Sea of Thieves is about the journey, not the destination. For a while, Rare had a difficult time seeing that. The studio imagined an experience where players were crusading their way to the top of the food chain, showing off their prowess to all of the envious buccaneers across the realm. But after release in 2018, the company scrapped those future content plans for a different experience. Maybe players weren’t interested in pirate immortality, maybe they just wanted to fish from the dock.
“Going into launch, we had plans to expand the endgame, and what it meant to be a pirate legend. We completely changed that roadmap after we launched,” says Mike Chapman, Design Director at Rare. “Players wanted much more immediate things to do in that world. The more mechanics we add, the more likely you’re going to have a really memorable Sea of Thieves session. It reaches a critical mass. It’s been so much easier for players to say, ‘Oh, I get why this game is special.’ I think that was there at launch, it was just a little bit harder to find.”
Chapman is right. Sea of Thieves was meant to be a sandbox, but in its earliest incarnation, the game was overwhelmingly austere. The thrill of Treasure-Island-style adventures in Sea of Thieves’ faction quests quickly wore off, especially once you realized they were splayed across the map with cookie-cutter homogeny. If you’ve killed one skeleton, you’ve killed them all. The player-base didn’t help much, either. The early days of Sea of Thieves were marred by a massive influx of griefers, who could quickly sour any small crew’s experience. The game’s devotees could always see the potential, they just needed Rare to fulfill their end of the bargain.
Two years later, the company has delivered in spades. Here are just a few of the new features that add up to Chapman’s critical mass. A collection of multi-step questlines called Tall Tales, which light up the world map with swashbuckling, genre-flick adventures. A Bermuda’s Triangle-like region called the Devil’s Roar, which is stocked with both plunder and dangerous volcanoes. A brand new game mode, the Arena, which pits rival brigantines against each other in instanced, player-vs-player battle. Rare initially promised an elaborate, fantastical pirate’s paradise — and they got there, eventually. Two years after release, Sea of Thieves finally resembles the experience people dreamt about after its formal unveiling at E3 2015.
In retrospect, ‘fixing’ Sea of Thieves was remarkably simple. Its first fans loved the weighty physics, the Pixar-esque art style, the thrills of days on a sailboat, and nights under a palm tree canopy. The only problem is there simply wasn’t enough content. With no Destiny-like player level thresholds to chase, and a purely cosmetic gear grind, players were running out of things to do. That problem offered Rare some clarity; the devs needed to stock their world with toys. Fortunately, Sea of Thieves’ community stuck around, offering Rare time to make good on its loftiest goals.
“I think we built a lot of trust and positive sentiment that we were all-in on Sea of Thieves,” says Chapman. “We built up this community, and the communication with the community, like it was an existing franchise, but around a new IP. When all these new people came into the world, we already had a core community that understood the game and knew the developers. We’ve been very open with videos and insider posts. We had that trust and relationship from the get-go. We listened, we took feedback, and as that community grew massively, we always had a strong core.”
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Rare never deviated from the company’s core design directives. Two years later, Sea of Thieves remains tethered to a fixed skill curve — a brand new player is capable of the same amount of damage and speed as a veteran of the coasts. There has been no effort to retrofit the game into a progressive loot shooter; you will never be out-leveled, or out-geared, by a rival ship. The steps Rare has taken to mold the game into a more conventional format have been finely targeted. For instance, the most recent update, “Ships of Fortune,” dramatically overhauls the PvP gameplay loop, introducing a brand new faction, the Reaper’s Bones, which marks any crew under its banner globally on the in-game map for both predators and prey.
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But some of the most cherished updates in Sea of Thieves’ history hone in on the pleasures it alone is capable of delivering. For instance, players asked for the ability to fish from their vessels for months after release, and the feature was announced for a patch on the game’s one year anniversary. In typical Rare fashion, fishing arrived with a wide ecosystem of aquatic life, and a tactile, hook-line-and-sinker angling mechanic. This team believes that everything in Sea of Thieves needs to fit the same harmonious tone – if they were going to add fishing to the game, it must serve the greater fantasy of this beatific archipelago.
“A big part of Sea of Thieves is making players feel a wider degree of emotions – the thrill of ship combat, the sense of loss when your ship sinks below the waves – the emotional side of the design,” says Chapman. “Emotionally, what is fishing? Fishing isn’t a one-click mechanic to go harvest a resource. Fishing, in real life, is a way to spend some cool time, taking in your surroundings. It’s about making sure [the mechanics] have that Sea of Thieves difference.”
It’s always a gamble to believe that players will respect a more methodical, more communal, more deliberate approach to gameplay, but Rare’s developers were convinced early on that their community would respect every step Sea of Thieves took in that direction. In fact, Chapman says the update he’s most proud of is the very first one the team implemented into the game. “The Hungering Deep” added two primary features: A gargantuan, razor-toothed shark known as the Megalodon, and a long-range microphone amplifier called the Speaking Trumpet. This was one hell of a gambit. The hope was that players would use a tool that allows them to throw their voice across the waves for good, rather than griefing everyone in earshot, which is the kind of faith that many teams would never have.
“It was a risky mechanic, but one that we believed in. We were forcing players to cooperate, to go up against something together,” says Chapman. “When I went out and played it, someone started using the speaking trumpet asking if I wanted to go on a hunt [for the Megalodon] with them. If you implemented a mechanic that allowed people to shout at others over long distances during a multiplayer game, you’d fear it’d be used for ill. But that didn’t happen. That was the moment where I realized that we could do something unique.”
Today, Sea of Thieves is a surprise hit on Twitch — megastreamer Jaryd “Summit1g” Lazar has integrated it into his broadcast rotation — and in total, the game has over 1.8 million followers on the platform. After almost two decades in the wilderness since Microsoft acquired Rare in 2002, the venerable company finally has a bona fide phenomenon on its hands. Sometimes, as Chapman explains, the team has even found Twitch to be an inspiration for upcoming additions in the patch notes. There was a trend called “tucking,” where players used the “sleep” emote to stowaway on unsuspecting ships. Rare didn’t consider it an exploit. Instead, they added “hide” emotes so players could take their infiltration to a whole new level.
“We’ve embraced it,” says Chapman. “We were like, ‘That’s really funny, that’s cool, that’s exactly what we want to see, people using the mechanics in an interesting way.'”
The rebirth of Sea of Thieves is becoming an increasingly familiar story. Bioware is working away on a comprehensive reimagining of Anthem, the failure-to-launch mecha-RPG that fell on its face in early 2019. Fallout 76 has managed to turn the tide on its atrocious critical narrative, as Bethesda squashes the game-breaking bugs and fleshes out post-apocalyptic West Virginia with living NPCs in its Wastelanders update. Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six: Siege was off to a slow start before emerging as one of the most acclaimed multiplayer shooters of all time.
With title updates, hotfixes, and a ceaseless development cycle, every franchise earns at least one second chance in the open-world, always-online era. But Rare never betrayed their faith. The studio charted a comeback with a remarkably steadfast commitment to its vision of Sea of Thieves, betting it all on a single unassailable fact: that we all wish we could live the pirate’s life. That core trust has informed every design decision they’ve made, and as a result, its shores will be awash in gold for a long, long time.