Friday, September 23, 2016

Sunken Tresure

"Space pirates!  Brutal! Merciless!  Coming to a theater near you...rated R."

- Wak, Explorers (1985)

Obscure movie quotes aside, I think it's kind of funny how little these cannon fodder enemies of video games have in common with their nautical forebearers.  Off the top of my head, Space Run, Master of Orion, Stardrive, Stellaris, Infinite Space, and most recently Halcyon 6 are just a few examples of video games that all have space pirates integrated into the experience...and yet they feel so comically shallow they might as well not be there at all.

You see...historically actual pirates (not the kind you find on torrent sites) were really only in it for the money.  Just like any other profit deal, it's all about maximizing the return on investment.  Ships and the mercenaries that crew them cost money so there needs to be a lot of easy-to-get plunder out there along with a bunch of capable and unscrupulous individuals looking for short-term employment.  In the case of Caribbean piracy, it got as big as it did in large part due to the support of various Continental powers.  Often referred to as "privateers," these men (and even a few women) existed through sponsorship from powerful nations trying to disrupt the colonial trade routes of rivals without diverting valuable military assets away from places closer to home.

Of course all the games I've mentioned earlier have none of this.  There are no pirate-friendly nations, nor is there any way to turn pirates into privateers.  To me, it really doesn't make sense.  Where are the pirates supposed to sell their stolen goods if there are no friendly ports?  Some games float the idea of a pirate base, but this doesn't make sense either unless there is some kind of thriving black market...which brings me to another big problem, logistics.

Transporting commodities from one place to another during the age of sail wasn't easy.  Move that kind of situation to space and you amplify the difficulties a thousandfold.  Even if you want to hand wave most of the problems with science fiction gadgetry there's still the question of the value of the cargo.  In the Americas it was largely gold and silver, while in the Far East silk and spice were what made piracy economically viable.  However, in Stellaris, Master of Orion and Stardrive (three games that emphasize economics) the net financial losses from pirate raids typically doesn't come anywhere near the value of the ships used, let alone the maintenance costs involved.  Then there are risks to consider...which brings me to the biggest question of space piracy, motivation.

Any pirate captain that doesn't turn a profit doesn't stay captain for long.  Surprising as it might sound piracy is, was, and has always been a democratic enterprise with the elected leader being the person who gets the best results (i.e. lots of booty for the least amount of effort).  In the case of video games though that almost never rings true.  Space pirates are suicidally aggressive and seem to have more in common with petty dictatorships than cunning profiteers.  I get the reasoning here.  Game developers want to give players an easy challenge early on so they throw a few mook units at the player to squash without consequences or repercussions.  It can be useful as a combat tutorial, but once the player has got the basics down space pirates become a nuisance at best, and at worst a wasted opportunity for a more satisfying game.

In a sci-fi setting a game developer can do pretty much whatever they want, which is why I don't understand the desire to take an interesting concept and whittle it down to a bland stereotype.  Come on game developers inject some life and color into this trope!  At the very least it will deepen and enrich the gaming as a whole.     

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