02 Jul


Shortly after designing and programming F-15 Strike Eagle and Silent Service, the two huge hits that made MicroProse’s reputation as the world’s premier maker of military simulations, Sid Meier took a rare vacation to the Caribbean. Accompanying him was his new girlfriend, whom he had met after his business partner Wild Bill Stealey hired her as one of MicroProse’s first employees. A few days after they left, she called Stealey in a panic: “I can’t find Sid!” It eventually transpired that, rather than being drowned or abducted by drug smugglers as she had suspected, he had gotten so fascinated with the many relics and museums chronicling the era of Caribbean buccaneering that he’d lost all track of time, not to mention the obligations of a boyfriend taking his girlfriend on a romantic getaway. She would just have to get used to Sid being a bit different from the norm if she hoped to stay together, Stealey explained after Meier finally resurfaced with visions of cutlasses and doubloons in his eyes. Meier had had a not-so-secret agenda in choosing this particular spot in the world for a romantic getaway. He was, you see, already working on his next game, a game about Caribbean piracy. The end result would be a dizzying leap away from military simulations into a purer form of game design — a leap that would provide the blueprint for his brilliant future career. If there’s something that we can legitimately label as a Sid Meier school of game design, it was for the game called simply Pirates! that it was first invented. As for the girlfriend, she apparently decided that she could indeed accept the vagaries of life with a game-design genius: she became his first wife.

Pirates! was first conceived by another Microprose designer, Arnold Hendrick, as a fairly rigorous simulation of ship-to-ship combat in the Age of Sail, heavily inspired by the old Avalon Hill naval board game Wooden Ships and Iron Men. Such a game would have marked a bit of a departure for MicroProse, whose military simulations and strategy games had to date reached no further back into history than World War II, but would still broadly speaking fit in with their logo’s claim that they were makers of “Simulation Software.” Problem was, there were already computer games out there that claimed to scratch that itch, like SSI’s Broadsides and Avalon Hill’s own Clear for Action. While few outside the ultra-hardcore grognard set had found either of those games all that satisfying, Hendrick couldn’t seem to figure out how to do any better. And so Pirates! found itself on the back burner, and Hendrick moved on to do Gunship instead.

Greg Tavares's windowing engine in action.

Gregg Tavares’s windowing engine in action.

Sid Meier was inspired to pick up Hendrick’s idea of a pirate game by a seemingly innocuous bit of technological plumbing developed by Gregg Tavares, a MicroProse programmer who specialized in user interfaces and the decorative graphics and menus that went around the heart of their simulations. Like programmers at many other companies around this time, Tavares had developed what amounted to a very simplistic windowing engine for the Commodore 64, allowing one to wrap text messages or menus or graphics into windows and place them in arbitrary spots on the screen quickly and easily. “We had this way of bringing the game to life in a series of pictures and text, almost like a literary-ish — for the time — approach,” Meier says. It started him thinking in terms for which MicroProse was not exactly renowned: in terms of storytelling, in terms of adventure.

With the idea starting to come together at last, Meier soon declared Pirates! to be his official next project. In contrast to the large (by 1986 standards) team that was still busy with Gunship, the original Commodore 64 Pirates! would be created by a team of just 2.5: Meier as designer and sole programmer and Michael Haire as artist, with Arnold Hendrick coming aboard a bit later to do a lot of historical research and help with other design aspects of the game (thus returning a number of huge favors that Meier had done his own Gunship project). Meier, never a fan of design documents or elaborate project planning, worked as he still largely works to this day, by programming iteration after iteration, keeping what worked and cutting what didn’t to make room for other ideas. By project’s end, he would estimate that he had cut as much code from the game as was still present in the finished version.

Stealey was, to say the least, ambivalent about the project. “I said to Bill, ‘I’m going to work on this game about pirates,'” says Meier. “And he said, ‘Pirates? Wait a minute, there are no airplanes in pirates. Wait a minute, you can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think it’s going to be a cool game.'” Stealey’s disapproval was an obvious result of his personal fixation on all things modern military, but there were also legitimate reasons to be concerned from the standpoint of image and marketing. He had worked long and hard to establish MicroProse as the leader in military simulations, and now Meier wanted to peel away, using time and resources on this entirely new thing that risked diluting his brand. Even a less gung-ho character might have balked. But, as Stealey had had ample opportunity to learn by now, the shy, mild-mannered Meier could be astonishingly stubborn when it came to his work. If he said he was doing a pirates game next, then, well, he was going to do a pirates game. Stealey could only relish the small victories — he had only recently convinced Meier at last to give up his beloved but commercially moribund Atari 8-bit machines and start developing on the Commodore 64 — and hope for the best.

Pirates! represented more than just a shift in subject matter. It introduced an entirely new approach to game design on Meier’s part, amounting to a radical rejection of the status quo at MicroProse. Fred Schmidt, MicroProse’s director of marketing at the time, described the company’s standard research-first approach to design thus in a 1987 interview:

We do nothing but research on a subject before we begin a project. We spend time in the library, with military personnel, with Major Stealey (U.S.A.F. Reserve) and his contacts to really find out what a subject is all about. We try to take all that information and digest it before we begin to design a game.

But Pirates! would be a very, very different sort of proposition. As Meier has often admitted in the years since, its design is based largely on his memories of the old Errol Flynn pirate movies he’d loved as a kid, refreshed by — and this must have really horrified Stealey — children’s picture books. Those, says Meier today with a sheepish look, “would really highlight the common currency” of the topic: “What are the cool things? That would give us some visual ideas, but also tell us what to highlight in the game.” “The player shouldn’t have to read the same books the designer has read in order to play,” he notes in another interview. Indeed, piracy is a classic Sid Meier topic in that everyone has some conception of the subject, some knowledge that they bring with them to the game. Far from undercutting swashbuckling fantasies with the grim realities of scurvy and the horrors of rape and pillage, Pirates! revels in a romanticized past that never actually existed. Most of its elements could be the result of a game of free-association played with the word itself in the broadest of pop-culture strokes: “There’s gotta be swordfighting, there’s gotta be ship battles, there’s gotta be traveling around the Caribbean, and the evil Spaniard guy.”

Errol Flynn duels Basil Rathbone in 1935's Captain Blood.

Errol Flynn duels Basil Rathbone in 1935’s Captain Blood.

Dueling in Pirates!.

Dueling in Pirates!.

Meier and his colleagues at MicroProse derisively referred to adventure games — a term which in the mid-1980s still largely meant parser-driven text adventures — as “pick up the stick” games, noting that for all their promises of fantastic adventure they were awfully fixated on the fiddly mundanities of what the player was carrying, where she was standing, and how much fuel was left in her lantern. Theirs wasn’t perhaps an entirely fair characterization of the state of the art in interactive fiction by 1985 or 1986, but it was true that even most of the much-vaunted works of Infocom didn’t ultimately offer all that much real story in comparison to a novel or a film. If Meier was going to do an adventure game, he wanted to do something much more wide-angle, something with the feel of the pirate movies he’d watched as a kid. In fact, the idea of Pirates! as an “interactive movie” became something of a bedrock for the whole project, odd as that sounds today after the term has been hopelessly debased by the many minimally interactive productions to bear the label during the 1990s. At the time, it was a handy shorthand for the way that Meier wanted Pirates! to be more dramatic than other adventure games. Instead of keeping track of your inventory and mapping a grid of rooms on graph paper he wanted you to be romancing governors’ daughters and plotting which Spanish town to raid next. You would, as he later put it, be allowed to focus on the “interesting things.” You’d go “from one scene to the next quickly, and you didn’t have to walk through the maze and pick up every stick along the way.”

