Privateer Online

 Posted by (Visited 10316 times)  Game talk, Gamemaking  Tagged with: , ,
Jun 192014

privateeronline7In the wake of the excitement over No Man’s Sky and its procedural worlds, I thought that it might be a good time to tell some of the story around the version of Privateer Online that I worked on, that never saw the light of day.

After I moved off the UO team, I worked on several MMO concepts for Origin. The mandate was explicitly “come up with something that we can make using the UO server and client pretty much intact, without big changes, because we need it quick.” This limited the possible projects enormously, of course.

So I started developing one-sheet concepts that fit the bill. None of them got farther than a few pages, and the idea was to give execs some choices on what we would go make.

  • There was Mythos, which eagle-eyed Origin fans even noticed the domain registration for. This was set in the real world, in the mythologies of every culture. Basically, it was like LegendMUD but only set in the ancient period.
  • Seven_Cities_of_GoldThere was a pirates/seafaring one one. The idea was to make boats be a single tile in size, with a “scale change” when you got in a boat (kind of like Seven Cities of Gold). That way we could do ship to ship combat in a reasonable way for the time and in 2d.
  • There was something around vampires. I don’t remember it very well, but Buffy was on and Anne Rice’s book were popular.

Mythos was the one that execs liked out of that set. Oh, there were more. I vividly remember a phone call where an exec and I were talking with a Hollywood agent as he tried to persuade me that Leave It To Beaver was due for a comeback, or that Baywatch Online was a good idea.

Right after UO shipped, Damion Schubert and I had collaborated on a pitch for a 2d space MMO, because Origin was wondering what the followup would be. This pitch wasn’t ever delivered. We walked in to present it, and were told “we’re doing UO2.” The programmers on the team has pitched a post-apocalyptic idea, and when they heard that it wasn’t happening, they all quit. This is why I was the only UO vet on Second Age.

If I recall correctly, this sci-fi pitch was sort of MMO meets Star Control meets Starflight. The game idea didn’t get heard by anyone, he went off to do UO2, and I went off to do Second Age.

Mule_boxWhen I was asked what I really wanted to make, my answer was immediate: M.U.L.E. Online. The original M.U.L.E. is my favorite game of all time, and it seemed to me that it was perfect for going online. The IP was going fallow at the time, the original designer (Dani Bunten) had passed away, and I was at an EA studio. But there were legal entanglements with the family, and there was no way to make it happen.

So I started sketching out something else, codename Star Settlers. It still had the idea of colonizing planets, but instead of people on one planet, it was thousands of planets, procedurally generated. You started out on one, a small MMO world (think the size of one UO city). You sent off an exploration ship and it would find one for you and generate it. You would go to it, slay monsters, etc, and if you managed to pacify it, you could build on it.

Every planet had its own resource mix, so you would want to constantly go outwards and pioneer. If a planet was “used up” or nobody tended to go back, we’d just “lose the spacelane to it” and erase it, to make room for more. The hope was that someday even the starting worlds would get abandoned and replaced.

Mythos and Star Settlers were the final two candidates, and when I was asked which one I preferred, I picked Star Settlers.

First exec comment was “hate the name. And we have a powerful science fiction IP in-house! This should be in the Wing Commander universe. Maybe Privateer.”

This of course blew up a huge portion of the design. There’s a lot of lore in the WC universe. Star Settlers worked in part because it literally handed galactic history over to the players.

Second exec comment was “this is a Wing Commander game! It’s got to have space combat. And be in 3d.”

That blew up most of the rest of the design. And the whole starting premise of “have somehting to ship within a year” that was the start of the entire project. (This latter sequence of events has happened to me more than once in my career. “We need something quick! Re-use tech!” “This is cool! Switch to better tech!” “Uh, didn’t we need something quick?”)

There had been multiple tries at getting a Privateer Online/Wing Commander Online going by that point. All of them came from people over in the WC group. Some of them had gotten pretty far — piles of artwork, design work, and even some tech. (I think fansites say there was only one prior try, but I think “my” PO was actually something like number seven as we counted them internally. Most didn’t get very far).

This ended up being a case where the Lord British Productions team actually ended up getting a different team’s IP greenlit for their own use. Needless to say, this ticked off some folks on the Wing Commander side. One of them came in to interview to switch teams and started out by saying “what makes you think you are qualified to make a Wing Commander game?” I replied with “I’m not.” We ended up as good friends.

The Privateer Online team

The Privateer Online team

The resultant team never jelled entirely, and the design suffered from that a lot. We ended up producing a ridiculously ambitious design bible (a “DDR” in OSI lingo) that was lavishly illustrated, and a prototype. Lots of stuff was overcomplicated. In hindsight, that’s kind of classic Origin, actually.

Anyway, some of the features of that Privateer Online:

  • You could sit down at the prototype and enter a planet number, and it created a planet for you. Just terrains, colored textures, etc, but every planet was radically different. You could run around it in 1st person 3d. I remember that 666 was hellish, which struck us all as funny. This system was using various Perlin noise generators to create heightfields, but we didn’t have artwork in, except maybe for your spaceship sitting there.
  • There was rather fun and slick mouse-controlled space combat, with multiplayer dogfighting. Some asteroids to dodge, etc.
  • We’d designed a ship customization system that was more or less fractal. You could pick a chassis, and each chassis had attachment points for Size A things. Size A things were guaranteed not to intersect because that’s how we built the chassis. Size A things had size B attachment points, and because Size B was always half the size of Size A, they also always fit, and so on.
  • The same modular idea extended to the ground-based game, where you could build up towns, mining facilities, factories, etc. Stuff plugged together — you had to build transport lines between the different sorts of buildings to get stuff working, as I recall. Sort of like supplying power to buildings in SimCity. The resources extracted would be different per planet, so there’d be interplanetary trade. And you’d get ambushed in space, because space was where the privateers would be.
  • There was a HUGE PILE of lore written (I didn’t write any of it… WC vets did). Some of it is available over at the Wing Commander CIC site. Probably the most illuminating for readers would be the fictional setting, which is in this Word doc.

