Shortly after the release of Crusader: No Regret, the game's lead developer, Tony Zurovec, left Origin to help Chris Roberts found Digital Anvil. There he spent several years working on an ill-fated car combat game named after his former team, Loose Cannon. But what about the development group he left behind? Development was done on a variety of Crusader followups, but none were deemed workable. In the end, they moved to the Wing Commander universe to build a game called Privateer 3.
I don't think I'm exaggerating when I express that the mid-1998 cancellation of Privateer 3 numbers among mankind's most terrible crimes. Privateer 3 was a beautiful game. Set in a familiar area of the Wing Commander universe, it was well designed, beautifully rendered and a huge amount of progress had been made in development. The game had just been unveiled to the public to great acclaim and then... the other shoe dropped. Mere days before the game was scheduled for its Austin FMV shoot it was no more.
But because so much work went into the title, a great variety of documents and artwork has been collected over the years! In honor of the team that built Crusader, we have collected what we know in this update. We have scripts, design documents, a video, a great big stack of screenshots and more!
You've probably never heard of Frank Lucero, but Origin is trusting him to guide one of their premiere franchises through its third iteration (referred to in this story as Privateer 3, though the name will likely change) He and the Executive Producer Rod Nakamoto, (who filled the same slot on Wing Commander Prophecy) left Sega and brought much of their team to Origin, where they merged with what was left of the Loose Cannon team responsible for the Crusader series. The team members started the Privateer project by helping out the Wing Commander Prophecy team finish that game. This allowed the programmers to become familiar with its 3D engine.
On this day, however, Lucero seems troubled. He has a journalist in his office to see Privateer 3 and he hasn't had adequate time to prepare. He's concerned with the status of his game--it features a lot of placeholder artwork (or "programmer art," which is as terrifying as it sounds) and exists only in pieces. A lot of the design discussed here is preliminary, and could change drastically by the time the game ships. And finally, this is a license and a genre that people have a great passion for, so expectations are likely to be sky high.
A Brief History of Privateer
Or are they? In the original Privateer, you traveled from planet to planet, bought and sold goods, fought an occasional battle, and navigated your way through a main plot line. While there was a linear narrative, it felt like the galaxy was yours for the taking--all it too was some cash and a lot of firepower. It received plenty of acclaim from the public and the press. Privateer 2: The Darkening was a product that lacked focus. Originally designed as an original game set in a new universe, Origin tacked on the Privateer name at some time in its development. Unfortunately, all it shared with the original game was its basic structure and gameplay. It wasn't a true sequel (It didn't even take place in the same game universe), had numerous technical glitches, and moved towards a Wing Commander style "interactive movie" concept, losing some of the open endedness that characterized the original game. Many fans, and critics, weren't happy. Privateer 3 returns to the universe, once again assuming its role as the more unstructured and less narrative focused cousin to Wing Commander. There will be no full-motion video shot for the game- all plot-specific animated sequences will either utilize the game engine (for space scenes) or will be rendered. Regarding the video, or lack thereof, Lucero admits player feedback influenced their decision.
"Most people didn't think it was necessary. They felt we would concentrate on the gameplay."
Under the influence
Privateer 3 designer Mark Vittek's walls are lined with a motley assortment of products that either directly, or indirectly, serve as the inspiration to competition for this game.
"We revisited a lot of games that had an open ended design to see thethoughts behind them. One of the games I keep harkening back to, and this will make Frank cringe,[which he proceeds to demonstrate] is the original Pirates." "Cringe is a bad word,'' Lucero clarifies, "because that's a great game."
"It [Pirates] was much more about building up you character and open ended [than most games], but there were many more storylines you could explore," explains Vittek. "And that, I think, is what we're trying to accomplish here. Fans are going to be able to get more into the story because of the Kilrathi -- they're the best bad guys we have. We're bringing back the Klingons, so to speak." Lucero admits that much of the design for Privateer 3 is taken from the original Origin-penned (but discarded) Privateer 2 design.
"We're taking this to where Privateer should have been, focusing on the exploring aspect and being able to build up your ship. This gives it a feeling of role-playing. We're concentrating on making the planets unique, so unlike Elite, where they're randomly generated, these are pre-defined but more individual." As much as people say they want open-ended games, few companies produce them. When asked why he thinks that is, Lucero hesitates. "It seems like whenever there's a successful product that comes out, everyone tries to clone it, and this consumes a lot of development effort and energy in this industry. Some of the other properties, wihich may be really good, tend to get put aside for a while." "Besides," he says, "it's not easy to come up with a rich and detailed universe."
It's the End of the Universe as we Know it
"Where Privateer 2 had about 20 unique worlds to visit, Privateer 3 will have closer to 50, with more than 2000 total locations in the galaxy you can visit with your ship. Some of these will only become available as you upgrade your ship; others appear depending on your style of play. For example, a player with a reputation for piracy may somehow discover the secret pirate lair."
