With the waves beneath you and the wind in your sails, the Indian Ocean is yours to fully explore in Skull and Bones. But, as we recently learned, most of Ubisoft’s upcoming pirate simulator takes place at sea. So, how much is there to discover out there, aside from water, water, and, well, more water? We spoke to developers from Ubisoft Singapore to find out.
Despite the majority of Skull and Bones’ map being made up of ocean, you can step off your ship and walk on dry land. Not every island you see is explorable, but you can weigh anchor at dens and outposts; two special location types that have everything a pirate needs to prepare for further adventures.
“The gameplay on land is about socializing, crafting, building up your fleet and taking contracts in the game in either a den or the outpost,” explains Ryan Barnard, game director on Skull and Bones.
“The particular idea of the land is that it offers you a safe zone where nobody can attack you,” says Elisabeth Pellen, Skull and Bones’ creative director. “The role of the pirate is to do some back and forth between the safe land, where you can build and customize your ship, also trade some resources, before [going] on the ocean to steal precious cargo that you can then bring back.”
“So from land, aside from building and training, you can also take some contracts to make some money from other pirate kingpins,” she adds. “As your infamy begins to spread across the Indian ocean, you’ll gain access to your own pirate lair from where you can kick start your ascent to pirate kingpin by manufacturing and smuggling illegal and high value goods.”
Skull and Bones’ world has been designed as a living space that changes as frequently as the tides. Some characters won’t stay in one place forever, and so you’ll need to explore the map to find the right people with the right opportunities.
“Spread all over the world, you will find some outposts where you can meet with smugglers or some local rebels fighting against the mega corporations,” Pellen reveals. “We call them ephemeral zones, because the NPCs you will meet in those outposts won’t always be the same. They are also traveling. They are moving from one place to another.”
“When you connect to Skull and Bones, the first thing to do is to look at your map and see where the trade routes are, where the merchants are, before selecting the right ship and provision it and equip it and set sail in the direction that is most interesting to you,” she advises.
Sailing, trading, and smuggling are all important aspects of a buccaneer career. But what about treasure hunting, perhaps the most famous of all the pirate pastimes?
“There are a lot of treasures hidden in all the outposts,” promises Pellen. “You need to board some ships and steal some pieces of treasure, or you can also scavenge some wrecks to find some other pieces of map. Then [by following clues in] some drawings and some landmarks, once you find the right island, you can also use a land compass that will help you to find the location of the treasure.”
While there are plenty of important things to find and do on land, the core gameplay of Skull and Bones takes place at sea. With that in mind, Ubisoft Singapore has put a huge amount of work into making the ocean an interesting and challenging place to explore.
“Our water is essentially a deforming mesh, and that deforming mesh informs the physics,” explains Kris Kirkpatrick, Skull and Bones’ lead technical director. “So the boat is actually interacting with the waves.”
“We have other physics properties that each ship will read from,” he continues. “So there’s buoyancy and there’s drag. This affects how far into the water the boat will go, how slow they will go through it. Each ship should feel different based on the size and how heavy it is.”
Since sailing is such a focus, the naval mechanics have had to evolve beyond what we saw in Assassin’s Creed. Things like the weight of the items in your hold and the direction of the wind all need to be taken into account.
“Of course, wind should be important to sailing and navigation. The wind direction actually affects the speed of your ship,” says Kirkpatrick. “So the player needs to follow the wind, and a good player will navigate better with the wind at their back, and tack better, and therefore be a better navigator.”
But while the systems are more detailed now, Skull and Bones is definitely not a hardcore sailing simulator. “You don’t need to be a sailor to play Skull & Bones and be able to understand what to do,” promises Barnard, “but as you learn how to use the wind better, and [learn about what your] weight means and your cargo and the type of ship that you have, you’ll see that there are advantages to being a better captain and a better navigator.”
The waves of the Indian Ocean can frequently be calm and beautiful, but Skull and Bones has a full weather system that can totally transform its waters. “We want to make sure that there are different types of weather,” says Kirkpatrick. “So you can have some light rain, you can have incredibly crazy supercell storms, and they will feel dynamic. We want the player to be surprised by that and feel the threat.”
