King of Seas preview: when piracy in games is a good thing

In real terms, pirates were pretty horrible and not particularly worth celebrating, unless you really en-joy sticking it to the man (while also engaging in plenty of murdering). In game terms, though, piratical pursuits are the stuff of dreams: sanitised to the point where the grime of reality hardly gets a look-in, games with piratey themes allow us to live life on the high seas, free of the pressures of pesky things like ‘rules’ and ‘decorum’. If I don’t want to wear trousers, I shouldn’t have to wear trousers, you know? It speaks to us all.

King of Seas attempts to go down this well-worn path, calling ‘anchors aweigh’ and setting sail on a journey to the promised land of… well, it’s an action-RPG in a procedurally generated world, basically, and it brings to mind Sid Meier’s Pirates!, which is not a bad thing at all, given it’s been a long time since ol’ Sid stepped aboard any galleon, schooner, sloop, or any other type of boat I half-remember from playing Pirates! on PSP religiously.

Me hearties thoroughly arr-ed, we threw a few questions in the direction of Luca Cafasso, game direc-tor at developer 3DClouds, and chewed on a few limes to stave off scurvy while waiting for his an-swers.

The studio’s previous experience is mainly in the realms of racing games, so a pivot to the open ocean was a big move for the team: “[In most cases], we are a team that has been developing rac-ing games, so we could not radically change too many development pipelines and abandon com-pletely our expertise,” Cafasso says.

“We wanted to create something where we could apply our strength as a development team. So we started to explore what we could create while sticking to the concept of vehicles, and discov-ered that there was a chance to develop a great pirate game where the player can control their own pirate ship instead of a vehicle.”

It might not seem so at first, but when you think about it, moving from racing to piracy… makes sense. It’s all vehicle control, just with different physics and input feedback required. “The thing that made it possible for us to make such a big jump was the shared architecture we could keep from a racing vehicle to a sailing galleon,” Cafasso explains.

“Instead of reusing existing features, it was the team’s expertise in animating and delivering high-quality vehicles that allowed us to have a good-looking and handling prototype. From that point, we knew that the challenge was going to be big, but everyone on the team has always been en-thusiastic about it and that helps a lot.”

Some wrecks you might stumble upon, other wrecks you might just create.

Those Pirates! inspirations run throughout the game, and fandom of the classic open-world plun-der-’em-up is very much A Thing at the studio, with Cafasso explaining Meier’s game was a big in-fluence on King of Seas: “I believe there’s a lot of players like us out there who have been missing a game as well-executed as that for a long time,” he says.

“The fact Sid Meier’s Pirates! is still a reference point for lovers of the pirate genre is a strong rea-son and inspiration [for] why we decided to create King of Seas.” That said, 3DClouds’ game doesn’t stick to any real historical accuracy as the other title did, with the team wanting to move away from that particular constraint.

A constraint King of Seas does introduce, however, is staying aboard your ship. There’s no moving inland to search for buried treasure or woo the governor’s daughter, for example. This decision was made by the team in order to nail the focus; to make sure the experience could be as honed as a studio inexperienced in the genre could make it.

“As soon as we tried to think of a solution to let the player step on to the islands, the scope of the game became too broad and we could have risked making the players do a lot of things that were not that memorable,” says Cafasso. “But thanks to this limitation, we’ve been able to add a lot of depth to the gameplay, [including] features like an RPG progression system, a quest system that generates pirate adventures, and a main story campaign, to mention a few.”

Anyone familiar with Sid Meier’s Pirates! will immediately notice the similarities here. It’s a homage, friends.

Rather than crafting everything by hand, the team of ‘around 18 members’ has worked on a pro-cedural generation system for the world of King of Seas, something planned from day one and an element Cafasso is particularly proud of in the game’s development.

“We had a lot of challenges to face, but this feature is something we’ve been able to get working in the early phase of development, and from the beginning [it] gave us the opportunity to test the game in this fantastic open world,” he says. “We just had to keep filling this unique world with awesome things to bring it to life. It was a really good motivator for the team, seeing from the first day what we were able to create thanks to the procedurally generated system.”

The procedural approach allows small teams to make worlds far larger than they might otherwise be able to – while not a solution for every sort of game, it does make sense in King of Seas. The open seas, ripe for exploration and ship-to-ship combat, are a perfect place for an algorithm to make things up as you play. Even though that’s the case, there are of course linear, crafted ele-ments to the game – elements like the narrative and missions core to the overall progression, say. So it’s a mix, with an emphasis on the procedural generation in the most part.

It’s fair to say nobody expects the world to be changed with King of Seas, but it’s nice to see a small indie take the chance to move into uncharted waters (wahey!) for a new release. Plus, let’s be honest, there’s nothing wrong with looking to the best for inspiration, and anything paying hom-age to Sid Meier’s Pirates! is very much welcome.

Genre: Scurvy sim
Format: PC / Switch
Developer: 3DClouds
Publisher: 3DClouds
Release: Late 2020

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