The Friday Game: Pirate Galaxy

The Friday Game: Pirate Galaxy

Format: Java
Developer: Splitscreen Studios

One of the central fixations of this year’s Develop conference, held in Brighton earlier this week, is what will happen when the kind of experiences offered in the emerging free-to-play games market start to regularly rival those provided by their more traditional counterparts. In other words, who will manage to thrive in these strange new waters, and who will be swiftly dragged below and ground against the rocks? Pirate Galaxy, a stripped-down science fiction MMO from German developer Splitscreen Studios was one of the best examples of this lurking threat available: a game that not only illustrates the staggering leaps free titles have made in the last few years, but also hints at a few of the ways in which the free-to-play financial model can in turn impact the fundamental design of games.

Pirate Galaxy certainly looks like few other free titles, filled with hundreds of gleaming 3D spaceships exploring glossy alien worlds, and interacting with scores of other players against a backdrop of beautiful peachy nebulae – a cosmos apparently coloured following close scrutiny of your average frappucino. Certainly, as free-to-play MMOs go, there are other far more elaborate strains available, but Pirate Galaxy’s built to run with only the tiniest of downloads, and – even if it is currently limited to the PC – designed to work on as many machines as possible.

But that’s just one aspect of a complex relationship with convenience that has defined how the game works. And that’s because, while Pirate Galaxy is free, it doesn’t necessarily have to be, virtual asset purchasing allowing players to gain a range of perks through micro-transactions. None of these additions fundamentally alters the player’s experience – in fact, everything found in the store can also be bought using currency generated within the game – but many of them appeal to space pirates looking to save a little time. And in order to make people want them, beneath the accessible play mechanics and easy distribution, Pirate Galaxy has had a certain amount of inconvenience built in on a fundamental level.

It’s nothing major. Examples include trips between planets that enforce a short period of inactive travelling (Splitscreen has toyed with inserting ads in at this point – digital billboards to view as you criss-cross the virtual universe), and in-game currency that takes a fair amount of effort, rather than skill, to nip about and collect. Ultimately, the system is entirely cyclical: investing money saves time, while investing time saves money.

It’s an elegant piece of balancing, and Splitscreen has been unusually careful in how it’s approached this aspect of the game. Pirate Galaxy is by no means hobbled to the non-paying player – it needs to encourage non-payers, in fact, to populate its universe for the enjoyment of the crucial minority who will spend money upgrading ships and experience points – and however people choose to play, they’ll discover a thoughtful and fairly elaborate game behind the brief loading screen, quests flinging you across the surface of distant worlds, capture the flag playgrounds available on bespoke planets, and orbital space providing a welcome mingling zone for the more sociable cosmonauts.

Pirate Galaxy doesn’t struggle to offer a vision of the distant future that players will enjoy exploring, then, but its vision of the present is perhaps the more interesting aspect. Splitscreen’s game isn’t quite what you’d be happy with from a retail purchase just yet, but it’s the care and cleverness with which it’s been constructed, not just the vivid starscapes and wealth of options, that could be making more traditional designers pay attention.