Sea of Thieves Retrospective – Life At Sea


When it launched in 2018, many players embraced the pirate life fantasy Sea of Thieves developer Rare had delivered, but many others were not sure what to do with the game. Sea of Thieves’ critical reception was tepid. At the time, imprudent and foolish reviewers wrote things like, “The core mechanics of an innovative co-op journey can be found here, but the carrot being held out in front of your ship is unfortunately small and unappetizing,” and, “Many elements of the experience left me wanting, even when it delivered on the pirate life.” Since then, however, Rare and its Sea of Thieves team have pushed the game into a phenomenon with players of all ages taking to the seas to tell pirate stories together. “It’s interesting to think that Sea of Thieves is the most popular – by any metric – game that Rare has ever released,” creative director Mike Chapman says. It is especially impressive to consider when you look at Rare’s history with games like Banjo-Kazooie and Goldeneye for Nintendo 64 and the Super Nintendo Donkey Kong Country games.

When I wrote those lines in my review five years ago, Sea of Thieves had not yet found its footing. There was work to be done, and like a crew of pirates motivated to discover treasure and make a better life for themselves, Chapman and the team worked hard to add to Sea of Thieves and bring it closer to the experience it had imagined from the beginning and what players wanted it to be. After finding and continuing success on Xbox platforms and PC, Microsoft made the surprise announcement that it was bringing the game to PlayStation 5 – Xbox’s primary competition – for the next big step of its journey.

From The Beginning

From The Beginning

“The kind of conception of [Sea of Thieves] began with, I think – like in most of Rare’s history – looking at genres where Rare can make its mark,” Chapman says. Rare looked at games like DayZ and Rust, popular online sandbox games at the time where stakes were high for survival, and much of the fun was born of how players cooperated or competed against one another in those worlds. “Before it was ever pirates, the core vision of the game was players creating stories together,” Chapman says. Rare wanted to make a game where players could explore a fun world with versatile tools and boast high-quality production values on console, but were also conscious that the games that were skilled at allowing players to tell their own stories were often overly punishing. “It felt like a space where Rare could really have an impact.”

From there, the discussion turned to thematic wrapping. Chapman says the team discussed ideas like whether the game could be about deep-sea exploration and even vampires. Internally, pirates were a favorite, which makes sense looking at Rare’s history. It had never made a pirate-focused game before, but pirates did have a way of always sneaking their way in. “If it was pirates, it could be crews of real players sharing a ship. And then every other ship in that shared social sandbox will become another crew of real players,” Chapman says.

At that point, the prototype stage began and Rare started exploring details like, should the game be first-person? If you’re a pirate on your own, how do you control a whole ship? “We built the game outwards from there, starting with the absolute core, building a lot of the mechanics that you see today, and then obviously beyond,” Chapman says.

Content Creators

Content Creators

Even with some unnamed reviewers being underwhelmed at launch, Rare felt strongly about the core mechanics and overall idea. “We were so confident in Sea of Thieves that I think the way we saw it is we launched a very pure experience,” Chapman says. “And even in the run-up to launch, we were very open about how this was a game that was going to grow with its community – that it would evolve over time.” Even with that stated promise for Rare, the launch was a lesson learned for the team. “What we didn’t expect was the amount at which the lack of content really hurt us in those earlier days,” Chapman says. “But that first year was very much around… we need to enrich the experience of the core experience we’ve already built.”

It would be hyperbolic to call it a scramble, but after release, Rare had to rethink its plans for the game and change its approach for what it would add to the game – a pivot that paid off. Rare ripped up its planned roadmap for the year and shifted to focus on what players would perceive as core content. The Megalodon shark, for example, and other creatures were added along with one of the most unexpected additions: skeleton ships.

An early tenet for Sea of Thieves was that if you saw a ship in the distance, it would be other players. “We were set on this notion that every ship you see will be crewed by other real players,” Chapman says. “Straight after launch, we reevaluated that, and we said, ‘Well, you know, we actually want to have the presence of a sea-based threats and other ship-based threats when other players aren’t around.” In retrospect, it was a change Chapman and the team never thought they would make, but it was the correct decision.

One aspect Rare has never backed off on – despite annoying insistence from journalists like me at E3 2018 who badgered Chapman on why they weren’t in the game – is RPG elements. You do not level up in Sea of Thieves in the traditional sense. Your sword never hits harder, and you will always have the same health no matter how much you play. That’s by design, and considering the game’s success and ability for any player to be on the same level as everyone else at any time, it’s safe to argue that was the right call. “It’s about doing the unexpected,” Chapman says. “We wanted players to discover the game years after release. And what we didn’t want was players to be left behind.” The hindsight on the decision is all the stronger now as Rare, a Microsoft-owned developer, readies the game for a platform to which it never assumed it would be porting a game.

A New Station For Play

A New Station For Play

“If you’d asked me that question two years ago if I ever thought the game would come to PlayStation 5,” Chapman says with a laugh, “I think you can probably imagine my response.” Rare has been making video games since 1986. It has released games on nearly every Nintendo console, a few Sega consoles, Xbox consoles, and dabbled with plenty of arcade machines and PC releases, but somehow, it never crossed paths with Sony to release a PlayStation game until Sea of Thieves. “It feels so surreal,” Chapman says.

Chapman doesn’t have a specific answer when I ask who started the conversation about bringing the game to PlayStation. It wasn’t necessarily explicitly directed by Rare, Microsoft, or Sony, but when it came time to pull the trigger, it was an easy decision. When the team met with Sony to start hammering down the details, they actually invited their liaisons to have their first meeting in Sea of Thieves on a ship in the game.

When I ask if anyone in the meeting appreciated the irony of Rare, roleplaying as pirates, inviting Sony onto their ship to presumably “infiltrate” their owner’s primary competition, Chapman, expectedly, laughs off the comparison and offers a political answer about the newfound relationship: “It’s probably been as painless as it possibly could be.”

Rare is a skilled developer and familiar with porting its games to other platforms, so there seem to be few technical hurdles to bringing the game to PlayStation 5, but Chapman did talk about Sony’s controller and what it could do with its added capabilities. Rare will take advantage of the haptics and adaptive triggers, but it has no plans to use the touchpad. “We’ve always been very intent about ensuring that one platform doesn’t ever really have an advantage over another,” Chapman says, pointing out that mouse and keyboard players have already been overlapping with controller players for years. To The Future (Of The Historical Fiction)

For me (an old man), I still think of Rare as the studio that made Donkey Kong Country and Perfect Dark. For Chapman and the playerbase it primarily engages with now, the developer is seen differently, but it’s trying its best to retain the quality and innovation it has become known for. “There’s probably a lot more people out there now that would recognize Sea of Thieves first before they recognize Rare as a studio,” Chapman says. “This is who Rare is in the modern times.” Sea of Thieves is now crucially important to the studio’s ongoing sense – potentially the most important – but the future looks bright. “I hope it’s timeless as just a wonderful depiction of the pirate theme and a great place to spend time with your friends,” Chapman says.


All Images © Disney

This article originally appeared in Issue 365 of Game Informer

Credit : Source Post

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