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Hypnos' Blog

Git along, salty doggies

In which Hypnos rustles up some thoughts on foraging

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Virtual Meat Space

In which Hypnos explores Spicy Town!

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Crime and Banishment

(Subtitle- Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov was probably not well-tanned. Possibly blonde.)

This week's questions come from Sweetiepiepi of Midnight, who writes:

  I'm curious about what's involved work-wise in the disciplinary process.

  I'm also curious about some of the broader governing principles behind game design - is there something specific that OOO is trying to achieve with the economy, pillaging, etc.?

When oceanmasters are on duty, we use a support tool that queues up petitions and complaints in the order they were received on a web page.  (This is why we often do not see tells for a while, if at all, as depending on the nature of the petitions or complaints received, we may be working most of the time through a web page, rather than the game client.)

If a complaint comes in from somebody who is accused of using unacceptable language against another pirate (evading the swear filter, personal threats, obscenity) we read the chatlog appended automatically to the complaint.  If there is proof in the chat log of that language, we then check the account's history to see if this person has been suspended for that offense before.  The length of an account's suspension depends on past offenses, though particularly over-the-top awfulness may warrant a permanent ban regardless of account history.  Contrary to what people sometimes theorize, we do not base our suspension length or decision on whether the account is a trial or a paid one.

Thefts are more involved than that, since after permanently banning the thief, we must track where the money went to make certain the thief did not pass it off to an alternate account and leave his old account as a sacrifice for the payoff.  I have seen cases in which a person even deleted the pirate that stole the money in an attempt to hide his tracks, as well. (Hint: it didn't work.)

Thefts eat up a lot more time than simpler complaints and petitions do though, so if it's particularly busy, refunding a theft or renaming a vessel may be put on hold while complaints and petitions in the queue are dealt with first.

Other things that may eat up time in a shift are when some people get into a complaining snit and two or three people complain one another over and over in a big ring of angry for half an hour or so.  The complaints first come in for "being meen" or "harasment" and progress to "hes a tart" "wont shutup" and eventually, "BAND HIM I HATE HIM SO MUCH HE CHEETED ON ME" and "IS COMPANING ME FOR NO REASON"  Each complaint has to be opened, examined, and then closed if there is no evidence of a suspendable offense taking place in the chat log.

We also get a lot of complaints from people recruiting for flags and offering immediate royalty positions for donations too, as people object to what they perceive as selling power in the game's political structure.  I certainly don't think it's a smart idea for either party involved, but there are no rules against it.

As for governing principles, our general unchanged belief is that pillage is the beating heart of the game.  Despite posts in the forum arguing the contrary, pillage is still the main fountain by which money enters the game, and the most common team experience.  When working on Atlantis, we tried from the outset to design something that would be a fun special variant of pillage without replacing it.

We keep an eye on inflation so that things don't get out of the price range of the new or casual player, and to protect the business of shopkeepers (giving out old, rather than new items from Atlantis and sometimes in the free gifts is a part of this.)

Lastly, something that comes up quite often in meetings is keeping the game as free of "grind" as possible.  I've noticed it is very important to the developers that people aren't "forced" into a particular gameplay style or set of activities.  When the request came for the ability for commanding officers to force people out of Treasure Haul and on to other stations or to shut off the ability for people on board to haul entirely, it was turned down because we didn't want to give some players control over other players' puzzles.  As tempting as it is to reach out and take hold of the screens of those with severe puzzle vision or the recalcitrant haulers who have I GOT 3 LOCK WAIT syndrome, it's not in the cards for Puzzle Pirates.

Winter Holly Daze

The winter release is here!  Over the last two weeks, the questions about when the holiday art and furniture were coming out have become more and more frequent.  Cephalopod reports getting tells from half of Ice every time there was a new release reboot message asking if the holiday release was here yet.  Oceanmasters were getting an increasing number of holiday related petitions, too.

What you may not know about the holiday furniture is that the new frosty fir and recolorable ornaments and bows were a very recent addition.  They were not originally planned, but a suggestion from Seville about combining the new enamel colors with the holiday furniture had Cephalopod working feverishly into the early hours of the morning to produce the customizability we currently enjoy.

It's heartwarming both that people remember the holiday furniture and goodies from last year so fondly that they are clamoring for them again, and that our player retention is successful enough that we have people from a year ago and longer around to remember the items and festivities of winters past.

To those of you joining us more recently, welcome!  We hope that you find the festivities and items enjoyable and charming, even if you are currently enjoying summer weather.

I'd like to wish a happy anniversary to our German friends on the Opal Ozean, as Opal opened just over a year ago, on December 8th. It's been a very fast year and Endymion and Thalia have been two fantastic and much-beloved additions to the OM team.

A bit off of game topic, last year we had a competition called 'Santa Rampage' which was named after the Santacon tradition of dressing up as "bad" Santa Clauses and company in cities over the world and drunkenly taking to the streets.  Our CEO and Cap'n Cleaver ran into such a group of drunken Santas one evening in a bar in Key West and the rest, as they say, is history and buttless chaps.

I am pleased to report that Santa Rampaging is thriving, and that over 13,000 Santas converged in Derry, Ireland last weekend.  San Francisco is scheduled for its yearly invasion this coming Saturday, December 15th.