Allowing the player to only worry about the “interesting things” meant that the decisions the player would be making would necessarily be plot-altering ones. Therefore a typical fixed adventure-game narrative just wouldn’t do. What Meier was envisioning was nothing less than a complete inversion of a typical adventure game’s narrative structure. In an Infocom interactive fiction, the author has made the big decisions, mapping out the necessary beginning and end of the story and the high points in between, leaving the player to make the small decisions, to deal with the logistics, if you will, of navigating the pre-set plot. As the previous contents of this blog amply illustrate, I think the latter approach can be much more compelling than it sounds from the description I’ve just given it. I think the interactivity adds an experiential quality to the narrative that can make this type of approach, done right, a far more immersive and potentially affecting experience than a traditional static narrative. However, I also think there’s something to be said for the approach that Meier opted for in Pirates!: to have the player make the big decisions about the direction the story goes, and let the game make — or abstract away — all of the small decisions. Put another way, Pirates! should let you write your own story, a story you would own after it was complete. To return to the movie metaphor, you should indeed be the star. “You could go wherever you wanted to and you were clearly the central character in the story and you could take it wherever you wanted to go,” says Meier.

What would a pirate game be without a treasure map? "X" -- or in this case a chest icon -- marks the spot!

What would a pirate story be without a treasure map? “X” — or in this case a chest icon — marks the spot!

But how to offer that freedom? One key was, paradoxically, to limit the player’s options. When one is not in one of its action-oriented sub-games, Pirates! is entirely menu-driven, resulting in an experience simultaneously more accessible and more limiting than the parser’s cryptically blinking cursor with its admittedly unfulfillable promise of limitless interactive possibility. With his menus filled only with appropriately piratey choices, Meier could fill his game, not with stories per se, but with story possibilities drawn from the rich heritage of romanticized maritime adventure. Dodgy characters who hang out in the bars will occasionally offer to sell you pieces of treasure maps; evil Spaniards have enslaved four of your family members, and it’s up to you to track them down by following a trail of clues; the Spanish Silver Train and Treasure Fleet move across the map each year carrying fortunes in gold and silver, just waiting to be pounced on and captured. There are obvious limits to Pirates!‘s approach — you certainly aren’t going to get a narrative of any real complexity or depth out of this engine — but having the freedom to write your own story, even a shallow one, can nevertheless feel exhilarating. With no deterministic victory conditions, you can become just what you like in Pirates! within the bounds of its piratey world: loyal privateer aiding your nation in its wars, bloodthirsty equal-opportunity scoundrel, peaceful trader just trying to get by and stay alive (granted, this option can be a bit boring).

Which isn’t to say that there’s no real history in Pirates!. Once the design was far along, Arnold Hendrick came aboard to become a sort of research assistant and, one senses, an advocate for including as much of reality as possible in the game. It was Hendrick who convinced Meier to go against the grain of basing his game on the legends of piracy rather than the realities in at least a few respects. For instance, Pirates! takes place in the Caribbean between, depending on the historical period chosen, 1560 and 1680, thus forgoing the possibility of meeting some of the most famous names associated with piracy in the popular imagination: names like Edward Teach (the infamous Blackbeard), William Kidd, Jean Lafitte. The eventual 80-page manual, largely the work of Hendrick and itself something of a classic of the golden age of game manuals with its extensive and fascinating descriptions of the history of Caribbean piracy, dismisses pirates like Teach as unworthy of attention.

Those men were psychotic remnants of a great age, criminals who wouldn’t give up. They were killed in battle or hung for evils no European nation condoned. There was no political intrigue or golden future to their lives, just a bullet or a short rope. We found them unattractive and uninteresting compared to the famous sea hawks and buccaneers that preceded them.

That’s perhaps laying it on a bit thick — those getting raped and pillaged by the “sea hawks” might beg to differ with the characterization of their era as a “great age” — but the historical texture Hendrick brought added much to the game. Amongst other things, Hendrick researched the six different starting years available for free-form play, each with their own personality; designed six shorter historical scenarios based on famous expeditions and battles; researched the characteristics of the nine different vessels available to fight and sail, including the dramatic differences in the sailing characteristics of square-rigged versus fore-and-aft-rigged ships. And then there was the appropriately weathered-looking cloth map of the Caribbean that shipped in the game’s box and that was faithfully recreated in the game proper. MicroProse would hear from many a schoolchild in the years to come who had amazed her teacher with her knowledge of Caribbean geography thanks to Pirates!.

A battle at sea.

A battle at sea.

At the same time, though, Meier held Hendrick’s appetite for historical reality on a tight leash, and therein lies much of the finished game’s timeless appeal. We can see his prioritization of fun above all other considerations, a touchstone of his long career still to come, in full flower for the first time in Pirates!. Over the years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve described a number of examples of systems that ended up being more interesting and more fun for their programmers to tinker with than for their players: think for instance of the overextended dynamic simulationism of The Hobbit or the Magnetic Scrolls text adventures. Pirates!, whose open dynamic world made for a fascinating plaything in its own right for any programmer, could easily have gone down the same path, but Meier had the discipline to always choose player fun over realism. “We could totally overwhelm the player if we tossed everything into the game, so it’s a question of selecting,” he says. “What are the most fun aspects of this topic? How can we present it in a way that the player feels that they’re in control, they understand what’s happening?”

In a 2010 speech, Meier made a compelling argument that early flight simulators such as the ones from MicroProse on which he’d cut his teeth managed to be as relatively straightforward and entertaining as they were as an ironic byproduct of the sharply limited hardware on which they had to run. When more powerful machines started allowing designers to layer on more complexity, everything started to go awry.

One of the things we pretend as designers is that the player is good. You’re really good! That’s kind of a mantra from us. We want the player to feel good about the play experience and themselves as they’re playing.

One example of where this perhaps went off the tracks is the history of flight simulators, going back a number of years. Early on they were easy to play, very accessible. You’d shoot down a lot of planes, have a lot of fun. But then we got to where every succeeding iteration of flight simulators became a little more realistic, a little more complex, a little more of a “simulation.” Pretty soon the player went from “I’m good!” to “I’m not good! I’m confused! My plane is on fire! I’m falling out of the sky!” The fun went out of them.

We have to be aware that it’s all about the player. The player is the star of the game. Their experience is what’s key. Keeping them feeling good about themselves is an important part of the experience we provide.

Notably, Meier abandoned flight simulators just as vastly more powerful MS-DOS-based machines began to replace the humble Commodore 64 as the premier gaming computers in North America. Still more notably for our purposes, Pirates! is an astonishingly forgiving game by the standards of its time. It’s impossible to really lose at Pirates!. If you’re defeated in battle, for instance, you’re merely captured and eventually ransomed and returned to your pirating career. This, suffice to say, is one of the most ahistorical of all its aspects; historical pirates weren’t exactly known for their long life expectancies. Pirates!‘s approach of using the stuff of history to inform but not to dictate its rules, of capturing the spirit of a popular historical milieu rather than obsessing over its every detail, wasn’t precisely new even at the time of its development. There are particular parallels to be drawn with Canadian developer Artech’s work for Accolade on what designer Michael Bate called “aesthetic simulations”: games like Ace of Aces, Apollo 18, and The Train. Still, Pirates! did it ridiculously well, serving in this sense as in so many others as a template for Meier’s future career.

Sailing the Caribbean, the wind at my back. If only it was possible to sail west all the time...

Sailing the Caribbean, the wind at my back. If only it was possible to sail west all the time…

Pirates! in general so successfully implements Meier’s player-centric, fun-centric philosophy that the few places where it breaks down a bit can serve as the exceptions that prove the rule. He admits today that its relatively strict simulation of the prevailing air currents in the region that can often make sailing east an exercise in frustration, especially at the higher of the game’s four difficulty levels, is arguably going somewhat too far out on the limb of realism. But most disappointing is the game’s handling of women, who exist in its world as nothing more than chattel; collecting more treasure and honors gives you better chances with better looking chicks, and marrying a hotter chick gives you more points when the final tally of your career is taken at game’s end. It would have been damnably difficult given the hardware constraints of the Commodore 64, but one could still wish that Meier had seen fit to let you play a swashbuckling female pirate; it’s not as if the game doesn’t already depart from historical reality in a thousand ways. As it stands, it’s yet one more way in which the games industry of the 1980s subtly but emphatically told women that games were not for them. (Much less forgivable from this perspective is Meier’s 2004 remake, which still persists in seeing women only as potential mates and dancing partners.) Despite it all, MicroProse claimed after Pirates!‘s release that it was by far the game of theirs with the most appeal to female purchasers — not really a surprise, I suppose, given the hardcore military simulations that were their usual bread and butter.

