Interview with Flying Labs CEO, Russell Williams

As you may well know, Pirates of the Burning Sea hit it's first launch anniversary in January and released a gigantic game update yesterday. Our very own Togikagi caught up with the CEO of Flying Labs, Russell Williams, to talk about game update v1.11, v1.12, and what players can expect from PotBS in 2009. Russell also makes mention of Flying Lab Software's second, soon to be announced MMO.

Togikagi : Pirates of the Burning Sea celebrated its one-year anniversary in January. Happy anniversary! How does it feel to hit that mark?

Russell : Great! The one year anniversary coincides with a switch in our development. The first year was essentially filled with tuning and revamping the game based on live feedback. It’s been extraordinarily useful watching the live game and seeing what players like and dislike, much of which is reflected in how we’ve evolved the game.

What’s exciting about the one year milestone is that our updates have now turned from polishing to new features and content. The recently released revamp of our sword fighting system was a gargantuan amount of work between all the teams, but now that it’s out, we’re turning our attention to big new features like Skirmish, Player Governed Ports, and the new mission storylines. We’re also doing the planning for our first expansion, which will take players out of the Caribbean into new parts of the world and introduce new features and content for those areas. In the meantime, we’ll still be adding new features on our regular update schedule.

Of course, between that and our other MMO (which will be announced next week), that’s a lot of work, which is why we’ve been on a hiring binge.

Togikagi : After one year, Pirates of the Burning Sea almost seems like a brand new game, with all the updates. What was the driving force behind the overhaul?

Russell : We want the game to be the best it can be, and we have a fairly large team cranking away on the game. We’ve put out twelve big updates in one year, and have made literally thousands of improvements. We’ve put out exciting new content, we’ve introduced a new class, new ships, we’ve polished the gameplay, and we’ve dramatically revamped the sword fighting combat (which required balancing hundreds of missions).

The reason we get to do this is that we’re privately held, and we don’t have to answer to anyone besides ourselves and our players. We’re in this for the long haul, so we base everything on long term performance, not cutting people for short term stock gains.

: Build 1.11: The Clash of Steel recently went live and brought with it the revised Avatar Combat system, one of the bigger changes to come to the game. Was the transition a smooth one?

: It went incredibly smoothly for such a major change. That’s partly because we’d been working on it for months, and had time to evangelize the changes to players and to educate them on how to use it. It still required an open mind from our players, and while there’s always fear with change, putting the information out there early enough gave us great feedback and helped us address some concerns before they were a problem.

Togikagi : Can you explain the design process behind the combat changes? What was it about the game’s original combat system that just didn’t work?

Russell : It wasn’t so much a single point of failure as a lot of little rough bits that, combined together, made us unhappy. The entire system needed a serious polish pass that we weren’t able to give it before launch.

The three key elements of the old system that were changed: first, we changed the mechanic by which you use your skills – ‘initiative’ – to front-load fights.  This added a lot more action to even simple fights. Second, we changed the defensive mechanic – ‘balance’ – to function in a more predictable manner. This allows players to make more informed decisions about what actions to take next; the previous version of balance had a lot of behind-the-scenes math that you couldn’t easily parse for yourself. Third, we gave almost every avatar skill an area of effect. Most of the time, you’re hitting two or three guys, and sometimes a lot more. This adds a lot more sense of epic swashbuckling action to the fights.

The design process basically began as soon as we launched, and involved playing through hundreds of avatar combats in every conceivable combination. Over that many fights, some elements emerged as fun and engaging; others were clearly impeding enjoyment. Because so much of our system is data-driven, we were able to make changes immediately, try them out, tweak them, and revise them on the fly.

Essentially, we just kept asking: ‘is this more fun than it was yesterday?’
Togikagi : NPCs have also gotten complete revamps with the new archetype system. How did you go about choosing these archetypes and putting them into effect?

: Our Content team has been working on the archetype concept since launch, as well; it’s a fundamental problem with our game’s genre that enemies tend to be boring and generic. In a fantasy game, you can fight a dragon; in Pirates, you mostly fight guys with swords. Archetypes are an approach that lets us create some of the exciting variety you see in more fantastic games.

The archetypes were largely based on actual gameplay, where the designers looked at the ways players would combine their skills, use special abilities, and wring the most out of the system. Our epic missions in Forteleza and Bey’s Retreat were somewhat of a proving ground for this concept of very highly customized enemy behavior.

The new avcom system put a whole lot more tools into the hands of the Content team, and also demanded a total revision of every enemy in the game to fit the new mechanics. Since we had no choice but to replace all the enemies, it was a perfect time to move forward with the archetypes plan.

Under the new mechanics, it’s easier to create an NPC and know exactly how he’s going to behave; it’s easier to plan for player behaviors, because they’re more consistent; and, ultimately, it’s easier for both players and NPCs to react to more complicated situations. You’ll need to be able to recognize your enemies, spot the ways their abilities work together, and make a plan to deal with them.