I hope that Puzzle Pirates continues to promote community and sociability this season as well as the rest of the year.  While we try to give players things that they want and can be excited about, such as seasonal items and themed gifts that they can give to their friends, we also try to keep things in balance by not being excessive or tasteless, or by spending too much time making fancy items for the sake of promoting spending and collecting versus development time making new features that can be enjoyed by everybody throughout the year.

I really like our environmentally friendly holiday trees (0% organic! Long-lasting and extremely compact!) but I like that we spend a lot of time developing and trying to make things fun instead of marketing and promoting even more.  I like that the holiday release and themed items came out in December, rather than the middle of October.  (I take the anticipation and gentle tells that folks wanted the holiday things to come out soon as a good sign, as opposed to people rolling their eyes and boycotting the palace shoppe!)  I like that virtual gifts like music files and online cards can now be exchanged to convey cheer and affection without necessarily using resources like paper and plastic wrapping.  Without getting on a soapbox, I hope that all of you have a great time for the rest of 2007, that you get to visit friends and family, and that you celebrate  holiday eating, drinking, and spending in good quantity, good cheer, and good balance.

It's been another wonderful year working with this company and working for you.  Thank you all. ~Hypnos

The Erika Thunderpants Project

Ahoy mates!

As we eagerly await the winter holiday release (I stepped into an inn on Hunter yesterday and got a barrage of questions regarding the winter holiday furniture and when they'll be available for purchase) I thought I'd go over some background on the upcoming release on Ice.  If you haven't been to Ice and don't want to know about some of the changes in the next release, read no further!

A 7th Brigand King joins us from the frozen northlands, and she's a Viking goddess, a shrieking valkyrie of fury.  I may have the teensiest crush on the lovely Brynhild and her pupiless, icy blue eyes.

What you folks may not know is that the name Brynhild Skullsplitter was one of the last things decided about her.  We knew while we were preparing to release the longship that we would introduce a new Viking brigand king, but that was about it.  Greenbones (pictured here) knew he wanted her to be female, so she was given the working name Erika Thunderpants by Sophocles while we were working on the release.

The two types of helmet for each gender were born from Greenbones' love of Scandinavian lore.  (He has lamented more than once that the descendants of this fierce culture who used to burn and conquer and make blood eagles of their victims now export minimalist furniture and lingonberry preserves, and that the only expression of their formerly bloodthirsty nature seems to be burning their own churches.)

While we knew that people would want the horned helmets that are the image that often comes to mind when one says "vikings", they are not in fact historically accurate.  The horned helmets and the image of blonde women in pointy breasted armor singing came about in the 18th and 19th century, when German opera such as Richard Wagner's  Der Ring des Nibelungen idealized the Norse history and culture.  (These images still appear in popular culture today, in Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes and in comic strip Hagar the Horrible, to name two examples.)

The horned helmets had to be made because they were too much fun to be left out (and as the forum folks often say, fun > realism) but the traditional Saxon helmets with the eye and nose guards were added as well.

An interesting note - the recipe for the helmets was originally going to include three gold ore.  We decided to change that for orange enamel since it seemed a shame that all of the helmets lately (and the first battle helmet for the ladies) be so astronomically out of reach for most pirates.

On the topic of enamel, when we released the new Norse-themed furniture items, there was a valid complaint that the color range was limited, since there are only 8 colors for enamel currently in existence.  This is of course because enamel is used for swords, and there are only so many variations on drop patterns that can exist.  While we were first presented with the suggestion to use paint for furniture instead of enamel, we turned that suggestion down for two reasons.

1) We had always used enamel in furniture instead of paint.  If we suddenly switched, people who had purchased furniture with the more expensive enamel in it would be really annoyed that they had paid more for a limited color palette.

2) Furnishers already have to stock an insane number of commodities from the game.  We did not want to require them to stock all colors of paint in addition to all enamels.

It was decided then that we would just make a full range of enamel colors so that people could have furniture in any color that they wanted.  Cephalopod got that coded into the game very fast.  The most complicated part seemed to be deciding on recipes and making sure the new furniture colors looked good.

That's about it for the public features of the new release.  Recommended listening for reading this post and for always is Jonathan Coulton's IKEA.

Vikings ahoy!

These last weeks have seen the wrap-up of our Hallowe'en monster mash and the unveiling of our new Viking themed ships and helmets as we usher in the fall season in Puzzle Pirates.  Hooray for zombies!

An interesting quirk when we unveiled the zombies on production oceans was how easy people seemed to find them compared to skellies.  Both swordfight and rumble difficulties are set by developers, and before we released the zombies, there was actually the opposite concern- that zombies at the same AI difficulty level as skellies would prove too difficult for our players to defeat.  After debating it for a while, we decided to release the zombies at the same level anyway, and monitor the feedback.  To our great surprise, people mowed through the zombies.  They were smashing through them with overwhelming success, and we actually had to tweak the AI difficulty level higher than that of skellies to compensate.  Hooray for bludgeons!

The Atlantis rush of August has leveled out and seems to be at a good balance of activity with pillage.  We saw a number of players jump in activity level when Atlantis was released and the enthusiasm was great!  We do not want to change the fact that pillage is the core cooperative activity of the game though, and right now Atlantis (and hopefully future iterations of sea monsters) is a well-liked alternative to pillage, not its usurper.  Hooray for balance!