This governor's daughter is at least liberated enough to spy for me...

This governor’s daughter is at least liberated enough to spy for me…

Pirates! is a famously difficult game to pigeonhole. There’s a fair amount of high-level strategic decision-making involved in managing your fleet and your alliances, choosing your next targets and objectives, planning your journeys, keeping your crew fed and happy. When the rubber meets the road, however, you’re cast into simple but entertaining action games: one-on-one fencing, ship-against-ship or ship-against-shore battling, a more infrequent — thankfully, as it’s not all that satisfying — proto-real-time-strategy game of land combat. And yet the whole experience is bound together with the first-person perspective and the you-are-there, embodied approach of an adventure game. Small wonder that MicroProse, who weren’t quite sure what to do with the game in marketing terms anyway, gave it on the back of the box the mouthful of a label of “action-adventure simulation.” It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?

The adventure elements in particular can make Pirates! seem like something of an anomaly in the catalog of Sid Meier, generally regarded as he is as the king of turn-based grand-strategy gaming. In reality, though, he’s much less a slave to that genre than is generally acknowledged. Pirates!‘s genre-blending is very much consistent with another design philosophy he has hewed to to this day, that of prioritizing topic over genre.

I find it dangerous to think in terms of genre first and then topic. Like, say, “I want to do a real-time-strategy game. Okay. What’s a cool topic?'” I think, for me at least, it’s more interesting to say, “I want to do a game about railroads. Okay, now what’s the most interesting way to bring that to life? Is it in real-time, or turn-based, or is it first-person…” To first figure out what your topic is and then find interesting ways and an appropriate genre to bring it to life as opposed to coming the other way around and saying, “Okay, I want to do a first-person shooter; what hasn’t been done yet?” If you approach it from a genre point of view, you’re basically saying, “I’m trying to fit into a mold.” And I think most of the really great games have not started from that point of view. They first started with the idea that “Here’s a really cool topic. And by the way it would probably work really well as a real-time strategy game with a little bit of this in it.”

I think a good example of this is Pirates!. The idea was to do a pirate game, and then it was “Okay, there’s not really a genre out there that fits what I think is cool about pirates. The pirate movie, with the sailing, the sword fighting, the stopping in different towns, and all that kind of stuff, really doesn’t fit into a genre.” So we picked and chose different pieces of different things like a sailing sequence in real-time and a menu-based adventuring system for going into town, and then a sword fight in an action sequence. So we picked different styles for the different parts of the game as we thought were appropriate, as opposed to saying, “We’re going to do a game that’s real-time, or turn-based, or first-person, or whatever,” and then make the pirates idea fit into that.

This approach to design was actually quite common in the 1980s. See for example the games of Cinemaware, who consistently used radically different formal approaches from game to game, choosing whatever seemed most appropriate for evoking the desired cinematic experience. As game genres and player expectations of same have calcified over the years since, this topic-first — or, perhaps better said, experience-first — approach to design has fallen sadly out of fashion, at least in the world of big-budget AAA productions. Mainstream games today are better in many ways than they were in the 1980s, but this is not one of them. Certainly it would be very difficult to get an ambitious cross-genre experience like Pirates! funded by a publisher today. Even Meier himself today seems a bit shocked at his “fearlessness” in conjuring up such a unique, uncategorizable game. In addition to sheer youthful chutzpah, he points to the limitations of the Commodore 64 as a counter-intuitive enabler of his design imagination. Because its graphics and sound were so limited in contrast to the platforms of today, it was easier to prototype ideas and then throw them away if they didn’t work, easier in general to concentrate on the game underneath the surface presentation. This is something of a wistfully recurring theme amongst working designers today who got their start in the old days.

Pirates! was not, of course, immaculately conceived from whole cloth. Its most obvious gaming influence, oft-cited by Meier himself, is Danielle Bunten Berry’s Seven Cities of Gold, a design and a designer whom he greatly admired. There’s much of Seven Cities of Gold in Pirates!, at both the conceptual level of its being an accessible, not-too-taxing take on real history and the nuts and bolts of many of its mechanical choices, like its menu-driven controls and its interface for moving around its map of the Caribbean both on ship and on foot. Perhaps the most important similarity of all is the way that both games create believable living worlds that can be altered by your own actions as well as by vagaries of politics and economy over which you have no control: territories change hands, prices fluctuate, empires wax and wane. I would argue, though, that in giving you more concrete goals to strive for and a much greater variety of experiences Pirates! manages to be a much better game than its inspiration; Seven Cities of Gold often feels to me like a great game engine looking for something to really do. Both games are all about the journey — there’s no explicitly defined way to win or lose either of them, another significant similarity — but in Pirates! that journey is somehow much more satisfying. The extra layers of story and characterization it provides, relatively minimal though they still are, make a huge difference, at least for this player.

After you retire, you're ranked based on your accomplishments and the amount of wealth you've accrued. This is as close as you can come to winning or losing at Pirates!.

After you retire, you’re ranked based on your accomplishments and the amount of wealth you’ve accrued. This is as close as you can come to winning or losing at Pirates!.

Just about all of the other elements in Pirates!, from the trading economy to the sword-fighting, had also been seen in other games before. What was unusual was to build so many of them into one game and, most importantly, to have them all somehow harmonize rather than clash with one another. Meier himself is somewhat at pains to explain exactly why Pirates! just seemed to work so well. A few years after Pirates! he attempted a similar cross-genre exercise, a spy game that combined action and strategy called Covert Action. He himself judged the end result of that effort to have been much less successful. It seemed that, while the various elements played well enough on their own, they felt disconnected in the context of the whole, like two or more games rudely crammed together: “You would have this mystery you were trying to solve, then you would be facing this action sequence, and you’d do this cool action thing, and you’d get out of the building, and you’d say, ‘What was the mystery I was trying to solve?'” Pirates! was charmed in contrast; its various elements seem to fortuitously just work together. Meier has since theorized that this may be because all of its individual elements, taken in isolation, are quite simple — one might even say simplistic. But when blended together they turn out to be a perfect mixture of easily digestible experiences that never last long enough to lose the overall plot, a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

I’d be remiss not to also briefly mention just what a little technical marvel Pirates! is in its original Commodore 64 incarnation. It’s all too easy to overlook Sid Meier the brilliant programmer when thinking about Sid Meier the brilliant game designer. Yet it’s as much a credit to the former as the latter that the Commodore 64 Pirates! remains amazingly playable to this day. The disk loads are snappy enough to barely be noticeable; the fonts and graphics are bright and atmospheric; the occasional music stings are well-chosen; the various action games play fast and clean; the windowing system that got this whole ball rolling in the first place does its job perfectly, conveying lots of information elegantly on what is by modern standards an absurdly low-resolution display. And of course behind it all is that living world that, if not quite complex by the standards of today, certainly is by the standards of a 64 K 8-bit computer. While I’ve placed a lot of emphasis in my other recent articles on how far Commodore 64 graphics and sound had come by 1987, Pirates! is a far better work of pure game design than any I’ve talked about so far in this little series, worthy of attention for far more than its polished appearance or its important place in history, even if it is well-possessed of both. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it the greatest game ever born on the little breadbox, the peak title of the Commodore 64’s peak year.

