Rare’s high-seas adventure experiment Sea of Thieves for PC and Xbox One has gone through several noteworthy changes since its launch. The game focuses on a pirate’s life in a shared world, where players embark on missions, sail across the seas, find hidden treasure, and even take on the occasional Kraken lurking beneath the waters. While the game found a passionate audience, it received some notable criticisms for lack of content and a repetitive gameplay loop, which the developers have spent the last few months working to address in the many post-launch updates.
Sea of Thieves’ executive producer Joe Neate, senior designer Shelley Preston, and design director Mike Chapman sat down with GameSpot during E3 2018 to talk about the online game’s growth since its launch. With the upcoming Cursed Sails and Forsaken Shores expansions coming later this year, each adding several new ships, items, and entirely new areas to explore, they spoke about the feedback they’ve received from fans, and just how far the game has come since release.
The fans have been very vocal about what they want to see in Sea of Thieves, which has grown a lot since its release last March. Can you talk about what the general response has been like for you all at Rare?
Joe Neate: Yeah, it’s been pretty intense and amazing. It really has. We built up a lot of awareness and excitement around the game, we launched it and we had a lot of players come in and play–those first couple of weeks was quite the adventure. With Sea of Thieves, our goal at launch was to create a new IP, create a community around it, and make a new type of multiplayer game that’s a different experience. And success for us meant landing all of that, which would give us the right to go and build on it more.
I just love that we’ve managed to make something that’s different, and had a bold ambition–we’ve all been on this project since the start. To see it land and then to now have the opportunity to just go wild adding stuff and doubling down on the vision because we’ve got this amazing player base with us, and they want more of it. The goal at launch was to create the opportunity, basically, to go and invest on top of what we started with. We exceeded all of our expectations, in terms of player numbers and everything else.
So, yeah, we’ve now got that opportunity, and it’s all about how big can we make it. To see how far can we take this game, and how many people can we make fall in love with it as we add new content and the new ways to play. It blows my mind, I want be back here in a year’s time talking more about the stats and the things that we’ve done. It’s the most rewarding game I’ve ever worked on in my career, and honestly it’s the biggest opportunity I think I’ve had in my career in terms of the game and the possibilities right now.
Mike Chapman: We were actually just commenting before you walked into the room about how different it is now compared to how it was at launch. It’s now much easier to talk about the game because people understand what it is now, in terms of what the heart of the game is. Sea of Thieves has this social connectivity with players in a shared world where they’re coming across each other, and what’s gonna happen is emergent and unpredictable. We kind of break it down into there’s always different ways to play. Like the brigantine ship that you saw briefly in the E3 teaser trailer, that’s perfectly designed for three players to have this big ship experience. And then things like new goals for everyone, especially for players who’ve hit the Pirate Legend status.
These sort of things enrich your adventures while you’re out there. So you’re heading towards an island and you play musical instruments, drink grog, you’ve now got the speaking trumpet and the drum that we added in the Hungering Deep. It’s more things like that that’s gonna enrich your adventures. So you may have seen in the trailer we’ve got skeleton ships coming to the world. You could team up with another crew to take them down, board their ships and take a gunpowder keg downstairs and use that to destroy the ship. All of that emergent gameplay is all there.
Like the Hungering Deep, all the new content that will release in this update will come in with time limited quests with specific rewards. The Hungering Deep came in with that quest line around Merrick, which introduced a storyline that allowed us to showcase the new content. We also added a drum and the speaking trumpet at the same time, and you use the drum to summon the megalodon at the end of that quest line. The speaking trumpet was a way to broadcast your voice across a far distance, so you could hail another ship at distance to ask them if they want to work together with you. That’s now in the world as well. That was our approach with Cursed Sails, and it will be with Forsaken Shores. And Shelley, your team is working on that, aren’t they?
Shelley Preston: Yeah, Forsaken Shores is coming out this September. This expansion has a new world area. There’s three seas, which are the different areas in the Sea of Thieves world. They have different visual styles, but they’re all kind of the same in terms of difficulty and challenge. So what we really wanted to do with the new area was for this expansion was for it to be visually striking, and a different, newer experience. We wanted it to have a major impact on gameplay as well, as it’s about a perilous voyage.
Part of the shroud that surrounded the Sea of Thieves [map] will recede and there’ll be a new area that you can get to, but you’ll never start in that area. It’s up to players to opt in to go on that voyage, and think about when you want to take on these more challenging, but more rewarding voyages. And then when you sail out there, it’s all kind of fire and ash. It’s like a volcanic kind of area. We really felt excited about this idea of making the world, the islands themselves almost are turning against you while you’re questing. So it’s not just about other players or AI threats. It’s actually the world itself. You might start feeling tremors and you’re like, “What’s going on, guys? Are we safe? Do we think this is gonna subside?” And then you’re looking up at the peak of the volcano and you see smoke signs that churn out of that volcano and still you’re making that decision, “We’re gonna just carry on.
We’ve just got this one more x to dig up.” We’ve been prototyping these elements of what we can do to make this environment turn against you and we’re really excited about it. Everything that we add into the game will live beyond the expansion releases. The gameplay that we’ve given players will just live beyond to just enrich Sea of Thieves all up.
Since the game has been released, what would you say were some of the biggest lessons you took away from the game’s launch, and the reaction from the community?
JN: We sat down as soon as the launch craziness ended, like the first week or so, we managed to get on top of any scale and stability issues that we had. And then we literally sat in a room for about a week with loads of post-it notes. Mike, the design team, and everyone else were going through all of the forums, looking at all the feedback. Broadly, the response from the community was that this game is great, we love what you’re doing, but give us more things to do. Yeah, threats in the world, all of that stuff. And then we just started deciding which order did we want to grow this in based on feedback, based on what we want to see see.
