Who cares about loot? The Real Fun in ‘Sea of Thieves’ Lies in the Antics


Mainstream gaming faces a conundrum. While concerns about the decline of single-player gaming have waned, publishers are increasingly focusing on games that offer endless playability and monetization. However, no game remains fun indefinitely. Loot-driven games like Destiny 2 and Star Wars Battlefront 2 struggle to strike a balance between grinding for rewards and player satisfaction. Even more level playing fields like Overwatch are plagued by toxic player behavior.

A Game for Everyone

Joe Neate, executive producer for Sea of Thieves, recognized the opportunity to introduce multiplayer gaming to those who may not typically enjoy it. He aimed to create a game that appeals to people who have been put off by negative past experiences or the ultra-competitive nature of other multiplayer games.

A Game That Defies Description

Sea of Thieves, initially revealed by Microsoft at E3 2015, is difficult to categorize. It’s a cooperative, online, open-world pirate sandbox, but it’s much more than just words. Rare design director Mike Chapman coined the acronym “Swag” (Shared World Adventure Game) to describe it. Despite featuring loot, quests, persistent characters, monsters, exploration, and competition, Sea of Thieves sets itself apart. Legendary studio Rare leveraged their expertise in humor, humanity, and play to create a game that both follows trends and defies them, paving the way for a future of fun and adventure.

Creating a More Friendly Shared World

Surprisingly, when Rare first conceptualized the game in 2014, Sea of Thieves did not have a pirate theme. The original pitch was centered around “Players Creating Stories Together.” The challenge for the team was to precisely determine the game’s purpose and motivations.

Rare, previously known for Nintendo-exclusive games like GoldenEye 007, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and Banjo-Kazooie, took inspiration from the PC indie space to explore new directions. They studied “shared world games,” which offer players flexible frameworks for interaction and storytelling through conflict or cooperation. Although these games have passionate communities, they can be punishing and difficult to enter. Rare aimed to create a game that took the best aspects of shared world games, removed barriers, and appealed to a broader audience.

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Recreating the Spirit of Pirates

During their theme exploration, pirates emerged as a popular choice. Pirates aligned perfectly with what the developers wanted to achieve in Sea of Thieves. The game aims to provide players with a sense of freedom, allowing them to bend and break the rules. Players can chart their own destiny and experience the authority and liberty typically associated with pirates.

Taking inspiration from pirate media, such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Black Sails, Sea of Thieves captures the spirit of pirates and the quest for treasure. The game combines classic elements with a multiplayer, shared world experience, making it a unique offering.

Breaking Down Barriers to Gameplay

Rare’s design decisions revolve around dismantling barriers and creating a more inclusive gaming experience. They recognized one of the major flaws in modern multiplayer game design: progression-driven experiences tend to segregate players based on skill level and time invested. This separation often pushes less experienced players away from endgame content, causing frustration and exclusion.

To address this issue, Sea of Thieves introduces a “horizontal” progression system. Instead of unlocking more powerful equipment or abilities, players earn cosmetic loot that doesn’t impact gameplay. This design choice ensures that players can sail together regardless of their progression level. Even if your friends have played the game for hundreds of hours, you can join them and progress in the game without encountering any barriers.

The Journey to Become a Pirate Legend

Sea of Thieves offers long-term goals for completionists. Achieving the status of a “Pirate Legend” is a central objective in the game. Although details remain vague, players who advance with the trading companies will eventually unlock a special quest. This quest grants access to a secret hideout, the coveted title of Pirate Legend, and exclusive voyages. Notably, all the rewards can be shared with your crew, promoting cooperation and solidarity.

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Emphasizing Soft Skills

Sea of Thieves shifts the focus from raw mechanical skills to what the developers call “soft skills.” The gameplay revolves around the natural abilities and problem-solving acumen that individuals possess in real life. The tasks in the game are straightforward and literal, without excessive abstraction. This simplicity ensures that players can intuitively understand how to interact with the game world without overwhelming tutorials or hand-holding.

Unlimited Possibilities

Although the individual actions in Sea of Thieves may seem simple, the game offers endless potential for creativity and skillful play. Combining various actions can lead to extraordinary sequences of events, resulting in exciting and memorable stories. The emergent nature of the game allows players to discover unexpected interactions and engage in clever strategies.

The world itself also encourages emergent interactions and cooperation between players. The presence of seagulls circling over shipwrecks and floating supply barrels attracts passing ships. Skeleton forts periodically come to life, drawing attention with a giant, skull-shaped storm cloud. These events prompt players to approach and interact, fostering both conflict and collaboration.

Beyond these deliberate points of interest, Sea of Thieves also presents spontaneous, unpredictable encounters. Storms can appear unexpectedly, causing choppy seas and dangerous lightning. The menacing kraken can attack at any moment, turning a routine voyage into a thrilling battle. These emergent encounters contribute to the rich tapestry of player experiences within the game.

Sharing and Shaping Stories

Sea of Thieves not only invites conflict and cooperation but also enables players to shape their own narratives. The game’s systems offer a framework for performative play. Players can engage in activities that go beyond the core objectives, such as swimming across the world, enlisting other crews for assistance, or staging amusing scenes with sharks.

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Rare is dedicated to integrating player stories into the game world. Real player accomplishments are already memorialized in the game, with approximately 40 to 50 Easter eggs based on player experiences. The developers actively seek footage from players to celebrate and commemorate the most entertaining and epic moments. Sea of Thieves aims to foster a community-driven experience where players feel involved in shaping the game’s ongoing story.

A Journey of Infinite Possibilities

Playing Sea of Thieves and connecting with its developers evokes a sense of wonder and endless possibilities. The core gameplay is immediately enjoyable, but the game hints at a vast realm of potential adventures and experiences. Sea of Thieves stands out as a potentially groundbreaking online game, embodying the notion of a positive and collaborative space for players to create stories together.

Sea of Thieves will be released on Xbox One and Windows PCs on March 20, 2018.

Editors’ Recommendation:

  • Sea of Thieves will shift to a seasonal battle pass model in 2021 to offer a more immersive experience.

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