Three Rings CEO Daniel James greeted GDC attendees in true Old West style – wearing a ten-gallon hat and freely pouring whiskey. Perhaps the drink was meant to help James break a bid of bad news. What had been planned as a postmortem examining the wild success of Bang! Howdy, Three Rings' follow-up their subversive high seas MMO hit Puzzle Pirates, would be nothing of the sort: the game hadn't shipped. James described the follow-up title as ‘a very pregnant game', so instead of dissecting the final product, a shift was made to examine the how Puzzle Pirates informed the creation of the soon-to-public-beta Bang!
|Bang! Howdy features cowboys over pirates to do away with the whole eye-patch and cutlass-wearing motif.|
At first glance, Bang! Howdy doesn't appear to borrow much from Puzzle Pirates. Rather than the previous effort's isometric, massively-multiplayer, pirate-theme puzzle solving, Bang! uses a new 3D engine to provide what James labels ‘a strategy game with antics'. And this time around, Three Rings is targeting multiplayer, without the massively modifier. The most obvious change in direction, however, is clearly the shift from the pirate motif to an Old West look and feel. Michael Bayne, chief technology officer at Three Rings, confided that moving away from the eye-patch and cutlass world offered in Puzzle Pirates was a pragmatic decision; “One of the reasons we wanted to create a cowboy game was that we were tired of wearing pirate costumes,” explained Bayne.
The more sophisticated technology and more complex gameplay of Bang! is intended to overcome one of the most vexing problems of Puzzle Pirates – failure to download. Three Rings hopes that by appealing to a more sophisticated download-savvy audience, they'll convert a much percentage of website hits into download and paying customers.
Despite the change in genre and approach, Bang! carries forth much of what Three Rings learned developing and operating a massively-multiplayer online game with very little staff and a minimal budget. First and foremost, Bang! was designed in the beginning to support a free-to-play, pay-for-items model. Puzzle Pirates started life with a more traditional subscription model, though it quickly became apparent that purchasing avatar enhancements and ‘badges' allowing more advanced gameplay could be a more successful model. To Daniel James, a pay-for-item business model is not only potential more lucrative, but it's also more attractive to player. Puzzle Pirates had experienced an early plateau in growth under the subscription plan; a change to free-play re-ignited player acquisition. Three Rings has since converted two of the four Oceans of Puzzle Pirates to this free-play system, and has found that these servers greatly outperform the remaining subscription-based areas.
Though Bang! Howdy is larger in scope and technology than Puzzle Pirates, Three Rings is continuing their strategy of lean development. Fifty percent of Bang! is built on free components – utilizing Free BSD, Apache, MySQL and Proguard as well as libraries created and made freely available by Three Rings. In some respects, the company is trying to streamline the process further. Puzzle Pirates was a three-year effort to implement a vast design, and in many ways it's developers still consider it to be unfinished. Development of Bang! began in earnest in March 2005, with the first public testing imminent. Three Rings was able to accomplish this, in large part, by targeting an initial release of what James calls a “complete, coherent 20 percent”. Looking towards an episodic model, the company hopes to launch a fully-featured, high-quality experience that will grow overtime, offering new experiences and gameplay.
Bang! Howdy will also carry on the concept of hard and soft virtual currencies introduced in Puzzle Pirates. By allowing players to earn ‘soft' currency by completing in-game tasks, or to opt out of the grind by purchasing ‘hard' currency directly from Three Rings, Bang! offers players to choose their level of commitment. Discussing the success of dual currencies in Puzzle Pirates, and considering the rate at which player exchanged earned in-game ‘soft' money for purchased ‘hard' currency and the game time required to earn those funds, James calculated that players were willing to sell their in-game labor for just 25 cents per hour. Piracy indeed!
Additionally, though Puzzle Pirates had support from UbiSoft to get on store shelves, Three Rings has decided not to pursue a publisher deal this time around. Noting that very few paying Puzzle Pirates player had come via the retail box, and that the idea of a ‘launch' means very little when a game costs nothing to play and that the version of Bang! appearing soon for public testing will be essentially identical to the ‘finished' commercial product, it becomes difficult to justify giving a cut to a publisher.
Will “strategy with antics” be a winning formula? Will cowboys be as popular as pirates? Much remains to be seen, but Three Rings makes a compelling case for an alternative vision of multiplayer online game development.