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Disney's Goslin On The Pirates Of The Caribbean MMO's 'Velvet Rope'

At last week's AGDC, Disney Online Studios' Mike Goslin discussed what went right and what went wrong with the company's newest MMORPG, Pirates of the Caribbean Online -- particularly pointing to the use of a "velvet rope"-style restricted free-to-
"I’ve found that with these massively multiplayer games, you’ve never learned it all -- you keep learning," says Mike Goslin, president of Disney Online Studios. Goslin was at the Austin GDC to discuss the company's newest MMO, Pirates of the Caribbean Online, and the lessons learned. Goslin started at Disney at Walt Disney Imagineering, working on virtual theme park rides, specifically Disney Quest, a "theme park in a box," as he called it. The most popular ride was apparently Pirates of the Caribbean. "The most important thing we learned was that everybody loves being a pirate," he says. "Grandmas, little girls, everybody gets on there and has a good time." While Goslin wasn’t able to reveal the subscription numbers for the Pirates of the Caribbean game, he did impart a number of interesting statistics, including: - 104 million ships sunk - 5,445 cumulative years of play - 2.7 billion gold won in blackjack minigame - 4.2 million male pirate avatars - 1.3 million female pirate avatars "Movie games tend to suck," Goslin admits. "That’s because a lot of money gets tied up in the license, and there are milestones for a movie, and things like that." Creating The World Disney was lucky in that it owned the rights to the movie, and was itself the licensor. The team initially decided to capture the experience of the movie, rather than clone its plot or more specific elements. Initial character models for the game followed the concept art of the ride -- "And I think that was a mistake," Goslin says. "If you’re a fan of Pirates of the Caribbean now, you’re thinking of the movie first. The number of people who think of the ride is very small." The initial goofy, cartoonish avatars "dragged down the appeal in terms of age," he says. “The older kids didn’t think this was cool, because they looked like animated characters. And that was a mistake, because we wanted to live up to the expectations of these movies." So the team then focused more on detail, and changed the avatars to fit more within the world of the movie. "Keep in mind we were also very constrained, because it needs to run on every damn PC out there, and there are some really low-end PCs. Another thing you can do to bring these (player) characters into the game is really put them into the world." The team’s conclusion was cut-scenes, which most people don’t do in MMOs, because "they’re very expensive, it’s hard to get it right, especially with humor." But it got the characters acting right within the world. "If you’re introducing a broad new audience to this new kind of game, which they haven’t really played before, it helps them to know there’s something familiar in there." “Since we were doing it in-engine, we were able to put your player-created character in there with Jack,” he says. But the player character is mute, and so “it seems like some sort of strange monologue, so we put in at least one other character (into a scene) so it’s not so flat.” Unfortunately the team couldn’t get Johnny Depp to do the voice acting, so they had to use a voice mimic. "The problem with sound-alikes is they’re one extreme or the other," says Goslin. "Either they’re great at mimicry, or they’re great at acting, but rarely both." In order to create the online world, the game, ride, and movie teams got together and dumped everything that was known about the world into a bible. This would make sure the fiction was consistent across the books, the movies, and the game. "It was a large investment across all parts of the company," says Goslin. "One thing we did decide to do, was that because we wanted all the cool things in our game, we played fast and loose with the timeline, so we could bring in all the cool things from all the films." Accessibility "How do you get people into this world?" asks Goslin. "I already talked about using the Pirates material as a bridge, but one thing that’s really important is a good tutorial. One thing we could do a better job on is keep it shorter. You always think there’s a bare minimum number of things people need to know to play this game, and it just winds up being really long. It’s probably (still) two times too long. We need to continually whittle that thing down." To add to accessibility ,one should "give people things to do that don’t require huge time investments," he says. "One of the most fun things is crewing up and going on ships. But while you’re waiting around, what do you do? So we added card games into it. I think there are people where this is largely what they do." "Violence was a tough one for us," Goslin admits. “The series is all about violence, people fighting and blowing things up. But this game is for kids too, and we didn’t want a T rating from the ESRB because that really limits us. We made our problem worse when we started going more realistic. If it were cartoony violence, it wouldn’t be a problem." "It’s all in the perception," Goslin says. The impact of violence depends on the context. You don’t die in the game -- you get unconscious and get thrown in the brig. You have a death penalty, but it’s not actual death, and Goslin finds that this makes the game more accessible without getting rid of a staple of pirate existence. Business Model According to Goslin, the number one lesson is to make your "velvet rope" soft. Pirates of the Caribbean Online uses a model in which the player can try limited parts of the game for free, but then hits a wall where they’re forced to pay a $5/month subscription charge if they want to continue. "How much do you give away for free?" Goslin poses. "The one thing I do know for sure is that at the beginning was that it was way too close. It wasn’t a velvet rope originally, it was barbed wire. It didn’t feel like a free game, and more like a free trial. On the other hand, a lot of players were converting." "I think ultimately it’s a good business model," he says, "and we’ve gone back and added it to (Disney's previous MMO) ToonTown. I think people have to play it for a while before they say, "'Hey, I’d be willing to pay this thing.'" Goslin’s argument is counter to that of Min Kim, who in a talk the very same day, decried this model as a false pretender to the free to play business model idea. The variety of methodologies and passions behind them is evident nowhere as strongly as at the Austin GDC. How valuable are the freeloaders, Goslin asks? "What would happen if you gave 90 percent of it away for free? I’d really like to try it," Goslin says. "When you start buying into these communities, your status within that community is very important, so if there’s some exclusive content that’s exclusive to a pay wall, maybe more people will actually do it."

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