Naval Action and the great Age of Sail

A new MMO brings fun and realism to a romanticized era of warfare.

During Britain's nautical heyday — roughly spanning 1650 to 1850 — the Royal Navy was organized according to Parliamentary rules known as the "Articles of War."

One such Article decreed that court martial be levied against "all persons belonging to his Majesty’s ships, being guilty of profane oaths, cursings, execrations, drunkenness, uncleanness or other scandalous action."

In an attempt to create realism and to foster a sense of decency on its servers, the makers of MMO Naval Action have appropriated this Article, at least insofar as is reasonable. Players who enter the sailing ship combat world must abide by rules of common courtesy, or face censure.

Obviously, it's not possible to monitor personal hygiene or drunkenness, but it is possible to keep an eye on bad language and outright rudeness.

"Profanity was forbidden in the British Navy," explains publisher Game Labs' co-founder Maxim Zasov. "We ban people [from chat] if they commit that kind of offense several times. It actually helps a lot. There are lots of obscure rules that help a developer say, ‘This was in the fighting instructions and so that’s why we can ban you for it'. It’s historical."

Being historical is important to Game Labs and to players of Naval Action. This Early Access game has proven to be a hit, with concurrent peaks player numbers of 2,000-to-3,000 and sales so far of more than 70,000 copies. Its success is embedded in its central appeal: It sends us back to a time of romance.

A first-rate battleship

In Naval Action, each player is given a ship: A square topsail schooner, to be precise. The player starts in a friendly port, according to whichever country they have chosen to represent.

In the over-game, players travel to friendly or neutral ports, opening up each as they arrive for the first time. Trading begins based on a number of useful items or commodities. Naval Action has its own in-game economy based on player trades. Ships can be upgraded. Larger ships, right up to a first-rate battleship, can be purchased.

The over-world is a lovely, nautical environment of sunshine, squalls, headwinds and coastlines. Exploration is fun. It's also a good place to practice the fundamentals of wind direction.

Naval Action is about sailing ships, not motor boats. It's impossible to sail into the wind; players must tack. The concession to ease-of-play is that the wind is always blowing at an agreeable, non-life threatening rate.

Combat is where the use of wind really comes into its own. In a battle against a single enemy, which can last perhaps a quarter of an hour in early game stages, the player learns to make use of wind and sail in order to gain positional advantage, before letting loose volleys of cannon fire, which must also be controlled for elevation and direction. It takes a while to get the hang of all this, but once an enemy is sunk, the reward is a feeling of real jubilation.

In bigger battles, involving dozens of ships and lasting more than an hour, just surviving feels like a major triumph.

Naval Action

Naval Action is often compared to space combat MMO Eve Online, and the similarities are worth mentioning. Like Eve, this game also has its own guilds, in this case tied to prominent nations of the 18th Century, as well as pirates, who operate under slightly different rules. In theory, everyone is always at war with everyone else, apart from their own compatriots. But alliances are often struck. This creates a complex vista of political shifts between competing nations, as they seek to control ports and trade routes.

For anyone who has enjoyed a rollicking novel about the age of sail — an Alexander Kent or a Patrick O'Brian — or who loved the movie Master and Commander, this is a game worth investigating. It's beautifully made, reasonably easy to grasp, and very, very difficult to master. Online tactical manuals offer some clue as to the deep thinking that goes into mass battles, offering near-impenetrable talk of larboard, close-hauling and stay-sails.

The game has clearly been created with a careful eye for detail. Each class of ship handles differently, and yields its own advantages and disadvantages. The developers at Game Labs did their research by reading the literature and by working with historical ship sailors.

The final result is a convincing simulation. It all works up to that agonizing moment when you realize you've been lured into cutting across the wind, exposing yourself to a devastating broadside just at the moment your men are reloading the cannon. When the cannonballs start flying, you almost want to duck. This game is a world of romance, adventure and surprisingly effective violence.

Naval Action

Emphasis on the wind

When Zasov was growing up in the Soviet Union, he developed an interest in sailing ships.

"When I was six years old I wanted to build real wooden models of Age of Sail ships," he says. "I lived in the Communist Soviet Union. The supply of books on that topic was kind of limited."

Young Zasov's childish ambitions were too far ahead of his actual ability. But his interest in sailing ships remained. As an adult gamer, he played Age of Sail (1997) as well as Pirates of the Burning Sea, an MMO made in 2008.

"That MMO captivated me," he says. "I spent almost a year and a half playing it, or maybe more. But eventually the developers didn’t do the ideal thing with the product. They moved it in a very casual, free-to-play direction. We wanted to change that, to build a real game with real multiplayer combat done the proper way."

A graduate of Harvard Business School, Zasov spent the early part of his career in the financial sector. But when he started working on investments in the video game business, his hobby and his work life began to converge. He made the jump into gaming, eventually working in an executive position at Wargaming. That company is best known for its extraordinary success with large scale combat games like World of Tanks and World of Warships, a naval combat game set in World War II.

