ig int erview: rare stu­dios

OXM goes be­low decks at Rare’s Twycross stu­dios, and speaks to Ex­ec­u­tive Pro­ducer Joe Neate about the progress of Sea Of Thieves

XBox: The Official Magazine - - START - stephen ashby

You don’t of­ten get a chance to sit down with some­one from leg­endary de­vel­op­ment stu­dio Rare, let alone visit their Twycross of­fices and get to hang out in the pi­rate tav­ern that the com­pany has lit­er­ally built inside. This month we got to do all of those things, and took full ad­van­tage by chat­ting to Joe Neate, Ex­ec­u­tive Pro­ducer on Sea Of Thieves, and drink­ing all the grog we could get our hands on. While the game has sadly been de­layed un­til early 2018, we wanted to know more about how the In­sider Pro­gram was help­ing to shape de­vel­op­ment of the pi­rate-’em-up, talk about the com­mu­nity that is al­ready ded­i­cated to the game, and see what Joe made of the re­ac­tion at E3.

We saw a lot more of Sea Of Thieves at E3 this year. That must be ex­cit­ing for you guys, right? Ab­so­lutely, yeah. If you think of last year’s E3 we showed off kind of the core ex­pe­ri­ence of sail­ing a ship [with friends] and the ship bat­tles. That was kind of it. Peo­ple were blown away by it but they kept ask­ing, ‘Okay, what do I do in this game? What are my goals? What am I go­ing to go out to achieve?’ And so we re­ally tried to an­swer that with the E3 trailer, with the walk­through of a crew go­ing on an ad­ven­ture. We’re go­ing full pi­rate. The game is all about that full pi­rate fan­tasy of be­ing a part of ev­ery film, ev­ery TV show, ev­ery book. You know, Trea­sure Is­land, The Goonies, what­ever. We’re not afraid of em­brac­ing the clichés or the tropes! This is the pi­rate fan­tasy that peo­ple have al­ways wanted. And so we wanted to show that off, to show the rid­dles, to show the sharks in the sea, to show storms in the world, fir­ing the crew out of can­nons – which isn’t in any films or TV shows I’ve seen but is still the best fea­ture – and show the skele­tons as a threat on the is­lands. The skele­tons can fire can­nons, which is su­per cool.

That is the typ­i­cal ad­ven­ture you could go on in Sea Of Thieves, and it re­ally shows a dif­fer­ent pur­pose for the is­land-based game­play. The rid­dles make such a dif­fer­ence when you’re on an is­land. You’re look­ing at the is­land in a dif­fer­ent way, be­cause you’re start­ing to look for clues. It’s de­signed to help you ap­pre­ci­ate some of the his­tory and the lore of the world, and it’s just a dif­fer­ent cere­bral chal­lenge from things like ship bat­tling, or even ‘X marks the spot’ kind of maps. That was a real step for­ward for us.

At E3 we also streamed prop­erly for the first time. We had a Mixer booth – as soon as the brief­ing fin­ished we ac­tu­ally did a live four-way co-stream on Mixer, which was my­self and a few cre­ators, and that was amaz­ing. The re­cep­tion to that has been so cool. When we show a re­ally cool, care­fully crafted trailer like that, I think it gives you a great idea of what the game is, but ac­tu­ally see­ing peo­ple play­ing the game, or play­ing the game your­self, you sud­denly re­alise it’s so much more. I think our game is ac­tu­ally better than our trailer – a lot of the time it’s al­most the other way round. You could hear the play­ers in the E3 booth, too – the chaos and the laugh­ter and the shout­ing.

This game is such a huge op­por­tu­nity for us; I’ve been in the in­dus­try for some­thing like 18 years now, and this is the big­gest op­por­tu­nity that I’ve ever had. And I think we be­lieve so strongly in the vi­sion for this, and so strongly in how we can grow and evolve this over time. You know, we want to be work­ing on this for years and years, and just grow­ing, and evolv­ing, and get­ting more play­ers in, and hav­ing more sto­ries and more amaz­ing mo­ments. I’ve just got so much con­fi­dence and so much ex­cite­ment about it, it’s kind of hard to put it into words, I think.

You’ve made a lot of use of the In­sider Pro­gram. Why did you de­cide to do that? There are a lot of tac­ti­cal rea­sons that we launched the In­sider Pro­gram. First, there’s the boring stuff, like mak­ing sure that we can scale up our servers, and get all of that work­ing, be­cause you don’t want shit falling over when you bring ev­ery­one in, right? We’ve gone from, like, 1,000 play­ers at the start to 75,000 play­ers who are now in­vited into our tech­ni­cal al­pha, with a ton more still scratch­ing at the door. Con­cur­rency in the first al­pha was prob­a­bly, like, 500-600 peo­ple, and now up to 15,000 at a time are play­ing. And it’s all work­ing, and that’s cool!

