This article was prepared during the development of the Corsairs Legacy pirate life simulator game in order to popularize the marine theme in general and games about pirates in particular. You can follow the project news on our website, YouTube channel, and Telegram.
Volodymyr Bondarenko, the head of the Ukrainian Mauris studio, is interviewing Mikhail, the key developer of the game Sea Dogs: To Each His Own, representing BlackMark Studio. The interview is divided into two parts.
Volodymyr: Mikhail, hello!
Mikhail: Hello, Volodymyr!
Volodymyr: Please tell us the story of BlackMark Studio.
Mikhail: The story is quite old. This was around April 2008. It all started with the corsair-themed forum seaward.ru, where I met a girl, Ira. At first, she and I wrote off just about the game, and then, after the release of the Age of Pirates 2: City of Abandoned Ships, Akella offered scripts to amateur teams to do something interesting, Ira and I decided to try to cooperate and applied together. From that moment, our studio was born.
Volodymyr: Do you know how many teams applied, what was the result, and how many of them received a positive response?
Mikhail: I don't know the number of teams, but there were quite a few of them. Two more teams except us received the scripts.
Volodymyr: So, only you from the three teams reached the release?
Mikhail: It turns out that yes, only us.
Volodymyr: According to a story I read on corsairs-harbour.ru, you registered a trademark and LLC before meeting Akella, and after that, in 2010, you went to negotiate with them about joint work. Tell me how it was.
Mikhail: I registered an LLC just for this game, as it was necessary to conclude an agreement. It was like this: we worked, released various patches, and gradually prepared to make the game. Then we made a design document and in the summer of 2010, we sent it to Akella. And we received a response in which they showed their interest and invited us to negotiations. There we agreed on certain things, and I returned and registered the company.
Volodymyr: Can you tell us what things you agreed on?
Mikhail: Yes. First, we showed and told what we were going to do. We wanted to create two characters at once, but we were offered to start with one for now. We agreed that we are finishing, and they will release the game if everything is fine. There was no talk about Steam back then. They gave us Eduard Zaitsev to help us. And then, in the process, a person who was responsible for us suggested that we launch on Steam. It was 2012, about six months before the release. Since none of us knew anything about Steam, it took us a little time to study this issue.
Volodymyr: As far as I understood from an interview with Eduard Zaitsev, in 2008 he stopped working with Akella and then collaborated with other companies. How did it happen that in 2011 he was making builds and helped you?
Mikhail: Well, it was not 2011, but 2010 or 2009. Whether he worked with Akella then or not, I didn’t know, maybe he was asked to or something like this. Then he was still working on the Sea Dogs 4, maybe Akella sent him to us. He was just helping and many thanks to him for that.
Volodymyr: At the beginning of 2012, when there was no Steam yet, and you continued to work on the game, did you do it at your own expense or at the expense of Akella? And what was your release plan?
Mikhail: We did it at our own expense. It was even spelled out in the ToR. But we agreed that if the game starts, then Akella will compensate me with royalties for my expenses.
Volodymyr: Can you tell us about the financial conditions that you agreed with Akella?
Mikhail: According to the non-disclosure agreement, I can't tell you the details. Well, everything is standard there: they sell the game, we get some kind of royalty, an agreement on the alienation of copyright.
Volodymyr: I wonder how much the development of Sea Dogs: To Each His Own cost? Did you consider how much money was spent on development?
Mikhail: In fact, I never really considered it and didn’t even figure it out. The fact is that people did the biggest part of the work with enthusiasm, and no one asked for money. We did the work together and decided that if something came of it, we would share the profit equally.
Volodymyr: Was the commercial product successful?
Mikhail: Probably not. In fact, more moral satisfaction. I can’t tell you the numbers, but you can’t live on them, especially if you divide by 7 people. At the moment, this cannot be turned into a job.
Volodymyr: What do you do full time? What is your main source of income?
Mikhail: I do woodworking full time: we make furniture, we build houses. And for the last 17 years, this has brought me the main income, from which, to be honest, I entered the game.
