The Game Archaeologist: Puzzle Pirates


Up until this point in my life, Puzzle Pirates has always been that “Oh yeah, that actually exists!” game to me. Even when I do lists of pirates in MMOs, this title slips right off of my radar. Maybe it’s because Puzzle Pirates doesn’t make waves (har!) these days, or maybe it’s been around for so very long.

I think that part of Puzzle Pirates’ forgettable nature is that it doesn’t exactly scream “MMO.” I mean, its combat is more cerebral than anything else, it’s all cutesy and stuff, and even its name suggests a casual flash title than anything deep and substantive.

Yet I have friends with a long and abiding love for this game, people who always chide me when I forget it. So to peer pressure I bow: It’s high past time that we gave Puzzle Pirates its due as part of the MMO genre. Avast, ye landlubbers, and swab those peepers: We be goin’ to sea!

Three Rings to rule them all

It’s not always enough to have talent and skill; sometimes you just need to be in the right place. An aspiring game developer named Daniel James juggled all three during the ’90s. A longtime player of MUDs, James co-founded an internet dial-up service while in college and then took a job working on Sierra Online’s Middle-earth Online.

It wasn’t long after MEO’s demise that James met up with Michael Bayne, who had worked at Go2net. James, “bored to tears” with working on a Lord of the Rings MMO, suggested a partnership that would go in a new direction.

The duo decided to form a new company in 2001: Three Rings Design. Named after the Elvish rings in Tolkien’s mythology, Three Rings Design went about creating its first project, a multiplayer pirate-themed puzzle game.

So why pirates and puzzles? Bejeweled was a significant inspiration, but it’s a question that the devs have been cursed with forever explaining in interviews. James summed up his thought process as follows: “I had wanted to make a pirate game for a while, but I knew that I didn’t want the core gameplay to be ‘wack-a-monster,’ as I personally find that activity to be tiresome. When I hit upon the idea of combining puzzle games, which have a tight short-time period ‘fun loop’ with the long-term fun loop of MMO progression and community, it seemed like an obvious marriage.”

From concept to play in 18 months flat

With a team of just six people, Three Rings Design went about welding pirates to puzzles. It wasn’t easy; with a small team and a limited budget, hard decisions had to be made.

The first hard decision was how graphically involved Puzzle Pirates was going to be. Without deep pockets funding the endeavor, the team members knew that their work would not be able to compete on the same level with the growing field of 3-D titles out there. So instead, the devs juked and went a different direction, embracing an isometric 2-D design with sprites. It was neither the first nor the last time a studio would do this, but it still was a gamble. 3-D was a huge selling point of MMOs in the early 2000s, after all.

Instead of bleeding-edge visuals, the team focused on something as simple as “fun.” Pirates were fun. Puzzles were fun. Casual gameplay was fun. Lots of quests and a massive landscape? Not as much fun, the team decided. Instead of vertical progression through levels and progressively tougher zones, horizontal progression was embraced to keep the population playing together.

“Whether you’re pillaging with your crew, swordfighting in PvP, showing off in your new clothes, arguing on the forums, throwing a party, playing cards, or flirting on the docks (or in the bushes), I think it’s the social aspect of the game that keeps people coming back,” said Lead Developer Matt Jensen. “Some players have known each other for years, and a few have even ended up married.”

With this framework in mind, the devs went from the concept to a fully playable game in 18 months. After an additional year of testing, Puzzle Pirates went live in 2003 as a digital product. Ubisoft would later come along in 2005 to publish the title as a boxed copy, but by then, Puzzle Pirates already had a foothold on the gaming world and was doing just fine.


As you’ve probably surmised by this article so far, Puzzle Pirates was a wildly different type of MMO that many gamers had a hard time seeing it in the same genre as EverQuest. Yet those who did succumb to curiosity found a deliciously offbeat title.

The core of the game was, as the title implies, puzzles. All major activities, from crafting to fighting, were done via a specific type of puzzle. Swordfighting, for example, required navigating a Tetris-like interface better than your opponent. Lusty pirates could drink, blacksmith, or play a hand of cards with each other. Some of the puzzles are multiplayer, some single-player, some co-op, and some competitive.

Probably the defining set of puzzles revolved around duty stations on a ship. Each sailing ship had multiple stations, from navigation to gunnery, each with its own unique puzzle. Players would work these puzzles in concert, and the better they did individually, the better the ship operated as a whole.

Because of the puzzles, becoming great at this MMO required actual skill and expertise rather than level-grinding and gear acquisition.

If puzzles were the core, then the pirate theme is what held it all together. As we all know, geeks love pirates. It didn’t take long at all for the community to embrace the punny nautical terms and swashbuckling mayhem. To this day, most players talk in pirate speak — not as mere roleplay but as standard gameplay.

“One of the problems with playing MMORPGs is if you’re in a fantasy setting, how do you speak to other players?” James later said. “It’s very difficult to roleplay in many settings, but in the case of Puzzle Pirates, it is pretty easy to roleplay. ‘Ahoy! And Ye!’ It’s pretty transparent when any person who shows up in the game immediately gets it. That’s a huge huge win.”

Free-to-play before it was a thing

Of interest to MMO historians is the fact that Puzzle Pirates was one of the earliest pioneers of the free-to-play movement. Three Rings launched the game looking to appease both western and eastern audiences. The problem was that westerners were used to subscriptions, while easterners loved free titles supported by microtransactions. The solution was obvious: offer both. In 2005, Three Rings did just that.

“Our free-to-play Doubloon servers, launched way back in 2005, were originally an experiment meant to attract new players by letting them play for free,” Jensen said. “If folks liked the game, perhaps they would become customers some day, though we do have several long-term players who take great pride in never having paid us.”

Players were given a choice. They could simply subscribe for $9.95 a month and gain access to the full game, or they could go free with limitations (freemium). The free version proved to be restrictive for many; players had access to only a few of the puzzles (and a rotating free premium one) and were asked to pony up cash to buy outfits, puzzles, and other content.

Three Rings also segregated the playerbase by business model. Subscription oceans (servers) were on one side of the fence, while doubloon oceans (the F2P shards) were on the other side. The company did experiment with a third ocean type, a family server with additional protection for the wee ‘uns, but ultimately it was taken offline.

Extremely poor players with more time than money could farm pieces of eight (PoE, the game’s currency) and exchange it for doubloons (the F2P currency) if they worked hard enough.

The pirating life for me!

Usually at this point in the article, I’ll share a sad denouement or mention how this was the brief time of glory for the studio, but that isn’t the case. While Puzzle Pirates never did compete on the same level as, say, World of Warcraft, it didn’t really need to in order to be successful.

In 2011, Puzzle Pirates debuted on Steam and its studio was acquired by SEGA. While there were server merges a year later, the game continues to operate with three very active oceans.

The team members at Three Rings hasn’t been coasting on the doubloons gathered from Puzzle Pirates’ operation. In fact, they branched out to creatie several additional casual MMOs, such as Bang! Howdy, Spiral Knights, and Doctor Who: Worlds in Time. Yet one can tell that their first love, their true love is out there on the ocean.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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