Freebooter interview: a promising piratical sandbox on voxel-y high seas

Made by indie studio Tribunal Games , Freebooter is a recently-announced privateering sandbox. It's set on a cutely voxel-rendered ocean of a fantastical disc-world, dotted with islands, scored with trade-routes and scoured by pirates. The game promises a mix of light simulation in the running of your sail-ship and frantic cannon combat, as you exchange volleys with the vessels of other scurrilous sea-dogs. I caught up with Tribunal Games' Johannes Garm Nielsen and asked him to give us the view from the crow's nest.

What sort of things can you do in Freebooter?

We want to have gameplay with all the things you can do in the 1800s... I'm not great with dates, actually, so let's call it the pirate-era. So sort of what you'd expect to be able to do there: trading, maybe some smuggling, fighting with pirates, pirating of course and exploring.

Do you have a base of operations, or is the base your ship?

Your character is the ship, more or less. Certainly implementation-wise, it works a lot like a character in an RPG would work - if that character had 20 weapons. So you control your ship and as you progress and upgrade the ship. You get new equipment and new assets, whether that be strictly monetary or stuff you can use to upgrade your ship.

So what's the long-term goal in the game?

We have plans to have major set-pieces in the game. We haven't set exactly what they are, but probably they'll mirror the major logical professions you can settle into. So we know we'll have trading, and probably there'll be a sort of position that you can go for within trading. The world is procedurally generated so what you're going to need to do is going to vary from game to game. But there'll be something obvious you can aim for, in the long-term, as a player, whether you're playing as a pirate or as a trader or working for a certain faction.

"If an island has a lot of wood, it might decide to build a wharf and start making ships."

Tell me about how trade works - is there a simulated economy you're trying to manipulate?

Every island has facilities which produce things. So if you see an island has a field, it will produce whatever that field is made up of. There'll be wheat, for example. If an island is producing wheat, there'll be less demand for that crop. So we actually simulate supply and demand. People on that island are going to want food and jobs, so if there's opportunity for it, such an island can expand if they have the resources necessary to do so. If they have a lot of wood, they might decide to build a wharf and start making ships.

The player can trade with islands they can supply them with specific resources and encourage them to go in a specific direction. Only to some extent, of course - the island ultimately still makes the choice themselves. We encourage the player to look for trade routes. For example, you can go to an island - let's say this island has seven farms, fields of wheat, and it produces a metric tonne of wheat. That means the wheat here is dirt cheap, because everyone is sick and tired of wheat. So you can go there and buy wheat for next to nothing, and then you go to Lumber island which is full of lumber and no wheat. They don't have a food source themselves, so they're overjoyed to be buying all your wheat at extortionate prices and so you land a profit there. You can buy lumber there cheap and then you sort of chain this together, you create a sort of trade route.

Is that simulatory approach applied to the combat as well, or is that a bit more arcadey?

We tried to make all the systems deep and rewarding - so the combat is also a bit more simulation-style than it is arcadey, but it's by no means realistic. It's third-person aiming, so you have these weapons that are mounted on the ship. Each weapon has a basic facing direction from the start but they each have arcs they can turn in. You select which group of weapons, like cannons for example, you want to fire and then you can either fire in volleys or one at a time.

"We wanted combat to be a hectic experience, but also to encourage a lot of strategy."

Most of the time it only makes sense to fire in volleys, but certain weapons affect the target ship differently so it doesn't always make sense. It doesn't really do anything to set something on fire twice - it's still just on fire. We've gone for more of a fast-paced feel with the combat. We wanted it to feel engaging, intense, to be a hectic experience, but also we wanted it to be deep, to encourage a lot of strategy.

Can you blow up specific bits of a ship, then?

Yeah, we can destroy individual modules functionally, right now. There's also destruction of the hull itself which isn't functional so much as just eye-candy. If you are very persistent we do have it so that you can permanently destroy a weapon. Though it's much easier to set it on fire, and people are reluctant to fire weapons that are on fire because that's unsafe.

How about the actual ship navigation itself? I understand that wind plays an important role - are you doing a full ship simulation?

It's a compromise. We didn't want sailing to feel like you're driving on the ocean. Well, if you have a steam engine, it kinda is - but if you have sails it should feel different. None of us [on the dev team] are sailors, but we know there's a lot to this sailing business, and there's a lot we couldn't really get our heads around - creating vacuums in-front of the sails and so on. So what we've tried to do instead is to say the wind should matter, weather should matter a lot. And what we've done is we have a wind direction which we set and manipulate as part of the world generation. We can control that, we can make storm winds. If you have the wind directly at your back you'll be getting 100 percent of the wind's force, and the further you turn away from it the less you get. If you turn directly away you're getting nothing, your sails will be getting no propulsion at all.

"We didn't want sailing to feel like you're driving on the ocean."

We're trying to be very conscious about how we signal this to the player, showing them how good a job they're doing at catching the wind and that it's important, it's not something you can ignore - unless you set out to make a boat that's solely about steam engines of course. So the wind is reflected in the way the clouds move and the direction the waves travel. You can also see the effect of the wind in your sails: they fill out the more wind you have in them.

Can you find yourself becalmed?

Ah, yeah that's something we've discussed a lot, along with being stranded, capsizing and stuff like that. We've just today had a discussion about whether or not we should allow the player to be struck by lightning. In one way, we kind of want it to happen. It's this whole generated world thing, where we have kind of this Dwarf Fortress-y philosophy where we just want things to happen and whether or not they're fair is kind of second priority. But only to an extent. Maybe it's cooler if the player gets rewarded when they're playing well, and not rewarded when they're not playing well. But yeah we could have stuff like that, it depends on how fun it is. In the case with becalming, I don't know if we'd want the player sitting there staring at the screen for many minutes at a time.

"We have this   Dwarf Fortress-y philosophy: we just want things to happen. Whether or not they're fair is a second priority."

You mention this is a fantasy pirate world - does that imply fantasy sea creatures as well?

I thought this one would come up. We hope so, is the short answer. But right now, we're only three people making the game and we have to select the features we make carefully. So we had a chat some months ago and said ok, how do we want to prioritise this? We know we want combat, we have to have combat, and pirates, and factions. Which is more important, then, is it trading or is it sea monsters? That's a basic priority we talked about, actually. And trading won out. It is possible we'll want to add on monsters in the future if things go well for us.

Sounds like ideal fodder for a stretch goal on a Kickstarter...

Exactly! We will be doing a Kickstarter. The plan was initially to just have the Kickstarter more or less as we started out. But we've had a lot of people contacting us and being interested in a playable build than we had anticipated. So that's what we're looking at right now and kind of assessing things. But we'll have a Kickstarter in the not-too-distant future.