He says the team learned a great deal while they worked at Wargaming, but they are taking an alternative direction to that company's free-to-play model. Naval Action costs $40 on Steam.

"We are a paid game. That changes a lot of things. We also operate a little bit differently. We're very small and efficient without any fat and zero management layers. It’s not very much like Wargaming. I certainly wouldn’t say we’re anti-Wargaming. They’re doing a lot of good things. We learned a lot from them and especially from their creative leaders."

He and three other game-makers set up Kiev-based Game Labs in 2013, in order to create their own military simulations. Their first title was the highly regarded Ultimate General: Gettysburg, which currently carries an 84 percent rating on Metacritic. He and his partners decided to make the jump from the American Civil War to the Age of Sail.

"Most of the games that were done before missed the most important point of Age of Sail combat, which is proper wind management and proper maneuver planning," he says. "We wanted to make the game we wanted to play ourselves, because all of these previous games didn’t do it the right way. They were either too fast or too cartoony or had 'motorboats' like [Assassin's Creed] Black Flag, with almost no emphasis on the wind. We felt like it was time to make the right game."

Naval Action

Capture all the ports

A lot of the early work on the project went into research, both literary and practical.

"We built a huge library about sailing ships," he says. "There’s also a wealth of digitized books on all the subjects that we need to make a historical game the right way. Gunnery tests, admiralty tests, sailing models, books of orders, everything is available now.

"We also had real sailors help us fine-tune the modeling and ship behavior. We have the skipper from the Lady Washington. There’s a sailor from the very famous Russian replica called Sailing Training Ship Sedov, which is a training ship that’s used by several countries. A French sailor who worked on the Hermione also helped us fine-tune our models in the right way.

"Now we have a lot of real sailors who play our game. All of them are important to us because they all provide feedback on forums and in bug reports."

Early Access has given the team the opportunity to tweak the game and its world. The community is constantly offering feedback about everything from trading to wind behavior to 18th Century geopolitics.

Naval Action

"There was one common goal in the community. They wanted to help create a great game," he says.

The main issue of contention is balancing the PvP world, in which aggressive nations take over ports, squeezing out other nations, and their players. Right now, for example, in Server One, a massive battle is taking place between an alliance of Denmark and Pirates fighting the British. The balance of power shifts, but smaller alliances can find themselves marginalized.

"If your country captures all the ports it can capture, the other countries won’t be able to build ships, period. You’ve won. Until your leaders get bored and just leave the game — in the game sense they die and leave the leadership to another generation — only then will the empire be broken up into pieces by other players.

"At this stage, because we’re still in Early Access, it’s only balanced by how you’re able to, so to speak, advertise your nation to other captains and get them to join you. But in the Early Access environment this works, because everyone understands that the situation is temporary. Ports will be eventually reset. In the future we definitely know that some checks and balances will have to be implemented, because otherwise the game could become unplayable for everyone who’s not on the winning side."

Naval Action

Eating salty meat

In video games, realism is always going to be relative. While Naval Action rules state that bad language leads to punishments, just like in the Royal Navy, there are, alas, precious few people on the game's chat talking in 18th Century seafaring lingo. The talk is distinctly 21st Century and MMOish.

But that doesn't diminish the fun, nor the sense of grand adventure when players engage in huge sea battles, each attempting to bring their own inner Horatio Nelson to the fray.

Zasov points out that one of the realities his team's research found, was that the life of sailors and even ship's captains in the 18th Century was sometimes exciting, but usually boring.

"In reality, lots of real Age of Sail captains never saw combat at all," says Zasov. "We don’t replicate long, boring patrols. You’re not on spending six months in the waters around Brest or La Rochelle, keeping the French at bay. You’re not eating salty meat that’s rotted a bit. In our game you just sail around and fight other people, or trade or build ships for yourself.

"Game developers are entertainers and artists. We provide a certain vision and our perception of reality is reflected in that vision. We believe that certain things are boring and certain things are extremely important.

Naval Action

"The wind, the way ship captains conducted firing maneuvers, the way the open world map works, we believe that’s important. In combat we replicate a lot of things that were important for captains of the time: Gunnery, the way you turn your yards, the way you control the wind, the way you sink or destroy the enemy. These are the things we tried to replicate as closely as possible. But other things aren’t so important like lots of micromanagement around the ship."

Naval Action's code originally allowed players to control every single sail, but it proved too complex. Although players control groups of sails, raising and lowering them according to need, they don't have to haul individual sails.

"In real life, you need to control every sail directly," says Zasov. "When you directly control every sail as the player, it’s very hard to play the game. That’s why individual sail management isn’t implemented, even though it’s possible. The sheer complexity makes it very hard for a player to manage in a multiplayer battle.

"We’ve been developing this game since the end of 2013. People who try our game, they love the combat. Most of our customers who’ve bought the product, they’re really excited about the combat in the game. We’ve been able to find a balance between having fun and presenting every element in a somewhat realistic way." Babykayak