With the large number of new game features we've added in the last year, including but not limited to duty puzzle maneuvers, voyage configuration, flotillas, Brigand King blockades, new tournament settings, swabbie ship transport, blacksmithing, sea monsters, and zombies, we are going to be taking a deep breath, enjoy the spicy brew we have created in the game, and take stock of what we are going to take on next.  Hooray for depth of gameplay!

I can hardly wait.

Atlantis Pillar Mortem

One week and a day later came Atlantis.

It sounds like I've been drinking too much of our own kool-aid, but I think I'm hooked.  I've done several Atlantis runs over the last week, and while I was first going to check up on folks and how the large ships were doing as an OM, I started getting sucked in to the jumping-from-puzzle-to-puzzle excitement of it, poring over the prize lists when we'd get to port and divvy, ogling the pale Atlantean blue items.

As part of this major release, we've brought back the post mortem, an official article written about the development behind the release.  You can read the Sea Monster Post-Mortem here.

Pillaging and the social group dynamic has always been the beating heart of Puzzle Pirates, and much the same way that the parlor games of a few years ago built on one another, such as Hearts, Spades, and Poker using the same card art, the same deck randomizer, and the same inn table interface to access the games, so have the last set of oceanfaring releases built on one another, using features such as group AI, blockade boards, and the timing of round breaks in common.  We're hoping to take this even farther with new sea monster releases featuring new units, new maps, and new sorts of treasures, but to keep the existing interface and method of getting sea monster maps and getting to the spots the same.

One of the more exciting things to me is looking back over the last six months or so, even prior to the release of the Brigand King Blockades and remembering the discussions and meetings that led to the creation of many of the aspects of sea monsters we see now, such as treasure hauling.

Laying a groundwork and building features onto it over time makes sense not only because building a new feature on existing code makes it easier to test, easier to find bugs, and makes a smaller download overall for the client but also because we wanted the first set of sea monsters to be at least somewhat familiar and instinctive for our existing players as they'd be the ones leading voyages into the areas. we also had to add exciting things unique to Atlantis, lest folks think that we were simply recycling the same content and grow bored with it quickly.  You only get one launch of a release, and there's a tricky balance of making each large new addition to the game a combination of the new and exciting, so that people will go and check it out and tell their friends, yet intuitive to people familiar with Puzzle Pirates, else they'll find it overwhelming and discouraging.

In the first sea monsters meeting, we knew we wanted to add treasure chests to the game, but then the problem of how to distribute their contents came up.  Obviously dividing them equally amongst all participants would conflict with our goal of rewarding the vessel owner who had risked his ship in a sinking situation.  Furthermore, we wanted to reward those who did well helping the vessel against the sea monsters, so we needed to add a bonus to those who did very well in the duty reports.  We also had to reward the navigator, the brave soul who had gotten everybody to safety.  Lastly, we needed to give all of the jobbers on board some goodies, as without some sort of random element there would be no excitement over a lucky prize, and no incentive for any but the strongest and most experienced puzzlers to enter Atlantis.  Again we faced a difficult balance, this time of scaling rewards to the talented playerbase while not taking away payment from the majority or unbalancing things completely for a privileged few.  Nobody likes insane ocean inflation.

In that first idea meeting the idea of the saboteur was also hatched.  While no one who was there can remember who first brought up the idea of the Atlantean jumping aboard, the idea gained popularity in the meeting room quickly.  We discussed needing some sort of new puzzling experience in Atlantis, but since we were trying to get the release ready before fall, there was not time to make an entirely new puzzle.  The popularity of Treasure Haul, despite the fact that it was a relatively quick variation of bilge was encouraging.  Five color swordfighting was suggested.

Being challenged to a swordfight would certainly break the monotony of duty puzzling for long periods of time, while not being that different from the periodic brawl and swordfights of pillaging.  We had to naturally decide who the saboteur would challenge and how, since challenging only Ultimate fighters would make Atlantis too elitist, and challenging only greenies might make it intimidating.  Furthermore, if we had the penalty for losing to an Atlantean too great, people would only want their top fighters to duel them, thus making the puzzle exclusionary.

The problem was that we couldn't do the group fight like we did a pillage, since that automatically takes everybody off duty stations for the fight.  Leaving a vessel grappled, stuck in one spot, and no one generating any movement tokens or repairing damage in a group sea battle situation was bound to doom it to either sea monsters or opportunistic pirates in short order.  (We played briefly with somehow phasing out the ship and making it invulnerable for the duration of the brawl, and discarded the notion, though it later came back to us in the form of The Citadel.)  Thus, the XO position and the ability to volunteer to defend the vessel grew out of our collective experience involving skellies and difficulties managing large ships.  In addition, we thought it would be handy to encourage people to take in full vessels, even more than there were duty stations, to better haul treasure, rotate duty stations to break the monotony, socialize, and defend the vessel in brawls against saboteurs.

In the end, it worked out that the saboteurs became a way to bring the action of the battle board onto the ship and to the duty puzzlers.

