The Big Story: sea of thieves

Rare’s Sea Of Thieves was tread­ing wa­ter at first, but now it’s smoother sail­ing for the co-op­er­a­tive nau­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence

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While it may not be en­joy­ing the tabloid con­tro­ver­sies of Fort­nite or the mes­sage board melt­downs of PUBG,

Sea Of Thieves is still weath­er­ing storms and bring­ing home the booty— and it’s just sailed past its most im­pres­sive mile­stone to date.

Sea Of Thieves launched ear­lier this year to a tepid re­cep­tion (though we loved it)—some crit­ics thought it was an in­ter­est­ing so­cial ex­per­i­ment, but that it lacked a de­fined goal. Some play­ers thought it was a pretty lil’ project to gawp at, but that it was some­thing that failed to re­ally get them hooked. A lot of peo­ple—judg­ing by the turbulent first few months of the game—thought it was just too com­pet­i­tive, and started to drift away from the game.

But Rare didn’t get list­less, and let its pas­sion project of the last gen­er­a­tion get away from it—no, in­stead the de­vel­oper bat­tened down the hatches and stared right in the face of the crit­i­cism. Play­ers felt the game lacked a com­mon goal, that every crew on the open ocean was pit­ted against each other, fight­ing for copy/paste re­wards in fetch quests that never re­ally broke the mould or got their hearts rac­ing.

Rare went back to the draw­ing board, cut­ting up the plans it had for its orig­i­nal roadmap, and start­ing work on some­thing fresh. The re­sult of that was The Hun­ger­ing Deep—an ex­pan­sion that brought even the most an­tag­o­nis­tic crews to­gether and forced them to join hand-in-hand with other voy­agers in a quest to take down a leg­endary sea crea­ture.

This limited-time event made ev­ery­one re­al­ize that there was fun in co-op­er­a­tion, that play­ers could have a bet­ter time work­ing in tan­dem, that the ves­sels and weapons made bet­ter sense turned on thrash­ing mon­strosi­ties than each other.

Peace of the ac­tion

The re­sult of this Rare ex­per­i­ment? Player num­bers soared. For a week— by the de­vel­op­ers’ own ad­mis­sion— they called the game ‘Sea Of Friends’, and in­ter­nal telemetry on the Rare com­put­ers noted ship en­coun­ters end­ing in com­bat had halved. It’s what Rare had wanted at launch—this more even mix of par­ty­ing and pil­lag­ing— and it set the tone for the de­vel­op­ers’ next con­tent drop.

Re­leased in late July, Cursed Sails added some­thing else to the wa­tery sand­box of Mi­crosoft’s ex­per­i­men­tal ex­clu­sive: Skele­ton ships. It took the pres­sure off the paci­fist play­ers that came up against Sea Of Thieves’ more ag­gres­sive player-base: Now they had AI ships to pil­lage and board, without hav­ing to grief the chilled ves­sels that just want to drop off some gold and have a beer.

Word about the game’s more re­laxed so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence spread, and lapsed play­ers started to mi­grate back

to the ti­tle. Af­ter the launch of Cursed Sails, Mi­crosoft an­nounced that Sea Of Thieves had at­tracted a whop­ping 5,000,000 play­ers in its life­time, help­ing con­tent cre­ators log more than 300,000,000 hours of con­tent watched on YouTube, and rack up over 40,000,000 hours of con­tent streamed on Twitch. No mean feat for a game that was es­sen­tially of­fered for free via Xbox Games Pass.

Come to­gether

The Cursed Sails up­date shunted Rare fur­ther down the co-op­er­a­tive path, thanks to the Al­liance fea­ture that went live with the patch. Al­liance is ef­fec­tively a tool that al­lows play­ers to meet in the world, form an al­liance and ad­ven­ture to­gether, but al­ways with the chance that the temp­ta­tion of treachery could get too much. It’s the Rare phi­los­o­phy con­densed: ‘You should be nice, but we ap­pre­ci­ate you might wanna rebel.’ It’s all part of the charm of Sea Of Thieves.

