disneytim Talks with Mike Goslin, Head of Disney's VR Studio
A Look Behind the Scenes at Disney's New Massively Multiplayer Game, Pirates of the Caribbean Online
Mike Goslin, vice president of Disney’s Virtual Reality (VR) Studio, has a job anyone with a childhood fantasy would envy. These days he spends most of his time playing pirate.
Well, virtual pirate anyway.
Goslin and his staff are hard at work putting the finishing touches on Pirates of the Caribbean Online, Disney’s new massively multiplayer game (MMG). In it, players assume pirate personas to battle British soldiers, navy vessels, undead skeleton armies, angry crustaceans, the East India Trading Company and each other to become the Caribbean’s most notorious pirate. They’ll explore virtual worlds inspired by the three Pirates movies and interact with famed characters like Captain Jack Sparrow, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann.
For fans of the movies, there are many familiar sights to see. On Port Royal you’ll find the British stronghold Fort Charles and the parapet a faint Elizabeth fell from in Curse of the Black Pearl. There’s also the dock a sinking Captain Jack made his grand entrance on. A short ocean voyage away is Tortuga, the (somewhat) safe haven for all pirate scum. Elsewhere you’ll find misty swamps, deserted islands and other exotic locations created specifically for the game providing a totally immersive plundering and pillaging experience.
Concept Art: Map of Port Royal
Beta testing on the game began late last year. After several delays in development, Pirates Online is expected to officially launch later this fall.
I spoke with Goslin on the phone recently to discuss Pirates Online and how it’s progressing. Goslin started with Disney in 1996, when the VR Studio was part of Walt Disney Imagineering (it’s since moved to Disney Online). Over the years, he’s helped create several VR games for Disney Quest including the award-winning Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold. More recently, he’s focused on MMG’s, specifically Disney’s Toontown Online and now Pirates.
disneytim: Where did the idea to develop Pirates of the Caribbean as an online MMG start?
Mike Goslin: We actually did (Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold) around 1998-99. This was before even the films came out. It was our most successful attraction by far. It won a Thea award, which was sort of a theme park award for best new attraction. Moms, grandmas, kids—everybody loved the game.
What it did was convince us that a pirate world was really appealing and works for everybody. And so in 1999-2000 we started pitching the idea of these massively multiplayer online games. We pitched three ideas and one of them was a pirates’ world. We ended up doing Toontown instead, but then when the Pirates of the Caribbean movie was such a huge success and our Toontown game was doing really well, they came back to us and said, “Hey can we do one around pirates?” and we said “Absolutely. Love to. In fact we have some ships and artwork that we can start mocking it up with immediately.”
It came from Robert Iger himself. He was really excited about building Pirates into more than just movies and theme parks. He wanted to turn it into this franchise for the company. And he thought the massively multiplayer game would be a good way to tie it all together.
dt: How’s the Beta test going?
MG: We’re getting great feedback. With these games you’re not done until you really Beta test it for quite some time. You design a game and you put it out there and you realize that your balancing was wrong or that it doesn’t scale well. There are all kinds of things that you don’t learn until you put large numbers of real people into it.
dt: The game has experienced some delays and you actually shut down the Beta for a while during the summer to retool it. What was your reasoning behind that?
MG: Our initial plan was to launch with the third film (in May). From Beta testing we realized that we weren’t quite ready and we didn’t want to go out with something that wasn’t great. It still wasn’t quite polished enough, so we decided to delay the launch. Shutting down the beta allowed us to focus more energy on fixing the problems--supporting a Beta (while it’s running) is a lot of work too. We (decided to) go dark and fix all the problems, really focus it and do it quickly so we could launch in the fall.
dt: What were the biggest changes you made between Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the Beta?
MG: We did a ton of stuff with the user interface. The initial user interface we really liked but it was kind of hard for people to learn. It wasn’t accessible enough. We wanted this game to be really accessible. We were trying to live up to the notion that if you liked the movies and wanted to live in the world, you’d enjoy this game—it’s not just for hardcore gamers only. We got rid of all the modes, basically. There were a couple of different modes you could be in and it was sometimes confusing which mode you were in.
Another thing we spent a lot of energy on was visual storytelling. We had a lot of enemies in the world, but it wasn’t obvious who was on what team and the back story wasn’t apparent, so we did a lot of stuff to dress that up. You’ll notice the skeletons now spawn out of the ground. And when creatures die you see Jolly Roger going out there to connect them all together as they’ve all kind of been created by him. There are a lot of things like that, both subtle and not so subtle, that help reinforce the context in the overall story.
The other big thing we did was focus on performance— we did performance tuning like crazy. We want this to run on a large array of machines. We spent a great deal of energy making the game run really fast on (different) platforms.
dt: You mentioned Jolly Roger, Pirates Online’s new ultra-villain. What kind of bad guy is he?
