Sea of Thieves lets you and a group of friends sail pirate ships in a huge open ocean. You can drink grog. You can play the accordion.
The best bits of the E3 demo are when these crews of grog-drinking, shanty-singing players come rattling together in a cannon-filled collision. Instinctively you want to fight with your crew and prove who is the mightier pirate.
But the demo has been fine-tuned so players will find each other more often. And, obviously, the final game will host its players in a far larger world. So, when Sea of Thieves does launch next year, what will you actually be able to do?
Eurogamer sat down with Sea of Thieves design director Gregg Mayles to ask just that.
“Well, a lot of [the answer] will come from our quest system,” Mayles told me. “We know some players will be happy to sail around and have a good time, spot things like shipwrecks, go find washed up things on beaches to take advantage. But we also know many players will want some kind of known goals – who will want things to do and quests to go on.”
There will be quests for treasures, quests for loot. Quests to take down bounties. You will be asked to track down shipwrecks. You will discover lost islands. But there won’t be a grand, overarching story. That’s because Rare wants Sea of Thieves players to craft their own, aided by the tools and activities which the game will provide.
“We didn’t want it to feel like it’s a linear game which players are progressing along,” Mayles added. “But we also don’t want a world where players feel like there’s no lore. It’s finding that happy medium where players feel like they are part of the story which already exists in the world.
Right now, the E3 demo version of the game is fairly basic. You and a group of fellow seafarers take to a large vessel and share out roles between the crew. There are more things to do than people to do them, and it requires teamwork to sail the ship, man the cannons, climb the rigging, bail out excess seawater. Even to just unfurl the sails.
I’m a little worried, honestly. It sounds like a lot of work. And I can see times when I want to pootle around Sea of Thieves’ bright shining sea just on my own. I spent hours exploring Wind Waker’s Great Sea by myself, wandering the waves fighting sea monsters and picking up treasure. And as a shared world game, like Destiny, I know there will be times when I am playing and my friends are not.
Thankfully, Sea of Thieves has lone players covered. You’ll still be part of the same large connected world, but you will be able to venture out by yourself.
“There are ships for just one or two players and you will be able to sail them by yourself,” Mayes explained. “But the interesting thing for us is that this will still take place in a shared world. We’ve had interesting situations where two small ships happen to meet up next to one big ship – they ganged up like wasps to take down the much larger boat. It made such an interesting story, and it’s an emergent world where that could happen.”
The E3 demo shines when players interact, but especially so when you meet others who are unknown. There’s a DayZ-like quality to its stand-offs where each player, or each ship of players, has no idea of others’ intentions. That said, I was a little surprised to hear how infrequently Rare expects these interactions to happen.
“Every time you meet another ship it needs to feel like a special occasion,” Mayles continued. “It’s not a boating lake.” Originally Rare had players bumping into each other more often, he revealed. “But when we reduced the number right down it became more interesting. We want to allow players to play for an hour and not see anyone.”
It begs the question – just how big will Sea of Thieves’ map be? “It’s not important how big it is,” Mayles reasons. “It’s how many people are in there.”
What Sea of Thieves’ world will look like when players are off their ships and on dry land is a little more mysterious. There’s no mention of hub ports or towns, and I get the feeling that Rare wants each player’s boat – the bigger ones, anyway – to act as hubs of their own. But that’s not to say you won’t be exploring on solid ground. Far from it.
“We’ve deliberately chosen to focus on the boats [at E3] because we feel that is the very different part of the game,” Mayles reasoned. “But there are islands where you moor your ship, get out your treasure map, go dig up treasure. And of course there’s a seamless transition from island to sea.
“Ships are deliberately claustrophobic – when you land you feel like you’re getting a breath of fresh air, it’s almost like you can stretch your legs. Then you get back on your ship and off you go again.”
I’m curious how much is in the E3 demo just to explain the concept, and how much else there is beyond it we’re not being treated to yet. Sea of Thieves is just 18 months old – which explains why that brief teaser at last year’s E3 really was so brief. And it’s clear Rare is still working a few things out.
This is true even for small details, all of which sound like they’re being carefully considered. Take grog, for example. It’s in there because it is a core piratey thing, but even that sparked conversations about how it might affect the game’s PEGI rating. Smoking pipes too – they’re not in yet but they’re coming. Mayles says the studio is constantly aware the game’s tone needs to be just right. Not a “kiddy pirate game”, but not “full of blood and gore which might put some people off”.
“We have a thing in the studio,” he says. “You know at kid’s birthday parties where they give out party bags and they say ‘Yo Ho Ho!’ on them or something. If we ever do something that’s a bit too childish, it’s ‘party bag’ – as in, ‘Well that’s too party bag, we can’t have that’.”
I’m genuinely eager to see more, and despite a release date of early next year it sounds like the wider world outside E3 won’t have too much longer to wait. A closed beta is coming – “we haven’t set a date right now because we’d probably miss it and people would get upset” – so Rare can see what else Sea of Thieves players want to do.
“Our plan is to get this game in player’s hands as soon as possible, in a limited form, and then just listen to what people say,” Mayles concluded. “Do people want to see guilds in the game? Do people want to smoke pipes? We want the players to be the stars of this game.
“It’s not us as designers building legendary pirates or legendary ships in the game – the ones you see in the game will be the ones built by players. It’s very much a joint development thing, which is new for Rare.”
It’s bold, it’s sort of early access but not. And, thankfully, as Mayles also confirmed, Sea of Thieves is definitely not free-to-play. “When it arrives in open beta we don’t want it to be half finished. We want it to look as good as the E3 demo. And then we’ll just listen to our players.”