On the art side, the Atlantis release was a pretty heavy demand.  Greenbones, Nemo, and Bluebeard ended up all taking part to get the beautiful artwork into the game in time.  Some interesting things you may not realize- the skellie head that you see on the black ship and in skellie fights was used as the base upon which Greenbones built the Atlantean features, and the female Atlantean helmet had to be redone a few times, both because Bluebeard didn't know about the recent addition that tucked female hair under helmets and he'd made it too large to accommodate the Princess Leia buns, and because the female walk apparently has an extra movement added to it that the male avatar does not have, to make her sashay her hips from side to side, thus making the original incarnation of the helmet judder back and forth disturbingly while she walked.  Until the official artist artwork was checked in, Cephalopod made a number of amusing "developer" art pieces as placeholders for sea monsters such as the scary sea monster entrance and the special sea monster sea battle interface.  It provided a good laugh while letting the programmers bug test and check code while the artists simultaneously worked on the final versions of the artwork to go into the game.  A good past example of this is this extremely rough version of blacksmithing.

On the marketing side of things, one of the largest stresses this year was trying to balance giving the first look at sea monsters to the folks that had put in a great deal of time and effort to solving the conch puzzle and to the other conch winners.

In addition, Ice testing for major new features is absolutely necessary, but we found ourselves asking if we could prevent Ice from becoming where you had to go to see "the next big thing".  While aspects and artwork from upcoming releases are often posted in the forums, we wanted people to feel the excitement from seeing the truly new features for themselves when Atlantis debuted on production oceans.

To avoid the collectible items, trophies, and new art from being spoiled in the forums, we decided to black out the Atlantean artwork. While this clearly doesn't protect many of the functional aspects of the update from being shared on the forums, we hoped that hiding the "look and feel" of the Atlantean world would help retain some of the excitement.   This caused its own flurry, as we had to try to keep track of every file that we had replaced with a blacked out item for release.  Some, like Blackhat's great five color swordfighting background, escaped into production still blacked out, though the initial discussion of whether we should censor the Atlantean background or not in which he proposed blacking out just the Atlantean itself cracked up the entire Puzzle Pirates team.

The pillars were Greenbones' creation, and I got to wander around each ocean appreciating the geography and choosing which islands and locations to place them on.  Sophocles did the pillar placement at staggered days and times to prolong the puzzle.  Then we added an auto-response to the support toolset for the OMs who would no doubt get tons of questions, and waited.

What began as a side project for Nemo creating the pillars and code rapidly spiraled into a multi-ocean co-operative search and decipher mission.  It gained popularity and word spread about the mysterious pillars far more quickly than we had anticipated.

With the first release of Sea Monsters, I feel that we've crested most of what Cleaver outlined in his rough plan two years ago, and can now spend some time working on checking up on how our recent creations have worked their way into the Puzzle Pirates world and what can be fine-tuned.  Whew!

Casual vs. Hardcore: What's in YOUR wallet?

This article has been making the rounds on game blogs and mailing lists. Some of the OMs were discussing whether we agreed with the article or not, and I thought I'd link it here and see what you guys thought.

The article is about one gamer's concern about the impact of consoles like the Wii and the growing populations of "casual" gamers on the game industry and development.

I disagree that the games industry will suffer if "young males will no longer be the dominant segment of the console audience".  No offense young men, but I believe that an industry focused solely on making products designed to appeal to young men will not have the depth or range of an industry focused on making things to appeal to, well, a variety of people.

Furthermore, if the games industry expands to include more gamers and a wider audience, it will most likely expand in terms of employees, development, and game companies.  Why would we start making fewer games for young men if they still want to buy the same number of games?  Why not develop both the games targeted to their demographic as well as different games (that they may also enjoy?)  I can see at least the same number of game companies specializing in the types of games made now in addition to the new games developed. Why not, if it is a profitable business?

Second, the person in this article seems to focus a lot on how the games made for a "casual" audience aren't pushing the limits of new technology when I feel that games don't need to be on the bleeding edge of technology to be good.  In fact, why do more games not use tried and proven technologies instead of brand new and often unstable products?  People often point to the art style of World of Warcraft, the most popular game in the MMO space right now as something that isn't hyper-realistic or the most technologically advanced.  This is not something that seems to have crippled its popularity.

Lastly, "hardcore" as it is defined in this article is a very arbitrary term.  The population of console games has traditionally been young men, but if you're the target population that a product has been (successfully) geared towards, you'll probably be an enthusiastic customer that plays the games.  It hardly seems fair to call the current population of young male gamers "hardcore" because they like the games that were made to appeal to them.  It seems a more indicator to me that the game companies have achieved their goals well.

If two people spend an equal amount of time enjoying two different games, what makes one gamer "hardcore" vs. the other?  If my flatmate spends 3 hours a day playing say, Crackdown on the XBOX 360 every day, and the other spends 3 hours playing say, Wii Sports, both focus on perfecting their scores and techniques.  Where is the difference?

I think that this attitude about "hardcore" vs. "casual" may come from the current population of video gamers feeling overwhelmed by a large new generation of game players that do not share their console and game history coming into and influencing the market.

As a martial arts enthusiast, I welcome new people practicing my style, but I do also have very strong opinions on what is "good" and what is "bad" martial arts practice, so I understand concerns, especially concerns about the new "whippersnappers" coming in without what I feel is the same knowledge and appreciation of the history and fundamentals of the art.

