Like the pirates at its centre, Sea of Thieves is proving difficult to pin down. It’s been two years since the reveal of Rare’s corsair, erm, sim at E3 2015, and I still don’t really know what you actually do in it. Frustrated, I went in search of answers, threatening Sea of Thieves’ PC design lead Ted Timmins with a watery fate if he didn’t come up with some.
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“We kind of treat it like a shared-world adventure,” Timmins tells me. “Being out at sea with a crew, collecting treasure, encountering other players, that’s where the magic happens.”
Playing the game will involve sailing from island to island, exploring both land and sea, looking for treasure like all good pirates should. That must mean loot, then?
“Yes, it’s very much loot-driven. You definitely want to get the gold,” Timmins says. You’ll spend that gold on player customisation elements - “clothing, weapons, things like that” - which will be added to the game soon. “Over time, we’ll grow that into ships, figureheads, ship liveries... We just want you to be the pirate you want to be.”
Treasure maps, shown during this year’s E3 briefing, are one means of finding treasure chests. Riddles are another. Here, Timmins gestures to the ‘pirate wheel of emotions’ - a key design aid - explaining Rare’s aim to evoke emotions across its full range. Maps and riddles challenge you to either follow environmental hints or think logically to find treasure, whereas fighting PvE enemies like reanimated skeletons - or sharks, if you’re exploring a shipwreck - provides the kind of rush you can only get from good old-fashioned swashbuckling.
A dose of tension comes from your inability to fight while carrying treasure chests. In these moments, you’ll need to rely on your crewmates to protect you as you frantically haul your booty back to the ship. When you finally make it - a moment of relief - you then have to consider where to store your treasure: some chests have special effects, meaning their location matters. “There’s chests that make you drunk, and ones that sink the ship - there’s one that cries, so you’re constantly having to bail [its tears] out of the ship.” That, and the pure joy of shooting yourself out of a cannon (“certainly the funniest thing I’ve worked on,” Timmins laughs), ensures there’s no risk of the game taking itself too seriously.
Of course, if you come across a rival crew, they’re going to want to steal your loot, so it’s best not to store it anywhere too obvious.
You’ll run across other players seamlessly in the world. You might not see them straight away, but you might hear them, thanks to a proximity chat feature that means nearby players’ nattering will be audible. It’ll then be up to you to decide whether to befriend or attack them.
“You think ‘Do we fight? Do we run? Is that actually someone I’ve heard about?’” Timmins says. “In real life you have the Blackbeards, but in Sea of Thieves, those legends will be our players.”
Out at sea, you might recognise a figurehead, and know that ship means trouble. Alternatively, you could form an alliance and take on a PvE challenge together.
“That freeform kind of gameplay comes from the player,” Timmins continues. “We’ve found that, at every play session we have on the show floor, everyone is walking away with different stories.”
Over to you
Stories are central to Sea of Thieves, I’m learning - though the world “has got lore behind it,” most of its tales will be created by players’ actions. And, as the game is in alpha now, those stories are already being written. “I could bore you with the amount of stories we’ve got from over the past year,” Timmins says. We’ll only get the details when Microsoft take the NDA off the alpha, but Timmins shares the broad strokes.
“We’re actually immortalising players, which is hilarious - the person who drunk the most grog has a plaque in the tavern,” he says. “It’s almost as if the Blackbeards of old are becoming real Blackbeards, but in our game. The first person to die in Sea of Thieves has their name carved into the ghost ship, which is where you go when you die.
“When people talk about Destiny or Overwatch, they talk with their friends like ‘Ah, do you remember that time when…’ and it goes all the way back to Halo. I remember Goldeneye, and you know, those games had no story, but we came out of it with stories, and I think that’s a very powerful thing to have.”
How far could this go? Timmins is careful not to overpromise so early in Sea of Thieves’ development, but the least we can expect are live events of the kind we see in Destiny or Elite: Dangerous - the first, involving a hunt for a new type of treasure chest, was actually running at E3.
Is this ocean big enough for the two of us?
A pirate fantasy is a tantalising setting for stories like this. One of the reasons Sea of Thieves caught everyone’s eye is that few other games have delivered that fantasy. There’s Black Flag - which probably helped to catalyse Sea of Thieves - but after that I’m struggling to name triple-A entries in this genre from the last ten years.
“We’ve talked about this a lot in the studio,” Timmins says. “I genuinely don’t know why it’s not been done before, but I’m sure we’ll start to see more of it now - or maybe variants of it.”
His prophecy comes true the day after we speak, with Ubisoft’s announcement of Skull and Bones. They used almost exactly the same words as Rare to describe it, too: “the ultimate pirate fantasy.” I caught up with Timmins later in the week to get his thoughts.
“I genuinely still haven’t seen the trailer,” Timmins says, “But from what I’ve heard, it sounds like it’s a very different perspective on [the pirate fantasy]. I think that’s nice. There’s a choice for players; which is the pirate game they always wanted? We’ve gone for The Goonies, Pirates of the Caribbean, maybe a bit of Wind Waker in there as well. It’s firing yourself out of cannons, it’s playing musical instruments, and tonally it’s very fun. We had some people playing yesterday, and they had tears coming down their cheeks - they were just in hysterics. We’re the quaint little British developer in the middle of the countryside, and this is what we see pirates being.”
A pirate story to last for years
Rare will be delivering on this fantasy for some time to come. Their plan is for Sea of Thieves to “last for years,” with constant improvements shaped by the community. That sort of claim is becoming more and more common, but Timmins backs it up by mentioning tweaks to skeleton difficulty and the encounter rate for other players’ ships among the many changes made by player feedback. “We’re now on our 95th game update, and we have the record for the most updates on any Xbox game ever. And this is a game that’s not even out yet.”
He nods at some artwork on the wall behind me - a dramatic picture of a pirate ship in a storm-tossed sea. “When we came here last, year, this was still our logo,” he says. “We didn’t have ship liveries, we didn’t have figureheads, we didn’t have storms, seagulls, shipwrecks, sharks, guns, swords, or gold. This year, we’ve delivered all of those things, but there’s still things we haven’t delivered. What I love about that image is it’s an aspiration for where Sea of Thieves is going to go.”
The image shows a ship enveloped by Kraken tentacles, hinting at some epic future bosses. It’s an exciting thought, and speaks to Rare’s ambition for the game. “Sea of Thieves will be at E3 next year showing off some new stuff,” Timmins promises, “and it’ll be [there] the year after that. We are in this for the long run.”