Volodymyr: What are your future plans regarding Sea Dogs: To Each His Own? I saw that you had a big update.
Mikhail: Yes, we released for the second time. The time has changed a little, it has become easier to work with the engine because new talented guys have appeared. We have a lot of plans. If from the nearest, then this is a patch that has been released so far in a beta test. We also wanted to add private messages, local movement without access to the global map, and many other things. Well, these and other things need to be tested. Now we are already developing another character Diego, which we have been promising for a long time. Well, there are many other things that I won’t tell you about since soon there will be announcements on Steam and our forum.
Volodymyr: When do you plan to release Diego on Steam?
Mikhail: This year, we probably won’t have time, I think, next year.
Volodymyr: When they talk about "Sea Dogs: To Each His Own", the first synonym that is usually used is "hardcore". And I know that the very first version was even tougher than the current one. And the very first patch made the low difficulty levels of the game easier. Please tell us why such a strategic decision was made on the game, do you consider the game hardcore as game developers, and why did you do it?
Mikhail: Yes, the game is hardcore, of course. It is heavier than the Age of Pirates 2: City of Abandoned Ships. It is based on our own patch 1.3.2 and the game hasn't gone further from the complexity that was in this patch. That is, we didn’t wind it up anymore and even “loosened the tights” in some places. We didn't have a lot of experience with a big community as we do now on Steam. On our 1.2.3 patches, the guys played with pleasure. Some believe that the CAS has always been 1.3.2. There are people, old-timers who still use the “naked” CAS. That is, the difficulty for us was normal. After we released it on Steam, we got feedback from the youth that everything is complicated and incomprehensible, and the entry barrier is high. From the start, we had a default third level (there were 5 of them all). We cut it down to the second, and the second and first levels dropped quite a lot. We did not touch the upper three levels, but the lower 2 were made much easier. A little later, a feasible tutorial was added on the island of Martinique. We have added a character who leads you by the hand, shows you where the port is, where the tavern is, and so on. Patch 1.7.3 is planned to be finished off again by feedback.
Volodymyr: On Steam, the rating of the game is “mostly positive”, but all the latest reviews are “mix”. Therefore, it turns out that all the last people who bought the game, on average, rated it lower than the users who installed it earlier. Do you think this is due to the fact that the engine is already a bit outdated, or is it due to some bad patches?
Mikhail: I have been watching Steam for a long time, since the release of the game. From the start, we had an estimate of 80%, and today it has dropped to somewhere around 74%. What is shown for the last month is very shaky information, because due to a small community, any review carries a lot of weight. If we had updates every month, as Naval Action has, then we could better see the statistics, and how users react. Our last updates came out a long time ago, so it's better to look at the total percentage. Now it's 74 - not ideal, but acceptable.
Volodymyr: I just saw that over the past 30 days the game has been rated by 21 users and has a rating of 66%. This is really not representative data. The question is that 21 users still rated it. If these users wrote a review, then it counts as 1 in 50 installs per review. So, we can assume that over the past month 1000 new users came to the game. Is there really such an increase in players in the game now?
Mikhail: I don't know exactly. Although I have a developer account on Steam, it is limited, and I don’t see such statistics. These statistics are handled by the publisher Akella.
Volodymyr: I wonder if a new audience is coming or people who played before are playing?
Mikhail: Little by little they come. The feedback shows that young people or players who have entered just now are coming. They are few, but they exist. And this is very good because our Sea Dogs community is rejuvenating.
Volodymyr: An estimate of 74% or 80% is a good estimate. It turns out that the hardcore component did not scare the players much. Was it an old audience that already knew the product and therefore gave high scores? Or could a young audience also? They come in, play, and are okay?
Mikhail: It's different. Since the user's age is not written in the reviews, in fact, according to the description, one can only approximately guess how old he is. Some young people have played 5000 hours, there are those with several hundred hours. And there are even those who played for 14 hours, achieved nothing, and left, a review like “the game is bad”. Well, unfortunately, it happens that you can't please everyone.
