Tobold's Blog
Thursday, February 07, 2008
The state of Pirates of the Burning Sea

Keen is bored of sinking ships. The Ancient Gaming Noob is adrift in a burning sea. Potshot feels himself to be a shipwreck on the burning sea. My own PotBS subscription is running out in two weeks. A short review of recent blog posts on Pirates of the Burning Sea gives anecdotal evidence that interest in this game is declining.

Pirates of the Burning Sea has 11 servers. On each server there are 4 factions, whose player load is shown separately. On my server the biggest population is the British (no wonder on a European English server). At "very heavy" load there are around 500 British players online. For once that is easy to count, because while the /who command in PotBS sucks big time, they have a useful /whocount command other games are missing. Prime time maximum concurrent users per PotBS server is thus lower than 2,000. There is a rule of thumb saying that for games with monthly fees the ratio of subscribers to maximum concurrent users is about 5 (for Second Life with no monthly fee the ratio is over 200, because there isn't even an option to cancel your free subscription). Thus an order-of-magnitude estimation of Pirates of the Burning Sea subscription numbers is around 100,000. Not totally bad, but only half of what the closest comparable game, EVE Online, has.

For all the bad things you can say about the end game of World of Warcraft, one must admit that there are quite a lot of options. In Pirates of the Burning Sea you reach the level cap even faster than in WoW, and the end game options are far more limited. The whole purpose of the game is PvP, and the PvP system isn't all that good. And even the economy game I originally liked is starting to break down: Late in beta the production rates for goods were increased by 50% to 100% by lowering the amount of labor needed to produce things. That has lead to an overproduction of most goods, so now everything is available in abundance at a low price, and it is hard to make any profit. The looted goods from NPC ships undermine the economy even further.

I'm sitting on over 3,000 hemp ropes I can't sell, although I put them up at just 40 doubloons each in Bluefields. And that is just one man's production. Somebody could make a fortune by buying these ropes and selling them in other ports where the prices are higher. But nobody can be bothered to do so, not even myself. Part of the problem is that transporting goods is so boring, that nobody wants to do it. Hemp rope sells better in the three commercial centers of national activity: Bartica, Sisal, and Grenville. But it would take me many hours to transport all those ropes to these places, and then I would totally crash the market there. Airline travel in the real world has been called "hours of boredom interrupted by moments of stark terror". Ship travel in PotBS is hours of boredom interrupted by moments of stark annoyance. You get attacked by NPC ships, but even with the slowest cargo ship available you can easily run away from them, and the pirate attacks just annoy you because they cost time. Why can't anyone come up with a trading part of a MMO where transporting goods is actually kind of interesting?

PvP is in no better state. There are actually very few ports in contention on my server, because getting a port into contention involves grinding so many NPC ships. But you can also get a port into contention by delivering lots of good to the rebel agent there. Thus with goods being cheap and in abundant supply, using the rebel agent to flip a port has become the favorite method. As this goes much faster than the regular method, some people are calling it an exploit. Even the devs think that it is too fast right now, and want to introduce a timer to slow it down. And neither method of bringing a port into contention involves any actual PvP. The PvP starts once the port is in contention, but the actual battle deciding the future owner of the port has only 24 vs. 24 players, which isn't very much given the number of players per server and the rarity of port battles. Even Keen thinks that PotBS needs PvP battlegrounds.

The highlight of Pirates of the Burning Sea remains the ship vs. ship combat, PvE or PvP. It is not only better than WoW's, as Flying Labs CEO said, it is just plain good. But even of a good thing you can get too much, if you do ship combat for hours and days, it becomes boring. In PvP it is hard to find opponents that are willing to fight an even battle. In PvE the combat is marred by the bad AI of the NPC ships. Once you found a good strategy, you can apply it over and over to NPC ships and it will always work. A game like WoW has a far larger variety of enemies requiring more adaptation of strategy.

Pirates of the Burning Sea has some qualities and good parts. But in the long term it just isn't all that much fun. Flying Labs will lose quite a lot of players at the end of the first month. And from the MMO blogosphere PotBS will slowly but surely disappear and get only very few mentions in the future.
In WoW you can even do battle without any concious strategy. One major strength of these games is the fantasy you live while playing them. The oppourtunity to escalate the challenge level higher to where strategy becomes relevant is always present but optional.

I think these negative writings about PotBS generally comes from a lack of coherence in the design. Which are the actions a player would expect a pirate to do. What is the games mechanical vocabulary really about?