Once Pirates! was ready in the spring of 1987 there was still the matter of trying to sell it. Director of marketing Schmidt was clearly uncertain about the game when Commodore Magazine interviewed him just before its release. Indeed, he was almost dismissive. “It takes us into territory MicroProse has never gone before,” he declared, accurately enough. “It is a combination text, graphic, simulation, action game.” (More of those pesky genre difficulties!) But then he was eager to move on to the firmer ground of Meier’s next project of Red Storm Rising, a modern-day submarine simulation based on Tom Clancy’s bestselling technothriller that was about as firmly in MicroProse’s traditional wheelhouse as it was possible for a game to be. As that project would indicate, Meier didn’t immediately abandon his old role of Wild Bill’s simulation genius to fully embrace the purer approach to game design that had marked the Pirates! project, not even after Pirates! defied all of Stealey and Schmidt’s misgivings to become MicroProse’s blockbuster of 1987, joining 1984’s F-15 Strike Eagle, 1985’s Silent Service, and 1986’s Gunship in a lineup that now constituted one of the most reliable moneyspinners in computer gaming; all four titles would continue to sell at a healthy clip for years to come. One suspects that Meier, still feeling his way a bit as a designer in spite of his successes, did Red Storm Rising and the game that would follow it, another flight simulator called F-19 Stealth Fighter, almost as comfort food, and perhaps as a thank you to Stealey for ultimately if begrudgingly supporting his vision for Pirates!. That, however, would be that for Sid Meier the military-simulation designer; too many other, bolder ideas were brewing inside that head of his.

There’s just one more part of the Pirates! story to tell, maybe the strangest part of all: the story of how the introverted, unassuming Sid Meier became a brand name, the most recognizable game designer on the planet. Ironically, it all stemmed from Stealey’s uncertainty about how to sell Pirates!. The seed of the idea was planted in Stealey by someone who had a little experience with star power himself: comedian, actor, and noted computer-game obsessive Robin Williams. Stealey was sitting at the same table as Williams at a Software Publishers Association dinner when the latter mused that it was strange that the world was full of athletic stars and movie stars and rock stars but had no software stars. A light bulb went on for Stealey: “We’ll make Sid a famous software star.” It wasn’t exactly a new idea — Trip Hawkins, for one, had been plugging his “electronic artists” for years by that point with somewhat mixed results — but by happenstance or aptitude or sheer right-place/right-time Stealey would pull it off with more success than just about anyone before or since. When the shy Meier was dubious, Stealey allegedly gave him a live demonstration of the power of stardom:

I had my wife, he had his girlfriend, and we’re sitting at dinner at a little restaurant. I said, “Sid, watch this. I’ll show you what marketing can do for you.” I went over to the maître d’ and I said, “Sir, my client doesn’t want to be disturbed.” He said, “Your client, who’s that?” I said, “It’s the famous Sid Meier. He’s a famous author. Please don’t let anybody bother us at dinner.” Before we got out of there, he had given 20 autographs. You know, we were a small company. You do whatever you can do to get a little attention, right?

As with many of Stealey’s more colorful anecdotes, I’m not sure whether we can take that story completely at face value. We are, however, on firmer ground in noting that when Pirates! made its public debut shortly thereafter it bore that little prefix that in later years would come to mark a veritable genre onto itself in many people’s eyes: the game’s full name was Sid Meier’s Pirates!. Gaming has generally been anything but a star-driven industry, but for some reason, just this one time, this bit of inspired star-making actually worked. Today Sid Meier’s name can be found tacked onto the beginning of a truly bewildering number of titles, including quite a few with which he had virtually nothing to do. The supreme irony is that this should have happened to one of the nicest, most unassuming, most humble souls in an industry replete with plenty of big egos that would kill for the sort of fame that just kind of walked up to Meier one day and sat down beside him while he hacked away obliviously in front of his computer. Not that it’s undeserved; if we’re to have a cult of personality, we might as well put a genius at its center.

Like Meier’s new approach to design, it wasn’t initially clear whether the “Sid Meier’s” prefix was destined to really become a long-term thing at all; Stealey judged the names and topics of Red Storm Rising and F-19 Stealth Fighter strong enough stand on their own. But then old Sid went off the military-simulation reservation and started to get crazy innovative again, and Stealey faced the same old questions about how to sell his stuff, and… but now we’re getting ahead of the story, aren’t we?

(Paper Sources: Gamers at Work by Morgan Ramsay; Game Design: Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; Computer Gaming World of November 1987; Commodore Magazine of September 1987; Retro Gamer 38, 57, and 82; Game Developer of February 2002, October 2007, January 2009, November 2010, and February 2013.

Online sources: Metro’s interview with Meier; Adam Sessler’s interview with Meier; Meier playing the 2004 Pirates! on IGN; Meier’s 2010 GDC keynote; Matt Chat 78.

You can download from this site disk images of the Commodore 64 Pirates! that Meier himself still considers the “definitive” version of the original game. Note, however, that this zip doesn’t include the essential manual and map. You can get them by buying Pirates! Gold Plus from Trust me, it’s worth it.)


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50 Responses to Pirates!

  1. Ken Rutsky

    July 2, 2015 at 3:00 pm

    God, this game obsessed my friends and I for several years. I remember playing it at my friend Brian’s house and immediately scraping together the money to get my own copy (neither Brian nor my older brother’s contacts could crack it quickly enough, so I went legit). After we left Service Merchandise (remember those?) with the game, my mother had to pick some things up at the drug store and I stayed in the car, tore open the package and read the designer’s notes and historical essays…getting home couldn’t happen soon enough.

    I bought the remake but had a computer disaster soon after…I never did install it.

    Thanks for this walk down memory lane.

    One typo spotted: “empires wax and wan.” Should be wane.

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 3, 2015 at 8:07 am


      My first Commodore 64 came from Service Merchandise…

  2. Pedro Timóteo

    July 2, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    Great as always, and an amazing game (which I unfortunately played mostly on PC, and it didn’t have as much atmosphere as the C64 version. The Gold version is better, though.)

    Typo: is it Greg or Gregg? :)

    • Pedro Timóteo

      July 2, 2015 at 4:12 pm

      The remake is a decent game, but not only does it feel a lot more “childish” than the original (they even removed tobacco from the game!), but a few of the minigames had the same problem as Covert Action: they took too long.

      In this case, land combat was changed from real time to turn-based, but without any complexity other than making sure you attacked one enemy unit with more than one, it was just a question of patience. And sneaking into town, which originally was just random (affected by your reputation in the town), became a long, boring and annoying stealth section. Interestingly, I had no issue with the dancing sections, unlike many people.

      An interesting version of the game is the Amiga CD32 version of Pirates! Gold. While it was annoying to have to move through town to each building instead of just selecting them in a menu, it did have very good graphics, sound effects, music, and atmosphere.

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 3, 2015 at 8:07 am

      Gregg. :) Thanks!

  3. TsuDhoNimh

    July 2, 2015 at 3:56 pm

    Ever since you wrote about Sid Meier in an earlier article, I’ve been eagerly anticipating your commentary about Pirates! It is still one of my favorite games, even though I played the somewhat inferior Apple ][ version in my youth. It is one of the few games for which I’ve kept all of the original packaging because it was so integral to the game experience. (Unfortunately, the Apple ][ version came with an inferior paper map IIRC).

    There are games today which call themselves Open World or Sandbox games, but I felt more freedom of action playing Pirates! than I do playing modern sandbox games like Red Dead Redemption. I think that this is because Pirates! gives you a set of building blocks for your own story, while a game like Red Dead Redemption tries to have a main plot and an open world at the same time, and fails to excel at either one.

    This, is also a problem with the 2004 remake of Pirates! — there is just enough added story that it fails to be a better overall game than its predecessor.

    • Pedro Timóteo

      July 2, 2015 at 4:21 pm

      Interestingly, I found Red Dead Redemption quite possibly the best game of its generation, though not exactly for its open world-ness. But that’s a bit offtopic here. :)

      As for the Pirates! remake and added story (the family members, the evil Spaniard, etc.), all of that was in the original, it was just easier to miss, I think. (*) In the 2004 remake, it sometimes feels like everyone you meet is obsessed with telling you about evil guy X who is holding your family member Y, even if right now you’re more concerned with getting rich and having fun. :)

      (*) in fact, in the original you had a different story and initial motivation depending on your nationality and starting era, which I think the remake lacked, so we could argue that the original had more story.

