Earlier this week, Flying Lab Software made the most dreaded of announcements: server merges. Typically, this means an MMO is in trouble, but according to CEO Russell Williams, that is not the case for Pirates of the Burning Sea, which remains a healthy game, for the most part in line with their projections.
“Companies are so afraid of any negative publicity that they basically wait until the game is on life support,” said Williams. “People are always nervous about change, but the fact is the game has so many interrelated systems that the game really does function better when there is a higher density of people.”
Currently, Pirates of the Burning Sea has 11 servers and after the merges in 30 days, that number will be cut to four (five including Australia and a Russian one coming in June). However, the capacity of each of those four servers is double that of each of the 11 they have now, which obviously helps population density. Further, one of those servers was for their Spanish launch, a debacle Williams has yet to fully understand.
“The Spanish launch is extremely disappointing,” admitted Williams. The theory seemed solid. Spain is one of the four playable nations in Pirates of the Burning Sea and often ignored by the MMO community. As such, FLS decided to put some effort into a simultaneous Spanish launch and a dedicated Spanish server. It didn’t work. Williams, to this day, has absolutely no idea what went wrong. He’s seen some evidence that the game did, in fact, make it to shelves in Spain, but the subscribers never materialized.
This forced them to think about merging that Spanish server; once they were on that path they began looking at the game in general and decided that their players would be better served with more players in each world.
“We were very nervous about what kind of load the servers could handle,” Williams said of their pre-launch strategy. As such, they opened all those servers. Now, three months into release, many of the initial bump of people who played on buddy keys included in each box or opted not to renew after the 30 free days have moved on and their numbers have balanced out. This happens to each and every MMO and Pirates was no different, but they wanted to play it safe and make sure they had a smooth launch.
Time has also given them a clearer idea of the choke points of their game and how that relates to server capacity. For example, they expected based on Beta for more people to play in the Open Sea areas at any given time. This was one of their choke points and helped dictate their server capacity decisions. Ultimately, that number is a bit lower in a real launched game and as such, allows them to put more players onto a server.
They also designed their game to specifically make sure that even when one nation was more popular than its rivals – who would have guessed people like playing Pirates more than the French? – that the game did not unfairly advantage them. For example, in port battles, the game randomly selects 24 people from each side for the final battle. This makes sure both sides have a fair fight.
What they didn’t realize was that when the server population is light, the more populous realm would be able to overwhelm their understaffed enemy by scheduling dozens of port contentions at the same time until they point where the defenders just couldn’t make it to all the battles. In a higher population server, this tactic will no longer be viable.
So, the bottom line is simple: Are Flying Lab Software happy with the level of popularity they have received? “If you take Spain out of the equation, yeah,” Williams said. Further to this, while there has been the inevitable decline in players associated with the loss of those free accounts from launch, the actual numbers have trended positive. “Our paid subscribers have been going up.”
Moving forward, Williams is excited to continue fleshing out the game and growing it organically over time.
“I think the model that has really shown itself to be really successful is what they did with EVE, that they basically kept working on it,” he said and added that FLS plans to do exactly the same thing. They’re hiring developers all the time and have no plans to send half their staff off on a new project.
They hope to grow their subscriber base over time through an emphasis on new, free content and frequent updates. They also plan to soon introduce free trials and digital downloads of the game, much in the way EVE Online has.
“What we need to do is make it easy for that audience to find us and give us a try,” he said. So we’re going to be following very much in the same mode [as CCP].”
Does this extend to free downloadable expansion packs? “I’m not saying we won’t do expansion packs down the line, but expansion packs will have very new and different geographic areas for you to explore and play pirates,” he told us. “I’m much more into the free and significant big updates than trying to charge people for expansions.”
As a company, the Seattle-based start-up remains strong and healthy. “We have sort of a different business model than a lot of other MMO companies,” he explained. “Obviously we don’t need WoW style numbers to be successful, thrive and go into the future.”