Understanding failure, the PoTBS story.

As has been well reported, Pirates of the Burning Sea is cutting down on servers, going from 11 to 4. While PR would like you to believe otherwise, it’s fairly clear that the game is underperforming, and the reduction in servers confirms this.

What’s most surprising to me about the news is people’s general take on the game, stating that it’s most similar to EVE Online, and that perhaps it could see an EVE-like growth rate in the future. The major problem with that growth prediction is that PoTBS is basically EVE-lite, attempting to keep the ‘fun’ aspects of EVE while removing some of the tedium. The recent server news confirms at least one thing; EVE-lite is not the game people want, nor does EVE-lite actually work as a game. The reason EVE itself works is because it’s amazingly balanced in all aspects of design. Crafting is balanced in regards to PvP, PvE is balanced in regards to the economy, character growth is well defined and a factor; it just all works. The problem for PoTBS is that it has 50% of the formula, removing the perceived ‘unfun’ 50% in an effort to improve the overall experience, and ultimately it fails. What the average game fan has trouble accepting is that while gate jumping 20 times itself is not fun, it’s necessary to ensure that the PvP remains balanced, and hence fun. When you mess with one side of the equation, you end up screwing both sides.

PoTBS is a great example of the overall complexity of an MMO, and why simply focusing on one or two aspects without consideration for others is a mistake. Sure zooming around the map almost instantly instead of having to travel for 30+ minutes sounds like a good idea, but how does that instant travel effect the economy, PvP, or PvE? Instancing everything does help with lag and leads to more controlled and balanced encounters, but what are its downfalls? How does instanced combat effect merchants, griefers, PvE players? Removing the tedium of sitting in an asteroid field and watching your mining laser go ‘voom, voom, voom’ for hours sounds like a huge plus, right? By removing the boring parts and letting players focus on the fun of buying/selling/trading sure sounds like a win/win on paper, does it not? Those are just a few of the perceived ‘advantages’ PoTBS implemented in order to make it a more friendly version of EVE, and yet each one is a cause for an overall broken formula with serious issues. The fact that PoTBS shipped with a primitive and somewhat broken avatar combat model did not help, but to think that is the major issue is incorrect. Players would deal with that system, flaws and all, if the overall game worked like it should. The major issues; a borked economy, completely broken PvP, a PvP game with an overemphasis on bland PvE, those are the issues that drive players away, and those are the issues that will take the greatest effort to fix.

18 Responses to Understanding failure, the PoTBS story.

  1. p@tsh@t says:

    A longer post on PotBS has been ruminating inside for sometime with me, but you touched on quite a bit. Since I bailed, I’ve been forum lurking and following the saga, ignoring most of the noise and focusing on the dev discussions.

    The community continues to give FLS a pass on being “responsive and involved with the community,” but I just don’t see it. I think they’ve been consumed by groupthink and either discounted, disregarded, ignored or failed to respond in a timely manner to gamebreaking problems that should have been addressed and tested in beta, or when identified, quickly and clearly identified and addressed– even if that meant locking down parts of the game.

    Why they rushed it out the door in such an unfinished state is beyond me. I initially was luke warm (but very hopeful) and bought the game, but then decided not to sub as gaping problems emerged as well as increasingly intransigent and non-sensical viewpoints were espoused by devs.

    “That’s not the game we made” “War is not fair, try to make the odds unfair in your favor” All the anti-alt stuff. All that Sun Tzu shit. Sun Tzu never made a video game.

    The only thing worse than the econobomb debacle is how they handled it. Adopting the “there’s no crying in the red circle” mantra by the devs just pissed people off and they left in droves. There’s no crying in chapter 11 either.

    Whether its a failure to listen to the playerbase or a failure to execute, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if no one wants to play the game. I sincerely hope the game turns into something because of its awesome potential, but there’s a lot of titanic deck chair rearranging going on ATM.

    From what I can see, its almost like they need to go back to a closed beta and re-release. But alas, that ship has long since sailed I’m afraid.

  2. nuyan says:

    Add the fact that POTBS isn’t as strong in the addictive item-hunting thing like WoW/EQ and you indeed got the reason why people don’t stick around long. You’re completely right, I just don’t understand why the developers didn’t see this.

    You know, I love the sea-pirate theme and I love MMO and multiplayer games, but I would’ve preferred POTBS as a singleplayer. I actually didn’t even bother playing it and that’s a shame.

