Picaroon Interview - RTS Meets MMO
By Bryan King (Bryan), OnRPG Journalist
Picaroon is a brand new MMORTS that prides itself on mixing time-based rounds based on player preference, such as rounds being able to last anywhere from 90 minutes to four weeks. Today, I got the chance to sit down with Paul Baker of Nice Technology to discuss Picaroon.
King: Please introduce yourself and your team to our readers!
Nice Technology was formed in 2009 to commercialise the company’s unique MMOG engine (AliceServer), develop the software further and self publish games made with it. Nice Technology has developed two titles: Tronji, a children’s MMOG created for BBCW and Ragdoll and Picaroon, both of which are in open beta.
Picaroon, has been produced by a small but dedicated team: Toby Simpson, creator of AliceServer, designer and producer; Mark Ashton, designer, producer and lead programmer; Greg Brown, lead artist; Gavin Rudd client, web and database programmer; Gary Wood IT network and support manager; and Paul Baker, general manager.
King: How did you guys come up with the name “Picaroon”? It’s quite interesting.
The credit here goes to Mark Ashton the co-designer, producer and lead client programmer on Picaroon. We knew that the game had a swashbuckling theme, but title ideas with the word pirate in it just didn't feel right. Then Mark came up with Picaroon which means the same thing and it sounds much nicer as all words with two 'o's in do. Of course there's also the issue that if we mention pirates in the title, it sets people's expectations to a historic setting whereas we've deliberately based Picaroon in some suitably grim future to allow us to pick and choose what technology we wish to use and not be limited to cannons, swords and parrots.
King: Is there a back story behind Picaroon that everyone should know about?
Picaroon is played out in the future where all that remains of the Earth’s surface are thousands and thousands of small tropical islands – most of them volcanic in nature. Now tidally locked, half of the planet is in perpetual darkness and no-one knows what is there (yet!). The remaining people battle it out for control of the land that’s available to feed the power of a few massive warlords descended from empires of times long past.
At least that’s the story as told around camp fires these days! What we really wanted was an excuse to mix old and new and apply a little odd styling of our own. If we based a pirate sea game in the past we’d not have been able to have super submarines, dirigibles and weapons of mass destruction. We wanted some familiarity and the ability to continue to uncover cool new things in future games: the tidally locked thing is part of that—there’s a whole half of the world that is dark and unexplored…
King: What features disassociate Picaroon from other MMOs and Strategy Empire Games out there?
Picaroon is a RTS: a genre that is traditionally very hard to transplant into the MMOG arena. Part of this is that it is technically quite difficult to manage hundreds of thousands of units owned by different players on a single server and game instance. We have created some exciting new technology that lets us do this and we wished to show it off as best as we could! Also, of course, because it's a technical and design challenge, we were aware that any large-scale MMOG real-time strategy game would be unique, and we would be providing something to the market that was not already present.
Picaroon is also unique for a couple of reasons. Firstly it’s got this end-game phase where players who tribute a threshold amount of resources to the warlords get access to some pretty amazing extra weaponry at the end of the game which is designed to encourage some pretty vast wars. Secondly, we have worked very hard to establish a path of development that lets us introduce new game types that allow the game to appeal to more and more people. Obviously we’re also in a situation where unlike RPGs, RTSs tend to have a single winner. That can make for a lot of losers – so it’s vital that we have many, many ways to win, both small and large. We’re proud of the results of that work and we’ve yet to scratch the surface.
King: Picaroon recently went to an open beta from a closed one, what feedback did you get from your testers, and what content based on that has been added in game?
So far, so good! The reaction we have had has been excellent. We have worked very hard during beta to listen carefully to what our players say and respond accordingly when producing updates. The open beta has given us the opportunity to listen to a wider audience and to learn what our game feels like to play for the first time. We want Picaroon to be successful and the only way we will achieve that is through keeping our ears more open than our mouths!
We have received many suggestions from testers about the balance of units, the structure of alliances, the scoring of points, and specials! During beta we have made many changes to each of these areas as well as introducing some cool new features such as the airship and the technology centre. In addition, we’ve made progress to releasing a beta version of Persistent Picaroon.
King: What would you guys say was the biggest hitch that occurred in development?