      • TsuDhoNimh

        July 2, 2015 at 10:17 pm

        I guess I should clarify that the original Pirates! had a less confining story than its remake, not less story overall.

        Red Dead Redemption was a lot of fun, just not in the context of it being an open-world game. Maybe I’m just being unfair because of the frustration I felt when I spent an hour or two trying to ride to areas that I didn’t know I had to “unlock” by advancing the plot. There’s no such thing in Pirates. You don’t have to unlock Cuba to land in Havana, you just have to have favorable winds.

    • Martin Knutsen

      July 26, 2015 at 2:56 pm

      Its basically down to the combination of grinding (capturing barques in the early game, returning to port, matching losses in manpower vs. profitmargins, etc) and the chance to do some outstanding things, I think. Storming Santiago or taking out the treasurefleet was doable, but i took a lot of skill and mastery. I played it on C64 for 4 years on and off, and one of the great things about casual play in Pirates was that you could storm off and assault a big enemy was possible, *and you could pull it off if you had the dueling skill* within a ratio of propability. You couldnt storm Santiago with 5 men. But with 45, and clever maneuvering, combined with skilled fencing, you coud loot it. Or you could colonize it with 400 and patience in the fencing game. Etc. Micro-choices made on the spot, combined with both depth and casual rogue-like aspects: Brilliance.

  4. Steve

    July 2, 2015 at 4:14 pm

    “As it stands, it’s yet one more way in which the games industry of the 1980s subtly but emphatically told women that games were not for them.”

    So because the protagonist is male, Sid Meier effectively told women that computer games are not for them?

    Does this also apply to Michael Curtiz, director of Captain Blood, because his pirates are male? Did Michael Curtiz tell women that movies are not for them?

    When women write romance novels with female protagonists, do they tell men that romance novels are not for them? Should they be asked to write male protagonists?

    Should we really include such finger-wagging in absolutely every retrospective about practically every classic work of the past? Seems ridiculous to me.

    Otherwise excellent article, thank you.

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 3, 2015 at 7:58 am

      Well, I think there’s a huge difference of kind here that we can’t simply sweep away. Pirates! is an open-world, sandbox game that offers you the chance to create your own story, not a fixed tale like the other examples you cite. If it was the story of a single pirate, or even if it was an historically rigorous take on Caribbean piracy, we would be having a very different discussion. But it’s an ahistorical player-driven sandbox game.

      I don’t recall “finger waving” about precisely this issue in any other article — sexism yes, this specific issue no — so I’m not quite sure if that’s meant to be a criticism of me specifically or of some group into which I’m being lumped. Regardless, to whatever extent I’m finger-waving, I’m doing it more at the 2004 remake than the original. Resources were unbelievably tight on the Commodore 64, and given the general state of the games industry and the demographics at play in 1980s it probably never even occurred to anyone at MicroProse to include an option to play a female. But looking back from the perspective of today, the absence is noteworthy enough to be worth considering and talking about, especially given the sexism that has so long plagued the games industry as a whole. That’s simply what critical history *does*. Often the latent assumption found within a text are far more interesting, say far more about the underlying culture, than the author’s explicit positions.

      • Steve

        July 4, 2015 at 3:10 pm

        Yes, I referred to other instances on this site where you described some game as sexist, though not with the same precise issue. It’s probably not surprising as you describe yourself as “very sensitive to sexism and racism” on the Hall of Fame page.

        “But it’s an ahistorical player-driven sandbox game.”
        Yes, and if the player character could be a woman it would be a bit more ahistorical sandbox game. Whatever reasons the game developers had, they made the player male only, which avoids making the game even more ahistorical by pretending that women and men are exactly the same and that society back in 1600 was like ours today in respect to the treatment of the sexes. I don’t object that you wish that the player should be able to play as a woman. I object to the sentence I quoted. I think that saying that Meier “subtly and empathically told women that games are not for them” is an unjustified insult.

        “That’s simply what critical history *does*.”
        With these lenses on, you can see sexism, racism and about 20 other -isms in almost every work of the past. You could write whole treatises about these things at every opportunity. And all it would amount to is: “people back then had views on sex and race and other things that we object to today”, repeated ad nauseam.

        In the case of Pirates and most other works of the present and the recent past, it would not even be that: instead it would only amount to “these creators didn’t sufficiently check all the boxes that modern day Political Correctness, pushed by a minority of the population, demands”, repeated until the majority of the people don’t give a f*** about complaints about sexism and racism etc. any more.


        I think that portraying a game (sandbox or not) with only a male player character as somehow morally wrong is a mistake. I hate the hysteria around this issue, which is partly caused by this moralizing. When making the decision about the player’s sex in the games I develop in the future, I resent this pressure to make the player’s sex selectable or be called a sexist. Whereas I would have defaulted to make the player’s sex selectable years ago, nowadays I’m tempted to make the player male only out of contrarian spite.

        How about this: whether a game (again, sandbox or not) has only a male player character, or only a female one, or both, is not a moral issue. Designers should not be insulted for not including some gender.

        There are practical considerations too. It’s a slippery slope: would you like to be insulted for not including intersex player characters in a game you made? For not including Chinese pirates in the Caribbean, or even Aborigine pirates? After all, the game is already ahistoric!

        • GeoX

          July 4, 2015 at 5:47 pm

          I find it somehow unsurprising that this comment was written by a dude.

          • Steve

            July 5, 2015 at 4:49 pm

            You’re being dismissive of my arguments because of my gender. Do you think that doing this will reduce sexism somehow?

          • GeoX

            July 5, 2015 at 11:56 pm

            What an odd comment. To state the obvious, no, I don’t think that pointing out your willfully unexamined privilege will “reduce sexism,” even a little bit. But it’s still worth pointing out.

          • Steve

            July 6, 2015 at 2:23 am

            In other words, you’re being bigoted yourself by reducing this argument down to the gender of the person you’re talking to. To keep this discussion productive, how about imagining that I’m a woman. After all there are women who hold the same opinions.

          • GeoX

            July 6, 2015 at 9:28 am

            Indeed–that must be it!

        • Lisa H.

          July 4, 2015 at 11:47 pm

          Yes, and if the player character could be a woman it would be a bit more ahistorical sandbox game.

          I think the point was that since it was already ahistorical, making it that bit moreso by including a female player character wouldn’t have done much damage.

          I think that saying that Meier “subtly and empathically told women that games are not for them” is an unjustified insult.

          That was said about the games industry in general, not Meier in specific, and certainly I don’t think Jimmy intended to imply that he or anyone consciously constructed this message. It is implicit.

          With these lenses on, you can see sexism, racism and about 20 other -isms in almost every work of the past.

          Exactly, because they are there. Becoming aware of this is part of how we can work to consciously avoid such things rather than unconsciously perpetuate them. Most people who do sexist or racist things do not even realize that’s what they’re doing.

          • Steve

            July 5, 2015 at 5:12 pm

            Since you admit that even from your view, including a female character damages the game’s historicity (at least a little bit in your opinion, maybe much more in the designer’s opinion), it should be understandable that a designer chooses against it. Do you consider that choice a moral failure? That’s what I understand from Jimmy’s words:
            “Much less forgivable from this perspective is Meier’s 2004 remake, which still persists in seeing women only as potential mates and dancing partners.”

            I have not seen a coherent argument why this is a moral issue.

            Since we speak about Meier’s game here, the statement about the games industry in general must apply to Meier in specific too. Yes, I understood that Jimmy didn’t say that anyone consciously constructed the supposed message.

            I also haven’t seen a coherent argument why a pirate game with only a male player character tells women that games are not for them.

            Regarding the “becoming aware of this” and the critical history stuff, personally I think that it’s becoming very repetitive and pointless. But I’d like to not pursue this subtopic further, because you’re free to write and read this stuff and I’ll groan and skip it.

