A New Pirates! Swaggers on Deck

How's this for a weird notion? Take a classic game from the 1980s -- say, Pac-Man -- and make a big-budget, souped-up version for Xbox, complete with high-resolution graphics, new features, and a high-fidelity sound track.

It may sound absurd to revisit the 1980 classic, in which ghosts chase an omnivorous yellow pizza-pie around a maze, but Firaxis Games has done something similar in theory. It has developed a new version of Sid Meier's Pirates! -- a 1987 game first released for the Commodore 64, Apple II (AAPL), and IBM PC (IBM) -- that combines aspects of the old game with post-millennium ingenuity.


  Since its new PC debut in November and its Xbox launch on July 11, the new Sid Meier's Pirates! has received top-notch marks: an average press review of 8.5 out of a possible 10 from game critics, according to IGN.com. Gamespot.com called it a "triumphant remake," and IGN's reviewer commented: "Ho, ho, ho, and a bottle of fun!"

Surprisingly, rather than completely overhauling the old game to take full advantage of today's technology, the developers have only tweaked the original game-play design. Sure, it boasts higher-resolution graphics than the version from 18 years ago, but they're still ordinary compared with the eye-popping theatrics of most games these days.

So how do the game publishers for PC and Xbox get away with charging $50 for the new program? By combining the game's original spare and elegant architecture with today's technology, they've created an even more robust and addictive version.


  In 1987, Sid Meier's Pirates! was ground-breaking. Despite the measly memory and piddling processor of the day's consoles, it gave the feeling of an open world where you could sail anywhere in the Caribbean, sink any ship, visit any tavern, or storm the beaches and invade. Although the game used less than 200 kilobytes of space, its possibilities felt unlimited.

Sid Meier, a former Microsoft (MSFT) software engineer and founder of game developer MicroProse, achieved the open-world feel through a sort of sleight of hand -- you're playing the same game over and over, but it makes you feel as though you're playing different ones.

He divided the game into several categories of "minigames" -- sword fighting, ship battles, and treasure hunts -- repeated dozens of times throughout the program. And he categorized the population of computer characters by nationality. You choose to ally with, or fight against, different groups.


  The result: Each battle felt fresh, because it took place against a new opponent in a different part of the world. And the game keeps track of your progress and fame throughout the Caribbean, marking captured cities. But where you went and which quests you took up was your decision. "It makes players feel free, without making them feel lost," says Casey O'Toole, the designer and lead programmer for the new version of Pirates.

So the developers decided to closely follow that minigame architecture for the new version. This structure makes for an addictive experience: Accomplishing each minigame makes the player feel he or she is within reach of meeting a new goal.

"The number of people, the amount of time and money it takes to make a game, have increased exponentially over the years," says Meier. "My approach to game design has remained the same: [Make] the game fun first, and the rest will follow."


  Developers applied the same spare approach to the storyline, too. Like the original, it starts with a quick sketch of a back story: You are a young nobleman whose family has been kidnapped by an evil Spanish marquess, so you turn to a life of piracy. The rest is up to you -- you can try to avenge your family or simply enjoy the treasures and fun of the pirate existence by playing a series of minigames.

The new game, however, does include more minigames and choices for the wannabe pirate, in a more robust and open-feeling world. The designers, for example, added new moves to the sword-fighting scenes to make the experience comparable to those in today's fighting games.

They also added more details in the minigames. Now, when wooing a governor's daughter, you must play a rhythm-based dance game to attract her. Or, when sneaking into an enemy town, you must run and hide from patrolling town guards. The result is a game with enough variety to satisfy a wide array of players.


  In devising the game, the developers' first priority was to ensure the original game-play elements ran as smoothly and quickly as possible, while expanding the map and making it more detailed. Despite utilizing the Xbox' comparatively luxurious amount of memory and processing power to make these additions, however, developers remained just as frugal as the original designers.

"We didn't want any load screens, any waiting for the player," says O'Toole. According to him, the team decided to use advanced technology only when it helped the game-play. In the "sneaking into town" minigame, for instance, the developers employed a cutting-edge graphics engine because it let the player do a better job of hiding in the shadows, away from the guards. The ships, on the other hand, are not painstakingly rendered. Their job is to sail and get into the occasional naval battle, not look pretty.

"We still butt our heads against the wall on the performance side of things," says O'Toole. "The goal is to pack as much [game-playing] content in as possible" while keeping the same streamlined architecture as before. The result is a game just as addictive as the original. Whether for Commodore or Xbox, restrained game design never goes out of style.

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