Image credit: Rare

‘Sea of Thieves’ will live or die by how its world grows

The game is really fun, but for how long?

Jamie Rigg, @jmerigg
02.13.18 in AV
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    Image credit: Rare

    Sea of Thieves is unquestionably an absolute blast to play. It unashamedly embraces every seafarer cliché and trope so you can live out all your pirate fantasies, just without the sunburn, scurvy and missing appendages. You can down grog until you puke, take to the open ocean in search of treasure or conflict and, when you lose a cannon fight, play a mournful tune with your fellow scallywags as you go down with your galleon. But Sea of Thieves isn't supposed to be a game you spend a few fun evenings playing before forgetting it just as quickly. Developer Rare envisions its core audience spending hundreds if not thousands of hours plundering this new world. If that's going to be the case, though, it has to grow to be twice the title it is today.

    Sea of Thieves is a bit of a gamble for Microsoft, which has played it safe for years investing in the Halo, Gears of War and Forza franchises. A twee open-world pirate simulator is, by comparison, well out of Microsoft's comfort zone. First-party studio Rare could also do with a new, big hit. The UK-based team hasn't really done anything of note since the Viva Piñata games, the last of which came out almost a decade ago. Rather than feel under pressure, though, the vibe at Rare is very much one of excitement. As executive producer Joe Neate puts it: "We're flying at the moment, dude!" They feel they've made the game they set out to: a fun, addictive and cooperative experience that was the intention long before the pirate theme was even decided upon.

    Clean-up time

    The main concept of Sea of Thieves is that the game can kind of be whatever you want it to be. There is a linear goal, which is to complete quests, amass riches and earn your reputation as a pirate legend. You can go it alone if you want, sailing a little dinghy into the unknown. You can even try managing a huge galleon one-handed if you're up to the challenge, but, like a brimming tankard of grog, Sea of Thieves is best enjoyed with friends. Between plotting a course, orienting the sails, steering, loading the cannons, dropping anchor, patching holes in the hull and bailing out water, scanning the horizon for other ships and keeping tabs on your treasure and limited resources, there's almost too much for even the max party size of four to handle.

    Cooperation feels totally natural, and you're not forced into performing one routine task over and over. There's no designated captain, and I found that people typically move fluidly from one role to the next. Communication is absolutely essential. The game is, in fact, designed to be played with a headset, though there are stock phrases and actions available on the D-pad if you either don't have or don't want to use a microphone, or if there's some language barrier that needs overcoming. There's no real reason to use that line of communication to flame other players, and if you're playing with randoms and run into a troll, you can vote to throw them in the brig until they either buck up their ideas or leave your session.

    As it stands, the way you increase your reputation and top up the coffers is to sail to an outpost (you start each gaming session at one, too) and grab "voyages" from either the Gold Hoarders or the Order of Souls -- "trading companies" that outsource quests to pirates like yourself. You get maps and riddles that lead you to locations where you either have to find buried treasure or defeat a skeleton mini-boss and his minions. When complete, you take chests and enchanted skulls back to your ship to store on board, cashing them in only when you return to an outpost triumphant. Throughout the sandbox world you'll also find bottles glinting on beaches that contain side-quests, as well as shipwrecks and skeleton strongholds to explore that may house hidden treasures -- a facet of the game design director Mike Chapman calls the "happy accident simulator." Voyages start off being free, but more difficult missions with more bountiful rewards can be purchased with gold. You have to spend money to make money, as they say.

    Comin' for your head, Cap'n Keith

    The Sea of Thieves is a risky place, though. You don't want to complete five missions in a row, your lower deck piled high with booty, only to have another crew sink you and steal it all. But even if you stop at an outpost after every quest, there's no guarantee that goons won't be camped out, waiting to ambush you before you can turn that chest over to the Gold Hoarders for your due reward. You could, of course, forego doing quests altogether and spend your entire pirate career profiteering from the labors of others. Interactions with other players is part of what keeps things interesting, after all. That said, mastering the art of warfare on the waves is where the biggest skill cap in Sea of Thieves undoubtedly lies. The few battles I've experienced could be described as clumsy at best.

    The big galleons are not at all agile, cannons are hard to aim even in the calmest seas and, while you're fumbling with the wheel, sails and everything else, an enemy can easily sneak aboard with a gunpowder barrel (a recent addition to the game) to decimate your hull from the inside. Though not a particularly menacing sight, a smaller, nimbler boat can easily run rings around a galleon and pepper it with enough point-blank shots to send it sinking to the seafloor in minutes. I've no doubt, however, that a well-oiled and battle-hardened crew could be confident that their chances of success are well beyond the flip of a piece of eight. That's assuming they want to engage in the first place, of course. Everyone has something to lose.

    Direct hit

    There's a charming rock-paper-scissors simplicity to almost everything in Sea of Thieves, and one that doesn't change, however legendary you become. You may be the richest, most reputable captain around, but that doesn't make your cutlass any sharper, nor your cannon more powerful. Every buccaneer is on a level playing field, making your skills as a deckhand, strategist, marksman and the rest what distinguishes one player from another. Keeping all sailors on an even keel extends to making sure the experience is the same, whether you're playing on an OG Xbox One, a One X, a powerful gaming rig with three-monitor setup, or a beat-up old laptop. Resolution doesn't have a significant impact on gameplay, thanks to the cartoony art style, and you can't turn the wheel any faster or swing the sniper rifle reticle any quicker on any one platform than on another.