            What’s important to me is that people who are not sexists or racists, and who do not spread sexism or racism at all (consciously or subconsciously), are being insulted as sexists or racists, or accused of sexist or racist behaviour.

            • Jimmy Maher

              July 6, 2015 at 11:19 am

              I’m a bit baffled by your continual framing of this as a “moral” issue. That’s a word I use rarely, as it carries with it an awful lot of sociocultural baggage, and it’s certainly not one I’ve ever used in this context. Forgive me if what I’m about to say next sounds condescending; my only alternatives are to assume that you are, as you said of another commentator, “either misreading me or carelessly misrepresenting my arguments.” I always try to assume good faith unless shown absolute proof otherwise, so, trying to give you as much benefit of the doubt as possible, I’m going to assume the former, that part of our problem here is one of semantics. Specifically, it seems you’re getting hung up on this adjective “forgivable,” since that’s really the only potentially nuanced word in the sentence you keep returning to. The thing is, that word doesn’t mean quite what you think it does, or at least allows for broader shades of meaning than you seem willing to allow. I could (and often have) write something like “The ground combat in Pirates! is pretty weak, but that’s forgivable given that the rest of the game is so strong.” I could even write, “The ground combat in the 2004 remake is still underwhelming, and that’s less forgivable given how many more resources were at that development team’s disposal.” I presume — hope! — you wouldn’t consider these sentences to be insults directed toward Sid Meier or accusations of immorality. Nor was the sentence you’ve been quoting. Simply put, you haven’t seen a coherent argument as to why this is a moral issue because you’re the only one who’s ever said it was, and you’re on the other team, my friend.

              Indeed, the disturbing trend in your comments has been to accuse me of things that you’d apparently like for me to have said, or that you believe other people whom you have mentally grouped together as somehow “like me” believe. See, for instance, your claim that I think men and women are just alike. That’s something I’ve never stated, in this article or anywhere else. To be clear: I speak for me and only for me, and no one else speaks for me. You’re welcome to disagree with me and even welcome to disagree with what these others have said, and even welcome to do it here (within reason and as long as it stays relatively polite). But it’s very hard for me to actually respond to you when you continually, whether due to simple misunderstanding or something else, put words into my mouth that I’ve never uttered.

              I believe there is on the other hand a coherent argument about the ways that the game industry of the 1980s — not, note, Pirates! alone — subtly told women that games were not for them. Read that sentence closely, as again something seems to be getting lost between what I actually wrote and what you read: Pirates! was one of the ways *the games industry* told women games were not for them. The games industry is doing the telling, and we’re speaking of a larger trend to which Pirates! was only one minor contributor.

              Context is very important, and snipping sentences — or, worse, parts of sentences — out of context and basing an entire rebuttal upon them is dangerous. I speak not only of the context of the whole article but also of this blog as a whole. But you may not be a regular reader (which is of course fine), so, again presuming good faith on your part, I’ll try to boil it down.

              It’s an established fact that very, very few women played computer games in the 1980s. I think it’s important to understand why that should be. One possibility is that most women simply aren’t interested in games. But events of the last ten to fifteen years have seemingly disproved that theory; in many gaming communities women now outnumber men, although others that have been traditionally male-dominated have members who continue to kick and scream against encroaching diversity. If we assume that women in general haven’t undergone a sudden sea change in personality since the millennium, we have to assume that there was something they found off-putting about the games industry of the 1980s, when the culture of gaming was at its least diverse.

              I think there were a number of factors at play, but for coherency’s sake we’ll boil them down to two. The first was that the types of games that were commonly produced, like MicroProse’s military simulations, were often unappealing to women. (And I’m going to just leave it at that, leaving aside the debate over whether these differences were socially constructed or genetic.) The other was that even those games that many women did find more appealing, like Pirates!, nevertheless sent a subtle message to prospective women players that they weren’t really expecting them to participate — that they were, in my pithy shorthand that has caused you so much angst, *not for them.* As another commenter has already pointed out, this message was largely unintentional, but, taken in the cumulative over quite a number of games, had a definite off-putting effect. (Other examples abound, some of them much more extreme than Pirates! because there *was* a certain amount of conscious consideration. See for example The Bard’s Tale, whose designer Michael Cranford was actually asked by other developers at Interplay to include the possibility of having females in the party, but replied that it was pointless, because “girls don’t play these games” — a classic self-fulfilling prophecy, one might say.)

              In the context — there’s that word again! — of Pirates! and this article, there are a couple of other salient points. The first is the fact that Pirates! not only didn’t include the possibility of playing women but that the only women included in the game were nothing more than pawns and prizes to be won by the dashing male hero; something of a double blow. The second, related point is that the treatment of women in Pirates! ironically cuts against two of Sid Meier’s longstanding policies in game design: “Fun trumps history” and “Everything centers on the player and her choices.” The latter is very important. Meier has always eschewed fixed narratives and emphasized that the player should be able to play *her* game *her* way, one might even say to *be* in the game exactly whom she wants to be. I don’t entirely agree with him — I think there’s also great value in being able to play a fixed role in an interactive story — but I try to do him justice by taking Pirates! in that spirit. And the fact that in spite of this emphasis on the game as the player’s personal sandbox it never occurred to Meier to give the player a choice of gender says something — not so much about Meier personally as about the culture of the games industry in general. Put another way, he would be more worthy of praise had he thought to include women than he is worthy of condemnation for not doing so.

              That said, it’s a minor philosophical inconsistency which many female players have indeed been more than able to overlook. I mentioned it here not because I want to condemn anyone for it but because it’s useful to understanding the historical culture of gaming. The fact that gaming was overwhelmingly male and white in the 1980s is a very important part of that understanding in my opinion. If you don’t find the sort of critical/sociological/cultural history I do here relevant or interesting, that’s fine. Many people don’t. I’ll only point out that even if we restrict ourselves just to the games themselves it’s also a shame in my opinion. One of the biggest reasons I’d like to see more and more diverse voices in gaming is simply because I like diverse sorts of games on diverse sorts of topics, and those voices can help deliver that — deliver *better games*.

              I don’t of course expect you to agree with my point of view, and that’s fine. However, I hope this will at least explain it a bit better and help you to get past the misunderstandings that seem to have dogged your comments. Having stated my case as coherently as I can, I’ll bow out now. Apologies in advance, but if you continue to misrepresent what I’ve actually said I’m going to have to assume that it’s deliberate rather than inadvertent, or that there’s some fundamental blockage that just makes understanding impossible. In either case, there’s just not much more that I can do about it.

              All that said, glad you enjoyed the article otherwise. ;)

          • GeoX

            July 6, 2015 at 12:00 am

            In a long, overwhelmingly positive article, Jimmy devoted one (1) paragraph to mildly criticizing the game’s lack of gender inclusiveness. In response to this, you’ve spent god knows how many paragraphs huffing and puffing about how it IS SO okay to not include women and HOW DARE YOU SUGGEST OTHERWISE GRRR. Do you ever consider that maybe your priorities are slightly, let’s say, askew?

          • Steve

            July 6, 2015 at 2:29 am

            GeoX, you’re either misreading me or carelessly misrepresenting my arguments. I already said above that I don’t object that someone wishes for female player characters.

            And my original comment was pretty short, and my further comments were to answers I received. Contrary to your portrayal, I think I’ve been polite.

          • Steve

            July 7, 2015 at 7:24 pm

            Jimmy, thank you for the detailed, intelligent and respectful reply. Yes, don’t assume bad faith in my comments. And yes, several of your criticisms of my comments are true.

            I do in fact perceive the words “even less forgivable” and a couple of other word choices differently from the way you intended. That might very well be purely my own fault as I am not a native speaker. Sorry if this causes unnecessary discussion. I’ll explain what I mean, but it’s completely fine if you don’t give an additional answer.