But we’ve also learned tons about the game ex­pe­ri­ence. Be­cause it’s mul­ti­player in

a shared world, play­ers can use the tools in so many dif­fer­ent ways, like the abil­ity to steal a chest off some­one else, which is ef­fec­tively steal­ing progress, right? Like, you could see that as an hour’s worth of progress for peo­ple. We’ve been putting that in, and test­ing it, and see­ing how play­ers are re­act­ing. How many peo­ple are do­ing this to each other? And our teleme­try was say­ing that about 5% of chests that get cashed-in are stolen. That’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing! And our play­ers aren’t re­act­ing badly to it. We’re kind of scratch­ing that itch, I think, of those who want to go and do it, those that want to just mess with other peo­ple and do that, but it’s not hap­pen­ing loads. Plus, it’s not like play­ers are like, ‘Oh god, that’s hap­pened to me again,’ be­cause it’s in­fre­quent enough that it’s mostly a pretty cool mo­ment in a cool story – but we couldn’t know that un­til we tested it.

It’s the same thing with how of­ten play­ers want to en­counter other ships, too. That’s prob­a­bly the big­gest thing that we’ve learned, us­ing a mix­ture of data from teleme­try, sur­veys, player feed­back and stuff. We also un­der­stand a lot more about what our play­ers want in the fu­ture, so we’ve looked at our roadmap and made ad­just­ments. This type of game needs a pos­i­tive, en­gaged, wel­com­ing com­mu­nity, that are knowl­edge­able. They’re gonna help new play­ers. They’re gonna be mak­ing tu­to­rial videos. They’re go­ing to bring peo­ple into their crew. And so we’ve built this mas­sive, pos­i­tive, en­gaged com­mu­nity, and it blows my mind. The game’s not out yet, and we’ve al­ready got so many su­per fans, we could have a Sea Of Thieves fes­ti­val! It’s the most fun and wel­com­ing mul­ti­player game ever. That’s our am­bi­tion.

We’ve al­ways been re­ally keen to main­tain the bond be­tween your crew – that’s sa­cred – and then the en­coun­ters with other crews is where you get that real pi­rate-y ac­tion, the skull­dug­gery. Our com­mu­nity on the fo­rums, they have their own set of rules, kind of like a pi­rate’s code. And one of those is that you’re not al­lowed to swear on the fo­rums, which is kind of funny be­cause I’ve been mod­ded twice by our com­mu­nity! We’ve got a bunch of peo­ple we call the ‘deck­hands’, who are peo­ple we’ve ap­pointed to mod­er­ate the com­mu­nity, and they love catch­ing me swear­ing, be­cause I just get pas­sion­ate about things. I love that they’re do­ing that. So I’m go­ing to work with our com­mu­nity to cre­ate a pi­rate’s code for the game, be­cause we want peo­ple to be re­spect­ful in this game. We want to set out our stand early, but work with our com­mu­nity to set the right sort of guide­lines, the right sort of rules, and work with them to en­force it. I’d love it if this was some­one’s first mul­ti­player game – you know, they’ve never re­ally wanted to get into it be­fore, they’ve just been put off by the fact it’s re­ally com­pet­i­tive or it could be toxic. We could make some­thing that’s far more wel­com­ing but still amaz­ing fun. The In­sider Pro­gram is ba­si­cally our way of build­ing that pos­i­tive com­mu­nity, and learn­ing how to man­age and com­mu­ni­cate with a com­mu­nity. We send them weekly In­sider emails, we give them early ac­cess to the videos we cre­ate, we en­gage a ton on the fo­rums with them.

We’ve also been look­ing at what play­ers are do­ing and what sto­ries they’re telling. Dur­ing the first ever play ses­sion we had of Sea Of Thieves with real play­ers, we were sat there in our board room with loads of screens, and af­ter about four min­utes some­body died. We all just re­alised, ‘That was the first per­son to ever die in our game. That’s kind of cool!’ And we thought, ‘We should do some­thing about that.’ So now, on the Ferry of the Damned (the ghost ship in the game that you go to when you die) his Gamertag is scratched into the wood by the door, and it will be there for­ever as part of the lore. We’ve been lay­er­ing more and more things in like this. There’s a guy called Amir, and when we first put fall dam­age into the game and we were test­ing it out, he ba­si­cally killed him­self 39 times via fall dam­age to test it out. And so there’s a skele­ton stuck in the sand up­side down, with just his lit­tle legs pok­ing out, with his name scratched on a rock next to him.

When we lift NDA there are go­ing to be so many sto­ries, and we can go to town. We can re­name parts of the world. We can do any­thing – we want to build the lore of the world up around player ac­tiv­i­ties. When Amir found out about this, he wrote us an email say­ing “In all my years of gam­ing, all the achieve­ments I’ve ever earned, this is the big­gest achieve­ment I’ve ever had, to see my con­tri­bu­tion and my im­pact re­warded like this.” This is all hap­pen­ing with a game that isn’t out yet! It means that when the time comes that we do al­low ev­ery­one else in, there’s al­ready gonna be tons of peo­ple play­ing it, and tons of pos­i­tive peo­ple.

