When I saw Sea of Thieves at E3 last year, I was a bit put-off. It wasn’t the sort of thing I expected from Rare, and the fun of it wasn’t immediately apparent. After this year’s showing, though, I was significantly more interested. This wasn’t meant to just be an online pirate game, but a pirate simulator of sorts, where you can do anything a pirate might.
After talking to two of the leads on the game, I’m more sure than ever – they’ve got a really cool idea on their hands, and if they can pull it off, it’ll hook a lot of people.
First, why pirates?
“We wanted players to be put in this world and not have to go through lengthy tutorials or get stuck with really complex systems,” said design director Gregg Mayles. “Everyone’s got a rough idea of what pirates do, whether it’s growing up as a kid watching films, reading books or whatever. We don’t need to tell players what to do.”
Pointing to a ship on screen, Mayles explained.
“You can swim across to that ship, climb the ladder, grab hold of the wheel, lower the sails, off you go. If you want to get a better view, you climb up to the Crow’s Nest and use a telescope. We don’t have to put that in the tutorial. It allows players to get in there and start having fun, which is what we wanted to achieve. We wanted a game about a group of players having a great time together.”
And while you should be able to do just about anything a pirate can do, there are some limits. Betrayal isn’t on the menu.
“Within a crew, everything you do should bone the crew together. It’s your crew against the world, a crew working together either succeeds together or fails together,” Mayles explained. The team doesn’t want the actions of an individual to ruin the game for the rest of the crew. There’s no friendly fire, for example. If the owner of ship you’re on loses their connection or has to go exist in the real world, the ship the rest of thew crew is on doesn’t simply disappear.
“Early in development, friendly fire was on, you could hurt your crew, and you could backstab each other,” said lead designer Mike Chapman. “It sounded like a great idea, it was a lot of fun.”
But it didn’t stay fun.
“Every time you play the game, it should play differently, but it played the same way,” he said. “Every single time.”
“It was fun, but it got boring. You get the treasure, and the crew would tear apart. We thought it was the best thing in the world, we’d play, we’d laugh till we were crying, and the next session would be the same. And the next session would be the same. You’d never get anywhere, never care about the ship, never care about the crew.”
“That kind of uneasy alliance,” he said, “we look to support that between you and other crews, not you and your crew.”
But they’re not against it!
The team is taking an approach to development that they say is very similar to ARK: Survival Evolved.
“They’re pretty much doing what we envisioned doing,” Mayles said. “They’re constantly updating, adding new stuff, listening to their players. They’re doing a really good job of the kind of release we’d like to be.”
What that means is that, instead of just creating a pirate game and throwing it out to the sharks, the team wants to start with a closed beta and start with feedback there. They’ll release the core experience, and watch players dig in.
“If players are saying, ‘we want different regions…clans…customization…that’s where we’ll focus. It’s a joint effort between us and players,” Mayles said.
That includes a hardcore mode, which is exactly what popped into my head when I started thinking about the game.
“If everyone is saying we’d love this mode where we can do this, we’d certainly consider it, as long as it fits with the ethos of the game. Nothing’s off the table,” Chapman said.
The betrayal definitely is there for crew versus crew action, though. If your crew rolls up on another and, instead of trading, teaming up to complete a tough mission or just live and let live, you decide to open fire on each other, you can absolutely do that. Whichever crew has the better helmsman, fire team, and repair crew will make it out alive, while the other crew will go down with their ship, water flooding in as they play sea shanties and drink grog.
Even then, though, this isn’t a game like Rust or Day Z where you’re in danger of losing everything at a moment’s notice.
“We want people to experience a range of emotions, feel something when they lose a ship,” explained Chapman. But the team wants “to get players back into the adventure, so you can get back into the game without too much time lost.”
This “balance of loss,” as the team is calling it, is something they’re still working out the details of, it sounds like, but the focus is on making sure that one player’s fun doesn’t ruin another’s, a key element that makes some of those aforementioned games so repulsive to some players (and attractive to others). There’s excitement and risk, but you’re never in danger of logging in to find your character naked and dead.
If Mayles, Chapman, and their team can pull all of this off (simulating a pirate world, allowing for all sorts of interaction, while balancing the risk) then the pirate’s life is definitely going to be for me.