As a "casual" gamer, if a gamer at all, I hardly see my interest in some games as an invasion of an existing community, and I feel that being interested in some games and having some games made that I'd like more than within my rights.

What do you mates think?

From Alpha to Anegada - Part 3

So the final bit about the design process is a few things that I try to keep in mind while hammering out design details with the rest of the Y!PP team:

1) My focus is on one of many parts of the game, and things that I think are obvious are not necessarily as clear or important to other people.

I am a shopkeeper in the game, and the things that come up in discussion that I find the most interesting are those pertaining to the economy, foraging, commodities, and businesses.  I want colonization changes, new clothes, and I really want a little fix that will allow me to place furniture in the bugged right half of my shoppe and something that will separate my personal money from my shoppe's money, so I don't have to go to my house every. single. time. I log in to deposit my wages.

Now, just because that last thing has been bothering me since the implementation of the global purse and wages being automatically deposited there for you, I can't assume that the global purse is a bad idea, or that it bothers everybody in the same way, or that developer time would be best spent fixing the bug that seems the most apparent to me, because I see it every day when I log on and go into my place of business.

It's a complex and varied game, and even though I do not relate to or understand some aspects or some playstyles, I should not ignore or invalidate them.

2) I have to keep memories of what I felt about game features separate from how effective or good a feature is.  Nostalgia is not good game design.

I remember the excitement of building our flag after Midnight launched.  I remember how fun and crazy the 24 hour blockades were, when we would coordinate with our flagmates overseas to each take a certain number of rounds, logging off and sleeping for a few hours, then logging back on to fight again.  I remember all of the money I'd make from foraging minerals in far-off islands and sailing them back to my shop in the dead of night while I was supposed to be studying for finals.

I don't find blockades nearly as exciting now, but it's because they are not new to me, and because as an established player with a lot of what I first wanted out of the game, the stakes are not the same for me.  Making blockades 24 hours again would not bring that excitement back for me, and I should realize that the enjoyment I got out of blockades at that time came from novelty, game goals, and my flagmates, not from the grueling length of them.

While I may not get as worked up about new features in blockades personally, I still get excited seeing them and anticipating the improvements they will (hopefully) make in existing game mechanics, the additional depth and variety they can provide, and how blockade and sea battle enthusiasts will pillage, conquer, and make those game mechanics their domain.

3) If I didn't get heard or get a chance to get my words in this week, there's always next week.  And the week after that.  Timing has a lot to do with it.

Poking Greenbones until he bleeds about impementing a slipper option for men while he's working on designing the dhow, the baghlah, the brigand king portraits, the new trinkets, and new carpets is bad timing.

The time that we have to work on tweaks or what are considered optional additions is pretty small, and trying to get a word in edgewise is an art in a crowded and busy release schedule like this game's.  If no one comments on what I've brought up, it's not personal, and I'll bring it up again.  I bring up the bugs, problems, and requested new features from you guys on the forums, too.  I promise I do.  I promise the developers are really cool about listening too, except that things can get forgotten pretty easily when there's a ton of things in Arcturus' (and my!) notebooks that need to make it in before our next release.  That's why we have the forums though, and why they hired me.  I know that this company wouldn't have done that if they didn't want to keep a finger on the pulse of things and hear what all of our awesome players (and yes, even the not so awesome) have to say.

Besides, I am not above subtly turning the screws in lunch conversation with Greenbones, either. Anthropology and historical conversations can be steered into fashions of the times very easily.  Oh yes.

From Alpha to Anegada - Part 2

This week, I thought it might be of interest to folks to hear how the design meetings go for the game and what is involved.

In your typical weekly meeting, there is in attendance Cleaver, Sophocles, Arcturus, Cephalopod, Bungleton, Nemo, Greenbones, and me (Hypnos).

Cleaver and Sophocles are the two people most intimately connected with the business side of the game.  They oversee all of the projects at Three Rings and know things such as who we are advertising with, how many players we have, and how popular past releases have been.

Arcturus, Cephalopod, and Bungleton are the programming team of Puzzle Pirates.  They know the client, how java works, and how difficult or easy things are to implement and code.  In addition, they are the ones that deal most directly with the reported bugs in past releases and they monitor the Ice Discussion forum.

Nemo and Greenbones are the artists of Puzzle Pirates and other Three Rings projects.  They know the best how many hours it will take to complete the art requests for Puzzle Pirates, and how things like rendering and layers work in the game.  They help decide aesthetics for game, along with what can be considered in the theme of the game and what is not.

Lastly, you have me.  I work the most closely with the OceanMasters and in a lot of cases, the players.  As a forum admin I moderate and read the forums, and I pass along the suggestions and frustrations of forum goers and OMs.  As an OceanMaster I'm the one in the meeting most familiar with our support difficulties and the one who deals with the most petitions from players day to day.

Now put all of these people in a room and start off with something like Brigand King blockades.

In addition to brainstorming and hammering out this new feature, each person has his different viewpoint on the game, brings different interests to the table, and in addition has his personal hobbyhorses.

Take a game feature like the upcoming Brigand King blockades.  The first meeting of that began like this: "Right then.  So, what are Brigand King blockades?"

