Everybody who likes pirates (and who doesn't like pirates?) has a pitch for the ideal game about them. We carry our imaginary game around with us, close to our rum-soaked hearts. It's got to be open world of course, because what's the point of the horizon if you can't have it brought to you? The romance of being a pirate is all about freedom.
It's also about stabbing people. There needs to be good stabbing, and pistol-shooting as well, and belting out a good “har har!” while you do it. You want swinging onto someone else's deck and swashbuckling away to be joyous. Blasting enemies from a distance with cannon fire is Pirating 101. Duelling with swords and also with sails, some kind of system for using the wind against opponents and lining up broadsides, more tactical than the wild to-and-fro of close combat.
Oh, and we'll also need a robust economic simulation, please. What's the point of killing people and stealing their stuff if that stuff can't be sold at port? That leads to profit, so there need to be ways of upgrading ships and buying whole new ones with those profits, as well as managing the crew. Maybe something abstract for the bulk of yer maties, but if the officers could be BioWare-style companions with their own dark secrets to uncover and loyalty missions to undertake that'd be swell.
Sounds perfect. Why doesn't it exist already?
Here's a game we can probably agree is a good one: Sid Meier's Pirates! It doesn't tick every box on that list but it's close. It encompasses a stretch of the Caribbean and Spanish Main so big you need turbo mode to cross it, there are ships full of Spanish gold to take (and Dutch gold, French gold, and English gold), and you can buy low and sell high profitably enough that you don't even need to turn to piracy if you're boring. On the other hand its dueling is pretty simplistic and depending which version you play there might be a divisive ballroom dancing minigame in there as well.
And, more to the point, it's a game from 1987. It's been remade since then, in 1993 and again in 2004, but it still has very little competition. If you want to get your pirate on with something newer you have to play Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and slog through all of the assassin bits so you can unlock the half of the game you actually want: boarding ships and listening to sea shanties. But as great as it is to hit rough water and hear the crew of the Jackdaw launch into “It's stormy weather boys, stormy weather/When the wind blows we're all together, boys,” Black Flag isn't going to let you profit from manipulating trade conditions. It's just not that kind of game.
The MMO Pirates Of The Burning Sea is that kind of game. Its player-driven economy is detailed enough that you can have your own plots of land producing resources like iron ore which you manufacture into nails before selling them to another player who owns a shipyard. It's also got a fine ship-to-ship combat system for getting the wind in your sails and opening fire on someone who has a hold full of nails if you'd rather be a straight-up buccaneer than a manufacturer who also occasionally pirates it up.
Being an MMO means Pirates Of The Burning Sea can use other players for those interactions, whether trading or risking crew and cargo sailing through the dangerous waters of the PVP zones. But online games bring their own problems. Board a ship and you'll find yourself staring at a cooldown bar of attack options straight out of World Of Warcraft, a far less thrilling prospect than its ship-to-ship combat. And even its sailing can be seriously hampered by lag, with your ship suddenly stalling then teleporting to a different position nudged up against an outcropping of land.
There are plenty of other games about pirates and Steam is full of cutthroat simulators, many of them products of Early Access. But just like Black Flag or Pirates Of The Burning Sea there's always something missing, something holding them back from fulfilling our hopes and living up to that dream pitch of being a truly well-rounded pirate. They may start with positive feedback from the most involved community members, but once more players get involved their ratings drop—Blood & Gold: Caribbean, Naval Action, Pixel Piracy, they're all trending down towards a 'mixed' rating in the harsh waters of Steam community reviews.
We're a judgmental bunch. I'd make a joke about pirate fans liking to make underwhelming games walk the plank, but then I'd get a bunch of judgmental comments about how walking the plank's unhistorical. We may like Monkey Island but we still want more than just a pirate costume draped on another genre. We see a ship and we get our hopes up, setting ourselves up for disappointment. Take a look at Sunless Sea, which isn't even about piracy though you can dabble in it. It's a game about story, as much a text adventure as a naval adventure, but there's still a cranky subset of its players upset by the fact its trade side is underdeveloped. Give us a ship and a set of ports and we want to start manipulating their economies for our benefit even in a game that's really about earning eerie stories rather than loot.
Why doesn't our ideal pirate game exist? Maybe it’s simply because we're asking too much. First on our list is “open world” but open-world games are expensive and inevitably troubled by bugs, even when the biggest studios are behind them. The licensed Pirates Of The Caribbean game made by Akella and published by Bethesda, as well as its unofficial sequels in the Age Of Pirates series, are perfect examples, where you're as likely to crash to desktop as into a warship. The first thing on our list of demands is almost impossible on its own, let alone once we start fussing over the rest.
Rare’s ambition for its upcoming online pirate game Sea of Thieves actually highlights why it’s so difficult to make a truly satisfying one. “Everyone’s got an idea of what pirates do,” design director Gregg Mayles told us at E3. “Everyone knows they go after treasure. You don’t need to be told how to sail a ship or climb to the crow’s nest and use a telescope.”
“Anything you expect to be able to do in a pirate game, we expect to make that dream come true for players,” added executive producer Joe Neate.
Other popular genres like sci-fi and fantasy settings certainly come with their own preconceptions, but they’re less clear-cut. Pirate games aren’t just about a place but about a specific kind of character and action. They’re a more codified fiction than “living in space” or “like the past but with wizards” and when we can’t swashbuckle across the seven seas just right and raid and trade and all the rest, it just doesn’t feel like real pirating.
I wish Rare all the luck in the world with Sea of Thieves. But rather than getting our hopes up and setting ourselves up for another disappointment (we don't talk about Risen 2: Dark Waters), maybe we should lower those expectations like we're lowering our sails, losing some speed but gaining some maneuverability so that we don't smash right into a bitter reef of our own making just like this metaphor has.
In the meantime, who's for another rousing chorus of 'The Fish In The Sea?' “It's stormy weather boys, stormy weather...”