Mainstream gaming has a dilemma. Although lamentations about the death of single-player gaming have diminished, publishers are increasingly focusing on games that you can keep playing (and paying for) forever. No game is fun forever, though: Loot-driven games like Destiny 2 or Star Wars Battlefront 2 have found it nearly impossible to balance the rates at which people can grind rewards while keeping everyone happy, while even level playing fields like Overwatch struggle with toxicity between players.
Where many see a barrier, Joe Neate, executive producer for Sea of Thieves, saw an opportunity “to bring a game, and to bring multiplayer to people who maybe don’t even like playing multiplayer games at the moment–they’ve been put off of it by bad experiences in the past or they don’t want to come into something that’s way too overly competitive and they think they’re starting from behind everyone else.”
First revealed by Microsoft at E3 2015, Sea of Thieves has always been hard to categorize. It’s a cooperative, online, open world pirate sandbox, but more than with most games those just feel like words. Rare design director Mike Chapman told Digital Trends they had to invent an acronym to describe the game: Shared World Adventure Game (or “Swag”, because pirates, obviously).
He also said that the game’s ability to defy description is, in fact, one of its best qualities. With loot, quests, persistent characters, monsters, exploration, and competition, on paper Sea of Thieves could be a design-by-numbers slice of the online, open world zeitgeist. In practice, however, we think it’s special. Legendary studio Rare has tapped into its institutional knowledge of humor, humanity, and play to create a game that both follows trends and defies them, hopefully steering the industry out of these rough waters toward a future of fun and adventure.
How do you make a shared world that’s more friendly?
Although an open-world pirate game sounds like an obvious starting concept, we were surprised to learn that the game didn’t even have a theme when Rare first laid out its conceptual core in 2014. “Players Creating Stories Together was actually the name of the original pitch before we even came up with the theme of pirates,” Neate explained. “That’s the hardest bit: Really nailing down what you want to do and why.”
Originally, Sea of Thieves didn’t even have a theme. “Players Creating Stories Together” was actually the name of the original concept pitch.
Rare came to prominence in the ‘90s as a Nintendo-exclusive developer, most famous for its N64 classics like GoldenEye 007, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and Banjo-Kazooie. Countless fans fondly remember Rare’s games for their colorful characters, lighthearted sense of humor, and playful and fun underlying gameplay.
Although Rare is historically a console developer, Chapman saw it as an opportunity to look outside of their established wheelhouse for inspiration. “It’s a true privilege to have a blank slate. The PC indie space is a good barometer of where gaming is going.”
They ended up studying what they called “shared world games,” which provide flexible frameworks for players to encounter one another and generate stories through either conflict or cooperation. These games, which range from open world survival titles like DayZ and Rust, to the epic political and economic space sim EVE Online, draw famously obsessive player communities because they give players the tools to create unique, exciting drama. They are also known to be notoriously punishing, however, and “cripplingly hard if you fail,” according to Chapman.
Neate and the team were inspired to ask: “What would a Rare version of that be? How would we bring what’s cool about those to a larger audience, take away a few of the rough edges and barriers to entry?”
That’s how they arrived at Players Creating Stories Together. A shared world game for everyone, for anyone. Piracy fell naturally into place soon thereafter.
Where have all the pirates gone?
Pirates came up early in the process of pitching themes, and resonated immediately with everyone. Chapman said our romantic ideals about pirates from books and films were a perfect fit for the type of game that they wanted to make.
“It’s about bending and breaking the rules. You’re the authority, you’re not beholden to anyone else. You’ve got total freedom around what you do and how you make your destiny. As much as possible I like to think we’ve done that with our mechanics. We’ve given you the freedom to sail where you want, do quests in any order. You’re free to play the game in any way you want to play.”
“It’s a bunch of friends, bonded together, and they’re after treasure.”
“We believe it’s the pirate game everyone’s always wanted,” Neate explained. “There’s been Sid Meier’s Pirates, Monkey Island, etc., but no one’s really done this multiplayer, shared world pirate game that hits the classic tropes you’d expect.” He mentioned how Red Dead Redemption created the definitive “Cowboy game” when it launched in 2010, and that no one had made a similarly singular game about pirates.
The team drew inspiration from all the obvious pirate media like Pirates of the Caribbean and Black Sails, according to Chapman, “but I think The Goonies sums up our game best: It’s a bunch of friends, bonded together, and they’re after pirate treasure. Who knows what’s going to happen between now and then, but they’ll walk away with memories they’ll never forget.”
