Battle Pirates is a popular Facebook game from veteran social game developer Kixeye. The game has been heavily advertised in Facebook’s sidebar module in recent months, leading to a slow but steady degree of growth. At the time of writing, the game has 1,300,000 MAU and 280,000 DAU — strong figures for a complex, hardcore strategy game and only just shy of the numbers for Kixeye’s flagship title Backyard Monsters (1,500,000 MAU and 330,000 DAU).
Battle Pirates casts players in the role of a commander of a new island base on a dystopian future waterlogged Earth. Through building and upgrading their base, researching new technologies and battling opponents — both AI- and human-controlled — the player will grow in strength and demonstrate their supremacy to others. The game doesn’t make it immediately clear at the outset whether there is an eventual “goal” to the game, but most players seem to be satisfied to simply continue growing in strength indefinitely, enjoying new content as it is added by the developer.
The game unfolds in two distinct components. The base-building aspect sees players with a limited amount of room to construct buildings and upgrade them to make them more efficient. All buildings have a specific special function — resource-gathering buildings must be emptied every so often to add oil, metal, energy and zynthium to the player’s reserves, “lab” buildings allow for the researching of new technologies, shipyards allow for the construction of fleets and docks allow the player to send their ships out on missions. Building defensive structures around the perimeter of the base is also a must if the player wants to remain safe from other human opponents — though like most games of this type, a week-long “grace period” allows players to enjoy the game without risk of attack, at least until they choose to attack a human opponent!
Upon sending a fleet out on a mission, the player is presented with a world map showing the location of their base, surrounding players and AI-controlled enemy fleets. Navigating a fleet to a specific location is a simple matter of clicking on their destination and, if the destination is an enemy fleet or base, choosing whether or not to attack. Multiple renamable fleets may be managed simultaneously, and if all of them run into danger at the same time, battles are resolved one at a time.
Upon entering battle, the player is presented with a waterlogged arena, with the two fleets facing off against each other from opposite sides. Players are able to give direct commands to individual ships if, for example, certain vessels are particularly effective against a specific enemy. It is also possible to leave the battle to resolve itself, however, and early in the game this is just as valid an approach as micromanaging the fleet. As the player researches technologies and builds ships with more specialist equipment, however, micromanagement becomes more important.
With Battle Pirates, Kixeye has ably demonstrated that they “get” what the hardcore player wants. The gameplay is simple to understand and easy to get into, yet offers considerable depth for those willing to invest time and effort (and not necessarily money) into the experience. The presentation is highly polished and reminiscent of a standalone PC game — albeit perhaps one from the early ’00s rather than a contemporary title. And, perhaps most importantly, the game does not treat the player in a patronizing or condescending manner. A brief tutorial introduces players to the game’s core concepts in a logical manner, then a series of well-structured objectives reward the player for building their strength up in an organized fashion. As the game progresses, the player gains more and more options to handle various situations, but by this point the objectives will have given them the confidence and the unlocked abilities to try different things.
There are a few little niggles here and there, though. For example, there seems to be something of an inconsistency in terms of estimating enemy strength on the world map. What claims to be a level 5 fleet on the map sometimes turns out to be a level 8 fleet when the battle screen comes up — and yet the player’s level 4 fleet (nothing to do with the player’s experience level, which was 7 in this example) apparently has no difficulty whatsoever in defeating such an opponent. This aspect of the game would benefit from better explanation through the game’s tutorials or objectives, but in the grand scheme of things doesn’t significantly impact the enjoyment factor of the title.
Overall, Battle Pirates is enjoying some well-deserved success. It’s a highly-polished game with a well thought-out massively multiplayer component, a firm understanding of what makes a good (if relatively simple) strategy game and an excellent, well-paced sense of structure and progression. It has strong potential for monetization and yet does not bug the player to spend money if they do not wish to, meaning it can be enjoyed by both paying and non-paying players without it feeling like a “pay to win” scenario — for the most part, paying simply allows for quicker progression, building and researching rather than providing significant gameplay advantages. So long as Kixeye continues to support the game with regular updates and fixes, Battle Pirates looks set to rule the waves for a good long while yet.
Fellow “hardcore” Facebook game developers could learn a great deal from this excellent, highly-polished title.