The overarching goal of the feature was to make it as fun as possible for all people involved, but who would we involve?  What would be do to make it fun?  Should they be relatively easy?  Challenging to overthrow?  Who should they attack?  Should it be possible to influence who they attack?  Can we keep people from being jerks about influencing who they attack?  Should we?

How will we know how many ships to send out?  How do we keep a fine balance between crushing the opposing pirate forces and being crushed?  If we send them out a bit at a time to match the forces of the opposition, how do we keep it from being exploitable if you just send in a single sloop?  How do we determine how many vessels to send in the next round?

These are a few of the questions that were thrown around in the first meeting.  As the features started to be programmed in:

-We started talking about pay for the blockaders, when those of us with experience in blockades chimed in about the importance of paying buoy ships instead of creating conflict between the defending flag and their jobbers for where to steer their vessels.

-We argued about whether it would be more fun to make the ship sail back to port before divvying the booty for a feel of realism and victory when pulling into port versus immediate payoff so that people couldn't exploit things by sailing in fresh and sniping vessels that had just come out of an intense firefight.

-We debated whether bonuses should be for how quickly a vessel was sunk, what it was sunk by, whether it was sunk by a weaker ship, and then we had to hash out how to keep people from running by and stealing a kill from another vessel.

-Sophocles was interested in something that would be an exciting foe to unite the flags to drive off a common foe.

-I was interested in the social ramifications for shopkeepers to help defend their stalls and shops (I wanted to motivate them to defend their places of business for a spot of color and texture, but not be forced to) and compensation + fun for the defending flag.

-The ABCs (the programming team) told us what was and was not feasible and designed the AI and strategy of the blockades (Bungleton made the new tournament options and styles as his first project with the team.)

-Greenbones and Nemo accepted the request for all of the brigand king art and new vessels that were to come with this release, which was a larger art requirement from Puzzle Pirates than had been done for some time.  Greenbones is actually a Viking and anthropology hobbyist and did the research into Arabic vessel types and names to make the new ships.

-Cleaver was interested in new vessels and in making a new brigand king for the blockade release (which in turn got me excited about the possibility of new clothing styles to match the new ships).

-Hermes and Bia jumped on board with designing the new vessels' statistics and sizes, as well as getting Sophocles' help in setting up the survey to get more opinion.  And as it turns out, the compromise and release that came out of all of our discussion came out pretty well, though it actually seems kind of small when I remember all of the hours of grinding out the details that we all did.

We all debated how brigand kings would choose their targets, and whether we wanted them to be random or not.  (Should we look at the economy of the island? Number of buildings? How long it's been since they were blockaded? Flags with higher fame?  Flags with the highest PvP rated crews?)  We argued about whether we should just pay the defending flag's ships or everybody's ships, and if we should allow people to fight in different factions.

What I am trying to illustrate here is that our developers do not spit out the code and art for the game that we ask them to.  We debate on (and sometimes shout about) ideas, and when the course is agreed upon, they go and figure out how best to implement it.  Cleaver and Sophocles didn't say, "Make the brigand kings pay this amount, and divvy at this time."  It was something that Arcturus, Bungleton, and Cephalopod collaborated on, tested, changed, fixed, restested, and so on.  They in turn didn't tell us what should and should not be implemented, or refuse to code things that were difficult or that took a lot of time.  Then there were a ton of adjustments made to try to make things not only fun, but to close off possible exploits.

Many of you have probably read the discussions about double floating, in which a single person takes two large ships loaded with cargo and sails them very slowly next to one another, attacking himself whenever he is being targetted by brigand or player vessels.  On the forums, there's not much to say, because we've gone through a lot of scenarios and proposed fixes that we threw out because we figured out ways to get around them or exploit them.   And no, I'm not posting them here.  Ha!

We also have our pet causes in the game that we don't always get done or have to be compromised.  Hermes and I have a series of colonization changes that we're interested in getting implemented.  Bia really wants more crafting puzzles and a foraging puzzle.  Arcturus has certain bugs that he'd like put down once and for all, Sophocles has some really good ideas about texture and more world-oriented features, and Cleaver- well, Cleaver wants harems.

I think this all comes about because of our various perspectives.  Sophocles was not a Puzzle Pirates player before working here, but he is familiar with the game and brings a perspective of what a casual user finds appealing and what is unclear or confusing.  I am both a long time casual player of Puzzle Pirates and familiar with what our forum and very active users find frustrating, because I moderate the forums and get a lot of e-mails.  Cephalopod spends a lot of time in the game and is very active in the Game Design forum so he's very good at conferring with me about smaller tweaks and fixes to UI (user interface) that affect a lot of people.  Cleaver has a broader perspective because he runs the entire company and is more generally acquainted with all of its projects and, because he speaks at a lot of game conferences, the reputation of the company in the game industry.  In addition, developers that longtime players may remember such as Bluebeard and Peghead still play the game as well under anonymous civilian accounts and continue to give input about the direction of the game, even though they work on other projects now.

Trying to combine the office perspective with the very important perspectives of our players, who frankly know the game a lot better than we do, and the remote OMs, who are not only players themselves but who answer the petitions, complaints, and issues that arise out of each new release and have a sharp eye for what will cause widespread confusion and support issues, and a lot of times the design discussion sounds like a fight.  There are a lot of voices in here, and you have to be prepared to debate and defend your viewpoint when you put it forward.