  3. Swift Voyager says:

    The next Total War game includes an awesome-looking sea battle mode. If you go look at the screen shots, you’ll see what I mean. That’s what an MMO with a naval combat setting should look like. Besides the factors of MMO gameplay that didn’t meet the mark, read this wiki article about Empire:Total War and pay close attention to the parts of naval combat that this single player game has but PotBS didn’t have. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empire:_Total_War

    Total War only has naval battle as an add-on to the core of the game, which is stunning land-based combat. If PotBS had really knocked people’s sox off with great naval battles (was supposed to be the core of the game, rigth?) then I’m sure they wouldn’t be in such trouble. When I heard about PotBS I said to myself “wow, I love naval combat, I have to go check this out”, but when I saw the screen shots I didn’t go any farther. I understand that they try to make it playable on a wide range of systems, but jeeeze guys, did they have to go all the way back to 16 meg video cards?

    naval screen shots:

    http://www.seganerds.com/2008/04/01/segas-april-fools-empire-total-war-naval-screens/

    the real naval screen shots:

    http://www.twcenter.net/wiki/Empire:_Total_War

  4. Remianen says:

    While I largely agree with many of the things you put forth, I feel the need to remind you that EVE “underperformed” just the same when it was released. Back then, Earth & Beyond continued to kick EVE’s butt in the numbers and only the cannibalization of Westwood by EA prevented them from continuing to do so (though that is admittedly personal opinion). I think PotBS is a victim of the impatience brought on by the success of games like Blizzard’s baby. Remember, when EVE came out, only “hardcore” games ruled the roost (EverQuest, Anarchy Online, DAoC, etc), games that required significant investments in time if you wanted to succeed. But CCP was patient and EVE found its niche. Whether SOE has the same patience (I think the Station Pass’s pyramid-like pricing scheme allows them to be patient, given the miniscule playerbases of the Matrix Online and SWG and Vanguard, in comparison to “the norm”), remains to be seen.

    PotBS is a very good game that will undoubtedly benefit from continued development and refining of its mechanics. Remember, when EVE launched, there was no tutorial. Either you had been in or knew someone who was in beta or you were lost. But over the years, they refined the game until you get to present day where new players (the lifeblood of an MMO over a year old) are shown pretty much all of the game’s major features and systems, in a way that’s easy to digest and understand.

    And as a diehard “early adopter”, I totally understand wishing to err on the side of WoW rather than that of EQ2 or VG. Most people aren’t running quad core PCs with Raptor drives and 9-series Nvidia cards, after all.

    Great post though. I just think that MMO developers need to realize that there is a migratory pattern that exists with subscribers. When they get “tired” of their current MMO, they look for new horizons to explore and this is where new subs can come from. Therefore, even if you don’t move a million units on release day, the game can still succeed and grow, organically. Turn your current players into evangelists for your game and that kind of viral marketing can foster sustained and manageable growth. At least that’s my view. :)

  5. mutantmagnet says:

    I think part of the reason Eve grew was due to word of mouth. That’s certainly part of the reason why many games sell well. Maybe the devs should ask their subscribers what is it about the game that doesn’t motivate them to talk more about it to their friends and peers.

  6. Isanox says:

    Great article.

    I wonder how much having a PvP focus hurt the game.
    Or maybe I should say a weak PvP system.

    Auto Assault, PotBS and Tabula Rasa all have a PvP “just kill people” approach to their end game content. That is limp in comparison to AoC and War’s dynamic city/land capture end-game.

    Game developers have to learn, that whether it’s PvE, PvP, Solo, Group, Raid or crafting is all about Content. People will not pay to entertain themselves.

  7. syncaine says:

    Isanox, your first point would be valid if EVE did not exist, but it does. PvP in a straight ‘kill others’ fashion works. Players will find their own motivation (as they did in UO, AC, and now EVE)

    If anything, forcefully giving people motivation (like DAoC) might actually hurt, for stuff like population balance.

    Oh, and end-game Tabula Rasa is PvP?

