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Disney's Goslin On The  Pirates Of The Caribbean  MMO's 'Velvet Rope'
Disney's Goslin On The Pirates Of The Caribbean MMO's 'Velvet Rope' Exclusive
September 22, 2008 | By Brandon Sheffield

September 22, 2008 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

"Iíve found that with these massively multiplayer games, youíve never learned it all -- you keep learning," says Mike Goslin, president of Disney Online Studios. Goslin was at the Austin GDC to discuss the company's newest MMO, Pirates of the Caribbean Online, and the lessons learned.

Goslin started at Disney at Walt Disney Imagineering, working on virtual theme park rides, specifically Disney Quest, a "theme park in a box," as he called it. The most popular ride was apparently Pirates of the Caribbean.

"The most important thing we learned was that everybody loves being a pirate," he says. "Grandmas, little girls, everybody gets on there and has a good time."

While Goslin wasnít able to reveal the subscription numbers for the Pirates of the Caribbean game, he did impart a number of interesting statistics, including:

- 104 million ships sunk
- 5,445 cumulative years of play
- 2.7 billion gold won in blackjack minigame
- 4.2 million male pirate avatars
- 1.3 million female pirate avatars

"Movie games tend to suck," Goslin admits. "Thatís because a lot of money gets tied up in the license, and there are milestones for a movie, and things like that."

Creating The World

Disney was lucky in that it owned the rights to the movie, and was itself the licensor. The team initially decided to capture the experience of the movie, rather than clone its plot or more specific elements.

Initial character models for the game followed the concept art of the ride -- "And I think that was a mistake," Goslin says. "If youíre a fan of Pirates of the Caribbean now, youíre thinking of the movie first. The number of people who think of the ride is very small."

The initial goofy, cartoonish avatars "dragged down the appeal in terms of age," he says. ďThe older kids didnít think this was cool, because they looked like animated characters. And that was a mistake, because we wanted to live up to the expectations of these movies."

So the team then focused more on detail, and changed the avatars to fit more within the world of the movie. "Keep in mind we were also very constrained, because it needs to run on every damn PC out there, and there are some really low-end PCs. Another thing you can do to bring these (player) characters into the game is really put them into the world."

The teamís conclusion was cut-scenes, which most people donít do in MMOs, because "theyíre very expensive, itís hard to get it right, especially with humor."

But it got the characters acting right within the world. "If youíre introducing a broad new audience to this new kind of game, which they havenít really played before, it helps them to know thereís something familiar in there."

ďSince we were doing it in-engine, we were able to put your player-created character in there with Jack,Ē he says. But the player character is mute, and so ďit seems like some sort of strange monologue, so we put in at least one other character (into a scene) so itís not so flat.Ē

Unfortunately the team couldnít get Johnny Depp to do the voice acting, so they had to use a voice mimic. "The problem with sound-alikes is theyíre one extreme or the other," says Goslin. "Either theyíre great at mimicry, or theyíre great at acting, but rarely both."

In order to create the online world, the game, ride, and movie teams got together and dumped everything that was known about the world into a bible. This would make sure the fiction was consistent across the books, the movies, and the game.

"It was a large investment across all parts of the company," says Goslin. "One thing we did decide to do, was that because we wanted all the cool things in our game, we played fast and loose with the timeline, so we could bring in all the cool things from all the films."


"How do you get people into this world?" asks Goslin. "I already talked about using the Pirates material as a bridge, but one thing thatís really important is a good tutorial. One thing we could do a better job on is keep it shorter. You always think thereís a bare minimum number of things people need to know to play this game, and it just winds up being really long. Itís probably (still) two times too long. We need to continually whittle that thing down."

To add to accessibility ,one should "give people things to do that donít require huge time investments," he says. "One of the most fun things is crewing up and going on ships. But while youíre waiting around, what do you do? So we added card games into it. I think there are people where this is largely what they do."

"Violence was a tough one for us," Goslin admits. ďThe series is all about violence, people fighting and blowing things up. But this game is for kids too, and we didnít want a T rating from the ESRB because that really limits us. We made our problem worse when we started going more realistic. If it were cartoony violence, it wouldnít be a problem."

"Itís all in the perception," Goslin says. The impact of violence depends on the context. You donít die in the game -- you get unconscious and get thrown in the brig. You have a death penalty, but itís not actual death, and Goslin finds that this makes the game more accessible without getting rid of a staple of pirate existence.

Business Model

According to Goslin, the number one lesson is to make your "velvet rope" soft. Pirates of the Caribbean Online uses a model in which the player can try limited parts of the game for free, but then hits a wall where theyíre forced to pay a $5/month subscription charge if they want to continue.

"How much do you give away for free?" Goslin poses. "The one thing I do know for sure is that at the beginning was that it was way too close. It wasnít a velvet rope originally, it was barbed wire. It didnít feel like a free game, and more like a free trial. On the other hand, a lot of players were converting."

"I think ultimately itís a good business model," he says, "and weíve gone back and added it to (Disney's previous MMO) ToonTown. I think people have to play it for a while before they say, "'Hey, Iíd be willing to pay this thing.'"

Goslinís argument is counter to that of Min Kim, who in a talk the very same day, decried this model as a false pretender to the free to play business model idea. The variety of methodologies and passions behind them is evident nowhere as strongly as at the Austin GDC.

How valuable are the freeloaders, Goslin asks? "What would happen if you gave 90 percent of it away for free? Iíd really like to try it," Goslin says. "When you start buying into these communities, your status within that community is very important, so if thereís some exclusive content thatís exclusive to a pay wall, maybe more people will actually do it."

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