asian Seas. FLS doesn’t just want to localize for Asia, but build their waters in a distinct game. When Williams travels to Asia to work on this, he shows off the massive, historically accurate ships they’ve created and a small town with classic Asian architecture. It was only a small taste and devoid of people, but it definitely evoked the right feel.

Finally, Creative Director Jess Lebow provided an update on the game’s “choose your own adventure” style story-arc. Like all good pirate stories, this one begins with a map handed to the player by a dying sea captain at the tutorial’s conclusion. From there, each player sets off on a series of missions that spans the entire game. In all, there are 70 possible missions, but each character likely only experiences 30 to 50 of them, due to their own choices.

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These missions are full of non-traditional forms of advancement. Lebow cited the example of a situation where the player must flirt with a love interest, but simultaneously distract his or her over protective relatives in a mini-game not unlike The Sims.

“Most MMOs don’t have much of a place where you decide what you do,” Williams chimed in. “Your personality dictates how you play the game.”

Players should expect more of their central story every five or so levels, much of it in instanced spaces. It combines all elements of the game, including non-traditional advancement, sea battles and avatar adventures.

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Ultimately, players gain access to the island of Grand Turk, which is completely different for each individual based on what they chose to do. There they’ll see the people they met – or not see those that they killed – and the consequences of the path they chose.

They learned more than just non-traditional advancement from The Sims. Their character creator continues to impress with the sheer volume of options and could open the game up to more than just the stereotypical core gamers. At their big launch party, I saw that the two hired “booth babes” – in full pirate regalia – had taken the opportunity to jump up to one of the consoles and create likenesses of themselves. It’s a safe assumption that neither fell into the game’s target market, but there they were, having fun with one of the game’s most attractive features.

Pirates of the Burning Sea is currently live for those who pre-ordered the game. Full retail launch is on February 22nd.

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