There's a pirate MMO on the horizon, and its sea-farers look ambitious. Atlas is being made by Ark: Survival Evolved devs Studio Wildcard, and sets sail on early access today. It plops 40,000 players into the same fantasy world, where they compete to govern territory and can fire at any ship on the sea.
I spoke to project director/lead programmer Jeremy Stieglitz and creative director Jesse Rapczak over Skype. We chatted about singing to stave off boredom on voyages, player politicking, ship combat as a team sports game - and a plan to save every player before they die of old age.
RPS: So, you're making a pirate MMO. Why will it be better than Sea Of Thieves?
Jeremy Stieglitz: (laughs) How will it not be better than Sea Of Thieves is the more accurate question! I'm sorry, that's not the answer, just kidding! So, first off I wanna say having played Sea Of Thieves, I really enjoy the mechanics that it has.
Ultimately Atlas is this huge open world MMO game, while Sea of Thieves is more of an instanced, session-based action game. So with Atlas we really tried to take a global look at what the age of sail meant to humanity, not just ‘hey, I got a pirate ship and there’s cannons on it’. We tried to the best of our ability, even at early access day one, to represent every aspect of that era. In a fantasy setting, of course.
When I say every aspect I mean things like fort building, creature taming and transportation, exotic resource transportation, trade, merchant ships, trade routes, territory claiming, taxation, crew hiring, mutinies… and you know, the full gamut of fantasy crap too. Ghost ships and demons and stuff. Treasure maps. Spheres of influence, player vs player conflicts on a large scale.
Our design mantra is – and we’re not there yet – but it’s ‘if you think you could do it in that era, we want you to be able to’. That includes executing people with a guillotine, or a noose, or a gibbet…I don’t know why that randomly came to mind, but it did.
Atlas also has a very deep melee combat system. You can do things like execute parries and stunning attacks, do different strength attacks and dodges, and there’s directional attacking and blocking. It’s not Ark’s melee combat system, that’s for sure.
If someone’s looking for the game that will give them the full experience of everything they could ever want and do in that setting, we hope ultimately that Atlas will be that game.
RPS: The Star Citizen of the sea.
Jeremy: (Jokingly) that's the tagline!
RPS: I know there are some safe zones, but can anyone attack anyone outside of those? Will newer players have a fighting chance against pirates with bigger boats?
Jeremy: So it’s at least a marginal improvement over Ark, in the sense that there are these starter zones that are PvE only, you cannot harm anybody else there. You can’t even build anything permanent there, so not only can you not harm people you can’t build a box that traps people or something.
How we prevent players from getting steamrolled once they leave those ports is a thornier question. The best thing I can say about that is that the ports aren’t just a tiny island – they’re actually a very substantial chunk of real estate on the map. So in order to intercept low-level players who are leaving those areas, you’d have to blockade a very wide swath of territory. Because the ocean is vast, right?
I think the griefing satisfaction would be outweighed by the sheer manpower required to do it. Of course, one thing we’ve learnt over the years is not to underestimate your players and their desire to grief, so we will see. We try not to have arbitrary rules in Atlas, with a few exceptions, but if that became an issue we might have to make that dangerous in certain ways. We have, for example, the ability to trigger hurricanes.
They push players out of those regions – and that system was actually designed for when the areas become overcrowded, so if it starts to run poorly a hurricane is triggered that moves players to the side. That’s how we can handle so many players – we thought ‘what happens when all 40,000 players try to cram into one corner of the map, we’ve got to have something to deal with that’.
RPS: That's cool. I can imagine you sitting over a table like in The Hunger Games, launching different threats at your players.
Jeremy: So that’s where we ultimately want to go with it, we’re certainly not there day one. Day one is fairly simple, you can form what’s called a company – effectively a government – and you can invite people into it and set up authority levels for who can do what. Who can claim your territory, set taxation rates, access various structures and invite new people.
You can tax territory that you own, so in those regions if other players earn resources, a portion of those is automatically granted to your bank. Hopefully that’s an incentive for players to not only play competitively but cooperatively, even with people they don’t know. So like, “I’ll protect you if you play in my territory – but you’ll have to accept my 50% taxation rate.” Then maybe some upstart says “no, I’m gonna go with a 20% tax rate, come here!” We hope that players will feel they benefit from being feudal lords and having serfs, and not just trying to murder everyone they see.
Everything I just described we have at launch, what we intend to have early next year is a system for players to define laws in their territory. But interestingly we’re not going to have breaking those laws results in some lightning bolt from the sky that instantly kills you - rather, breaking those laws in a territory will brand you an outlaw in that territory. The consequences for that can be specified by the territory owner.
RPS: You mention sailing in real-time across vast oceans - what kind of voyages can we be expecting? Will it take hours to get anywhere?
Jesse Rapczak: It definitely will take hours. You calculated it one time, Jeremy - how long do you think it would take to sail across the map? Didn't we say like 30 hours or something?
Jeremy: If you're sailing in a straight line without any stops or detours, it would take you about 30 hours to sail across the world map - and that's also if the wind was in your favour!