That said, all of this discussion and debate is really interesting.  The raised voices are never personal or upset but rather are a consequence of a bunch of people being passionate about what they do.  It is in a lot of ways similar to the conference calls that take place every few months, with the widely differing perspectives between flags, crews, and oceans.

There was a post that made me sad, about how people feel they are beating a dead horse when an idea is neither approved or disapproved, but rather brought up, discussed, and believed to be forgotten.  It's really hard to keep all of these things in the queue when there are so many voices, and there are ideas that we don't actively discuss we'd like to put in, but it has not yet been the time.

I have a hobby horse that I've been pushing since I was a beta tester in 2003, and I have no idea when it will be implemented, but I refuse to let go of it.  We do our best to keep a list and to balance the very different desires of a lot of people for this kitchen-sink game, and I do my best to understand that my perspective is one of many.  I hope that helps with the inevitable frustration that we feel when yet another release comes out without addressing the lack of bunny slipp-I mean, our favorite issues.  Keep the faith, man.  The bunnies will come.

From Alpha to Anegada - Part 1

Ahoy ahoy, mates.

The blog post is a little different this week, partly because I was worried I was repeating myself too much, and partly because I had something that I wanted to address.

It comes up now and again, as Puzzle Pirates is a game with a very active playerbase, that people express frustration or annoyance with the forum system as the main place where new features and tweaks are suggested.

Recently somebody posted in the forums that Puzzle Pirates is a largely "player run" game, and at the risk of quoting out of context, I want to expand on that point and actually disagree to a-erm... degree.

The post made me think of a panel discussion I've seen Cleaver speak on regarding the nature of game design called Burning Man vs. Vegas.

The gist of the analogy is that you have two very populated, very different cities that thousands of people travel to each year.  Vegas is a massive, multi-million dollar city that has very carefully crafted entertainments that were designed by committees and companies for tourists and consumers to come to and enjoy themselves, and spend money.  At Black Rock City, thousands of people travel there and turn a bare desert into one of the most densely populated cities in the world every year, and all of its entertainments, structures, and artwork are created by the travelers for no profit.

Obviously, the two cities end up being very different in appearance and spirit, and they tend to encourage different behaviors in their populations.  Vegas's entertainments are meant to be appreciated and enjoyed more passively, such as shows that you sit in theaters to watch, fountains to see, and bright lightboards to catch the eye.  Black Rock City's rule is that you are not allowed to just walk around and look, and that everybody that attends must contribute and participate.

When it comes to games made by Three Rings, Cleaver has said that Puzzle Pirates leans more towards Vegas ("we even have poker!") and that our upcoming project Whirled is more in the spirit of Burning Man.

In Puzzle Pirates, most of the puzzles are coded and implemented by our programmers.  The artwork for the game is largely made by the company's artists, and the game's main features are decided upon by the developers at the company.

The analogy is by no means exact, as there are significant player contributions to Puzzle Pirates.  Our newest crafting puzzle Ironmongery will be a player developed creation and the result of a collaborative effort from the contributors of the Grand Crafting Puzzle Project.  Our new portrait backgrounds each month are designed by a rotating panel of talented artists who are players.  An increasing percentage of our islands and oceans are now player designed and created.

Most of all, while Three Rings made the sprites, buildings, and coded the interface to get people into the game, I believe it is the first pillage with other pirates that is commonly the most significant aspect of new player experience in Puzzle Pirates.  The friendly and social community in this game was an oft remarked on aspect of this game and still remains one of our great strengths.

Because we have such a large number of people contributing to make the game what it is, the bottleneck is not only the relatively small amount of developer time to ideas, but the variety and scope of ideas that are brought to the table.  Many of these ideas cannot coexist, or create conflicting versions or "feels" for a game.

Whirled may not have this problem as its structure is much looser than that of Puzzle Pirates (it is not set in a specific genre, for one) and there is not nearly the same shortage of developer time, but I believe that its community will find their own issues to actively discuss.

As it is, decisions on new features in Puzzle Pirates are almost always a multi-sided compromise or come out of intense discussions in which things are hammered out by multiple parties.  In the week or two of blog posts I hope to give the camera a rest and to try to explain more in depth what goes on in the meeting room and creative process.

GDC wrap-up

My goodness, last week was insane.

I was fortunate to have a company very close by with a very understanding boss who let me volunteer at the GDC and work my regular work week without taking time off, but this left much less time than I thought to upload the pictures taken and write about them!

As always, I had a fantastic time in the volunteer program.  I would highly recommend the GDC Conference Associate program for you folks out there that want to get into the games industry, already work in it, or are just plain interested in games, that like warm, close-knit family atmospheres and occasionally going entire weeks without sleep.

I have uploaded the photos that Bia and I took on our Puzzle Pirates flickr, here.  There are photos of the Independent Games Festival (where Bang! Howdy won a $2500 prize for Technical Excellence) and of the big MetaSOY talk that everybody's all a-twitter about.