Each location has its own unique aesthetic sense, economy, mission generation system and characters you can interact with. Lucero explains the reason for this. "We want to make sure when you go to each location that you feel like you're there. If you’re in an area of space that's fairly well-protected and doing well, it's going to be brighter. If you're in an area that's run by pirates, It's going to be bleak and grungy."
The Plot Thickens
The team is guarding the plot of Privateer 3 as if it were the next Star Wars movie, and Lucero chooses his words as carefully as a President ducking a sex scandal. "There are several story threads running through the game, but there is one central story, with a single ending." Which thread you follow depends on your actions. If you align yourself with the Kilrathi Bloodhunters, you might be more likely to follow that thread of the story. However the goal of the game will be the same.
The game takes place shortly after the events of Wing Commander Prophecy. The Midway project, where the Confederation sunk a ton of cash into an enormous warship, has been deemed a success and additional ships have been built. You start the game down on your luck. Your ship has been damaged. The freighter you were escorting just got smoked by pirates. Broke, you're stuck on New Damascus without anywhere to turn, so you take a shady mission in order to make some quick cash. This starts a sequence of events that forces you to deal with the Kilrathi.
Learning the Trade
One of your main goals in the game is to make some easy cash, and our next stop, the commodities screen, is where you barter away yout loot. The economy is dynamic and will reflect things going on in the game, so trading one item constantly will cause its price to fluctuate, and each planet will have its own economy. Origin is designing their univers to be self-sustaining. There are certain optimal trade routes where you'll usually find freighters running goods--if you stumble on them, you can capture those ships, and make a killing, at least for a while. The balance again comes in and you'll start seeing more and more stronger escorts. But don't lose sight of the bigger picture--you're having an effect on the worlds those goods were intended for.
On a Mission
Next we hit the bar, where the various low-lifes of the universe gather to swap stories. Here you'll be able to pick up random missions based on your alignment. If you've been going around blowing up Confederation units, you may get missions from pirates or assasins, while a goody-two-shoes player may find merchants asking you to escort or transport goods for them.
"You can join the pirates, but once you're over on their side, people who were your friends- the Confederation, the merchants - suddenly won't like you any more," Vittek says smiling. "But you can play the gray areas to your advantage."
There are two different kinds of missions, the ones generated randomly and the ones that are pre-scripted to occur at certain points of the game. These advance the story and are more elaborate in design. Overall, there will be 30-40 of these missions, and they'll only be triggered once the player has reached certain pre-determined points in the game - either a certain number of kills, a number of credits or based on the quality of your ship.
Unlike other games, some missions will have the player attack entire space stations in order to take them over. Re-supply ships will assist you on these attacks, saving you a trip to the nearest base to replenishing missiles and shields.
"How likely is one fighter going to be able to take out a space station?" Lucero asks. In these cases, you'll have to engage with the support of groups of fighters, taking on both the station and any ships that it may have on-hand to throw at you. You'll have to divvy up the attack, where one person takes out the shield generator, another the turrets, another takes out the power, etc.
At this point, you're probably thinking, "that sounds like a great multiplayer mission." Well, you're right. It turns out that all of the non-plot critical single-player missions are also being designed for multiplayer.
A single-player multiplayer experience
When the topic of multiplayer inevitably comes up, Lucero hesitates and squirms a bit, not wanting to get into any specifics. "I guess I'm a bit gun-shy after what happened with Prophecy. We don't want to promise the customer that we'll give them everything and then fall short." Of course it's the marketing guy that spills the beans.
"This is truly the first multiplayer Wing Commander product," boasts Chris Plummer. "The Privateer concept is obviously the most conducive to multiplayer because all of these people can have their own interests and take on what they want." The plan for the game is to allow players to set up their own Privateer servers that will store the world-state and serve as the mission generator. You'll be able to set up all the parameters for entry into the server, with things like wealth and ship limits. People will be able to use QuakeSpy-like software to find them on the Internet, and will be able to log in and out of the server at any time, send messages to other players, and post want-ads on the bulletin boards. Each server can support an unlimited number of individual accounts, but the number of simultaneous players a server can support will depend on the speed of the Internet connect and the hardware serving the game. Where most games have a set number of single-player and multiplayer missions or levels, the goal of Privateer 3 is to eliminate the distinction between the two. After listening to his colleagues give out all of the multiplayer secrets, Lucero finally gives in.
"All missions are being designed so they can work with a player or an AI ship in any role." This sort of integrated design isn't new, even to Origin. An example of a game with completely integrated single- and multiplayer design is Jane's Longbow 2, which was developed in the same building as Privateer. The bottom line, according to Lucero, is that they're too early in the process to make any sort of guarantees. "We haven't tackled the development issues yet. We've got to get out final flight model up and running, and then we have to do experiments to determine whether or not it's latency tolerant. Of that model takes a lot of time, it's going to cut into what our overall goals for multiplayer really are."