Building The Perfect Pirate Game
Sea dogs, rogue mariners, chasers of the wind, whatever you call them, pirates have never seen much love from video games and especially not lately. Sure, they have been used in some titles recently (and I use “recently” very loosely), Risen 2 and Sid Meier’s Pirates! come to mind (and Far Cry 3, but those modern pirates don’t really count in my book. Give us 1800s, wooden sailing vessel pirates!). Outside of those few titles and classics like The Secret of Monkey Island and Skies of Arcadia,
you’d be hard pressed to name any games recent or past that focus on pirates.Well, video game industry, I’m going to do you a favor and describe some elements that I would want in a pirate video game.
One of the core elements of any pirate themed fiction, video game or otherwise, is freedom. The game should reflect that idea by providing players with a large open-world to be all pirate-like. I’d love to see a pirate game with an open-world the size of Skyrim and the freedom to take advantage of it. While this could lead to having long sections of time spent sailing, I feel like if it was handled appropriately this could be one of the highlights of the game. One way to make sailing more interesting for players would be to add an element of exploration. Sure, you’d have a world map, but that doesn’t mean that everything is charted on it. While sailing, you could run aground on an uncharted island or meet with a spectral ship shrouded in fog or do battle with some unimaginable monster of the deep. Events like these would serve to break up the monotony of a voyage to a new port or hideaway. It would also be important to give each section of the sea its own feel. Maybe one area is perpetually in hurricane-like conditions, while another is an area of doldrums, etc. Islands or ports should also have their own style. Perhaps in a pirate town it is perfectly acceptable to shoot a man in the middle of the street, while such an action in a more orderly port would have the authorities after you and your ship. These ports and islands should be large enough so that you can spend a fair amount of time on them before sailing off into the sunset. Also, you should be able to steal pretty much everything (you are a pirate after all). Most importantly, the world should give players the freedom to go anywhere and do pirate-y things.
As far as magic goes, a pirate game should include a small element of the supernatural, just don’t over-do it. The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie is my rule of thumb. While it did include ghost/zombie/cursed pirates, it was mostly about the pirates and it wasn’t dumb with them unlike the second and third films (never saw the fourth one). The main focus of this game should be the pirates; the elements of supernatural powers and monsters should be secondary.
When you begin a pirate game, especially the kind of pirate game which I would love to play, creating your main character should be very important. What always stood out to me about pirates in other forms of media is their strong personalities and I think that should stand out in a video game as well. Players could begin by choosing from a variety of personalities like “the dramatic pirate” or “the stoic pirate” or “the cunning pirate” etc. These would determine how the protagonist reacts to certain events. Does the pirate laugh in the face of danger? Or is the pirate just focused on getting the job done? Players wouldn’t have to be locked down to their initial choice; they could be allowed to spend points to make out-of-character decisions. For example, if your pirate is a hot-head and would usually throw himself/herself at his/her most hated enemy, maybe you have an opportunity to spend personality points to have him/her to show uncharacteristic restraint. This would be really interesting to me because it would be a way for a character to have an almost entirely player-driven story arc. Perhaps the player’s pirate begins as a reserved, responsible pirate captain and becomes a loud, murderous pirate terror or vice-versa. The important thing is that it would be linked to how each individual player wanted to approach their game and I think that would be neat.
Engaging in a fight as a pirate, either on land or the open seas, should feel smooth and satisfying. Ideally, this is probably easiest to accomplish from a third-person perspective. Combat could work differently depending on what weapons with which you choose to be proficient. Maybe you want to use dual hand axes. This allows you to also chop the ropes enemies use to try and board you ship or cut through a rope bridge with a single swing as well as dealing huge amounts of damage to single targets. Or perhaps you want to be a master fencer to fight several opponents at once with swift and deadly attacks and be extremely skilled in dueling. Alternatively, you don’t want to use weapons at all and run into combat with only your fists and insane laughter. Or maybe you want to rely on traps and trickery to avoid combat altogether. All of these should be valid options for tackling opponents. Each proficiency could have different levels, with each level unlocking more and more powerful maneuvers utilizing that particular weapon. From the start, almost every weapon should be usable so that players can experiment with what they find fun. This might be a bit nitpicky, but there should be a practical limit to how many weapons you can have at a time, perhaps two or three, and they should be visible on the character.