Skeleton ships was one of the biggest things actually because for years now we’ve been saying to our community every sail on the horizon is another player and explaining why we didn’t wanna do AI ships because we wanted every encounter to be emergent. But we’ve seen that…well, there’s a few things that feed into it in terms of players’ love for ship combat, and we love to drive different interactions between players. So ship combat is cool between players, but like in Hungering Deep, we love to see different crews team up and then go take down stuff together. With the AI ships coming into the world, it gives people that combat, the ship combat they can have with AI and stuff. They can have that experience more frequently and it doesn’t necessarily impact the balance of the shared world. It’s also something where we can encourage players to crew up, almost to form alliances with each other and then go and take down these fearsome skeleton ships in the world.
So it’s all been about driving what we love about the game, that social interaction where you’re encountering strangers and doing stuff together. It scratches that itch from the community. That was probably one of the biggest lessons for us. The E3 trailer was the first time our community would have seen that, and there’s gonna be a lot of happy people. But of course they’re gonna go and pick up Mike’s forum post that he wrote ages ago explaining why we would never do it. We’re listening, and we will change.
SP: I think that’s a great example of that. We were adamant that we didn’t want to add AI ships for all those reasons. But the most powerful things are our players, responding to that feedback, and making sure as long as it’s right for Sea of Thieves, it enriches that experiences for everybody. So we’re gonna listen to that feedback.
MC: It’s a mix of giving players what they want, putting that Sea of Thieves spin on it, but also surprising them. It’s the fact that a lot of players would ask, “I would really like an expanded world. I want more regions to explore.” We haven’t just given them that, we’ve actually gone and made the visuals a core part of the gameplay and added in a whole region with volcanoes that’s geologically unstable. We want to surprise players, and there’s things we do in the game that won’t be expected and I think both of those aspects are at a healthy mix right now.
JN: And what’s great is that because we’re live, we’re updating it, and we’re adding new stuff, we’re actually learning something new every time. After the Hungering Deep, one of the things I think we learned the most is that positive social interaction is great, and players love it when you give them reasons to engage in it. Because it was quite risky for us to go, look, the only way to take down this megalodon is if you find another crew in the world and communicate that to them. Whether it’s through the speaking trumpet or the flat system we put in, you had to go and do this thing together.
But to see what it did to our player base, seeing everyone partying together on a beach after they’d taken the thing down–taking selfies and making friends–it was an amazing experience seeing how well our player base reacted to that. Again, it makes us want to double down on that and do more of that because it’s so cool. It’s so unique to Sea of Thieves. I think in most multiplayer games it’s all about competition. And in this we want to drive much more interesting or varied, I guess, encounters. That’s when it’s most special. When you have an unexpected encounter with other players you meet new people and you have positive social interaction.
Do you have a favorite moment from your own time playing Sea of Thieves, where you just saw the many systems and the dynamic nature of the game come to life?
SP: There’ve been many, but my recent one was when I played the Hungering Deep, and we made it so that you needed to work together with another crew and I’ve had friendly and unfriendly encounters with other crews throughout playing Sea of Thieves, but turning up and seeing all these ships that are kind of waiting and there’s this new hub of social activity–we made friends with a couple of crews who wanted to go and do the voyage with us.
And there was just this beautiful moment where I was on my ship with my crew and then I’ve turned around, looked out the back, the sun was setting and there were these two other galleons just following us on the waves and we were all going to do something together and it’s like these are people that I don’t know. These are people I’ve never played with before and this game has brought us together and we’re about to go and have this amazing encounter. That was really cool.
MC: Yeah, I’d say anything to do with the speaking trumpet. And since we’ve added this tool we’ve seen so many cool videos of people rickrolling other ships, like the Rick Astley song. And there’s people pretending to be, like they work at Wendy’s, like, “Can I take your order, please?” People pretending to be air hostesses, like telling them where the exits are. I think that’s the fun part of having players in a shared world. We’ve added this tool to the world and I think just the variety of encounters and the opportunities for humor and how you can bring players together and then form friendships. Just from adding that on the surface is a really simple tool, but in our shared world it comes to life.
JN: For me, it’s the amount of people I’ve met. All I’ve seen on Twitter or wherever else who are like, “Me and my husband, or me and my wife, play this together and one of them doesn’t play games normally or hasn’t done for ages, but they’ve been enticed back in.” It’s bringing multiplayer to new players. People are playing with their sons. A lot of people in Xbox actually. A lot of our leadership team and execs have been playing with their kids and it’s the first game they can really do that with apart with maybe like Minecraft and stuff. So just seeing that we created a different type of multiplayer game that took some risks in the progression system and in what we wanted to do and what our focus was. It wasn’t for everyone and not everybody resonated with some of the decisions we made, but we purposely did that so that we could bring multiplayer to a new audience. A new experience and make this fun, welcoming game that broke down barriers.
And to continually get that feedback from new players or people that just came to this because it is that type of experience. The photos of literally husband and wife set up in the front room with two TVs and two sofas and the big thread on Twitter of everyone adding their photos to it and stuff, showing the kind of setups that they had made so they could game together. That, for me, is one of the most rewarding things. Again, because we took risks ’cause we wanted to do something different in multiplayer space.
And to just constantly get that feedback that that’s landed with so many people is amazing. That’s one of the things that I think that speaks to me the most and what makes me most passionate, as well as basically everything funny–like the Rick Astley thing. Anything like that is what we send around online through social media, we love that. We never thought of doing that. Player creativity is amazing. There’s so many things like that, and that’s what gets us going. It puts a spring in our step each morning.