In a large scale MMORTS such as Picaroon where players can control hundreds of units in real time, one of the biggest challenges is to balance the gameplay between paying players, free players, individual players, alliances and then particular units. This has been meticulously undertaken over a period of beta testing.
The biggest technical challenge was to update the graphics engine so that it can display the hundreds of ships of alliances members in a shared scene without performance degradation in the heat of vast battles!
King: Now, on the contrary, what feature are you most proud of?
Picaroon's end-game is something that we're very pleased with. It's a feature where towards the end of any game, the rules change a little and the players that have given away the most resources through a tribute system get some powerful new units and specials that are only valid for the duration of that game. We have found that this encourages everyone to go to war and that is entertaining and engaging for all the players.
Plus we really like the newer units, the airship and technology centre, plus our original favourite the super submarine!
King: You guys make it a point to emphasize the fact that games have a massive scale and last up to four weeks, how does this occur, and do you guys have a record of the longest game so far?
Well the longest game we’ve had to date is approximately four weeks but we do have Persistent Picaroon up our sleeves!
King: The game is free to play with a cash shop. How does your team balance between players who buy “Doubloons”, your cash shop currency, and those who don’t?
We spent a lot of time balancing the game and created rules so that cash players cannot ‘buy’ a win by using very powerful specials. The intention is to trade time for money but not necessarily a place on the leader board. We also offer vanity specials such as banners and in the future stylish character models for paying customers.
To underline what we were saying above, some of the most powerful specials cannot be purchased with cash but can only rarely be found or bought with in game gold!
King: How does your team attempt to draw in players who aren’t familiar to MMORTSes, or real time strategy games in general?
We hope that by presenting the game in as simple a way as possible we will encourage all game players to try the game. We have kept the barriers low: the game is free-to-play which should help encourage maximum trial and, in addition, it’s only a 60MB client download, incredibly light weight for a game of this genre.
To support this we are also presenting Picaroon in a variety of flavours: Skirmish Picaroon can be played out over an hour; Classic Picaroon can be played over a week or weeks; Persistent Picaroon which is in closed beta will invite players to retain a foothold in the game for as long as they can. There’s something there for everybody whether they are familiar with RTSs, MMOs or not.
King: What is your team’s target audience with the game? Hardcore or casual?
We hope that the game will have broad appeal! We've added features such as overnight build-queues and automatic building upgrade plans as well as specials that will protect your islands for several days. Hopefully this will help balance the game for those that have lots of time versus those that do not.
Having said that, we recognise that it is difficult to get this sort of balance perfect and it is something that we have spent a lot of time attempting to perfect! We continue to experiment with lots of game configurations. We'll have to see what our players suggest!
King: In terms of community features, what kind of events can your community expect to see?
During development we have gradually introduced achievements, friend get friend schemes as well as the ability to share some accomplishments on Facebook. We will continue to add features for alliances and are also considering implementing an overarching faction structure above alliances. Further work is also planned to promote and share alliance achievements.
King: What’s next for Picaroon in terms of future content?
Our immediate plans are to maximise the creative possibilities of the Picaroon concept. We are just about to test the persistent version of Picaroon.
We also have plans for new PvE features such as weather, monster octopuses, pirate owned islands and giant squid, and we want to develop a super alliance (the factions mentioned above) concept and other new units.
We also want to give a quick spring clean to the UI so that we can simplify and make things even more intuitive.
After Picaroon we plan to develop a commercial version of Tronji and then also another project which we hope will be really innovative and fully exploit the possibilities of our technology: think of ever changing organic worlds teeming with artificial life, a world where players can shape the game experience and environment– we are getting really excited and hope OnRPG’s readers might be too!
King: Does your team plan to bring Picaroon to other platforms such as iOS and Android?
Yes, we’ve always harboured plans to create some mobile applications so that players can stay in touch with critical aspects of their empire, as Picaroon never sleeps.
King: Anything thing else you want to say to our viewers?
Absolutely! Come and help us make this a great game. We know that we need to keep our ears open and we are aware that the game has only progressed as far as it has because we’ve listened hard to what our players are telling us. We’re always open to advice and if any of your community feels that Picaroon is the game for them, then we’d be delighted to have them and to hear what they have to say!