Cursed Sails also added in some new weapons that could let play­ers mess with their fel­low pi­rates, but in a more… psy­cho­log­i­cal way. Cursed Can­non­balls were added to the ar­mory with the up­date, al­low­ing play­ers to get the en­emy crew drunk (Grog Balls), lock their rud­der in place to pre­vent them from steer­ing (Rud­der Balls), or weigh the op­pos­ing ves­sel down enough it will start tak­ing on wa­ter (Bal­last Balls).

It’s ev­i­dence that Rare un­der­stands both sides of what play­ers want from the game: They want enough con­tent, and AI en­coun­ters to be able to test their bur­geon­ing arse­nal, but they also want peace of mind and se­cu­rity that not every one of their mis­sions will be in­ter­rupted by girefers with noth­ing bet­ter to do but prey on weaker ships. In giv­ing play­ers more tools to de­fend them­selves, Rare is also giv­ing them more mo­ti­va­tion to play—by them­selves or with other peo­ple. The de­vel­oper has found a great bal­ance.

But where does it go from here? Rare has al­ready dropped two pretty hefty ex­pan­sions that in­ject more op­por­tu­ni­ties, more life, more

per­son­al­ity into the pi­rate sim­u­la­tor, and its orig­i­nal roadmap is in tat­ters. Some­thing play­ers have lamented since launch is the lack of a dis­tinc­tive-feel­ing endgame—a proper chal­lenge that griz­zled seadogs can re­ally get their teeth into.

That’s about to change. Drop­ping in Septem­ber is another new ex­pan­sion called For­saken Shores, that’s de­signed to test even the most

“Rare is rolling with the waves and tak­ing this game where it needs to go”

ex­pe­ri­enced Sea Of Thieves player and push crews to their ab­so­lute limit. The cen­ter­piece of this im­pos­ing new ter­ri­tory is the Devil’s Roar: a mas­sive vol­cano that’s un­sta­ble and volatile, quak­ing with vol­canic ac­tiv­ity and new (as yet undis­closed) threats.

Stay­ing afloat

Rare notes that re­sources are go­ing to be far harder to come by in this area, and that the row­ing boat it’s plan­ning to add in with the ex­pan­sion is go­ing to be needed if you want to sur­vive… Maybe you’ll need it to get from one vol­canic is­land to another, maybe you’ll have to load it with gun­pow­der bar­rels and leave it as a trap for other ves­sels try­ing to nav­i­gate the vol­canic wa­ter­ways. It’s up to you.

At launch, play­ers were put off by Sea Of Thieves’ ap­par­ently scant of­fer­ing of pi­rate-based ac­tiv­ity: a few ships, a few quests, and a re­lent­less tide of hos­til­ity made the game un­wel­com­ing—and feel­ing very unRare. Since launch, and via care­fully de­ployed, well-re­searched up­dates, the team at the UK-based stu­dio have man­aged to keep their heads above wa­ter, and start to turn the game around, re­sult­ing in some­thing more ac­ces­si­ble, with much more to of­fer.

It’s clear that, even though the orig­i­nal roadmap was thrown to the wind at launch, Rare is rolling with the waves and tak­ing this game where it needs to go. Three ex­pan­sions later,

Sea Of Thieves con­tin­ues to gather mo­men­tum and at­tract sailors, in spite of the odds. Whether new peo­ple are buy­ing into the game out­right, or join­ing via Xbox Game Pass, it’s clear there’s life in the game yet, and you can bet your last dubloon you’re go­ing to see more con­tent drop into it be­fore the year’s out.

Above The ships you find en­cour­age more co-op­er­a­tive play rather than trolling oth­ers.

right The next up­date is set to add a new, fiery area to ex­plore. But lava isn’t great for wooden ships.

Be­low For­get the older mon­sters, still prowl­ing the deep, amongst all of this new stuff at your peril.

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