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Looting Game Design Gold from Sid Meier's Pirates!

Stealing game design gems from one of the best games ever made.

Thomas Henshell

October 16, 2014

9 Min Read

(Cross posted from my personal dev blog site)

"Good artists copy, great artists steal." - Pablo Picasso

Sid Meier's Pirates! is arguably the most important game ever made . . . and it also ruined my week.  You see, I’m working on Archmage Risesand part of my elevator pitch is, "It's like Pirates! but with mages and permadeath."

"Live the Life" is exactly what this Pirate simulator delivers!

Pirates! and I have known each other a long time.  It's been 27 years since I slipped my 360 KB 5.25" floppy into my Tandy 1000 and "Lived the Life."  Having not played it for a while, just this Sunday I fired up the 2004 edition to see what it could teach me.  (I grew up in a culture that didn't watch TV on Sunday, so I revel in the freedom of being a pirate on the Lord's Day!)  The 2004 edition by Firaxis is a great example of how an old game's inner beauty can be recast for a modern audience.  If you've played the 2004 version, you've basically played the '87 version—and vice versa. 

What I learned this week is valuable to me, and hopefully to you:

Like any creative project, a game design/concept is born in a lucid moment of inspiration.  I can literally see the game I want to make before I've touched a keyboard.  But like a ship on the open seas with wind and waves, the game development process includes drift.  Programming, art choices, new features, all the little decisions along the way potentially introduce drift one away from the core concept of the game.  And I'm one guy!  I can't imagine how AAA teams do it with dozens (or hundreds!) of talented developers.

So as I sailed the Caribbean as a Dutchman in a War Sloop, I was confronted in stark contrast with how much drift has already occurred in Archmage Rises. I'm disappointed in some of the course corrections I need to make, but I’m happy overall with the experience.

Like Neo, Sid showed us the way toward true open world design

I glibly wrote that Pirates! could be the most important game ever made.  It is something a game developer friend said to me this week—and at first, I felt this was a ridiculous thought. Later on, I realized he may be right after all!

Pirates is one of the world's first open world games and yet a mashup of four different types of games. I hear many people pay tribute to Grand Theft Auto III as the “first” open world game—but for all of Rockstar's inventiveness, they’ve got nothing on Pirates.  Let me explain why:

Gold Chest #1: Living World

Each town has a simulated economy and garrison.  The brief text immediately tells you the towns status.

The game world of Pirates! is alive and hums along with or without your involvement.  A whole Caribbean economy is simulated under the hood.  European powers go to war with one another.  Towns grow or decrease in prosperity.  Raiders or invasion forces decimate towns.  Towns change hands through simulated battles.  Governors get replaced bringing economic prosperity.  Famous pirates (NPCs) travel the world, causing havoc.  From the same starting point, no two games are the same.

One specific example: Should a trade ship traveling from San Juan to St. Kitts arrive, both the sending port and receiving port get a small economic boost. If the ship is lost at sea (or to you), they both suffer that loss. The economic prosperity of the towns determines how much money they have to buy your goods, and which items are available for sale/trade. 

There are no neutral actions you can take in the sandbox. Whatever you do, the world will change accordingly.

Gold Chest #2: Emergent Behavior

Who told those French raiders to attack that town?  The rules of the living world.

Pirates! has a few very simple rules at play.  But it has the right rules—so with all the simulated agents, you have the right ingredients for emergent behavior. 

I was merrily sailing along and saw not one, but two separate French raiders sally up to a Spanish town and let loose their canons.  No one, from me to the developers, could have predicted that two raiders sent from different towns would happen to attack the same town at the same time just as I was sailing by.

Similarly, I decided I wanted to attack a particular ship—but by the time I got there, it was close to town. So my sea battle became a land and sea battle—all because of the timing of when that ship left its port. Our paths converged, and I had to deal with the consequences.

Gold Chest #3: Permanent Presence

This is my story.  There are many like it, but this one is mine.

As you loot ships, the economies of the towns are impacted.  If you favor one European power, it will dominate your version of the Caribbean.  You can help towns permanently change hands from one nation to another by sacking the town or sinking reinforcement troop ships.  Each action has a lasting consequence and a profound feeling of "I did that!"

