Puzzle Pirates "started with pirates," James says. "I was invited to a pirate party, and it was ridiculously fun. Everyone knew what to say and the outfits were awesome. I knew I had to make a pirate MMOG, to [call it] Yohoho!, but I was lacking the core game mechanic. You had to sail around on a ship together as a crew, and everyone had to be doing stuff that wasn't whacking a monster ... but I wasn't going to have a clickfest like bad MMOG crafting - click the wheel, drag the slider, click the ... Oh, God.
"Then, Bejeweled shipped, and my girlfriend at the time, Brooke Pannell, and I got addicted. She deserves a credit on Puzzle Pirates for beating me at Super Puzzle Fighter at the dime arcade on our third date." On one particular day, "I left her playing on the laptop in bed, and came back five hours later. She was still playing. The pieces fell together; bling bling! Puzzle games had a flow of intensely fun concentration but left you feel[ing] like you'd wasted hours. MMOGs had the long-term achievement and social dynamics but lacked a fun core game mechanic." Adding the pirate aspect gave it a "strong accessible theme," which seemed like sure success.
With the idea and mechanics nailed down, they started building the game itself. "Puzzle Pirates was built by six people: three engineers, two artists and me. It took around 18 months to get to closed alpha testing." Alpha testing took them from an online population of 10 up to 100 over nine months, and during beta, that climbed to 1,000 simultaneous players. "We probably could have started charging with a mid-alpha version," James says, "but we were building a subscription game, so we felt that we had to get up over the $10/month 'cliff.'"
During that development time, he says they were "funded by Michael and I and a few friends and family. Nobody would have funded us back in 2001/2002; angels, publishers, VCs, nobody. Things are different now, kids! Because of this relative financial freedom, and the lack of a fiasco-oriented external factor" - their motto during this time was "Nobody can *@!# this up but us" - "we were able to take our time and have a very smooth development cycle and launch. We did work very hard, though, especially Michael, who deserves (another) prize."
The launch and success of Puzzle Pirates servers didn't keep Three Rings from trying new things. They've been one of the few developers to make a successful go of the micropayment model. On some Puzzle Pirates servers, Three Rings sells Doubloons for in-game items in lieu of charging a subscription fee. "We wanted a new model for Puzzle Pirates that would have an easier conversion path than a $10 a month commitment," James says, adding that they'd considered several different options, "but we very much wanted an indefinite 'Free to Play' offering. Around the end of 2004, we settled on the Doubloons model we have now."
Overall, it has "worked very well. Over two-thirds of our revenues are from Doubloons. That said, we have a lot more players on the Doubloon servers, and overall revenues per new user are comparable. Revenue per individual customer is much higher, because Doubloons allow a smaller group of well-endowed players to subsidize the play experience of the vast majority of free players. This is facilitated by our support for transactions between the attention/time currency - Pieces of Eight - and the Doubloons (hard currency)."