The action should meld with exploration and environment interaction. Players should be able to draw out your weapon, anytime, anywhere, and be able to use it to some effect. I’ll give an example scenario:
You are walking down a crowded street. Suddenly, a wandering constable recognizes you and, this being a law-abiding part of the seas where you have no influence (yet), he raises an alarm. You break into a run, pushing through the crowd. Breaking into a bit of an open area, you climb on top of a nearby stall and clamber onto the rooftops. By then, several guards are in pursuit and one is climbing up after you. You draw a cutlass and stick it through the poor man’s ribs. You continue running, jumping from rooftop to rooftop. The staccato of rifle fills the air behind you; some bullets crack a chimney slightly to your right. Ahead you can see the bay, your ship is anchored far out on the water. A crane used for heavy-lifting is conveniently in front of the final rooftop. You jump to the rope dangling from it and swing from it, landing in the water near a small row boat. Pulling yourself up onto the dock, you turn to see the owner of said boat standing there looking confused. You grab him close and raise the sword to his neck and inch him onto the row boat and sit behind him, sword still pressed against his wind pipe. You clear the docks just as the soldiers arrive. The cover of your hostage makes them unwilling to shoot after you. No doubt you will not be welcome back in this port anytime soon. Now, what to do with your hostage…
This. Let players do this in a game and I’m fairly sure people will literally throw money at you.
Ship-to-ship combat should be an entirely different beast from the rest of the fighting. Really the only video game I have ever seen make this interesting and addictive was Skies of Arcadia. In Skies, you could outfit your ship with a variety of guns that each had different abilities like torpedoes, cannons, mini-guns, and one super weapon. You could also upgrade your ship to have better armor and more rooms. Investing time and money into your ship was rewarding. The actual combat system involved figuring out when to fire which weapons for maximum effect. It wasn’t exactly turn-based; it was based more on the speed of your ship and battles played out in an irregular, yet tactical, fashion. Any pirate game with a similar system, or that just plain ripped-off Skies’ system, would have my money.
Another important element to any pirate game is the crew. They should play an important role in nearly all the aspects of the game from sailing the seas to fighting enemy ships or in enemy ports. They could help in combat either by participating directly or by giving passive bonuses or skills. Recruiting them should be one of the big hooks of the game along with upgrading your ship to accommodate them all. Each crew member should be unique with a personality and a motivation for turning to piracy. Interacting with them on your ship should yield additional side-quests and interesting scenarios of them interacting with each other. They could help in certain set-piece moments that some players might find themselves in. For example, if an absurd scheme like a jail-break from an island fortress goes terribly awry or your ship gets hit with a powerful enemy weapon that could have been avoided, perhaps some members of the crew tragically perish. It should be possible to get through the game with all hands accounted for, but it should also be difficult to do so. Suikoden and Skies of Arcadia are great examples of how to implement this approach to taking on a pirate crew.
The story shouldn’t revolve around something supernatural or something stupid like a gathering of all the pirate captains in the world (barf). Instead, it should be simple: The game starts out with you for one reason or another ticking off a few of the more powerful rival pirates and being hunted across the seas. Eventually, they catch you and set you adrift in the middle of nowhere. You manage to survive, and land in a small port unknown to you. There, you regain your strength and decide how to proceed. Do you want to take the small port for everything it is worth and set out to kill the pirates who tried to kill you? Or do you barter passage on a ship to find associates in another harbor who might set you up with another ship, all while working to avoid the rival pirates, leaving the people who helped you alone? Or maybe instead of killing your rivals you want to steal everything they’ve accumulated or frame them for murdering a governor? Or maybe something in-between? After the initial beginning, how you proceed should be up to you, but you should be able to tackle the scenarios in which you find yourself in whatever manner you choose. This is probably easier said than done, but the final product would be worth it.
And there you have it! Someone make this game so I can play as the pirate I have always wanted to be.