The Game Archaeologist: Pirates of the Caribbean Online

    
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In 1967, Disneyland opened one of its most iconic attractions: a dark boat ride called Pirates of the Caribbean. A large fandom surrounding the pirate-themed attraction sprung up, prompting the company to make several other copycats in its other parks across the world.

The property was quite ripe, then, for a jump to the silver screen, which it did in 2003 with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The film was a smash success, sparking a lengthy series and a full-fledged MMORPG that ran for six years and garnered its own small cult following. So today we’re going to look at Pirates of the Caribbean Online’s curious voyage and lasting legacy.

As Disney looked for every and all ways that it could expand the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, an MMO seemed a likely candidate in the fertile field of early 2000s online gaming. Disney Online and Silver Tree Media partnered up to work on the project, officially announcing it in 2005.

Using the same web-based game engine as Toontown Online, Pirates of the Caribbean Online promised to thrust players into the world built by the movies. But instead of taking the role of Captain Jack Sparrow or Elizabeth Swann, the user would make a brand-new pirate to go on adventures around the cutthroat seas.

“We believe the game’s focus on action and adventure, combined with many customization options will appeal to a broad audience of both gamers and fans of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise as they set out on their own course to live the legend,” Disney Online said in 2007.

The main strength of POTCO was a rather expansive game world and its ties to the movies. While more of an introductory MMO compared to most of its contemporaries, this game did offer a wide spread of activities. Players could fight across islands, hop in a ship to set sail, slap down some cards in a tavern, go treasure hunting, and fish up a delicious catch. Voodoo magic was used to heal wounds… and cannons, cutlasses, and grenades were used to cause them. The customization options for both player characters and ships got a lot of praise, including features such as tattoos.

After a year-long delay and a couple of beta tests, Pirates launched on Halloween day, 2007. It came out to middling reviews and tons of bugs, although the Disney brand and the movie IP both helped to push engagement in those opening months. Reviewers noted that the chunky graphics weren’t the most eye-catching and likely the result of making this title as easy to use on as many computers as possible.

The business model deserves some coverage, as this MMO came out before free-to-play was as widely accepted as it now is. Pirates only gave a small chunk of the game away for free (with ads that would pop up to distract your gaming experience), requiring a $10/month subscription to kill the ads and raise the level cap past level 8.

It also had to contend with a raft of new releases — and strong competition — at the time. World of Warcraft was still ascending in its dominance of the industry, and titles like Tabula Rasa and Pirates of the Burning Sea were on the near horizon.

What made a tough sell even harder was that Disney was shifting priorities and resources to developing for the newly acquired Club Penguin (and later, Disney Infinity), leaving POTCO to languish after its first couple years of operation. Not as much new content came out as fans hoped — less and less as the years went on — and the MMO never saw a full expansion during its run.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about Pirates of the Caribbean Online is that it lasted as long as it did. Nearly six years after its launch, the MMO closed its doors in September 2013, around the same time that Disney took Toontown Online down. “At this time, we are shifting our development focus towards other online and mobile play experiences, such asĀ Club Penguin and a growing selection of Disney mobile apps,” the studio said at the time.

That wasn’t the end of its story, however. Refusing to let it die, fans of the MMO took the code and reshaped the game into a rogue server project called Pirates Online. While the server went live in 2015, it took the better part of a decade for the team to recover and recreate all of the content from the original title.

Not content to stop there, the Pirates Online devs added more quests and even a new zone. It’s still very much playable and regularly updated to this day, giving the MMO community another win for game preservation.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to 2004! 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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