MG: (Jolly Roger) is kind of an evil pirate who never got the respect he felt he deserved. In fact, he got passed over in favor of Jack Sparrow becoming a Pirate Lord. He was very jealous of Jack and wanted to get the Piece of Eight to rule the Caribbean, so he came up with a scheme to get it back from Jack, but everything went horribly wrong and he ended up with a curse that made him undead—but it also gave him the ability to raise dead things. So, it turns out for him being cursed is pretty good. Now people fear and respect him and he’s able to raise this limitless army of dead pirates, dead crabs, dead alligators, dead scorpions, dead tree stumps—you name it—so he can take over the Caribbean. He doesn’t need the Pirate Lord system anymore. He’s become this undead-poker-playing-voodoo-wielding-pirate-guy. He represents all the things that are featured in our game. Practically speaking, it’s good that he’s a new villain that has a lot of cronies. In a massively multiplayer game you need more than one crew of bad guys.
dt: What was your inspiration for Jolly Roger?
MG: He’s the narrator from the theme park attraction. He’s the disembodied skull that talks to you. We used him in our Disney Quest attraction as well, so he’s got some history. We dressed him up a little for the game—added the voodoo part and the poker player part just to embody the game a little better. We wanted to give him history with Jack as well. The conflict in the game between him and Jack plays out in the story arc you experience. It’ll be revealed over time. You don’t have to understand it all to enjoy the game, but it just adds more context and spice. That’s for the hardcore fans.
With a few embellishments, talking wall decor becomes . . .
. . . evil online villain
dt: Describe the game play. How do you become the world’s greatest pirate?
MG: Your goal is to become the most notorious pirate in the Caribbean. So “notoriety” is really your score, your level, if you will. For instance, if you play cards well and you’re winning a lot of card games, you’re earning card notoriety. If you’re fighting with a cutlass, you’re earning cutlass notoriety. All this adds up to your overall notoriety. So, you can be a generalist or a specialist. Gain sailing notoriety and cannon fighting notoriety; you’ll level up in each of those activities. Get access to better cannon ammo and your cannons will shoot farther and faster. But your overall notoriety will go up too. Your goal is to follow Jack’s footsteps, using these foils of Jolly Roger and other bad guys like Lord Beckett and the navy to prove your notoriety against them.
dt: And the more notoriety you get, the tougher the challenges you face.
MG: What you want to do is keep the game challenging, so the difficulty has to go up as your skill level goes up. A lot of that is what we’re balancing right now in the Beta. We’re figuring out what’s the right amount of challenge. If it’s too easy, it’s boring. If it’s too hard, it gets frustrating. You’re looking for that sweet spot. And it’s different for different players. You have to look at your whole player base and find ways to make the game adapt to the kind of player.
The gang's all here: Jack, Will, Elizabeth and Tia Dalma
dt: The game features a lot of interaction with characters from the movies. How did you integrate characters like Captain Jack, Will, Elizabeth and Tia Dalma into the game play?
MG: We wanted to make this the authentic experience of being in that world. Settings and characters and personalities are very important to that. So we wanted to give you ways of interacting with those characters that would deliver on the high expectations set by the films. What we figured out would work was to allow you to interact with them in cut scenes so you see them acting, because if you run into them in the world and they’re just sort of robotic, that doesn’t live up to your expectations. But it lets you interact with them in a high quality way so we establish that these actually are those characters—they sound like them, they look like them, they move like them and so on. And they also get really meaningful roles in the game. Will Turner is a swordsman—he actually gives you your first sword and teaches you how to use it. And thereafter, when you want to get better swords, you can go back to him. Also, your story weaves through these (characters). They’ll have things they need you to help them out with or they’ll draw you in to their adventures. There’ll be points in the story where you go back to Jack and he’s hanging out in Tortuga on the path that you’re following for little stretches.
dt: Early in the game, interaction with the movie characters suggests a timeframe set somewhere around Curse of the Black Pearl. Will is a swordsmith. Elizabeth is living in the Governor’s Mansion. How does the game fit into the timeline of the movies?
MG: There’s sort of a pragmatic approach we took to this. We wanted to have all the best stuff from the movies and the theme park attraction in our game. And the best way to do that would be to sort of not pick a specific time point. At various times characters are living or dead—things kind of come and go. So, what we’re actually doing is not tying the timelines too strictly together. That allows us to pick and choose the best things from all of the films.
dt: So, for instance, does that mean we’ll eventually see Will and Elizabeth at sea?
MG: That’s the plan. We want our story to evolve and our characters to evolve. They’ll tend to evolve in similar ways for obvious reasons. We’d like to get Elizabeth to the point where she’s a Pirate Lord, because that’s cool.
dt: Pirates Online isn’t just about individual play and interacting with the movie characters, though, is it? There’s a whole community you’re building out there and other players to team up with to battle enemies.
