Virtual currency and item sales have numerous detractors, but James "believe[s] that the virtual currency and associated 'item' sales model is the future model for the online entertainment industry," primarily because "it provides the commercial relationship that people will expect with a virtual world; it's another country with a currency that can be exchanged. Developers will make money by renting or selling real estate, items, taking a rake on the exchange, etc." As for his own players, he says "the Pirates have not moved a lot between Doubloons and Subscriptions. Certainly some have, but the subscription and Doubloon oceans are separate servers, so people tend to stick where they got comfortable."
Three Rings' latest release, Bang! Howdy, also embraces the micropayment model, but they weren't just trying to make a sequel to Puzzle Pirates. It stemmed from "a number of ideas for a sequel to PP - code-named SOY for 'Son of YoHoHo' - but Michael was keen to not do another full MMOG right away. ... Instead, we decided to take a stab at Bang! - a Korean-style 'casual' game - and develop our experience with 3-D and the pay-for-item model. Bang!'s actual design emerged from Mike's experiments with strategy game designs that avoid the 'build up for 30 minutes, battle for five, then wait 30 minutes to be crushed' syndrome of most RTS games. The theme fell out of a group brainstorm; we couldn't resist steampunk cowboy robots."
Indeed, Three Rings' games always have that sort of whimsical element to them. Puzzle Pirates' swear filters turn obscenities into hilarious sailor slang. James was too coy to lurch into windy vision statements when I asked what makes a Three Rings game, saying, "Hah! We're just a bunch of dorks. I'm not sure that I'd care to put a label on what makes a Triple-O game, but you will definitely see some different things from us. We've only made two so far, after all. Maybe the next one will be very, very gray and serious." I'm not too sure about that, though, especially after he adds, "We'll get the Ministry of Silly Walks right on it."
In future games, they'd like to "make spaces that actively facilitate people reaching full potential. This has creative, spiritual, intellectual and sensual aspects," though before he reaches full-blown Visionary, he heads back to Earth and adds, "That said, mostly, I'd like to make some fun games. I think our future leisure-lover will have a giant brain the size of a planet; if you can make something fun for them, you're rocking all of the above." He was tight-lipped about how they planned to do that, but would say 2007 "should be an interesting year." Some weeks after we spoke, Three Rings announced Whirled, which may just challenge Second Life for the player-created content throne.
They've also been busy working on free software. There are several free programs on the company site for enterprising programmers to take advantage of, and they count contributions to FreeBSD and MySQL among their accomplishments. On top of that, they also run the Game Gardens program, where they offer free tools and hosting to a community of budding game developers. "Game Gardens actually emerged from our practice of having potential engineering hires devise a 'challenge' game," which Three Rings pays for if they hire the person or not, "using our tools. We wanted somewhere to put them."