It means we’ve got this amaz­ing level of aware­ness for a new IP that wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily ex­ist for another game. New IP is hard to launch, right? We’re work­ing so that

“We want to be work­ing on this for years, and just grow­ing and evolv­ing”

by the time we do ac­tu­ally get the broad­est au­di­ence in, it’s smooth sail­ing – for want of a better pun.

I think that’s ul­ti­mately where play­ers will go with this. They’ll want to be­come le­gends of the game, and we’ll be look­ing to sup­port that. We’ve al­ready got them! Ev­ery­body knows who @Clum­syGe­orge is in our com­mu­nity, or @Kat­tTrue­walker, or, @IOnEI-Fal­con. I can reel all of th­ese names off be­cause they’re amaz­ingly pos­i­tive sup­port­ive mem­bers of the com­mu­nity. So that’s why we used the In­sider Pro­gram.

Another thing that we saw at the E3 brief­ing was the Xbox One X. Yes, yes we did. It was the first time I’ve seen it as well.

Will Sea Of Thieves be sup­port­ing that, en­hanced for the One X? Of course it will! We only got the dev kits into Rare about a month be­fore E3. Still, we got it up and run­ning su­per quick, like, in half a day or some­thing. We kind of said, ‘Oh right, this might be eas­ier than we thought.’ That’s been the story across ev­ery de­vel­oper, I think. They’re like, ‘Wow, this is pow­er­ful.’ We’re go­ing to be re­ally get­ting to grips now we’re back from E3, but be­cause we’re on Win­dows 10 PC as well as Xbox One, we’re al­ready set up to sup­port 4K. We’ve got all the as­sets built, we’ve put all the work in, we’ve got HDR…

But I think one of the most spe­cial things for me about the look of the game is that across a wide range of de­vices, from a min­i­mum-spec PC all the way up to a 4K mon­ster our game looks great be­cause we pur­pose­fully made this time­less art style. It’s not some­thing that re­lied on the lat­est tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ments to look great – and I say that in a pos­i­tive way. We didn’t want it to sud­denly look shit in a year’s time, right? We want this game to last for years, and we don’t want to have to be con­stantly up­dat­ing it and chas­ing our tails. So it’s go­ing to look great across all de­vices, and it’s ob­vi­ously gonna look the best on Xbox One X, but we’re try­ing to push the min spec down as low as pos­si­ble on PC be­cause we want as many play­ers to have the op­por­tu­nity to play this.

How will the Xbox One X change gam­ing? Is there some­thing you’re re­ally ex­cited to do with it? Do you think 4K is go­ing to be a huge deal? I think it is. It blew my mind see­ing our game in 4K at E3, be­cause we’ve only got about four 4K TVs in the stu­dio at the mo­ment. I hadn’t ac­tu­ally seen it yet in 4K. We’d been record­ing it in 4K but I’d been re­view­ing the 1080p ver­sion I guess. And so when I saw it at E3, it was like, ‘Ha, okay, well, that’s crisp.’ It’s amaz­ing to see how good our game does look like that. Of course it’s a step for­ward, and of course our game is go­ing to look better in 4K with HDR. But we don’t want to alien­ate any mem­ber of our au­di­ence, be­cause it’s their choice what de­vice they want to play on. We want to make a game that just sings on all of them, right? There also shouldn’t be an ad­van­tage on any of them. The draw dis­tance needs to be the same [across ev­ery de­vice] so you can’t see ships from fur­ther away on a more pow­er­ful ma­chine. With Xbox Play Any­where and Cross Play and all that kind of stuff, we can have ev­ery­body play­ing to­gether, and we can take down the bar­ri­ers.

I was blown away by a cou­ple of the 4K games on Xbox One X at E3. Metro looks in­cred­i­ble, and ob­vi­ously Forza does too. That’s su­per cool and su­per in­spir­ing to see. It’s gonna be re­ally fun for us to get to grips with the con­sole more, and re­ally fig­ure out what we can do with it for Sea Of Thieves.

You men­tioned that peo­ple are al­ready play­ing the game. How can play­ers get early ac­cess to Sea Of Thieves this year? If play­ers want to get in­volved, they should go and sign up for the In­sider Pro­gram, be­cause we’re con­stantly grow­ing the amount of peo­ple that are play­ing. You can help us shape the game into the game you want it to be! Don’t wait un­til down the line and then say, ‘Oh, this isn’t quite what I wanted or ex­pected.’ We’re tak­ing feed­back all the time. You can be part of a re­ally cool, pos­i­tive com­mu­nity! I think we’re do­ing it dif­fer­ently, and we’re do­ing it for good rea­sons. Of course, if you just want to wait un­til early 2018, you’ll be able to get your hands on it then. But there’s op­por­tu­ni­ties to play it be­fore­hand if you want.

You can down­load the In­sider Pro­gram app to your Xbox One if you want to try the Sea Of Thieves al­pha. The full game will be re­leased in early 2018.

“We want this game to last for years, and we don’t want to have to be con­stantly up­dat­ing it”

clock­wise from above The sun sets on another suc­cess­fully pi­ratey day, Joe takes the wheel at Rare’s Twycross stu­dio, an al­tar hid­den in a for­got­ten cave, and an in-game tav­ern.

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