    There are two types of primary quests, three sizes of ships and four varieties of weapon: sword, pistol, blunderbuss and the pirate's equivalent of a sniper rifle. Similarly, there are three main types of resources. Bananas restore player health, wooden planks are needed to patch holes in your hull and the purpose of cannonballs is pretty obvious. While it's not hard to find these on the sea's many islands, you can carry only so much to store back on your ship, making a good stockpile key to a long, healthy voyage. Also, you can reload your guns only from an ammo chest on your vessel, so bullets are just as valuable a commodity.

    The game is designed to be simple and accessible on the surface, withholding nothing from any player from the very outset, for a specific reason. Rare doesn't want the quests or your reputation level or the size of your wallet to be the reason you play the game. It's the adventures you have, and the stories you create organically while inside this sandbox -- think something akin to Eve Online, but where the ships are waterborne. The tale of escaping an ambush by the skin of your teeth, only for a cursed chest that cries water to sink you on your way to an outpost. Or that night you almost collided head-on with another galleon in the eye of storm, only for the ship to disappear into the darkness a second later before either crew were able to fire a shot or exchange a friendly word. One player has already gone down in community history by swimming the length of the Sea of Thieves while ships sailed alongside him, sniping at snarks eager to thwart his progress. In-game folklore is already being written, which Rare is embracing with Easter eggs referencing such feats dotted across the world.

    Weeeeeeeeeeeeee!

    Game mechanics are one thing, but the backdrop to your tall tales is just as important. With Sea of Thieves, Rare is attempting something that's immersive on the one hand, cartoony and fun on the other. The water, for example, is basically photorealistic. Wave and wind physics, driven by ever-changing weather patterns, as well as how the different sizes of ships handle at sea, also feel lifelike. The various shanties you can play on your character's concertina and hurdy-gurdy were recorded on real, creaky instruments, not cooked up on a computer.

    But just as some aspects are designed to anchor you in a believable, engaging world (excuse the pun), others are heavily stylized and overly colorful. The pirates, ships, sharks and skeletons are all caricaturish. These elements look like they were made from plasticine, not created digitally, and there's nicks and scuffs everywhere to reflect the battered, worn nature of things recycled at sea. There's a certain hidden depth to characters and ships that may not be immediately obvious, which Rare calls the "wonky" factor. On the initial character select screen, which wasn't in the recent beta but will be present in the shipping game, you're presented with a selection of randomly generated pirates. These are of various ages, ethnicities, genders and body types; some look like ruffians, others like chiseled heroes. The idea here is that you don't spend forever selecting what eyebrow width, etc., most closely matches your own, but go through a few cycles and pick an avatar you just like the look of. Wonkiness, one of the hidden values, is how symmetrical various parts of the character are, contributing to its uniqueness.

    Adopt a scallywag

    One of the most interesting things I learned about Sea of Thieves is how the game handles ship encounters. Every craft you see is worked by a human crew, but you'd neither want to exist in a world where you can't move with all the vessels, nor feel you're completely alone out there. During development, Rare extended the draw distance (how far you can see clearly) and increased the graphical fidelity of the horizon so you can't confuse a mast at full sail with a far-off rock. The studio also decided that the optimum encounter pattern should put you in range of a ship every 15 to 20 minutes. The Sea of Thieves is mirrored many times over across servers so you get the right density of craft per instance.

    Each crew could be questing in a different corner of the world, though, so to keep encounters consistent, the servers effectively teleport ships between different instances so there's always a potential friend or foe just over the horizon. This "black magic," as PC design lead Ted Timmons calls it, also keeps the distribution of different sizes of boat relatively consistent across the multiverse. It gets even more complicated, though. If privateers take you out, sink your ship and steal all your loot, when you respawn and board a new galleon, you can head back to the area and seek revenge, knowing that your rivals haven't been warped to another instance. Basically, when you interact with other ships, you create something of a tether between you that makes it feel as though you're in a persistent, shared world. I can't really explain it in any more detail than that, since Rare would only be vague about the technicalities. "It's complicated shit," Neate concluded.

    I've only had a few hours with Sea of Thieves personally, but they were a very fun few hours indeed. I defaulted into role-playing a swashbuckler without it feeling forced, and since I typically spend my game time on supercompetitive titles like Dota 2, it was a refreshing, relaxing couple of sessions. From what I've seen on Twitch and YouTube, people seem to be having the same experience. And that's just playing the beta, which was a server stress test more than anything, ahead of the retail version launch on March 20th. Whether Sea of Thieves will still be fun 100 hours in, though, is an entirely different matter.

    Load the cannons!