Togikagi : Let's jump ahead to Build 1.12: Rebel Apostles, which went live this week. Right on the heels of the AvCom revamp we’re getting a serial story arc that focuses on the Dread Saints. Can you give us some more details on this storyline and how it came about?

Russell : For the first year of updates, we added missions all the time but they tended to be one-offs or short story arcs. We thought it was time to do something a little more in-depth. Chris Pramas, our Creative Director, came up with the story and outlined how it will develop. Black Flags and Dread Saints will be told in six chapters over the course of this year. It has been designed that characters of all nations can participate and it has missions for low, medium, and high level characters.

The Dread Saints themselves are a curious bunch. They have a certain Puritanical dourness to them, but their religion, such as it is, is piracy. They follow the teachings of the "Dread Saint", who will be revealed in the next chapter. After that things get a little hairy in the Caribbean and the balance of power is thrown out of whack. There will a lot of mayhem leading up to the final chapter.

Togikagi : 1.12 will also offer population incentives. Some players are concerned it could possibly be exploited. Can you tell us a bit more about the incentives and the criteria behind selecting which nations receive them?

: The incentives are the ability to gain XP twice as fast and a 30% chance at an extra loot drop. Many players have commented that they’d happily roll an alt on a different server to help out lower population nations but the thought of leveling another character didn’t thrill them. Gaining XP twice as fast shortens the time required to level that alt. And the additional loot gives money or items to help a bit economy-wise.

We’ll post these incentives on the server selection screen along with the port battle times so a new player who hasn’t yet decided which nationality or server to play has more information on which to base that decision.

We continually collect data which shows us the concurrency per nation per server. As we do with the port battle time slots, we will be checking that data roughly monthly to determine whether to change these values. Checking more often doesn’t give the data time to stabilize on a new pattern and checking less wouldn’t make us as responsive to changes as we’d like.

Togikagi : There are some economic changes coming in 1.12 as well. Why do you feel they’re necessary?

Russell : As players of our own game, we’re aware that there’s not as much trade in the Auction House as would be ideal. As noted in Lum’s devlog, we’ve mined that data I mentioned us continually gathering and determined that there’s plenty of production going on and plenty of exchanging of goods, but much of it is done in closed loops behind the scene. We’ve also gotten feedback from new players that the economy is difficult to learn to participate in. To address these issues and more, we have several changes we’re planning to make to the economy. The ones in 1.12 are the first of the bunch.

Labor has long been known to be the most limiting resource in the economy. Doubling what you can produce opens that bottleneck a bit. Simplifying the structures and recipes also increase production ability. And has the added side-effect of making the economy easier to understand and become involved in for new players.

Decreasing the insurance payout on the largest ships will make the smaller ships more worthwhile to produce and to use in combat, one again increasing the variety of ships commonly used in the game.

Overall, the goal is to flood the economy with goods. People have money and don’t know what to spend it on, and people want to build things but don’t feel like they can do so all by themselves. We like our economy, and want to enable more people to play with it.

Togikagi : How do you feel about the current status of PvP? Ganking has been a concern in the past. Do you feel that issue has been addressed, or are there any PvP updates in the works?

Russell : We had a lot of success with this issue back around September, but there’s always more work to be done. The question is not so much removing uneven combat from the game, it’s adjusting the percentages. If you get into a lopsided fight every once in a while, it’s a pretty cool change of pace. If you get into lopsided fights 95% of the time, it sucks. We work towards modifying the engagement rules to nudge players into more balanced fights, while keeping the variability of the Open Sea and player freedom.

Togikagi : What can we expect to see in the second year of Pirates of the Burning Sea?

Russell :

  • Skirmish!
  • More socialization tools throughout the game
  • Player governed ports
  • Longer, more strategic national conflict
  • An expansion that will take you beyond the Caribbean
  • Officers

Togikagi : As with any MMO, players are concerned about the lifespan of their game. How would you address PotBS players who have that concern? Are these updates breathing new life into the game?

: If the subscription numbers are any indication, then yes! I think it’s a combination of both the new advertising that we’re doing as well as how dramatically improved the game is. We have a program that gives out two free weeks to players who have left the game, and we have one of the highest re-subscription rates that anyone’s ever seen. It’s a testament to the work that we’ve done, the high quality of our player feedback, and the obvious dedication we have towards the game. In a climate of corporate layoffs, I think it’s both obvious and reassuring to players to see just how much we’re committed towards Pirates and its future.

Togikagi : Well that wraps up our questions. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us and we look forward to seeing all of the changes in store for Pirates of the Burning Sea!


Darryl "Togikagi" Gangloff
News Reporter


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