We demo’ed it at an Origin all-hands meeting. People liked it. The design doc was circulated around EA, and we were even invited to Westwood Studios (the makers of Command & Conquer) to talk MMOs with the team there. We went out there, shared some knowledge, and marveled at the creepy office. It was built in a former defense contractor’s building. There was one phone, at the front, and if you got a call, it was announced over the loudspeaker and you had to walk to the front to take the call in public. There was one Internet connected computer, in the lounge, and you were supposed to browse in public. It was all very… Big Brother.

And then Privateer Online was cancelled in favor of Earth & Beyond. From Westwood. fire2

There’s a ton of stories to tell around all that — it happened nearly simultaneously with Richard leaving Origin — but this post is really about the game, because nobody ever officially knew it existed (though there’s an OK article over here about it). I hear that some folks have that big design bible — I don’t, I scrupulously left it behind when I left OSI. I am pretty sure that if I read it now I would be horrified.

That said, a core group from that team went on to do Star Wars Galaxies, and you can see some of the ideas reappearing. The fractal terrain and other design elements in SWG are worth a blog post of their own someday.

A few years later, when Origin was shut down, there was a big bonfire party. Copies of the Privateer Online DDR, along with those from many other Origin projects that never saw the light of day, were used to fuel the flames.

We all got t-shirts that said “We Created Worlds.”


  67 Responses to “Privateer Online”

  1. Jonathan Baron came on a bit after that pic.

  2. Damon Waldrip, Pete Shelus, Justin Randall, and Cody who was on our recruiting team.

  3. As a Westwood Employee from 1988 to 2004 I can say for sure that we did all have phones on our desks. If you a call came in to the main number and you didn’t answer at your desk, then you were paged. Not everybody had internet at their desk, but those that actually needed it did and as time passed more and more people were connected.

    The Loral Aerospace building, the last building Westwood occupied, was the only thing we could find of a suitable size that wouldn’t have required massive upgrades to meet our power needs.

    I heard a lot of rumors about Privateer Online being canceled but I won’t repeat them as they were 3rd and 4th hand. I will say that Earth and Beyond was in development before the EA acquisition, though it was a very different project before EA got their fingers into it.

  4. The bit about the phones was what I was told while there… I want to say it was described as an anti-headhunter measure? But it has been a loooong time, and you were there, so…

    I didn’t go into the cancellation and the politics thereof. Lots of dirt there I think, but actually I wasn’t directly involved enough to see the whole story either.

  5. I think someone was pulling your chain about Westwood’s phones, Raph. I was there from 1999 until they shut us down in 2003 (and then continued on E&B at EARS until E&B was shut down in late 2004) and I always had a phone. I started out without internet, but lots of folks had it and I got it within a few months. To this day, I kinda wonder if I would be better off without internet at my desk…

    We had a fair amount of tech crossover with Origin. I was hired in to do the database development for E&B, and we shared database stuff back and forth with our counterparts at Origin. (There was some scheme to share back-end architecture, but I don’t remember it now. Eventually, we tech-shared with The Sims Online.)

    I don’t know if I ever knew any details about PO’s cancellation, but I certainly don’t remember them now. I do know that I was sad when it happened. I loved Privateer…I STILL want another Privateer game.

  6. I still say that the second biggest failure of Lucas Arts was not to do the next X-Wing – Tie Fighter game as a Millennium Falcon type smuggler (AKA Privateer) set-up. I want to try doing the Kessel Run!

    (Edit for previous post: left Westwood in 2002, not 2004)

  7. I still have that document and it is spooky when you read it. I remember at the time you consoled yourself by saying, “It would have a good game but not a revolutionary advance.” Yet when I saw what Eve became, what it tried to become, what Privateer Online was, and would have been, and so many games tried and failed to be, I’m not sure I agree with you, Raph. But its purely a disagreement formed in hindsight. Who could have predicted the descent into repetitive incestuous sameness that would define the MMO, much less the fact the genre would move ever further from being either massive or multiplayer.

  8. Jonathan! So good to hear from you. 🙂

    I bet that would be thrilled if that document somehow… appeared.

    In hindsight I think the game WAS pretty out there in a lot of ways that I didn’t see at the time. I look back on it now and think of it as overcomplex actually.

  9. Well….yeah, which is why I mentioned Eve 🙂

    But I live and work in Germany now and they’ve never heard of something called an overcomplex game.

    Seriously the most remarkable part was the innocent merger of two core genres and the possibility of having a diversity of players unimaginable in our heavily factionalized online game market today.

  10. […] Koster, inspired by the excitement surrounding No Man’s Sky, wrote a blog post about his work on a version of Privateer Online, which was ultimately cancelled. It makes for an interesting read, as Koster discusses some of the […]

  11. […] Raph Koster (SWG, Crowfall) recalled the origin of Privateer Online, saying that it was initially a 2-D MMO concept he came up with called Star Settlers that focused on interstellar colonization and exploration. This got changed when he pitched it to EA’s execs: […]

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