Sadly, I figure that Pirates of the Burning Sea is doomed. There's no way that they aren't going to be completely out-marketed by Disney. Heck, Disney probably doesn't even care if it theirs makes any money, any more than they really care if every one of the manufactured teen pop starlets they crank out every year makes money on their albums, and for the same reason. They don't need to make money on PotC Online itself as long as it continues to promote the movie, the toys, the videos, any direct-to-video sequels, any TV cartoon spinoffs, and of course the theme park whose ride the movie was itself spun off from, just as even the most money-losing album from any of this year's Disney teen pop stars is still a commercial for her TV series and its merchandise. And Disney has shown a willingness in the past to keep spending money on a money-losing MMO as long as there's any chance that it'll still grow. Look how long they've supported Toontown Online, waiting for it to get to the point where anybody's heard of it? It's taken it almost 4 years to get to the minimum market penetration it has now, but Disney doesn't seem to mind, and Toontown Online isn't even as useful for marketing other Disney properties as PotC Online could be. Worse luck, PotBS's developers have announced that it won't ship before June at the earliest, well after opening weekend for PotC3; Disney's PotC Online is (from the last report I saw) still expected to launch the same weekend as the movie. And we all know, if by nothing else than the overwhelming success of World of Warcraft, how powerful a brand name can be; if it weren't for brand name, crappy games like Star Wars: Galaxies and The Matrix Online would have gone the way of Motor City Online or Earth and Beyond a long time ago.
But one of the other reasons I worry about PotBS's chances is that the very same design feature, design decision, that I most prefer it for, may actually be the real reason that it's doomed: every player character in Pirates of the Burning Sea isn't Lieutenant Mary Sue. For those of you who've never heard of our intrepid heroine Mary Sue, she's a cliché of bad fan fiction, a stand-in for the author who miraculously jumps into the story in the nick of time to save the day (and romance the lead) because she's so much smarter, stronger, faster, wiser, more athletic, and better looking than anybody else in the whole universe, including the entire original cast of the canonical fiction combined. So how can Mary Sue not save the day and be the romantic lead? (The best darned parody of Mary Sue I've seen in a long time is a 7-page Girl Genius filler story called "Fan Fiction." Check it out.)
Anyway, what this has to do with PotBS vs PotC Online is this: Burning Sea's own web page admits that they're struggling to be seen as something other than "Sid Meier's Pirates meets World of Warcraft." And judging by the beta test reports on their web page, it clearly is more than that, including what looks to be the coolest looking combat systems in the history of MMO gaming. (But then, that's what I thought about The Matrix Online's combat system before it shipped, too, so what do I know?) But comparing it to the classic single-player game Pirates! by Sid Meier isn't entirely unfair. Your character in PotBS starts out as a lowly swabby, and you progress level by level until you (at least theoretically) become skilled enough and wealthy enough, if you stick with it and have the organizational skills, to build a pirate fleet capable of conquering every city and settlement in the Caribbean. But it's not likely. Most likely even with infinite luck, patience, and skill you'll end up one of a couple of dozen of the most powerful pirate fleet captains in the game, and very few people will even make it that far. The experience that they're selling isn't the experience of being the most famous, most deadly, most wealthy, most powerful pirate in the history of the world, but the experience of being there and having your own story to tell, your own part to play, in the decisive pirate-versus-navy and pirate-versus-pirate battles of the early 18th century.
On the other hand, as best as I can tell from their description of the game systems on the Pirates of the Caribbean Online's web page, in PotC Online you start out almost as powerful as Captain Jack Sparrow. You're the most famous pirate in the Caribbean, everybody knows your name, and you start out (or very nearly start out) with a magical ship of your own and a voodoo talisman that can summon it to you, sailing on a cloud of mist, from anywhere in the Caribbean. From the looks of it, they're following the same design principles that Sony dictated for the redesign of Star Wars: Galaxies. When SWG first shipped, you were a citizen of the Empire swept up in the Civil War, between episode 3 and 4, someone with his own story to tell of what you did in the years after the fall of the Old Republic. After Sony got done with it, you started out as (I kid you not) Han Solo's best friend from childhood. He's there to greet you when you start the tutorial, and like every other Star Wars character you've ever seen on the screen, pathetically greatful that a real hero like you is there to save his bacon. Presumably Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swan and the rest will respond to your player character in PotC Online the same way -- to you and to everybody else.
Look, I don't mind playing Mary Sue in a single-player game. Then it even makes some sense. But a MMORPG is considered a failure if any given server, any given copy of the game universe, has fewer than 500 people playing at any given time. If all 500 of you started out as powerful and as famous and as heroic as the main characters of the story, doesn't that cheapen things an awful lot? Doesn't that completely break your ability to imagine that the world you're playing in is real, or even interesting, at all dramatic? I know that it does me. But Disney is betting that there are tens or even hundreds of thousands of people out there who, when they imagine themselves as a pirate in the Caribbean, imagine themselves as the person who bravely rescues the heroes because they're even cooler than Jack Sparrow, even handier with a sword than Will Turner, even braver and better looking that Elizabeth Swan, and even more magical than Tia Dalma, and the game just won't be any fun to them unless Jack and Will and Elizabeth and Tia show up in person to tell them so. And I'm not prepared to bet that Disney is wrong to think so.
Poll #950831 PotC Online or PotBS?
Open to: All, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 101
Which sounds better to you, Pirates of the Burning Sea or Pirates of the Caribbean Online?
|Neither, I don't play MMOs|
|Neither, all my friends play World of Warcraft and I'll play whatever they're playing|
|Neither, I don't particularly want to play a historical pirate|
|Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean Online"|
|Flying Lab's "Pirates of the Burning Sea"|
|I'll probably try both, and don't know which one I'll stay with|
|Why either one? I can get my MMO piracy fix for free from Puzzle Pirates|
|I haven't made up my mind yet.|
(Correction: I forgot, Puzzle Pirates isn't free, only free to try. My bad. It's cheap, though.)