Volodymyr: I agree. You mentioned Naval Action and said they have updates released every month. Tell us, what you think about Naval Action? It is a game on a similar theme, similar in logic, but is considered more aimed specifically at the realism of sailing battles. Do you consider it realistic? Have you played it? And, comparing the fights, Naval Action with the fights in “To Each His Own”, how would you rate them?
Mikhail: I haven't played it, I've only seen it on Steam. But many of my friends praise it very much about realism. As far as I know, and you can see it on Steam, Naval Action has a lot of extra paid content. They made a new ship model and immediately put it on sale, and this happens quite often. And the feedback shows that many users are dissatisfied because it is expensive. But, in fact, the picture is really beautiful, the guys are doing a good job with Unity. I played another game of theirs — This Land Is My Land. It's quite beautiful there too.
Volodymyr: I know that Sea Dogs: To Each His Own came out first in the Russian version, and after that, you finalized the English version. Why did it happen?
Mikhail: Because we are amateurs and we did it in Russian. But we had a clause in the contract that, at the request of the publisher, we need to adapt the game into 5 main languages. And after we had already sold on Steam for a couple of years, around 2014 Akella offered us to adapt the game to English. However, they translated it, then gave it to us, and we would adapt it all into the game. Everything turned out, of course, not perfectly, because there was no native speaker among us, but there were people who were well versed in it. The fact is that the translation was terrible, and we turned to our good friend, who beautifully translated everything. Well, at this level we tried to do it. If we came out in two languages at once, it would certainly be more fun, but we simply would not have pulled it physically.
Volodymyr: We in the CIS community have not yet developed a culture that if a game is made, then you need to buy it. Most often users try to download via torrents. It is interesting to know how it was with the Sea Dogs: To Each His Own, and does the English-speaking audience make up the bulk of the payments that came a year or two later?
Mikhail: Yes, it is. As soon as we came out, the game was hacked after 12 hours. And in the first week, there were about 17,000 downloads on torrents, and during this time we sold about 2,000 copies. But when the English release came out, yes, there was a lot more money and purchases there. Foreigners are much more accurate and honest in this regard. I even remember that at the time of 2015, when the English translation was being prepared, sales in the CIS were generally close to zero.
Volodymyr: And now, who is buying now?
Mikhail: I don’t even know, I haven’t looked in for a long time and didn’t recognize it. But in fact, somehow everything is bought in waves. The game itself is rarely bought, more often a surge in sales occurs when some add-ons come out. We have a very limited player base, and therefore the main sales hit during the first two months at first, and also after the English release in 2015, and then everything is quiet.
Volodymyr: And how do you translate new DLCs now, since then Akella did not help very well and you translated everything yourself?
Mikhail: Akella helped. In fact, they paid for everything, and it was not a little sum, since we had a lot of text content. Well, now we also translate: we compose the text, give it to our good translator, and Akella pays him for it.
Volodymyr: Do you know anything about New Horizons? And if you know, tell us how you like this project.
Mikhail: I know about the project, but I haven't played it either. I actually played a very limited number of pirate games. That is, I went through the entire standard series of Corsairs, but from the unofficial add-ons, I played only the “Sea Legend is Back”. Firstly, I don’t have much time, and secondly, I protect myself a little from this, because I will play, come up with something similar, and then people will tell me that I stole it. I know about New Horizons that they have been making them for a very long time, that there are a lot of interesting things there, and that they were going to “move” to Unity, but they slowed down recently.
Volodymyr: They started with Unity. In 2016, they made the very basis, but everything stalled because of the license. They wanted to make and push it open source, however, Unity is licensed. Therefore, they had to abandon this project and continue with the engine they were working on.
Mikhail: And when will the release finally be?
Volodymyr: They will not make a full release. In 2007 they released a nice build that already had a lot of changes. And since that time, they have just slowly added new features.
Mikhail: I will definitely find time when I finish my work and replay everything I wanted.
