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
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.
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.
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.