Published on January 6th, 2010 | by prime1
Bounty Bay Online – Feature
So, Whitley Bay Online. What’s all about it then? Simply put, it’s a multiplayer world of high adventure set against a backdrop of northern England poverty and a declining steel mill industry. Level your combat skills by fighting hordes of ‘stags’ and ‘hens’, explore ancient ruins such as the fabled Am’usement Al-ar’cades and the Southern Parade, encounter local heroes, like that drug dealer off Byker Grove and the guitarist from Duran Duran, or team up with fellow Whitlies to form a ‘local council action group’ (the game’s version of guilds) and brave the terrifying instanced dungeons of North Tyneside or the trading hub of the Park View Shopping Center (not all features available, M&S Food Hall to follow in next spring’s expansion pack, Back to the Bay).
Actually, that all sounds vaguely more entertaining than the thought of embracing yet another of the seemingly countless throng of free-to-play Asian MMOs that try to set up a foothold in the West, but Bounty Bay Online is one of the surprising packages that has managed to rise above its negative-press heritage and not only establish that foothold, but capture a sizable audience and convert itself to Western gaming ideology with more than a passing degree of success.
Originally starting out life in 2007 as Voyage Century Online, BBO told of pirates, merchants and explorers in the 17th century, sailing the seven seas, fighting, trading, leveling, grinding and crafting plenty of gear to sell to other sea-going merchants.
What set it apart from other Asian Internet café-friendly grindfests of the time was the whole sea-going aspect. While most of the online titles in the Eastern region concerned themselves with angels, Elves and/or demons going on mass ret-killing sprees before fighting over castles, VCO opted for a slightly slower-paced, naval tactics-inspired combat system, with grand galleons bristling with cannons going at it on the high seas (coupled with a fair amount of land-based animal and monster killing for good measure). But crucially, there was as much to be gained from exploring and trading journeys as buckling swashes, and it was this aspect that made the boys and girls over at Frogster (an American/German outfit adept at providing ‘casual’ MMOs to Western markets) think there was good reason to run it through the translate-o-tron and repackage it for a European/US release under the new name Bounty Bay Online later that year. Coupled with the timely popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean films and buoyed by the news of a rival pirate game (Pirates of the Burning Sea from SOE) due out at the same time confirming a perceived marketplace interest in the subject matter, BBO was unleashed on the West and promptly vanished from view due to it not being World of Warcraft.
Nonetheless, it persisted, built a small but loyal following, saw the SOE rival run aground in shallow water, and then took the bold decision to go free-to-play in April 2008 (relying on microtransactions for high-powered goods for an income). This seems to have the desired effect as the difference in population numbers when logging on today as opposed to in the months after the Western launch is significant (you can’t move in Seville for player-run ‘shops’).
And development is still going strong, the latest free expansion (Beyond the Horizon) expanding the gameworld beyond the Atlantic and Mediterranean shores, bringing in most of South America to explore, adding in social features such as weddings (seriously), refining the presentation and interface a little and, most importantly, completely revamping the whole new player experience in line with the five new character classes being introduced.
This is significant, as the key stumbling block for anyone trying to get into the game prior to this was the fact that it couldn’t have been more incomprehensible if it had been left in the native Chinese language. Previously, new players were simply thrown into a deep end to rival Davy Jones’Locker (yarr!) and expected to just figure it out. Now there’s a storyline’ quest mode that takes you through pretty much the entire game, covering every aspect, introducing the world bit by bit, and making everything a damn sight more attractive.
It’s not perfect. There’s still a fair amount of ‘amusing’ mistranslations on show, there’s a degree of polish to things that’s still missing (the most significant being one part of the quest that tells you to go to Seville to speak to someone when it in fact means Stockholm). Luckily, there’s a vastly increased audience running around now, which means help is never hard to find, be it in-game or on the forums.
And there’s more to come. Over in Asia, Voyage Century Online has just announced a new expansion pack, bringing Atlantis into the fold (oh yes, BBO gave up its pretense at realism a long time ago), which means Bounty Bay Online will no doubt see it later in 2010, ensuring a lifespan that is set to continue for a good while yet.