A storm can be as dangerous as a 100-gunner galleon, so one of Skull and Bones’ biggest challenges will be learning how to sail when the water is determined to break your hull. “When you enter the storm obviously the waves get a lot bigger,” Kirkpatrick explains. “That means that the certain size of ship you have could affect you. You could flood, you could take damage. Visibility will change. It’ll be a lot darker, so maybe you won’t be able to see threats. Other ships could get the jump on you. It forces the player to make sure [they are] equipped properly for the journey with the right ship. Maybe they have enough food and weapons in case they engage someone.”
Most open worlds create variety through different biomes and environments, but the ocean setting means Skull and Bones can’t really do that. Instead, the developers have paid close attention to different water states and the iconography of the Golden Age of Piracy to ensure each area of the map feels new and interesting.
“Wind affects the water, the terrain affects the water,” Kirkpatrick says. “So if I’m in a coastal sea near the shoreline, the waters will be appropriately different. I can go inland, and then we’re using the river technology […] So more than ever, the world needs to feed the water and then feed the player to help him decide how to act. Not only that, we have the biodiversity of the Indian Ocean. So when I go to Africa, the water will look and feel different than when I go to the East Indies. We wanted to really show the diversity and the realism of water.”
“As you travel through different territories for the factions, you’ll see the colors changing,” says Barnard. “The flags, the iconography change around you, so you’ll be aware of ‘Oh, I’m in Farah territory’ or ‘I’m in the French territory.’ The color schemes and all of that will change. Breaking that up [are] dynamic events. Things that get the player to investigate are really important because you don’t want to just sail for forever as you’re moving, because it’s a big game and a big world. So that’s basically what we try to do, break up the passage with different things you can engage with: helping a merchant out, repairing a ship.”
“You can be distracted by broken pieces of map you will find in a bottle, and that will lead you toward some treasure,” Pellen teases. “On a remote island you can find a ship that is looking for some help. You can decide to escort that ship first, before going back to the prey you had started to shadow.”
“Something we implemented in the game is that sometimes, depending on the value or the properties of the cargo you are transporting, you can attract specific enemies, such as pirate rogues,” she warns. “The rivals will try to eat a piece of your pie.”
Surviving the Waves
Skull and Bones’ massive open world is beautiful, and you’ll want to explore just for the sake of seeing its many sights. But exploration is also vital to staying alive, thanks to the survival mechanics that fit into the core gameplay loop. You need to constantly be searching for new resources and gathering the raw materials to build better ships, feed your crew, and advance your infamy.
“In the world of Skull and Bones, you will evolve from the status of a castaway stranded on a desert island, to the role of middleman working for other pirates, and then to the status of kingpin,” Pellen says of the game’s core arc. “To rise from zero to hero, you will first have to collect the resources that will allow you to build your ship and craft your weapons.
“In the game, you can use a small ship and a harpoon to fish some sharks and even some crocodiles,” Pellen explains. “You can use also a large set of tools to chop some trees or to collect some iron from some cliff. You can also scavenge some rags and steal some pieces of ship. And, of course, you can plunder the rich merchant company and all their forts to collect a [large] amount of resources. The value of the resources is based on high risk, high reward. With all those resources, you can cook some rations to feed your crew during your long voyage. You can use wood to craft a big ship.”
If the term ‘survival mechanics’ fills you with dread and memories of depleting thirst meters, don’t worry; Skull and Bones isn’t that kind of survival game.
“As a captain, you don’t have a status,” promises Pellen. “You don’t need to drink or consume some food yourself. [But] if you don’t feed or don’t provide your crew with water after a while, they might turn against you and kick you out of your own ship and maroon you on some island. If you feed them properly, and if you cook some food providing additional temporary buffs, you can increase the speed of your ship and the damage you will deal, because they have more energy.”
Its massive map may be mostly water, but it looks like there’s still plenty to explore in the world of Skull and Bones. For more on Ubisoft’s pirate sim, check out the seven things you need to know about Skull and Bones.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.