If it comes down to non-piratey things like running away, trading, making a profit and so on its not likely to get very successful anyway.

The fantasy around pirates is heavily tilted towards adventure. But it seems if I want adventures I better wait for next WoW path (or expansion).
I don't think that with a near non-existent end game, any MMO is going to go far. It's a shame, but reminds me of the all the Korean Grind-fest MMOs in which nothing all that special comes from reaching the level cap. No raids, no battlegrounds, no arena, no dailies, etc.

When games realise that they need a diverse end game, you'll probably soon find more titles keeping their subscribers.

What has been posted on your blog (and others) about the economy sounds interesting. Got me thinking about a PURE economic MMO with jobs/"classes" being more like careers in an economy. It'd be more like a cross between an Auction House and a social game such as Second Life, Habbo hotel, etc.

Although, I myself admit that even my own little idea doesn't sound all that interesting to me. But one part sticks out. Asking a player to select from a range of professions as a freetrader and get them to stick to it, or rather, heavily penalise them for swapping it (sort of like constantly respeccing in WoW kills the coin reserves) and thus make the players rely on each other, as opposed to being able to produce (from what I understand) whatever you want, virtually whenever you want.

I guess to remain slightly on topic here, what I'm saying is that any game without an addictive end-game is doomed to fail. Give someone pure PVP and they'll grow tired. Give someone nothing much at all (Aka most korean grindfest MMOs) and they'll grow tired, etc.

Developers need to learn to keep the end-game diverse.
"In PvP it is hard to find opponents that are willing to fight an even battle."

I've seen the same in WoW too. The game is structured such that that is inevitable.

What's crazy is that the game could be structured to give greater rewards for participating in even battles, just by tweaking the rules in various ways.

Just how takes longer than a comment post to explain, so I've written a blog post: battleground rewards in proportion to challenge.
Games like PotBS take a huge leap of faith and hope the few things they do well will keep them afloat. Unfortunately, I don't think realistic ship to ship combat can keep the game from sinking sometime this summer.

100,000 players with probably at least half canceling by the end of February. Then a slow 5-10% drop each month. The only way they could change this if they could somehow redesign their ship combat system so that people were rewarded for actual PvP instead of running.
Nice summary Tobold. I think Pirates has huge potential that's being stifled by some bad design decisions.

More content will be added over time so I don't think that's a huge issue, but their fundamental risk vs. reward system is so out of whack that playing can be very discouraging.

I'm one of those people that will be leaving when my free month expires, but the ship combat is so appealing to me that I plan to keep it installed and watch their patch notes for signs of hope.
A niche within a niche game that was poorly designed from the start... yeah, I kind of saw this game "walking the plank" at some point in the near future. I just didn't expect it to happen so soon.
"Thus an order-of-magnitude estimation of Pirates of the Burning Sea subscription numbers is around 100,000. Not totally bad, but only half of what the closest comparable game, EVE Online, has.",

I don't want to sound like one of those bloody annoying fanbois but did EVE have 200,000 a few weeks after launch?

I can't understand all the hate I see on forums when a game doesn't have immediate huge numbers on release, has WoW set unrealistic expectations, methinks so.

I'm so looking forward to Warhammer but I already feel sorry for it inadvance, as it's initial numbers will see it getting slaughtered on every forum and blog outthere (it's been out a week and doesn't have 20 million subscribers, its going to die, it must be crap blah blah blah).
> I don't want to sound like one of those bloody annoying fanbois

Ah, but you do :)

Tobold didn't attack PotBS due to low subscription numbers. That was a single mention in an otherwise long post filled with facts (and opinions) about what was wrong with PotBS. Yet you chose to totally ignore the rest of his post and focus on a single item you didn't like. Classic straw man...

Tobold, it sounds to me like you could summarize PotBS with 2 words: "lacks polish" :)
Still I remember WoW when it began, and it was no-where as good a game as it is now, 3 years after. PotBS might be able to hang-on and slowly become a better game, although I agree with the comment that called it a "niche game". This will never have the broad appeal that a fantasy-based game like WoW does, or a sci-fi based game such as EVE.
"I can't understand all the hate I see on forums"

Ah, but look at the word "forums" it isn't blog or Tobold!

I see I should have made two posts, one about Tobold's EVE number comparison and another on the general "FORUMS" haters.
I have a feeling that Warhammer Online will take a big chunk out of PotBS. I'm only hanging around PotBS until WAR comes out.
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