How do you bring the Golden Age of Pirates to a videogame in a way that’s both accurate and enjoyable? That question is at the heart of Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, which – along with every previous Assassin’s Creed – strives to strike that balance between historical accuracy and fun gameplay. To answer this very big question, we had a lively chat with Black Flag’s Lead Writer Darby McDevitt and independent weapons historian Mike Loades (Weapon Master) about finding the perfect mix of verity and very fun. As a group, we dug into everything from the ship designs to the 18th century Caribbean world to the downright dirty fighting that pirates were such fans of. What followed was an energetic, informative – and thoroughly entertaining – conversation…
Darby McDevitt At the very beginning we did a lot of research and we brought in Mike and we talked to a man named Colin Woodard – a pirate expert – and we just started making this big mass of data. Who are the people? What are the weapons like? How do you sail a ship? I try to write a story that is as historically accurate as possible. I sometimes felt like I would be the standard bearer for historical accuracy and the designers would be trying to tear down those walls for better gameplay.
For example, how long would a ship like this take to get all the sails down and get it going from a completely moored position?
‘No one on Earth is going to play a game where you take an hour to unfurl the sails and start going’
Mike Loades That depends on both wind and sea conditions. It’s going to vary due to that, and it’s also going to vary due to the size of the crew. It’s probably around an hour.
Darby Yeah, I would say it’s between one and four hours if you have a massive ship and a small crew. Obviously no one on Earth is going to play a game where you take an hour to unfurl the sails and start going. In our game it’s full sail, half sail and no sail – and it’s almost instantaneous. That’s just one of many, many things. Mike actually told us when we showed him [early] gameplay, Oh you’d never have cannons on the top deck because it’s too top-heavy.
Mike Your ship would sink. That was the first thing I saw. They had all their big guns on the top because it looked very cool on the top, but of course it would be very top-heavy. Also, the top deck is the sailing deck. It’s just for sailing. The cannons would be trip hazards.
Darby We argued back and forth about that for about a month, but the designers won that argument because they want you to see just how far you’re progressing. You start out with only three or four guns on each side and you can upgrade to around 20 guns on each side, or something like that. So they wanted the sense of progression. Also, if you notice in demos when the camera swings toward one part of the ship, the weapons it’s facing will highlight. If you fire, those highlighted guns are the ones going off and if you swing the camera again you’ll switch your weapons. We needed that indicator of what weapon you had selected and what side you were aiming from.
The Caribbean World
Darby If you look at Cuba and the Antillean islands and South America and the Yucatan it creates this nice little arena. Our world designer immediately saw that and was like, That’s beautiful. That’ll be the boundaries of our world. And I go, The problem is that the Bahamas was where all the pirates lived and that’s above Cuba. So I ruined their little dream arena for sailing around in this area. Now Cuba is smack in the center and you can sail around it. That was one of the major things that came out of research and I was like, Nope. Pirates lived in Nassau so we’ve got to do Nassau.
Mike And that’s something that, again, I was immediately impressed with. You showed me mockups of Nassau and Havana and it was colorful and bright and gaudy, as it should be! This was a place of opulence. That’s why the pirates were there! This was all the gold and silver from the New World on its way to the Old World. This was an opulent place and it was newly built. New paint doesn’t look faded. That’s a silly Hollywood thing – creating false worlds in black and white and gray. This is vivid and sparkling and Spanish and Caribbean and real!
Darby The typical cliché is that when you’re making a pirate game, pirates are the center and somehow the entire world looks like it’s run by pirates. So you have skulls hanging everywhere and bones on everything. But no, this is Havana. It was a place of merchants and sailors and farmers and people just living there. Pirates were just a small part of this whole ecosystem. It was real and vibrant and colorful and people lived there and pirates just happened to get in there.
Mike It is a true characteristic of pirates that they are bristling with weapons. They need lots of different weapons to do lots of different things.
Darby What’s funny is when we first revealed Edward and he had four guns, some comments on the fan sites were like, Man, they’re just going overboard. There were two guns. Now there are four. They thought we were just incrementing for the hell of it.
Mike The extra guns were necessary. They are one-shot weapons. If you can find enough places to put them, throw six in there! Pirates needed lots and lots of weapons. There is only one rule in real combat: Win. If I knee you in the nose, am I fighting dirty or am I winning? Is punching you in the nose that much better? As a society, we have cultural ways of thinking about that and it’s all about context. In the Golden Age of Piracy there was a Scottish fencing master named Donald McBane who published a book called The Expert Swordsman and in it he says: If you’re fighting a duel, make the other guy take his coat off because he’s probably got dirt in his pockets that he’s going to throw in your face.
‘There is only
one rule in
It’s not just a school playground trick. That’s what grownups really did in fights. They had dirt in their pockets and they’d throw it in your face. If you’re on a wooden sailing ship, there are going to be sand buckets all over the place in the event of a fire. So if you have six people coming after you, yeah, you throw some sand in their faces. Fight to win. All around you you’ve got belaying pins that can be used as cudgels or they can be thrown or they can be used as levers to break an arm. Remember, pirates don’t necessarily want to kill. They may want to take you prisoner. They may even need you to sail your own ship into a harbor. Pirates just need you to answer one very important question, which is: Where is the bloody treasure?