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GDC 2005 Report: Puzzle Pirates: Lessons from an Indie MMOG


March 15, 2005
 

Those who haven't had the pleasure of actually attending a Game Developers Conference lecture probably aren't aware that each of them is graded by the audience. Upon arrival, little score sheets are handed out to each attendee, asking us to rate on a one-to-five scale categories such as the quality of the speaker, the relevance of the lecture, and whether or not the graphics on the overhead projector are pretty.

When Daniel James, CEO of Three Rings Design, Inc., started the session by serving everyone a shot of Captain Morgan rum, one could almost hear the circular pen strokes of everyone voting unanimous fives all around, this writer included. It was the closing lecture of the fourth day of the conference, after all, so for most of us it wasn't much more than an appetizer for the rest of the evening.

James began by describing the origin of Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates. One morning, for no reason in particular, he and his girlfriend were playing the massively addicting Bejeweled on his PC. After leaving the house for seven hours or so and coming back, he found that she was still playing the game. "I can't... move," she said. James saw that such an online game was a compelling experience, but felt that it lacked any kind of depth. He also felt that MMORPGs had that depth, but were kind of boring. Logically, then, combining the two should produce a fairly popular game.

 


Puzzle Pirates

The major design principle of Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates was to create a game that is both simple and achievable. "Graphics and realism aren't fun," he argued, "fun is fun." James said that he was more interested in usability over technology, and that binding players into social groups, and having them both play with each other and with a living, thriving economy is the key to replayability.

The game's design team at initial inception, around July 2001, was a mere three people. In about a year's time, the team grew to six, and more or less stayed that way for the remainder of development.

"We made superhuman efforts," James said, "but we didn't work weekends." The team enjoyed the freedom of having no publisher to answer to, and incorporated an open design process, in that everyone involved had sway in the way the game turned out, including the players themselves. James also spoke out against so-called "crunch times," calling it a "very bad idea."

"To all the producers out there: do you guys like crunch times? Well, have some more rum and think again."


Daniel James

James admitted that such a casual atmosphere might not work for everybody, but it certainly worked for them. As previously mentioned, the game began development in July 2001, with alpha testing running from October 2002 through July 2003, and beta testing running from then until the December 2003 launch.

The crew was concerned that the game would not be ready at launch and, needing money, began taking pre-subscriptions at discount rates starting in October 2003, approximately two months before launch. "So basically, we took their money early and kept it... well, okay, spent it. Shh."

As is the nature of games, and particularly in multiplayer online games, player behavior took some unexpected turns. For instance, early complaints centered mostly around players not having any direction, forcing Three Rings to add a new "mission system," which was essentially a fancy instruction sheet guiding players to features that had been in place the entire time. Another unexpected factor is that the community that formed in Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates are just too nice to each other, and that no one seems to be taking advantage of the player-versus-player mode, or the very profitable venture of island blockades. "We're going to have to do something about that."

The economy system, however, has been very successful, "which is sort of astonishing." Players took to the system warmly, opening up their own shops and having the economy thrive much better than expected.

James also observed odd behavior in that players seem much more concerned about graphical changes than what he called "real changes," citing an example of changing a gown's color scheme causing a lot of negative feedback.


From the deck of Puzzle Pirates.

Michael Blayne, Three Rings' CTO, then took over and showed off a few graphs. Interesting statistics among these included a very consistent monthly build, with some instances of two builds in one month due to what he called "impromptu testing with our players." A code breakdown showed that 25% of the game's source code was dedicated to puzzles, with sailing/battling and the economy taking up the majority of the rest. Interestingly, statistics showed that out of all of those clicking on the website's link to download the game, only between 70 and 80% actually finished the download, and out of those, only 40% actually installed the software. Blayne theorized that users expected the game to be browser-based, and were not prepared to have to download and manually install software.

They then went briefly into the recently-added micro-payment system, which is working well so far. "It's like the Wild West, it's very experimental. We're not sure if it will work out, but we'll see."

The lecture concluded with a brief overview of Game Gardens, a new website developed by Three Rings with the intention of seeing more developers create open-source online videogames. Three Rings are big fans of open-source software, having used no less than thirty-six open-source programs in the production and marketing of Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates, and have therefore made their development toolkits and online hosting free for "anyone who wants to make some weird, cool game."

The retail version of Puzzle Pirates, which includes a new single-player mission mode, will be available on store shelves courtesy of UbiSoft on May 3.

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