The Big Story: Sea of Thieves
We talk treasure chucking, ship pimping and flying the Xbox One flag with the developers of Sea of Thieves, Rare’s most ambitious game ever
The aspiration for Sea of Thieves, says its executive producer, Joe Neate, is for it to be “believable, not realistic”. What else would we expect from a studio that’s never let realism spoil the fun? Climb aboard your ship and you can raise the anchor, lower the sails, spin the wheel and set off, sure. But you can also pick up an accordion and start crooning your own sea shanty. Or start glugging down grog and see how much of a liability you’ll become to the rest of your poor crew.
The greatest swashbuckling game we’ve seen since Assassin’s Creed’s fling with piracy, Sea of Thieves is a seafaring MMO that’s also a treasure trove of mad ideas. “The magic of this is that it’s a shared-world adventure game,” explains Neate. “It’s a bunch of friends, on an adventure, sailing together, going on quests, getting treasure, taking that back, storing it. We want to meet the key motivations of people who love to explore, people who love to battle and people who love to go on quests and have goals.” And people who just want to reduce other ships to tiny shards scattered across the seabed? “Whenever you see a set of sails on the horizon, you are going to know that it’s crewed by real players and you’re not really going to know what their intent is.” So if it’s the good ship OXM, expect to be buried at the bottom of the ocean in an onslaught of cowardly cannon fire.
Our nefarious plans will rely on good matchmaking, mind. Just how easy is it to choose our shipmates?
“We absolutely want friends coming back together and operating as a permanent crew,” says Neate. “It’s an aspiration we want to support because we know people want that. We want players to become the legends of the game. There’s no Blackbeard, no Black Pearl ship. We want players to become that based on the stories they go on or the videos they share. I want to recognise a ship I’ve seen in a bunch of blog posts or videos and go, ‘Whoa! Let’s sail the other way!’”
It’s an ambitious goal, and Rare know a large player base will be required to achieve it. With the game launching on both Xbox One and PC, could cross-play be on the cards? “We’re looking into cross-play. It’s an aspiration for us to do that,” promises Ted Timmins, the PC design lead. “Of course it means better matchmaking when there’s more players out there. We won’t do it unless we feel the balance is there. But even if there’s a slight imbalance we feel we can have some fun with it. We’ll let the PC players have their flags and the Xbox One owners have their own flags and you can be like, ‘There’s Xbox players on the horizon!’ or vice versa.”
A vicious nautical battle against the PC master race? Sign us up.
Individual flags are just the start, as pimping out your ship is how you’ll stand out in Sea of Thieves’ oceans. “You’re going to have your ship, and be able to upgrade how it looks and how it plays,” promises Neate. “The figurehead, sails, cannons, hull, etc.
We’ve prototyped a wide range of customisation options. One of my favourites is a steering lock for your ship – like what you’d have for your car’s steering wheel – so you can stick that on your ship and then head off onto an island. So if another pirate came up they wouldn’t be able to steal your ship.” Believability once again trumps realism for an absurd (and inspired) touch.
“Go on someone else’s ship and you’ll get to see how they’ve kitted it out, almost try-before-you-buy,” says Neate, of the benefits of temporarily leaving your vessel to join another pirate’s crew. “Maybe there’s some cannons that you’ve not used before that you get to try. If you’re a new player and your mates have been playing for 50 hours, you’ll still be able to go on adventures with them and get shared rewards. So you’ll progress quicker with friends and then start spending that on your own ship. Enjoy the spoils and learn from them the best way to play.”
“Friends will be the legends of the game, going on quests and getting treasure”
Upgrades cost money, naturally, which can be found in treasure chests. But finding the treasure isn’t the hard part. “Once you’ve got the treasure chests, you’re trying to get it back to port to bank it,” explains Neate. And these chests are physical objects in the game, making them both a liability and a potential asset. “Let’s say you’ve managed to dig up a bunch of treasure chests and you’ve got them scattered all over your ship. Maybe you’re being chased by a bigger, more powerful ship. You could just throw one overboard and leave it for them and then they’ve got to decide whether to carry on chasing you or leave that one in the sea.”
Rare’s love for the fantastical (and distaste for realism) really shines when your characters die. Perish, and you won’t get a game over. Instead, you’ll be taken aboard the ghost ship, The Ferry of the Damned. “It’s like the waiting room in Beetlejuice,” enthuses Neate. “Players go and get a ticket and wait to go back into the world. You’ll encounter anybody who’s died at the same time, regardless of whether they were in your crew or not. You’ll be able to see how they died and share stories. ‘Oh, hey! What happened to you?’ ‘I got eaten by a shark.’ ‘Oh, right.’ And then you go your separate ways.
“The balance of punishment and loss is something we’re constantly wrestling with, but we wanted to make death fun. It’s part of the adventure. When your ship sinks, you’re still laughing at it when you’re in the sea, drinking as the ship goes down. It’s not the end of the world, and we don’t want it to be.”
Po-faced realistic pirating can walk the plank (although plank-walking is a must, surely?). The madder Sea of Thieves gets, the more we want to dive into its world. It’s early days, but this could beat Black Flag as our favourite open-sea adventure.
Sea of Thieves will spill from Rare’s golden treasure chest in 2017
above This room looks fancy but we’ve found a chandelier just like this in IKEA for half the price.
Below Being a pirate looks pretty rock ‘n’ roll, or at least boozy.
above Executive producer Joe Neate gets into character - bring him grog!
x(BOX) MARKS THE SPOT
above What better way to wind down after a long day than blasting another ship to smithereens?
Right OXM would love to sail off into the sunset but we’ve been told we don’t have the budget.