Shape up and Ship Out

03 Feb

I recently went on a reading jag about exploration in the age of sail culminating with a history of the Britain’s Royal Navy. Naval battles and quasi-naval battles (e.g., space warfare) have long been fodder for any number of computer strategy games (and table top games before that). Lots of cannonfire, splitered wood and the swashing of buckles. The idea seems to be gaining popularity as more of these games are being ported or developed for the MMO space.

Pirates Ho!

Pirates of the Burning Sea promises to be that sort of game. Sort of Eve Online meets Age of Sail (try it, the demo is still available).

According to the PotBS web site:

Ship combat in Pirates of the Burning Sea has all the action, intensity, and tactical gameplay of a single-player game. Speed, direction, and facing all matter, and you fire and dodge in realtime. As captain of your own ship you balance your crew health, sail integrity, hull armor, gun reload speed, and maneuverability, making decisions moment to moment and planning what’s going to happen in ten, thirty, or sixty seconds. It’s a white-knuckle experience, whether against determined NPCs or wily players.

Sounds exciting enough and probably all too familiar to veteran Eve pilots. Of course the big difference with PotBS is that yes, you can get out of your ship and have adventures on dry land as an avatar.

I like the idea and will certainly try the game when its out (currently estimated June 2007). If successful, I hope other developers will consider developing MMOs along this line. The combination of avatar and ship based play puts every naval and sci-fi scenario imaginable into play as potential MMO material.

Who wouldn’t love to travel to a galaxy of different planets, each with different zones, cultures, economies, etc. and adventure there? Toss in asteroid mining, salvage, interplanetary trade and ship-to-ship combat and I think you’d have a winner.

One of the things I see missing from this mix though is meaningful character differentiation. Sure, you could be a merchant or a pirate or stay land/planet-bound, but fundamentally, everyone’s a captain. You’re either a solo captain or a member of a fleet of captains, each with their own ship.

If I recall correctly, Lord Nelson didn’t really have heavily armored ships in front engage the enemy while lightly armored but high damage dealing frigates pummeled them from afar. Nor did they have chippie tenders running about repairing hull damage, dousing fires, repairing sails and healing wounded crew members. From what I can tell, PotBS wont either which brings me (finally) to my point: Whither group play in these multi-modal MMOs? (I can’t think of a better term for them, so since you are basically playing either as a ship or a traditional avatar, I’m considering each a modality.)

Are encounters simply the equivalent of two full parties of mages frost bolting each other into oblivion from afar? Not that I’m against that sort of thing, but I’m a zealot for small, tactical group play. I like having to depend on and adapt to the different strengths and weakness of each of my differentiated group mates. In a multi-modal MMO you are either the ship or the avatar. Why does everyone have to be a captain? Why not a ship and crew members who contribute their differentiated skills toward the group effort in ship-bound mode?

As you can imagine, this raises lots of design problems. Not the least of which is who owns the ship, if anyone. However, that doesn’t seem like such a huge hurdle if player progression allowed new recruits to crew on navy ships (NPC) or privateers (player owned) to gain experience and the gold necessary to ultimately buy their own ships and hire a crew.


Star Trek Online (slated for release in Q1 2008) appears to be tracking in this direction, but sounds like it will stop short of having truly independently owned and directed cooperative ships. According to, the largest ships which will require multiple players/professions to command will be fixed player “hubs.Its still a little unclear how this is supposed to work, but it could be conceptualized as a moving instanced zone once all grouped players are on board.

This mobile instance model would work for many missions, but still wouldn’t give players the kind of freedom of action that Eve does. Everyone needs to be able to climb aboard and set a course for an adventure of their own choosing in a fully populated space environment (Roll 1d6 Space Pirates!).

It seems a natural that in a game affording cooperative ship-based play that through collective action, guilds could build and increase the strength of their fleets which would require the contribution of junior members to man and operate them. What a concept. Noob guild cabin boy can stand shoulder to shoulder with guildie Admiral Uber N3lson instead of only hearing in guild chat how 40 1337 level 70 members just took down Cthulu.

I’d join that navy in a heartbeat. What a great way for new players to literally learn the ropes, advance their character, get loot and contribute to the advancement of the guild.

Not enough peeps to ship out? Hire a crew. Plenty of able bodied crew members hanging around every port. Note to devs, better create a ship’s payroll/loot system native to the game or you’ll get keel hauled.


To me, collaborative ship-based play would seem to be the be all end all for an MMO like Firefly (expected in 2008). To really live in the ‘verse you really have to have the group ship model down. Navigator, Engineer, Gunner, Marine, etc. all contributing to the group effort planetside and in space. We can only hope that Multiverse doesn’t do what every other company has done to the Firefly franchise: screw it up and piss off its fans. Still, hope springs eternal and I’m hoping that this one will help usher in a new crop of games.

Next Gen Ho!




Posted by on February 3, 2007 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , ,

2 responses to “Shape up and Ship Out

  1. medison

    June 22, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    i played this game! its great!

  2. gothwalk

    November 1, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    I’ve been tracking news – such as it is – about the firefly MMO on Been nothing for a while, possibly time to start hassling Multiverse for info again…


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