Tear down that wall
With the why and the what in place, the team at Rare was now onto the “How?”
“All of our design decisions and motivations have been about pulling down barriers and letting people play together, whether that’s the social design within a crew to across platforms, and even with our progression systems,” Neate said.
Indirectly, Rare tasked itself with fixing one of modern multiplayer game design’s biggest problems: Progression-driven experiences silo players based on their skill and time invested, pushing more experienced players towards coveted endgame content, and away from everyone else.
In an attempt to sidestep this, Sea of Thieves relies on a “horizontal” progression — players earn new cosmetic loot, rather than more powerful equipment that gates or otherwise dictates their progress.
“A cutlass is always a cutlass,” Chapman said, “a pistol is always a pistol. It’s not about chasing stats on these items, because when you think about what that does it drives a wedge between friends. You get all these awkward conversations where you finally convince your friends to buy the game because you’re loving it, and you tell them that they have to play for 25 hours before you can play with them.”
“A cutlass is always a cutlass; a pistol is always a pistol. It’s not about chasing stats.”
Progression in Sea of Thieves centers around the different trading companies. Performing quests for them earns you reputation points. As you pass certain thresholds with each company, you can purchase titles with them that give you access to more challenging (and rewarding) quests and special items, like a gilded shovel if you dig up enough treasure for the Gold Hoarders. While you need reputation to purchase access to those elite adventures, anyone on your crew can come along on any quest, no matter their experience.
“If your friends have been playing SoT for 100 hours and you join the game, you’re going to be able to play with them,” Neate said, “they’re going to be able to help you progress, so there’s not going to be a barrier put in place.”
Long-term, there is still an “endgame” of sorts for completionists looking to see every nook and cranny. Your goal when the game launches in March will be earning your status as a “Pirate Legend.” Chapman was coy on the particulars, but said players who advance enough with the companies will eventually gain a special quest that earns their entry into a secret hideout for the most elite pirates as their new base of operations, gain access to the rarest voyages, and earn a special ship that can emerge into the world through a waterfall, like Batman.
The essential point about the Pirate Legend journey is that all of its rewards can be shared with your crew. Friends can join you on your ship for those legendary voyages, and even take a guided tour of the hideout from you. Progress in Sea of Thieves isn’t about exclusive content, but rather gaining access to a wider range of activities that you can then share with your friends. It’s a tricky needle to thread between accessibility and appealing exclusivity, and one we will be curiously tracking once the game is out in the world.
The final piece of making the game radically accessible compared to its peers is to reduce the focus on raw, mechanical skills like twitch reflexes. Instead, Sea of Thieves’ gameplay is built around what its developers call “soft skills.”
“When things function the way you expect, you can just let players discover mechanics instead of holding their hands.”
“The natural skills that people have in life of having to work things out together, having to figure things out, not using a GPS, but using a map and looking around the world — all of these kinds of things that people naturally have,” Neate said.
Individual tasks in Sea of Thieves are all quite literal, simple, and not demanding. “A lot of MMOs have a level of abstraction in the mechanics that is the complete opposite of what we’re trying to do in SoT,” explained Chapman. “You never are the ship–you’re just a person on the ship, and the ship is a piece of wood.”
More experienced gamers are often tripped up by this simplicity. According to Chapman (and our own experience) the first time that many players try to bail out water from their ship, they scoop it into their bucket and then dump it immediately back out, not realizing that the action hasn’t been abstracted at all–they need to go the extra step and actually dump the water out the side. “When things function the way you expect, you’ve got to explain less to players. You can just let players discover these mechanics on their own instead of holding their hands.”
Don’t let the relative simplicity of individual actions fool you, however: Sea of Thieves presents extraordinary opportunities for cleverness and skill in how you combine those actions. Neate showed us a recent clip where a player, pursued by a ship, drops into the water with an exploding barrel, stealthily swims over, climbs aboard, and slips below deck to drop the barrel in the back and shoot it, blowing up the entire enemy crew above before he drops their anchor and fires himself out of one of their cannons back just in time to catch his own ship as it circles back.
It’s an amazing sequence — exactly the sort of story that people love to share with their friends from their gameplay — but, crucially, no individual aspect of that commando run required much technical prowess. Rather, the player was simply creative, took a chance, and had things line up in his favor.
Chapman also described how players used the Chest of Sorrows — a cursed chest from a quest that cries and fills your ship with water — to terrorize the high seas.