    The threat to Rare's vision of an infinitely replayable game is boredom -- the descent into a Destiny-esque grind. How many times can you dig up a treasure chest or plunder a skeleton stronghold before it starts feeling repetitive? How many times can you make yourself sick from grog, play a shanty duet or shoot yourself out of a cannon in a suicidal attempt to take a rival's ship before the novelty wears off? How many encounters can you have with the rarely seen and fearsome Kraken before the wow factor subsides? In other words, how long can you play before there aren't any adventures left to have?

    The potential for Sea of Thieves to lose its charm isn't news to Rare, of course, with development on the title expected to continue long after release. By the time March 20th rolls around, there will already be another trading company that's set up shop at the many outposts. These new voyages will see you transporting livestock -- chickens, pigs and snakes, as it stands -- and cargo from one area of the world to another. It'll be worth having someone on your ship with a good memory, because you'll have to track down, say, a rare breed of snake that lives on only a few of the world's islands. And remember to play a tune to calm them down before you cage them, or risk getting bitten and poisoned. Chickens are easily startled and hard to catch, while pigs will require feeding from your banana stash during transport.

    This little piggy went to sea

    You might have to move your cargo around to stop it from drowning if you're taking fire, or stash it belowdecks lest it gets struck by lightning in a storm. You'll want to find, rob and save as many cannonballs, wooden planks and bananas as possible en route, too. Everything you're carrying has a monetary value, and these quests will become an exercise in resource management, adding diversity to quest choices and giving you more ways to earn a reputation on your road to becoming a pirate legend.

    As Rare tells it, while achieving legendary status is the primary goal, that isn't the end of the game. When you become a legend, you'll get access to a secret tavern built into a shipwreck hidden somewhere in the game world. Here you become a true captain, with your own unique ship moored up at your new hideout. You can show this off to lesser crewmates if you wish, but only a legend can solicit special quests from the specters that haunt this forgotten place. Becoming a legend is just the key, then, to unlocking a new route of progression and harder, more elaborate quests.

    The ghosts of a pirate legend's secret cove

    Another element Rare is hoping to add at launch is special, all-comer quests that'll be marked on the map by a skull-shaped cloud that'll float above one of the skeleton strongholds. Like shipwrecks, these skull islands will occur randomly, and everyone on the Sea of Thieves will be able to see this beacon no matter where they are. It'll draw ships together and also act as a warning to others carrying precious cargo to keep a wide berth. The marked location will be intentionally difficult to plunder, however, so as much as you might expect a meeting of ships to turn into all-out war, the idea is that you'll have to cooperate with other crews to defeat the fortress' enemies, grab the key to the vault and enjoy the bounty that lies within -- much more than one crew can carry without having to make several trips. Whether you honor the transient truce, double-cross your friends or leave one man behind to rob everyone blind while you're pretending to tackle the fort's inhabitants together is up to you.

    Beyond these early additions, the plan is to dream up more types of quests, time-limited events and new mechanics -- different cannonball types, maybe -- to keep people coming back to the Sea of Thieves. The studio will look at where people are finding value and support all different kinds of player motivations. "What's beautiful about the idea is that it's fantasy pirates. There are tons of really interesting and creative things we can do with this game," design director Chapman told me. "We're trying to make you feel like you're in every pirate movie you've ever seen." But continued development and server hosting space costs money, so how does Rare expect to keep evolving the game when everyone that's going to buy it has bought it already?

    Well, Rare's in kind of a privileged position in that respect. For one, Xbox Live is a monthly subscription, and if people are seen to be using that subscription to play Sea of Thieves, then it's only fair for some of that to get reinvested. Similarly, this will be the first new, high-profile Microsoft title added to the monthly Game Pass membership. Subscribers will be getting the game for free, but if they keep playing and paying, then Rare will keep developing. Sea of Thieves is expected to be one of those games that people love to watch too. If it ends up bringing new people to Microsoft's streaming site Mixer, then that's also worth something. And finally, Sea of Thieves will be propped up by the dreaded microtransaction. (At least Rare isn't interested in the controversial loot box model, though.)

    There are various cosmetic items in the game, including clothing, weapon skins, sails and figureheads that are prime for the microtransaction model. We know that pets will eventually appear in the game too, such as monkeys and parrots that follow you around and interact with other players as well as with you. The in-game store will feature only "emotional" modifiers intended to enhance your enjoyment of the game. Rare assures me there'll never be anything one can buy that alters the game mechanics -- "pay to win" items, as it were. Microtransactions won't feature until several months after launch, when Rare delivers the first major update for the game. Right now, exec producer Neate says the "focus at launch is to deliver a great game experience, and nothing is going to distract us from that."

    Prepare to be boarded!

    But to keep the player base's attention, the game will have to consistently grow beyond what we've already seen and the immediate road map Rare is sharing. The early signs are promising. Streamers seemed to love the beta, and a ton more people joined the broadcasts, interested in seeing what it was all about even if they didn't end up pre-ordering to get a beta key of their own.

    Whether Sea of Thieves does evolve into one of those titles that becomes a regular feature in gamers' lives for years to come, though, will depend on the unknown. It's the classic chicken-and-egg problem. Sea of Thieves has to seduce a large and loyal audience to make continued development worth Microsoft's while. And that audience will stick around only if it feels there are more tales yet to be spun.

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