‘Puzzle Pirates’ Is My Isometric Coronavirus Happy Place

The forgotten MMORPG has been a comfort during quarantine

Image: Puzzle Pirates

In the mid-2000s, while everyone else seemed to be killing grunts as Halo’s Master Chief or grinding away hours in World of Warcraft, I was sailing the 2D seas of puzzling piracy. And now I’m back on deck.

Growing up, I was obsessed with video games but was denied a proper gaming system by my parents. I had to make do with what could run on my computer, which mostly included educational CD-ROM games and any other titles my parents deemed to have some sort of scholastic tie-in. Age of Empires II got the nod because of its rich historical nature, but RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 was a harder sell. (Its capitalist overtones conflicted with my folks’ values, I guess.)

Desperate for content, at some point I stumbled across Miniclip.com and its cache of brain-numbingly addictive, free in-browser Flash games. There, I saw an advertisement that led me to my Rosebud: Puzzle Pirates.

Launched in 2003, Puzzle Pirates is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) where players adventure through fictional Caribbean-esque archipelagos, plundering booty. In its heyday, hundreds of thousands of pirates played on a half-dozen active “oceans,” the Pirates equivalent of a server, each with their own unique sets of islands, player-created crews, and complicated alliances. I was hooked.

Pirates was almost certainly my most-played game until predictable teenage interests started to fill my time. But as Covid-19 shut down pretty much everything in my neighborhood for months, I had nothing but time on my hands once again. As a quarantined nation pivoted to the solaces of comfort foods and comfy pants, I decided it was time to return to my isometric happy place — or what was left of it. After downloading Puzzle Pirates, installing a legacy version of Java, and somehow remembering my password, I logged into my account for the first time in years.

I saw an advertisement that led me to my Rosebud: Puzzle Pirates.

What I found is an experience that still has a lot to teach current game designers, especially in a modern gaming landscape that focuses heavily on multiplayer titles. Many of the co-op games currently en vogue offer simple “point A to point B” premises: In Among Us, it’s to discover the traitor; in Fall Guys, it’s to be first to the finish line; in Call of Duty: Warzone, it’s to kill or be killed. These are exciting experiences, but despite some nuanced parts of the gameplay that demand more exacting cooperation (certain rounds in Fall Guys, certain modes of CoD, an especially astute lobby in Among Us), they essentially boil down to a winner-take-all scenario. Puzzle Pirates presents a different goal: take on a small role in making a pirate ship run smoothly. The better your team works together, the more successful and fun the adventure will be.

At first when I logged on in 2020, I couldn’t find anyone else still playing this game. My entire crew was listed as dormant, once-bustling island inns and town squares now occupied by only a few silent non-player characters. Typing a /who command in my chat box showed nine other pirates online on my ocean, which had merged with another since I’d last played.

My pirate, elaborate clothes long ago decayed to rags, was immediately awarded an in-game trophy: the “Fourteenth Order of the Jolly Roger,” a citation earned based on the creation date of a given pirate, in this case, about 14 years ago. That puts me at about 11 years old when I started playing this damn game.

Snooping around YPPedia, Puzzle Pirates’ wiki site, I found that there was one active ocean left, where 1,000 or so players could be found online at any given time. Unfortunately, my main pirate didn’t live on this ocean, but I found an alt that I have no memory of creating who did. It was a strangely poignant moment for me, finding a long-forgotten avatar from my childhood, gone from my brain but still taking up a bit of space on a server somewhere.

Puzzle Pirates was far from the first title to introduce co-op gameplay or the concept of clans (the game calls them crews), but it took these ideas to creative new heights. For one, there’s basically zero way to play the game alone, a rarity back in games from the early aughts. The basic gameplay (pillaging on ships) is virtually impossible to play without other, human players crewing your ship, whom you assemble via posting a virtual “jobbing notice” within the game. And this isn’t your average MMO raid or battle royale scenario: Once you’ve set sail, every seafaring task has to be completed by players volunteering to play a variety of minigames in tandem.

This blueprint sets up a particularly addictive formula of collective puzzle gaming—one that still works. As some pirates play a Dr. Mario–esque sailing game to keep your ship moving, others complete pentomino carpentry puzzles and crank Bejeweled-inspired bilge pumps to keep the hull healthy. Periodic duty reports fill in shipmates on the effectiveness of this choreographed puzzling, whereupon crewmates frequently offer piratical words of celebration or encouragement. When the captain chooses to engage and board an enemy vessel, the crew then fights as one team in a sword fighting or brawl minigame, carefully coordinating “teaming” on different foes.

What I found is an experience that still has a lot to teach modern game designers, especially in a modern gaming landscape that focuses heavily on multiplayer titles.

“[Cooperation] was top of mind… It was always designed as a co-op MMO,” said Daniel James, co-founder of Three Rings Design, the company behind the game. “We had some debates about what used to be called forced grouping, you know, because people would complain about their need to be able to solo a game, but we were very much firmly on the side of ‘that’s what it is, it’s forced grouping.’”

For a pillage to be successful, every pirate has to pull their weight. The focus of the puzzle games themselves is individual but not directly opposed to another player’s goals via shooting them, tricking them, or otherwise outdoing them. Instead, it’s the cumulative efforts of these single-player puzzle games that achieved in-game tasks. It might sound silly, but tangibly working together with other humans to achieve virtual milestones gave me some comfort, especially early in quarantine, when I felt like I wasn’t even supposed to go outside, let alone see friends.

This isn’t just a series of competitions on ethereal lobbies between loosely affiliated clans: Forming a strong group of skilled players into a crew (and eventually many crews allied under a flag) is critical to achieving larger objectives like flotilla attacks or blockading islands. Crews can also pool money to build permanent buildings on islands and keep individually owned ships unlocked so any officer could use the group’s fleet. Multiple chat rooms for crew only and officers only, in addition to an intra-crew “news and issues” message board system, added filters to this choreographed communication, introducing levels of player-created bureaucracy and lore.

Partnership extended to almost every aspect of the game, deepening the player’s experience and leading to unique social structures. Sure, pirates on shore leave could piddle away their pieces of eight playing “carousing” minigames like poker or drinking, but the game’s economy revolved around player labor. If you wanted to invest in an in-game item, from a new cutlass to a Grand Frigate, you had to place an order at a player-owned shop, then wait for enough people to play the corresponding labor minigame (blacksmithing, shipwrightery, etc.) and pay them with in-game currency.

(Side note: Puzzle Pirates was an early adopter of freemium gameplay via virtual currency, offering not just a subscription-based model but also oceans with a secondary “doubloon” currency. Virtual currency is now so common that the IRS is getting involved.)

Class-based co-op games are commonplace nowadays, but Puzzle Pirates pushed the limits of collaborative systems in ways few other games have matched. Relatively simple multiplayer games are huge right now, and it’s easy to see why: Quick rounds, immediate stakes, clear winners and losers. But I hope there’s still a place for deeper co-op experiences like Pirates. Picking up the game again after a lot of years, I found some real satisfaction in gameplay that offered a more abstract notion of winning—one centered more around effectively working together.

Audience Development Editor @ OneZero

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