    Mutantmagnet, word of mouth only works when something is good. If/when PoTBS fixes all of its issues, all it gets is negative press (like this blog post)

    As for Earth and Beyond, I’ll be honest and say I never played it, and actually heard little about it when it was out. I think the reason EVE is where it is today is due in large part to CCP staying true to their vision, and believing it would work. I’m very happy for them, and gaming in general, that a small studio stuck to its guns and now is being rewarded. Hopefully more will follow, and investors will see that dumping a huge amount of money into a project is not the only way to make a profitable MMO.

  8. Swift Voyager says:

    Syncaine has a good point. CCP didn’t give up on Eve after release. I’ve seen lots of game companies who reduce the developement team down to a skeleton crew after release. With a non-MMO game that works. Maybe part of the problem with PotBS is that management is still thinking like non-MMO management? CCP have steadily increased the size and ambitions of the developement team over time. One thing I really like about Eve is that I know I can expect something big every 6 months or less ……and they don’t charge extra to get the new content. Another good thing about Eve is that people can start a 30+ day training and let their sub expire. Then, after they get tired of playing Halo for 4 weeks, they can go back and re-sub to Eve and that 30+ day training is complete. Another great thing that CCP manage to do well is that players always feel that there’s plenty of room to grow. No matter how many skill points you have, there’s something you can be better at or something that you can’t do at all yet. Even the top 10 highest skilled characters in the game don’t have “maxed” characters. That’s an incredibly attractive feature. It keeps players coming back. Like Sincaine, people often quit Eve but they eventually come back and discover that it’s even better than when they left.

    My biggest question about PotBS is whether the game is better or worse for the players when there are fewer (but more densely populated) servers. If croweded servers are a good thing, then maybe people will enjoy the game more and they’ll see slowly increasing subs. If the economy still doesn’t work, and PvP is still just not good enough, despite the increased density then there won’t be a PotBS for much longer.

    Publishing an MMO title seems to require a HUGE shift in mind set. Most games have an extremely short product life cycle. Game companies (especially the big ones) are not used to maintaining marketing and developement more than 3 months after release date.

  9. mbp says:

    Syncaine what about argument that the fate of POTBS is symptomatic of a larger phenomenon. The gaming public seems to be getting bored of MMORPGs. Reading around the MMO blogosphere at the moment a startling pattern emerges: On the one hand bloggers are getting bored of the game they are playing while on the other hand the bar for new mmorpgs has been raised so high that they will never live up to expectations. The only games that seem to be getting good press at the moment are the old old reliables EVE and Everquest 1 (for nostalgia value).

  10. syncaine says:

    I think it’s a bad time to ask that question. At the end of the year, when both AoC and WAR are out, we will have a much better view. Also don’t forget that LoTRO is doing fairly well for itself, just not WoW-like numbers, but still well.

  11. tony says:

    Look i just don’t want to spend 20+ minutes per battle! I want a fast, action “massive” battle pirate mmo. Not a slow and simulated battle mmo for retired people over 80 years old.

    PotBS is gaming at SNAIL pace. I’m not talking about the grind. i’m talking about the action. Lineage 2 has one of the most hardest and longest grind for a mmo but at least the action is fast which is fun.
    PotBS is like battles at tortoise pace. 5 min to turn your ship “just” right to fire and shave 10% of their hp off and thats only 1 ship. Easier to just board them and kill them all but that just isn’t as fun and totally blowing their ships to smitherreens.

    Maybe this just isn’t my game. Yeah that’s why I stopped playing it before the closed beta even ended.

  12. T says:

    Pirates of the burning sea has matured very quickly and is a huge amount better than it was in every way.

    I would highly suggest trying out the trial again.

  13. mike says:

    I suggest not even trying Pirates of the Burning Sea. Many of the issues have not been fixed (i.e., avatar combat is worse off than before and the devs are rolling back to a previous state in their upcoming expansion). I just canceled my subscription after two months of playing, and this was due to a number of reasons. PotBS forces players into PVP zones, as quests or crafting/buying/selling require that you enter a specific port (which may be surrounded by a red pvp zone). So you are unfortunately stuck with either waiting until the red zone clears (which could take days to weeks) or taking the risk and sailing into the pvp zone.
    Most people take the risk, and many people (especially new players) are ganked. Any complaints are met with a lack of sympathy by many players in the community. However, most people who have been long time players own millions. Loss to them means nothing, meanwhile a gank to a new player means the loss of days or even weeks of playtime.
    There are ways around this, but none of them are entirely practical.

