Pirates of the Burning Sea
Interview with Russell Williams, Executive Producer
Flying Lab Software

by Bram Otto, Subsim Review European Editor
Avast, me hearties, everything is turning up skull and crossbones!


Here we are on the trailing edge of a new millennium and we are seeing an onslaught of Pirate games! What's it going to take to stand out from the crowd? Maybe a Pirate sim....

Simulations are dead, or so say the PC game pundits. Producers of new games come out swinging, PR-wise, with declarations that their new title is not a simulation but sim-like action game and damned proud of it. Witness Comanche 4, Battlefield 1942, Steel Tide, Tiger Hunt, and several others. They are military-based action games that do not expect the player to notice if the flight dynamics are right or if the key to success is collecting power-ups. We like action games, they are great for what they are, but we also like pure-blood simulations that strive to bring the most realism possible into the viewer’s monitor.

While one can’t dispute that simulations are scarce, it’s hard to say if they are as extinct as dinosaurs or merely hibernating like some grizzly bear, dormant today but certain to reappear in the marketing arena as robust as ever. Imagine my pleasure when I called Russell Williams, Executive Producer at Flying Lab Software to discuss his team’s upcoming pirate game, Pirates of the Burning Sea.

Game? Well, not according to Russell. His goal is to produce a pirate game, er,… sim, that reproduces as much realism as Flying Lab can shoehorn in without sacrificing good and compelling gameplay. Tall order? You bet, it takes much more planning and skill to create a fun simulation than it does to make sim that ignores the value of good gameplay or an action game that glosses over reality with a sheen of flashy graphics. It’s called having your Pozitiv-ME1.2 active radar and getting to operate it, too. And after witnessing the enthusiasm backed by knowledge displayed by the Executive Producer of the first Massive Multiplayer Pirate game, I'm a believer.


Flying Lab’s Pirates sim is designed to be a massive multiplayer online only game. Russell admits this poses some very challenging design problems. “We intend to make a very detailed combat model. The player will be able to allocate the crew to concentrate on duties like manning the rigging or getting a faster rate of fire from the cannons.”

We’ve seen some early screenshots and were struck by how clean and just plain great the graphics are! The ships are superb. And it’s no wonder, for we later learned the ship models are being constructed for Flying Lab by none other than those old Sea Dogs, Akella. Renat and crew are showing up everywhere, by god!

But a lot of credit goes to Flying Lab for specifying historic authenticity from Akella. In fact, Flying Lab acquired numerous copies of architectural blueprints from the Smithsonian and forwarded them to Russia. Russell swears they are intent on getting the details right down to the last whisker pole. “Too many games focus purely on simple combat,” says Russell, “when the staying power of a good sim is giving the player more to do. We want Pirates of the Burning Sea to force the player to think, to look for tactical advantages, and to approach combat as an exciting activity, not just the next step in the game.”

So, POBS won’t be the usual “get into position, fire guns X times, then continue on” type of game. The player will find that his direct involvement in gunnery, lookout stations, damage control, and navigation will have an impact on the outcome of his encounters with enemy forces. This may challenge some casual gamers but “we’re not looking to dumb down the game” to accommodate the Doom crowd, says Russell.

I said that many offline games have different levels of difficulty to help out new players and people with limited attention spans. This is intended to draw them in, give them time to learn the game, and reward them for commitment. Russell scoffed at the idea. “We thought about providing ‘training lagoons’ but we’re still considering what approach to takewe think the game world design does a better job of letting players decide what kind of game they want.”

Players can sign up for specific missions which are rated according to risk. Cautious players can choose missions with minimal risk, but then the reward won’t be as great. Of course, risk estimates in a dynamic world are only indicative because the world is constantly changing. For example, if the sugar run between Charlestown and Plymouth is relatively quiet, then the Navy won’t aggressively patrol the area. A wily pirate may decide to go for easy pickings, and start hunting there. As he picks off a few tasty cargos, he tells his cronies, and soon the waters are infested with pirates. As traders get attacked the missions’ risk starts going up. Finally, the Admiralty takes notice and start patrols again. After a number of battles the pirates finally realize that the good times are over and start hunting elsewhere. Without the pirates and heavy Navy patrols, the missions’ risk goes down, and the Navy eventually leaves. This cycle can take place over weeks, so no matter how low the risk of a mission is, smart traders will always be on their guard for pirates.

“We may include some trading routes that give a timid player a place to learn with minimal risk, but his profits will be minimal as well. In the end, we want to reward players for taking risks and developing skill. If you want to enjoy the reputation of being a great pirate, you can’t achieve this in a training lagoon playing it safe.” So, in other words, take the knife in your teeth and journey forth. POBS is setting its sights on a small, enthusiastic subscriber base with a pure sim rather than a general audience game that attracts a larger group of players.

Are you ready for a hardcore sailing simulation in a persistent world with hundreds of other mateys? Well, we sure are. Subsim will be watching this one closely. Yar!


Interview - Or Seven Typical Pirate Sim Questions

Subsim: Can the player board another player’s ship?
FLS: Player’s can board enemy ships. For the first release, we have a simplified interface for handling boarding actions. When we introduce avatars, you’ll be able to lead your men in a boarding action against the enemy ship. We current plan on supporting up to 50 characters in the melee, so expect to see some wild combats!

Subsim: Will players engage in hand-to-hand combat?
FLS: We’re focusing mostly on sword play, guns, and variations on the two.

Subsim: What weapons does the player have at his disposal? Swords, pistols or muskets?
FLS: Yes! But don’t forget fixed swivel guns, boarding-axes and the ever-popular blunderbuss.

Subsim: Can you describe the key strokes used for sword fighting? Is there some skill involved?
FLS: As with our ship to ship combat system, player skill is an important factor, and can give a “newer” character an edge over an “older’ one. However, the player skill is in the strategy of the fight, not in mashing keys. We’re modeling our avatar combat after “The Princess Bride” and “The Sea Hawk,” not Halo.

Subsim: What level of graphics card will a player need?
FLS: The game is designed for DirectX 9-class cards. We use a lot of shader effects in the game for things like water and the normal mapping for the avatars.

Subsim: Describe FLS approach to releasing and upgrading as you go along.
FLS: Every month we’ll issue a new release, some of which will have significant new features. One of the cool things about Steam is that we can release a patch, wait for it to be sucked down (invisibly to the player) and then, when enough people have it, flip a switch and suddenly you’re playing the new version. No patch days with overloaded servers! Unlike other games, we don’t plan on making players pay for expansions. We have major feature improvements planned for the first three years, taking us all the way to pets!

Subsim: How long does your business plan span?
FLS: Three years.


Are you ready for a hardcore sailing simulation in a persistent world with hundreds of other mateys? Well, we sure are. Subsim will be watching this one closely. Yar!

Russell Williams worked on email systems from 1989 to 1997, during which he worked on DaVinci eMAIL for Windows (the first Windows email program) and Microsoft Exchange. He went into games at Microsoft, where he worked on Microsoft Golf 3 and Microsoft Golf ’98. He left Microsoft to start Flying Lab Software, an independent game company, where he was a producer for Rails Across America, winner of two Editor’s Choice awards and a Best Multiplayer Game of the Year. Current favorite computer game is Master of Orion 1 (bring out the DOS emulation!) and favorite movie is City of Heaven.



Currently projected for a ????  release

Links for Pirates of the Burning Sea   discss4jpg.jpg (12982 bytes)


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