            How I came to the morality aspect:
            A flaw in game design (for example the the poor ground combat) can be described as “(less) forgivable” of course, and that’s not a moral issue. My thought process was roughly like this: If you say that the games industry of the 80s really told women that games generally are not for them (indirectly, subtly, but really emphatically saying it), then I’d think that saying this to women is something that one shouldn’t do, just like one shouldn’t tell women that working outside the home is not for them, or telling men that nursing is not for them, and I’d think that it is a moral issue. (If you think some other word is more appropriate, I’d like to hear it.) If anybody is still doing it, they should stop. If they keep doing it after being addressed about it, they might be doing something at least slightly immoral.

            Why I disagree with what I thought you said about the morality aspect:
            I think that those female players who do not perceive a pirates game with only a male player character as exclusionary of female players are objectively right. So I think that the game doesn’t really tell women that it specifically or games in general are not for them, and that it doesn’t contribute to the games industry really telling women that, even in the context of a games market where female player characters are rare. Even though other (potential) female players might be discouraged from playing games due to these circumstances. I guess you could describe this as a hang up about words. Anyway, so I think that if a pirates game has only male player characters, that’s not an objective flaw at all. It might contradict the policies of “Fun trumps history” and “Everything centers on the player and her choices”, yes; though those policies are surely not absolute. If the believability of the game world or the story is really damaged (in the designer’s opinion) by the implementation of a certain player choice, then that choice might not be implemented.

            How I understand you now:
            If you don’t claim an objective flaw, and instead say that game designers from the 80s, by rarely having female player characters, generally inadvertently through no moral fault of their own caused a low percentage of female players, and that you wish that they implemented female player characters to avoid this outcome, then the “less forgivable” is purely from your view, that is how much you like the game or the designer’s choices, and is not claiming any moral failure? Is that what you mean? In my mind, those words (“even less forgivable” and “told women that games were not for them”) still clash with the meaning, but then I can at least see your point of view.

            Here’s another example.
            “But most disappointing is the game’s handling of women, who exist in its world as nothing more than chattel; collecting more treasure and honors gives you better chances with better looking chicks, and marrying a hotter chick gives you more points when the final tally of your career is taken at game’s end.”

            I think portraying, in general, the classic story trope of damsels in distress and heroes marrying those girls with the word “chattel” is no good. That trope contains a noble core, the impulse of rescuing the weak, and the impulse of caring for women. Both men and women enjoy this trope (see its prevalence in the romance novel genre, written mostly by women for women), and it’s an alright thing. But if you specifically criticize the game because better looking women give the player more points, then I somewhat agree, that’s not so noble. (Not a serious issue either IMO; but again, then I can at least see your point of view.) I admit that I initially focused at the quoted sentence up to the semicolon, disregarding the reasoning that comes after. Not out of bad intentions on my part, but due to a bit of overhaste and a general irritation regarding the discourse on this topic in the last three years, which you correctly suspected.

            Side note:
            “See, for instance, your claim that I think men and women are just alike.”
            I didn’t claim that. I spoke about your wish for female player characters, and said that a pirates game set in 1600 with female player characters as pirate captains (presumably with the same attributes as male characters, and maybe with the option of having 50/50 male/female crews) would kind of pretend that men and women are the same IMO. Not that you said that they’re the same.

            I do find your articles interesting (though I probably care more about the hard facts than the commentary, but by all means continue doing it the way you like) and I’m grateful for their thoroughness. I haven’t seen this level of thoroughness on the websites of paid game journalists who supposedly should be doing this.

      • Steve

        July 26, 2015 at 6:51 pm

        “especially given the sexism that has so long plagued the games industry as a whole”

        By the way, did you substantiate this claim anywhere in past articles, or do you plan to do it in a future article? Or will you treat it as a given without substantiating it?

      • Brans

        July 29, 2015 at 1:05 pm

        People seem to forget that the gaming industry was started by males for males as in the games they made were the games they wanted to make.
        nothing wrong in that.
        The computer games industry back then was such that 14 year old in their bedroom could make a game and send it in to a publisher and have it on the shelves and they did.
        And they were male. Nothing stopped girls from learning and developing games in their bedroom too but they didn’t.

        Those of us that gamed in the early 80s remembers the attitudes of most females which was to look down on games and gamers.
        that classic sexist saying which is ok as it’s aimed at males “boys and their toys ”
        The comments and sneering from females then was guaranteed almost everytime you had a private conversation with a friend and a girl overheard.
        It happens today whenever men talk about an interest they have. You can guarantee there’ll be a female to role get eyes and mock them.

        So if games centered around men and women weren’t the most thought characters then we have to include ALL reasons why which includes women talking their amount of blame for gaming being boys only as their attitude cemented that.
        to ignore this large part of history for fear of being labelled sexist or because that’s not how those throwing all the blame of sexism at males only wish people to remember for fear that they won’t be able to act blameless and victimised so they won’t be able to demand changes to games that are themselves sexist in nature is far worse than the apparent sexism we’re supposed to believe was rampant back then.

        No-one ever criticises women’s interest add sexist amd they usually do exclude men it portray men in a derogatory way.
        I wonder why?

    • Iggy Drougge

      July 11, 2015 at 5:41 am

      Actually, there were female pirate captains back in the day, though they might not have been mentioned in the sources used by Sid Meier. So it’s not entirely ahistorical to include a woman alter ego for the player; a woman could hardly pursue a career as a navy officer, leaving buccaneering as her only choice. Mind you, she probably still wouldn’t be able to get together with the guvernor’s daughter.

      Nevertheless, I think Maher could direct his objections to a case where it would have made more sense to include female characters. In a recreation of pirate movies, you don’t expect female captains – unlike a strictly historical simulation. There are lots of scenarios where you can include female characters without requiring particular work-arounds, and where the industry nevertheless hasn’t done so, but it’s hardly an expectation you can have from a game like Pirates.

      • Jimmy Maher

        July 11, 2015 at 9:44 am

        I don’t want to belabor all this too much more. However, I can’t help but note that the Pirates of the Carribbean movies are largely what Pirates! is, an updated take on the old swashbuckling adventure movies, and they make room for a female pirate in the person of Elizabeth Swann. Considering that many younger gamers initially saw the 2004 remake as cashing in on the hit first movie in that series of the previous year, I’m not sure it’s really so out of line with their “expectations.” The original game is perhaps a different story, but I’ve *certainly* belabored that enough by now. :)

        • Steve

          July 11, 2015 at 3:14 pm

          The Pirates of the Carribean movies are much more unrealistic and over-the-top though. But yes, to a younger player the 2004 remake might look like Pirates of the Caribbean at first glance. At least if he only saw the remake’s box cover, which doesn’t “date” the game.

          After reading Iggys comment I found this:

          It lacks citations and could benefit from a better separation between well-sourced historical events and apocryphal stories, but it’s still interesting. One of the better-sourced female pirates seems to be this one:

          When including female pirate captains in a somewhat historical game (not really historically correct, but no Voodoo and Zombies either), it would be nice to include a couple of special events or comments when playing with a female character. The game also might give the player the option of cross-dressing as a man, like several historical female pirates reportedly did, bypassing the special events.

    • Tom

      May 12, 2020 at 11:51 am

      Thank you for your thoughts Steve – you clearly encapsulate the issues I have with this article and many others where Jimmy insists on needlessly inserting his political opinions.

      It’s like baking a beautiful cake, just to pour ketchup all over it once you’re done. Doesn’t matter how hard you worked on the cake or how delicious it may be, adding an unnecessary ingredient
      – no matter how much you may like that ingredient – ruins the entire dessert.

      As I read through these articles, I’m often tempted to support Jimmy’s Patreon, but then I run across nonsense like using “her” exclusively or pointing out every real and imagined instance of “sexism” (I use scare quotes because it’s typically nothing of the sort…), criticizing something from 40 years ago for not cow-towing to modern leftist sensibilities. Sorry, I’m just not going to support that. Truly a shame.