Volodymyr: You know, from school I thought that someday I would set aside a week for myself to play Sea Dogs, so I’ll just sit down and play for a week. But in 15 years, that moment has never come. For some reason, I think you might be the same.
Mikhail: For now. But if you need it, it will definitely come.
Volodymyr: Do you know about the MaelStrom engine, which was made by people from PiratesAhoy! who make New Horizons? If you've heard of this engine, what do you think of it?
Mikhail: Yes, I heard of course. I know it's a well-finished Strom. The guys who worked on it are great fellows because a lot of program code has been rewritten there and a huge amount of work has been done. We are moving in the same direction. We're a little behind because we didn't have the resources to do it at first, but we're following them. Moreover, on patch 1.7.3 there are already some of these things.
Volodymyr: Didn't you also just think to “move” to MaelStrom and use the guys' work?
Mikhail: Everything is quite complicated there. The publisher needs to somehow negotiate with those who made it. I don't know how things are with copyrights: may or may not they sell this engine. Therefore, I did not think to “move” to it.
Volodymyr: How long do you think it will take to move to MaelStrom?
Mikhail: It's hard to say, I'm not a programmer. I'm more of a producer. In the credits, I'm the head of the studio.
Volodymyr: Have you been involved in anything other than organizational issues in the development of Sea Dogs: To Each His Own? Did you have any piece that you were responsible for and where you can see your author's work?
Mikhail: I did have. I wrote some quests. And since we had everything together, I oversaw more org. questions. Together with Denis, we made Kaleuche. Everywhere there is a little bit of my work. I throw ideas, I am engaged in communications, and I am looking for people. Our studio began with me “surfing” the forums and looking for people who could be useful to us for work.
Volodymyr: In the last two interviews, we talked about similar projects: Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales and The Story of a Pirate, where, in fact, there were ideologists. I will assume that you are the ideologist of the creation of the game. Please tell me if you had a problem with staff turnover and were there moments when you were completely on your own, as happened specifically in these two addons, or did you still have some kind of stable team with which you worked throughout the years?
Mikhail: Of course, there was always a turnover, sometimes it was more, sometimes it was less. There were periods when there was a team, but there was no work as such. The year 2015-2016 was weak. But initially, when Ira and I started, we had one more girl on the team and a few guys. But, when we decided not to make a female character, the girls said that they had nothing to do here and left. And then we have finally formed a team with which we have worked for many years and continue to work.
Volodymyr: That is, the backbone of the studio was formed in 2009-2010, and for 12 years now it has been actively moving along with the product and, in fact, remains the main driving force.
Mikhail: Actually, yes. There are some moments of burnout when someone takes a break or rest, then comes back and is ready to work again. We don’t have an office and there are no salaries as such, so everyone works as much as they can afford.
Volodymyr: Have you played Corsairs Ship Pack? Do you know about this project and what do you think about it?
Mikhail: Traditionally, I didn't play. Of course, I heard about the project and saw the last interview. There are a lot of ships there, such a mix of different mods, plus their own twists. It's hard to imagine more than a hundred ships in the Caribbean, but since I haven't played, I can't say anything.
Volodymyr: Why do you need to continue playing Sea Dogs: To Each His Own, in 2021, and what is the future of the project?
Mikhail: Actually, Sea Dogs: To Each His Own, is not necessary for everyone to play. If you like it, play it. But there are many alternative games about Sea Dogs on the same engines. For example, Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales, Corsairs Ship Pack, City of Abandoned Ships, and Sid Meier's Pirates. The same Black Flag ... I would not call it a game about pirates, although there are ships there. Tempest, on the other hand, is more suitable for mobile, meaning everything is quite easy there and you don’t need to strain, but it is also far from the corsair series.
Volodymyr: You mentioned “Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales”. We spoke with the author of the addon, and he said that Akella was considering the possibility of making an official release with them. Do you know anything about it and how it was: considered between you and them, or did they want to release two games in parallel?
Mikhail: Actually, I don't know, because they didn't tell us anything.
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