Jesse: Yeah, and keep in mind that we’ve got a bunch of systems to approximate how rough the journeys might be in real life. So things decay faster, your food consumption gets higher, stuff like that. You can’t just set sail and make a beeline for exactly where you want to go. Jeremy mentioned weather events earlier, we also have some sorts of perils at sea, like the army of the damned ships are roaming about. Those are AI opponents that are going to seek you out, and you’ll also have to worry about other players.
Jeremy: Not to mention the occasional aggressive sea life we have. Obviously there are sharks, but there are also gigantic angry whales, and some giant squids and other things. You never really know what you’re going to find out there, and that also depends on where you are in the world.
There are systems to make it viable for smaller groups of players to manage a far flung empire. We have fast travel. So if you have outposts spread all over the large world, you’re able to fast travel – just your actual character, nothing that you carry on you. Of course, servers can turn that off as an option because this game supports player-hosted servers, so everything’s configurable. If somebody wants a more hardcore experience, they certainly could disable that.
RPS: How do you make travelling and fighting on ships fun for everyone on board?
Jesse: We've tried to give players things to do while they’re travelling – it’s not just sitting there waiting! In addition to operating the ship, we’ve got a cool music system where you can form bands and play songs together that give you stat buffs. We’ve got fun dances for people to engage in as well.
You have AI crew you can assign a bunch of jobs to, and the captain of the ship can delegate one or more people to be lieutenants, who direct the AI to do things like operate the cannons or turn the sails.
Jeremy: You forgot the big one! You can even tell an AI crew member to take the wheel and navigate. That lets you put the boat on autopilot.
Jesse: That does put the boat on autopilot, you don’t have to sit there and steer the whole time. That’s pretty important.
There are also a couple of way-finding things you can do. The sextant is a mini-game that allows you to unlock some helpful HUD stuff that tells you what direction you’re going. We also have Discovery zones - there’s at least a thousand of them in the game at launch. If you’re up high in the crow’s nest, you’ll get indicators about where they are on the horizon.
Jeremy: You can fish!
Jesse: Oh, there’s fishing, of course. You can also search for shipwrecks, which is quite interesting. Whenever a ship goes down it goes to the bottom of the ocean, so there always might be some resources down their waiting to be harvested. We have a diving system as well.
Jeremy: There are plenty of interesting things to do when you’re not in combat, and when you are in combat it really boils down to whatever the heck you want that’s physically possible.
So you can grapple onto the enemy ship if it’s going slowly enough, you can try to swim up to it and climb on if you’re really clever and sneaky. You can bail out the water on your ship using a bucket when you start sinking. You can put out fires using a bucket. You can take control of any one canon yourself – or you can be a captain and fire all the guns.
It takes about five to six people to optimally handle a ship. That said, two people can do it no problem. Honestly, six people who aren’t working as a team are going to be less effective than two people who really know their stuff. One person can actually do everything, except for repairing.
RPS: Mutinies sound exciting. How do they work?
Jeremy: They’re pretty basic right now, actually. If the crew hasn’t been paid for long enough, first they stop following your orders and they tell you with a HUD message – ‘I need to be paid this much money, and here’s how long you have to pay me before I mutiny’ (laughs).
I think in real life they probably don’t telegraph their intentions so obviously, but we felt we really needed to make it clear to the player. Mutinying crew will start attacking you and non mutinying crew – though a lot of time because the way the payment cycles work, multiple crew members will mutiny at the same time. You tend to see intra-crew battles – in practice it’s just pandemonium. You don’t want it to happen.
RPS: So you’ve got an ageing system. Can your character die of old age? What happens then?
Jeremy: That’s kind of almost a stub right now, you might say. There is real-time ageing, you do start out at age 20 and you go up to age 100. It does affect your visuals, you go all wrinkly and your hair turns white…
RPS: When you say 'real-time ageing'...
Jeremy: I mean that it’s happening whether you’re playing or not – so even if you’re not logged in your character is getting older. It’s not actually going to take 100 years.
I believe we have it set to take about three months to go through that entire ageing cycle, and it’s just an aesthetic change right now – but a very amusing one, mind you. In the future, it will affect statistical debuffs and buffs as you get older.
We also want you to die, if you reach a hundred. However, there will be ways to cheat death. There’ll be fountains of youth, randomly appearing for days at a time. They’re in one place and ‘poof’, they vanish and they’re somewhere else – so players don’t gather in one place. It’ll be like a ‘hey, where’s the fountain of youth this week’ kind of thing, and players will have to travel all over the world. Maybe that will lead to some interesting conflicts. We may also have some creatures that guard them.
We also have heirs: we’re going to allow players to mate and raise children. When those children are of age, the player will be able to transfer their control to the child. The child will have the stats of parents, plus additional stat bonuses to incentivise multi-generational gameplay. We want the game to not feel like it’s frozen in amber, we want players to feel like there’s a history and a lineage – to see their family trees in the game. Some of these systems exist in Ark in rough form, and we’re fleshing them out and making them more human for what we want to do with Atlas.
Jesse: The mating stuff isn't in the early access launch, but we do plan to add that later.
Jeremy: Hopefully before people die of old age!
RPS: Last question. Can you ride your pets?
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Interview edited for length.