  5. Scott Gage

    July 3, 2015 at 1:02 am

    Pirates! is one of my favourite games of all time, bar none. Perhaps because I played the C64 version first, but I can now say I’ve played that one, the PC version, PC Gold, Mega Drive Gold (not a bad version, to be honest) and the 2004 remake.

    I found the remake a lot easier – I never saved all my family members in the original but in the remake it’s so in your face that you can’t help but do it.

    The best moment is finding a treasure or taking over a town and having that little tune play. Just hit the right notes for those days when a unique graphic and tune was your reward for something.

    I am boring and tended to play as the English. I don’t think I bothered much with the eastern end of the map due to those bloody trade winds.

    • Jimmy Maher

      July 3, 2015 at 8:17 am

      One of the interesting things about the lost family in the original was that as you came to know the Carribbean better and if you had a great memory for detail you could rescue family members and locate the Inca treasure with only one piece of each map. A whole puzzley dimension gets lost in the remake with all its helpful arrows and in-game hand-holding.

      My wife Dorte’s great at recalling details and doing spatial puzzles, both of which things I’m pretty terrible at. So, she was in charge of treasure-hunting in our recent plays of the Commodore 64 version. We once rescued our entire family along with lots of other accomplishments — like capturing the Silver Train and Treasure Fleet several times each — in one of our games on Journeyman level, and ended up with over 100 points. Can’t say I haven’t accomplished anything in life! :)

      • Scott Gage

        July 5, 2015 at 11:34 pm

        I know how that works :) If it ever said “Somewhere near Eluethera” I knew exactly where to go!

        • DerKastellan

          June 5, 2020 at 8:57 pm

          Yes, I was really good at spotting that as well – the map’s lack of detail enabled that. :)

    • DerKastellan

      June 5, 2020 at 9:02 pm

      I’m not sure if there ever was EGA support, but I played so many versions of Pirates! over the years – C64, PC in all kinds of graphic formats (CGA definitely, not sure about EGA, but I think there were VGA and SVGA) and I loved them all. I liked the remake a lot, the fencing is actually much improved, but I miss the real-time battle. You could do some good things with routing the enemy with a few tricks.

      I always felt that the formula could have been expanded on a bit, and I think there’s a fanmade “Pirates II”. Other pirate themed games fell short, definitely. I remember spending lots of time on an early 3D one (voxel graphics??) only to have rather little fun compared to “Pirates!”

  6. Keith Palmer

    July 3, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    This period in computer-games history pretty much leaves me on the outside looking in (in 1987 my family did have a Tandy Color Computer 3, but this was pretty much a matter of being amazed computer games could use more than the same four colours all the time), but I did manage to experience Pirates in the next decade when we bought a CD-ROM with some older Microprose games on it and it included the Macintosh version of the game. It was old enough that that version of the game was black-and-white only, and I have to admit to not playing it much, but the manual included in the box did impress me with its detail.

  7. Alexander

    July 3, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    Definitely one of the best games of all time!
    I tried to enjoy the remake but couldn’t. The mini-games weren’t that enjoyable.

  8. Scott M. Bruner

    July 6, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    I have recently been thinking about which game(s) I think have been able to combine compelling narratives, entertainment value, a believable alternate world/simulation, good “game design,” and a complete experience.

    I’d be hard-pressed to say that Pirates! wouldn’t lead that list, and I hadn’t even considered it (funny, btw, that someone mentioned Red Dead Redemption, which was one that I think is contemporarily noteworthy for its ambitions – but which ultimately fails to qualify because of its hackneyed, Peckinpah-lite story that ultimately does limit agency in frustrating ways) before.

    And that’s without actually having a story story! Like many on here, I can’t say enough about Pirates! or the effect it had on an adolescent me. I loved the historical accuracy, or rather, the faux-historical accuracy which helped with immersion, I loved the map, I loved the freedom, and I absolutely adored the final scoring method.

    Because I spent most of my time as a French nationalist privateer (don’t ask) playing Pirates! as a kid, who tended to eschew romance or my lost family, I always ended up with the score of Farmer.

    I can’t think of better example of how a game can truly provide a first-hand experience of exploring an alternate world better than Pirates! Sure, it’s a world based on swashbuckling fiction more than the real Caribbean (although there is still more historical context here than is necessary, but which added to the overall immersion for me) but it’s the perfect fulfillment of what Cinemaware wanted to do, but never completely got right.

    Kudos to Meier for making a game that used genre to create the experience and not vice versa. It’s a shame that’s disappeared from the AAA world.

    That being said, I didn’t remember that note from the manual about historical pirates such as Mssr. Teach. That’s a true shame, because the legends of piracy seem to fit perfectly within Meier’s “fun should rule” attempt at simulating privateering fiction. I vaguely remember that there were famous pirates you could hunt, I didn’t realize they wouldn’t include Blackbeard or Lafitte.

    That’s a regrettable decision, IMO.

    Finally, I’ve been planning on re-playing Pirates! for forever (I can do better than farmer!) and had always just assumed the re-make would be a fine way to do it. I’m glad to know that I should stick to the original, and will do so. Thanks for letting me know.

  9. whomever

    September 12, 2015 at 2:44 pm

    I tried out the iOS remake, which wasn’t bad (I agree the minigames aren’t as good). What’s interesting is my 4 year old ended up playing it (on an iPad) and he loves it. He doesn’t understand the broader game, but he doesn’t care, he just sails around randomly attacking ships and sword fighting, and occasionally attacking towns and ending up in jail (which he loves). We decided the violence was cartoonish enough to not matter and you can’t really die; he just sees it as a swashbuckling way to play swords and pirates (he’s going through a total pirate phase right now).

    So they managed to make something accessible to a 4 year old, which is pretty good.

  10. DZ-Jay

    March 21, 2017 at 10:49 am

    >> “… Stealey judged the names and topics of Red Storm Rising and F-19 Stealth Fighter strong enough stand on their own.

    I think you’re missing “to” between “enough” and “stand.”

    Great article and a nice, humanizing bio-piece on Sid Meier. :)


  11. bryce777

    April 9, 2017 at 5:43 pm

    Very strange they considered it an interactive movie.

    In many ways there has never been a more perfect and engrossing game than Pirates! Everything about it had true quality, and you could read that manual for hours on end and never grow bored.

    I am pretty sure your quote was talking about red beard though, not blackbeard. Blackbeard was still a successful pirate and not a monster. He also had political aspirations. Redbeard was just a crazed criminal who was late to the party.

  12. Wolfeye M.

    September 18, 2019 at 8:20 am

    Pirates! 2004 is one of my all-time favorite games. I personally consider it the absolute best version of the game. I’ve spent hours, days even, just sailing around and getting into fights. Never did bother much with what there is of a story, I accidentally rescued a family member while doing something else, and was reminded that was a thing.
    I’ve also played the Sega Genesis version, which I’m assuming is a port of the original, but it’s a bit more fleshed out, with walking around the towns instead of menus. I intend to get Pirates Gold, even though it looks like the SG version. I’ll have to check out the original Commodore version, just to see how the game started.

    I’d almost say that Pirates! (whatever version) is the definitive pirate game. I’ve played other pirate themed games games, but none of them quite measure up.

  13. Özgür Karter

    September 29, 2020 at 8:02 am

    Great article.. I am still obsessed with the Commodore 64 version of the game. It was such a breakthrough and is the definitive pirate game as it was stated by others.

    The years between 1985-1988 were great years for gaming on the 8bit computers. I’ll always remember them fondly (Pirates, Last Ninja, Maniac Mansion, Defender of the Crown, Legacy of the Ancients.. just to name a few)

  14. Jonathan O

    April 14, 2022 at 9:44 am

    The debate about sexism seems to have prevented this from being noticed: in ” it’s various elements seem to fortuitously just work together”, “it’s should be “its”.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 14, 2022 at 3:22 pm


  15. Ben

    October 30, 2022 at 7:42 pm

    Arnold Hendrink -> Arnold Hendrick

    can makes -> can make

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 31, 2022 at 11:05 am



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