Presence is reinforced through the map/log.  It shows where and when every one of your actions took place in the world.  This is your story in the Caribbean; it is personal.  This is what keeps me coming back over and over again.

Gold Chest #4: Different Strokes

Given you can only play as a pirate, the game has a wide variety of play styles within a seemingly confining genre.

First, if you are more action-oriented, you can make money by looting ships and entering sword fights against ship captains.  But if you are more merchant-minded, you can amass a large fleet of trade galleons and become a merchant trader of sorts sailing from smaller producing towns to larger consuming towns.  In a small way, it has a bit of Railroad Tycoon in here. :-)

Every ship in the game can be captured and controlled by you.  So you can play a small fast raider in a 12 gun sloop, or a massive lumbering 48 gun Frigate.  The battle tactics are entirely different.

You can staunchly play for King and Country of your starting European power.  Or a heartless, opportunist smuggler playing all sides against each other.  And anything in between.

Get estates and get married to a governor's daughter.  Even do it multiple times!  It's one of the only games I know of that allows polygamy.

Gold Chest #5: Procedurally-Generated Quests

I'm hunting me some buried treasure!

The living game world is fully utilized as the game generates quests based on current conditions. 

A barmaid whispers of a certain treasure laden ship traveling to a nearby island.  Or a governor asks you to escort a new governor to his destination.  A traveller is willing to sell a treasure map to buried treasure. 

While I suppose these can become eventually repetitive, I find them far more engaging than Destiny's quests.  Probably because if I do successfully escort that governor, the world permanently changes.  In Destiny, the Vex will still be there the next time I shoot them—and the next, and the next after that.

Gold Chest #6: Emergent Story

Am I the kind of pirate to hunt down and assassinate other pirates?

The 2004 version of Pirates! has a story of recovering/avenging your kidnapped family.  You can complete this or completely ignore it. 

I'm more interested in the stories I make myself. :-)  I play as a Dutchman with a score to settle with the Spanish.  Sometimes I'm the scourge of the north, or the south.  Sometimes I'll pick on a town barricading it from all outside shipments, or spread my reign of terror evenly.

The game's simple rules and living world allow me to make up my own stories and play them out to my heart's content.  This is where people smarter than me have identified it as moving from "game" to "software toy."  This seems to be a common thread in Sid's games, and why they stand the test of time.

You can also play Pirates! on pretty much anything, which is awesome. If you haven't played this gem, you are in luck!

Pirates! is available on just about everything except WonderSwan:

iPad, iPhone, Windows Phone, Windows XP+, Xbox 360, Xbox, Wii, PSP, Windows 3.x, Sega Genesis, Amiga/CD32, Apple II/IIGS, Atari ST, NES, Commodore 64, Dos, Macintosh, Amstrad CPC, NEC PC-9801

Steal Good. Copy Bad

What was Picasso talking about, really? He was referring to internalizing the concept or style of a work of art, not merely copying it.  It’s the difference between a photocopy and a memory.  In programming, we have a similar idea in the form of shallow copy versus deep copy

So what do I mean when I say I'm making Pirates! with mages? 

I do not mean having a 3D map with a mage running around attacking merchant caravans to impress governors and marry their daughters. To me, that would be a shallow copy.

I am implementing the six gold chests of design above in spirit.  Most of my effort is focused on creating a plausible, living and breathing fantasy RPG world.  One where nobles (my equivalent of governors) have personalities and ambitions.  They procedurally generate quests based on what is happening in their territory and with their neighbors.  You as the player decide which nobles you want to side with and which ones you want to use to test your new Fire Rain spell on.  I'm taking what Sid did and going further with it.  You have a home base (your mage tower)—and based on your fame (or infamy), nobles will send out raiding parties against you!  So being naughty (or nice) has a lot to do with your personal security.  This is one way the player will feel presence and permanence in the game world.  Ultimately, I want to give players the ability to tell their own story.  This, I hope, is what makes my game successful and keeps people returning for more. 

In short, I'm stealing.  In the best sense of the word :-)


You can follow the game I'm working on, Archmage Rises, by joining the newsletter or chatting with me about it on the Facebook page. You can tweet me @LordYabo

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