MG: It makes things a lot easier. Here again is accessibility. There’s a certain type of player that would prefer to play alone, and so we want to make that possible and not discouraging. However, we do reward you for teaming up because we think it’s more fun, particularly on ships. Going out with a group on a ship is one of the highlights of the game and we want to encourage people to do it because it’s more fun. The rewards definitely come faster if you team up with people, but we don’t punish you for trying to go it alone either.
A pirate's life is a wonderful life, a'driftin' over the sea . . .
dt: Up to now, Disney’s online worlds like Toontown, VMK and even the newly acquired Club Penguin tend to appeal more to younger audiences. You’re taking on a much older demographic with Pirates now, aren’t you?
MG: That’s very much intentional. You may have noticed Disney is building up a portfolio of these games and, like a theme park, we want to have different properties for different age demographics. Pirates is intentionally targeted at the audience for the films. It’ll be a little more mature in its sensibilities, a little more open in the ability of players to communicate with each other. The themes are a little older, but it’s still Disney. It’s going to be safe and fun and we’ll deliver on the Disney experience.
dt: What can you tell me about the game’s informational website www.piratesonline.com?
MG: Right now it’s largely information about development progress—Beta status stuff. When we go live, that will shift over into a whole bunch of stuff to support the community. I don’t want to reveal too much about it, but we’re going to have some really significant community support tools coming out on the site as well as things like leader boards, etc. Think of extending the game experience out on the web a bit, so it’ll be more about playing the live game than development. We have a huge content plan for post-launch. We’d like to respond to what the community’s actually doing and what it’s interested in, so the site’s going to evolve along with the game based on who we’ve got and what they’re enjoying. It’ll serve as a hub for the community, but also a platform for promoting new content. It’s going to be a pretty elaborate and deep website.
dt: What else should players be looking forward to?
MG: I think the ships are really emerging as the hook. That’s what’s most different and fun about the game. I think getting a chance to visit and live in this world you love from the films and the theme park attraction is great, but when you actually get in and get on those ships, you forget about all that and you just have a blast. In the future we’re going to have a lot of content out at sea to capitalize on how fun that is, and extend the player vs. player accordingly. You have to make a lot more of everything to make people happy. We’re going to focus on the things that are really working and try to build on what we’ve got.
Pirate vs. the undead in Murky Hollow
dt: On the Pirates Online website under “Team Bios,” your development team answers a lot a fun pirates-related question. Mind if I ask you a few to wrap up?
dt: If you were a pirate, what would your pirate name be?
MG: My pirate name right now is Leon O’Scum.
dt: What special pirate skills would you have?
MG: I mostly work in cutlass and pistol. I’m a big fan of the voodoo doll, but I just got it and I’m working my way up.
dt: I keep forgetting that you’re not only a developer. You’re a player too.
MG: You have to eat your own cooking, don’t you? So yeah, I’m both. I’m not as advanced of a player as I’d like to be. I just don’t have the time. I’m busy trying to finish the game (laughs). To credibly support your audience, you have to know what they’re going through. We do spend a lot of time playing the game as well.
dt: OK, a few more questions: What’s your favorite Pirates of the Caribbean movie scene?
MG: I really like when Jack is bamboozling the two British guards guarding the boats in Curse of the Black Pearl.
dt: The Kraken is about to drag you to the bottom of the sea. What one item do you take with you?
MG: (pause) My cell phone?
dt: You have a talking parrot on your shoulder. What do you teach it to say?
MG: I’m with stupid.
dt: What’s your favorite pirate saying?
MG: Probably “Shiver me timbers.”
dt: Just one more question from the Team Bios: What’s the most challenging and rewarding aspects of working on Pirates Online?
MG: I think the most challenging is trying to live up to expectations. The films and the theme park attraction are so loved and so popular, delivering an experience that lives up to those expectations is really a tough thing to do. But it’s also rewarding, I think, the extent to which you do do that. I think the difference for the Disney theme parks is the attention to detail. We’re theme park people so we hope that our attention to detail pays off. It’s a lot of work, but I think it’s rewarding.
dt: One final question: The website still says “Fall 2007” as the launch date. Can you narrow that down?
MG: We haven’t announced anything. It’s still fall, but you can probably tell from playing the Beta that we’re getting close.
dt: I also see that Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End comes out on DVD on December 4th.
MG: That’d be a good time to launch, wouldn’t it?
Interested players can still sign up to be Beta testers at www.piratesonline.com (registration does not guarantee you’ll be selected for the Beta). If you’d like to wait for the official launch, Pirates Online is taking pre-orders on the site. The cost is $9.95 per month for unlimited access, but if you order early your first month will only be $4.95. You’ll also be certified as a game “Founder” and receive a limited edition cloth map. Basic access, with limited game functionality, will be available for free when the game launches.