“The first session, people realized that they could weaponize it. They’d sneak on board an enemy ship, hide it, and then they’d be running around furiously looking for holes as their ship would eventually sink.”
Emergence — a gameplay principle by which simple objects and systems combine in unexpected and interesting ways — undergirds all of SoT. In addition to encouraging it in player actions, you can see emergent interactions on a systemic level as well.
The designers also encourage emergent interactions between players by seeding the world with enticing opportunities that draw players together. Seagulls circle over shipwrecks and floating supply barrels to draw passing ships. Huge skeleton forts that generally stand dormant periodically come to life, marked by a giant, skull-shaped storm cloud looming overhead that players around the world can see.
“That’s there to deliberately stir the pot — it’s a catalyst for stories,” Chapman said. “By putting that there, players are going to approach it and it’s going to create conflict and cooperation.”
These forts will be full of challenging enemies and more rewards than any one crew could easily carry, encouraging multiple ships to work together (or against each other).
Forts and wrecks serve as opt-in points of interest to draw disparate players together, but sometimes the game takes a more active hand in shaping your journey. Storms can pop up at any time and make any voyage more challenging with choppy seas, dangerous lightning, and water filling your decks. More extreme, the kraken can attack anywhere, at any time, turning any voyage on its head. “The world gives you these unpredictable, emergent encounters. The kraken isn’t a quest–the kraken is something that the world does to you.”
If you can’t share it, did it happen?
The game’s systems don’t just create opportunities for conflict, but also serve as a framework for more performative play. Neate told us about a player in the beta who swam the world from end to end, enlisting other crews to help sail alongside him and shoot sharks. He also showed us pictures that players had staged to make it look like they had tamed a shark.
In Sea of Thieves, there are more than 40 Easter eggs that celebrate players who were the first to accomplish certain feats.
Shaping the world to reflect the actions of its players has been a core value for SoT from the start, with roughly 40 to 50 Easter eggs already in the game based on things that real players have done. “The first person to reach the ghost ship has his name scratched into the wood,” Chapman told us. “We’re never going to remove that–those things will be there forever. The first person that died of falling damage has a skeleton with its legs sticking out of the ground to mark the spot with his name in the rock.” We actually found the latter guy during our subsequent play session.
“Everything we’ve done is about letting our community come on this journey with us; letting them be a part of what SoT is,” said studio head Craig Duncan. That could be a somewhat banal talking point coming from most developers, but in the case of Sea of Thieves, Duncan was being quite literal.
The official lore book for the game even integrates real player stories, and the developers are eager to pore over gameplay footage as time goes on to find the most fun and epic stories to commemorate and integrate into the game’s history.
The first few months following release will focus on bug fixes and quality-of-life improvements, adding minor features (like a talking horn to project your voice further). The game’s first major update will come around three months after release, adding substantial new ways to play, such as new trading companies.
These major expansions will still be free to anyone that owns the game, however. “We never want to separate the player base,” explained Neate, “but running a game as a service we’re going to have a lot of people working on it, so ultimately I have to think about the revenue we’ll bring.”
Paid add-ons will come in the form of optional, social, and cosmetic content. “It won’t affect power, it won’t affect progression, and you’ll know what you’re getting, so there won’t be any loot crates where you’re rolling the dice. We want it to be things that are fun and add to the social side of the game.” The first additions, which Neate told us will launch alongside the first major content expansion, will be pets, such as cats and monkeys. Having a little companion at your side adds a fun, playful element to player’s stories without meaningfully affecting their ability to succeed.
Playing Sea of Thieves and meeting its developers, we were most stuck by a sense of wide-eyed wonder and open-ended possibility. The core of what we played felt immediately fun, memorable, and satisfying, but teased untold, infinite horizons of possible play.
Multiplayer games have long promised that they would bring people together, but ever since the Horde and the Alliance started clashing in the World of Warcraft, online gaming has mostly created opportunities for conflict, division, and tribalism. Sea of Thieves strikes us as the most potentially exciting online game we’ve ever seen because it’s the most expertly-qualified, good faith effort at truly delivering on that ideal of a positive space for collaboration, story, and play.
There’s just so much inherent potential in both the mechanics and world, which Chapman explained is the most exciting part of all:
“You haven’t arrived too late. You’ve arrived when the Sea of Thieves is almost newly discovered. The golden age of piracy is yet to come to Sea of Thieves. I think that’s a really inspirational concept.”
Sea of Thieves comes to Xbox One and Windows PCs on March 20, 2018,