    What made me finally leave was due to player exploitation in the AH. There is no way to transfer goods to alts you may have. The only way to transfer goods without having someone else involved is to sell the item on the AH for a small price, immediately log into the alt, and purchase it. Unfortunately, a buy order system allows people to purchase these items automatically. Anyone not aware of this exploit is immediately victimized. This has been a problem for a while and It seems unlikely that the devs will do anything to change it. I lost a number of expensive items because of this, which was the final straw.

  14. mike says:

    PotBS is flawed. The Developers, like p@tsh@t said, are guilty of group think. They are more interested in this idea of “realism,” which I find highly controversial, because the game is naturally lacking in realism. They’re more interested in superimposing their own ideas of what an MMO should be like onto players, rather than listening to what the players want and improving their gameplay experience.

  15. mike says:

    Talk about shooting oneself in the foot…

  16. David says:

    Obviously you guys have not played potbs recently… It has expanded to a really great game…with a port battle based rts style gameplay that is awesome. There are many new Players and the community is just very helpful. There is even a user content system where you can customize your ship…it is only a straight up pvp game if you play as the cutthroat which many people do…

    • nbforrest says:

      erm..I dont know what potbs game you`re playing but the potbs game that I played doesnt have ” many new players”. The server populations are pathetically small. trying to find a group takes hours sometimes because there just arent many people on the servers.
      Once you get to level 50 there is nothing to do solo you have to have a group to play the game and groups are sometimes impossible to find.
      This game is dead.

  17. Branko says:

    I leveled a few chars to 50, and found that, well…. it’s just not fun. Here’s why:
    – With the limitations placed on what a single player can do regarding production, you can’t play the industrialist (like in EVE, for instance). The 10 production lot limit means you have to buy a lot of the components from the AH, and most players are in societies running closed production and not selling in the AH (to produce the OP bundleboats and so on). The economy is downright horrible, as a result, and if you want many things at a more or less reasonable price you either have to join a society or make them yourself. Often you won’t even be able to buy all the outfittings (and ship) you want in one port. Contrast this to EVE with a fully functional economy where you can buy just about anything in trade hubs. In safety, I might add.

    – The small open sea area which is easily traversed means that essentially a few gank squads can patrol a huge area. That is death to the solo player (ofc people say “join a society”, but you know what, in EVE I can do just fine as a solo player), as you have no business in the red without a 6 man group. Or a utterly speedfitted boat which can run most of the time, but can’t kill anything except newbies. I’ll get to that in a moment.

    – Newbie ganking is not only allowed, it’s actively encouraged. You get rewards for ganking newbies if you do it in aforementioned speedfitted ships, with no risk to yourself, since you can just run from anyone who is out to get you. It’s riskless PVP which gives rewards (MOVs/MOTs). And the kicker is, while the “elite” guys in this dying game say “you have no business in the red”, they’re the same guys who put ports near newbie areas into contention so they can gank those newbies at will (who then have to go through the red in order to progress in the game, ofc the other alternative is not to play for X days or at all, something they heartily take to). Which leads us to the next point.

    – The game is purely PvE grinding until level 50. Sure, it is occasionally possible to get some PvP fun, but if you go in the red while any of the aforementioned ganksquads are around, you will just get raped. So you must level to 50 to PVP, then you need to grind money to buy the must have PVP equipment (from the MOV rewards), and then you can PVP (see: roll in a 6 man ganksquad or stay docked). The port battles are the only “good” PVP to be had in the game, to be honest.

    – PvP itself, outside of port battles, is borked in many ways. From boarding which is idiotically easy (especially with papermache but fast ships like the xebec being able to literally push a twice heavier ship, get in front of it, and board?!?), from gangs being faster then soloers due to badly thought out group buffs and outfittings, to demasting being “the” choice for 1v1 combat because unless you demast the other guy easily goes away if he starts losing (because of stupid class specific polars) if he’s of another class, etc.

    – Unlike in EVE, smaller ships have no purpose in combat, outside of leveling or ganking newbies. Basically the whole host of historical and interesting ships in the game, like brigs, cutters, etc… are entirely useless and if players started at level 50 could very well be deleted from the game.

    I won’t touch on the PVE part of the game, primarly because the economy and PVP parts were what I was originally interested in. But both are borked, and the game strongly dissuades anyone who likes to play solo from even playing, since they can neither be effective industrialists nor effective PVPers.

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