Actually the talk wasn't that big.  They put us in a room that was quite literally half the size of the room that we packed full last year (really, we packed it. we had the fire marshalls coming 'round and speaking to us.) for some reason.  Perhaps they ran out of rooms for sessions.  Bia and Hermes did a fine job of calming down the angry folks outside that couldn't get in, though!

Since they've rather radically changed E3 lately, we saw a lot of press releases and big announcements being made at GDC this year.  Some folks said that the expo floor was much more E3-ish, but it didn't seem too flashy at all, when I went to have a look.  There was a stall that had certified booth babes thoough, in the form of lovely young ladies in tight black dresses, full makeup, and very high spiky black heels.  I'd never seen that before!  But all in all, it was no more decadent than I thought it was last year, when I was serenaded by a dancing white ape who blew kisses and gave me boxer shorts for trying out his casual games.  I should call him...

By now you all should have heard the news that our good cap'n released: our third project and game, Whirled is here!  I am immensely excited.  I'd heard a little bit about the plan a few years ago when I spoke to Cleaver at the Austin Game Conference, and seeing it come to fruition and seeing our small and extremely talented core of pre-alpha testers making all sorts of exciting and wonderful things that surprise me every time I log in has me bubbling in my seat.

We've used a lot of technology from Puzzle Pirates and Bang! Howdy in Whirled, so one of the things I noticed while taking a peek around is that the slash commands and the chat filters are the same!  I hope that it will also give our Puzzle Pirates players a familiar and homeish feeling when they join.

Ah, if only I had all of that spare time I had back when I was a university student bored out of my skull instead of spending a lot of my time here at work, eh? ;)

The early press about Whirled (which is going to be MetaSOY in my mind for quite some time; I can't seem to get adjusted to the name) is very positive.  We've been slashdotted, written up on GameSpot, quoted on the BBC, and there's a fantastic write-up that the Cap'n linked to in his blog on Wonderland.

Tomorrow I will be uploading and writing about what followed the GDC, namely, the Three Rings post-party bash.  It was the stuff of legends.  It was fantastic.  There will be songs written.  They will be drunken songs and probably won't make much sense, but we'll take what we can get.  More tomorrow!

GDC: Day One

I return!  A quick break from GDC conferencing to do some OMing and to report back on some of the things I've found.  For example : what's inside those fancy black convention bags?  A lot of flyers!

(Also, a bundle of extra life granting Jelly Bellies and gum.)

The Cap'n's first talk was in Moscone North, where he gave a presentation at the Independent Games Summit.

He talked about how when Puzzle Pirates was being developed, that it was a team of only 6 guys- him, the CTO Mike Bayne, two artists (Bluebeard and Nemo), and two programmers (Peghead and Red).  To develop a game you have to have a team that kicks booty (warning for our sensitive readers: slide in picture contains unfiltered version of the word) and will go the lengths to make a quality product and push to get it done.

Then he also talked about lubbing one's players, and about his belief that new content will always be more fun for people if it is pushed out a bit earlier rather than having them wait forever while we polish every last bit.

Around the end before taking questions, he started talking about hiring good players (warning! this is a 17 megabyte file!) which I will admit is a particular soft spot for me. :)  Hooray!

I caught some pictures after of our captain handing out business cards, and chatting with other independent game developers.  That was about all I had time for before I headed back to the office to log in and answer the Midnight-Cobalt-Viridian queue, so I'll end with mentioning how very disturbingly bright the Conference Associate t-shirts are.  I caught it glowing in the dark of my room last night.  If ol' Hypnos becomes an insomniac muttering in the middle of the night, you'll know why.

To GDC and beyond!

Ahoy there!

This is Hypnos, coming to you live from the GDC in the Moscone Center.

For those of you that may not have heard of it, the Game Developers Conference is a very large annual gathering of all sorts of industry professionals from mobile, console, and online games who gather to mingle, network, lecture, and exchange news for a week-long conference and lots of parties.

Our very own Cap'n Cleaver is going to be speaking at a huge number of sessions and round tables and things!  He has blogged about what he'll be doing on his personal blog, The Flogging Will Continue.

I did not see as many sessions I was interested in attending this year as last year, but I wanted to attend again because I had such a fantastic experience with the Conference Associates volunteer program last year.  I met a great number of sleepy-er, I mean nice-folks and working a chaotic conference of 10,000 attendees to the 300 of you volunteers creates a great close and warm atmosphere.

In fact, I had such a great time that I shanghaied Hermes and Bia into volunteering with me this year!  Great hijinks to follow, I'm sure.

A lot of folks go to the conference to network and meet people in the industry and drop off resumes.  I'm luckily blessed with a great job (thanks, you guys!) at a great company already, so I will be taking the opportunity to stalk our dear Cap'n Cleaver and One-eyed Jack to their various speaking appointments and showering you with pictures throughout the week.

One bit of trivia for you conference-goers that you may not have realized: those bags they hand you when you check in full of flyers and papers and little bags of jelly bellies?  Each one of those bags is hand packed by one of an army of volunteers.  We did those yesterday.  Whew!

Ranking Systems

There's an article on Life with Alacrity that Cap'n Cleaver passed on to me about ranking systems and it gives some notable examples from various games.

As we use a ranking system in Puzzle Pirates, I thought you all might find it interesting, too!

Collective Choice: Competitive Ranking Systems

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