Sea of Thieves’ first year had as many ups and downs as a boat in a storm. A rough launch gave way to numerous updates and events that expanded the game world. The Anniversary Update, to be released 30 April, will add a story mode and competitive PVP. I spoke with the Xbox One and PC game’s executive producer Joe Neate about what comes next for Sea of Thieves, the lessons learned from the rocky launch, and how Rare plans to keep its designers happy and healthy.
When I spoke to Neate last week over the phone, he was enthusiastic about what’s in store for Sea of Thieves. For its second year, Rare aims to round out blind spots that players have been eager to see addressed. The first is the introduction of Tall Tales, a questline of nine stories that tasks players with locating the legendary Shores of Gold. To get there, they must find the Shroudbreaker, an ancient artefact that allows them to pierce through thick fog hiding the island. Locating the relic will involve tracing the efforts of lost pirate crews, delving into ruins, and interacting with characters in a much more comprehensive fashion than the game has done before.
“We’ve tried to make it so each tale triggers different emotions,” Neate said. There’s a tale of fear, a tale of love. We really wanted to try different things with each of them.”
To help with this, the team consulted films like the Indiana Jones series and The Goonies to interject some feel-good adventuring into the mix. Tall Tales are meant to introduce new rewards and mechanics, such as a collector’s chest that allows players to haul tons of loot at once, but it’s also a chance for Rare to add a lot more character to Sea of Thieves. Quest givers will speak directly to players, walking through the world and guiding them. And instead of Rare’s developers voicing the characters, it’ll be pros.
“As much as we love the charm of NPCs voiced by development team members, this is professional voice actors, so it really takes it up a notch,” Neate said.
To complement these adventures, Sea of Thieves will add extra mechanics and new factions to the game world. The Hunter’s Trading Corps brings fishing and hunting to the game, allowing players to track down dozens of fish to sell for reputation and gold. A cooking pot can create cooked fish worth more value. It’s a chance to add a slower, more relaxing activity, although players eager for something more hectic can hunt down meat from creatures like the dangerous Kraken or sharp-toothed megalodon and exchange that for reputation as well.
Players looking to become Pirate Legends won’t need to max out all five factions, just three. If you’re tired of Merchant Guild fetch quests or constant treasure hunts, you can turn fishing into a pathway to Legendary status.
Sea of Thieves has always been, in part, about embracing your inner arsehole as much as enjoying quiet moments on the open sea. Ship battles and thievery are common. The Sea of Thieves team aims to capitalise on the excitement of ship battles by adding a full-blown PVP mode called the Arena. Teased earlier this year, it provides 24-minute matches where players compete to find treasure and sink each other’s ships. The idea is to provide quick bursts of excitement, instead of meandering voyages.
“If you’re playing Sea of Thieves, you might need a morning or afternoon,” Neate said. “There’s nothing short for a half an hour before dinner or you’re heading out.” Arena, he said, will provide that missing quick-hit experience, with “relentless pacing and action and intensity.”
Five teams of four players each will compete in Arena, sailing galleons around to locate treasure using maps granted at the start of the round. Digging up treasure grants silver, and turning in chests at designated stations will reward even more booty. You can gain small rewards for killing individual players, but the idea is to push players into an experience that’s both a race and massive naval battle instead of a simple deathmatch. Between matches, players will spend time at the Sea Dogs Tavern, a massive social area run by another new faction, the Sea Dogs. Players can chill in a hot tub, hold up parchments with their score, and turn in rewards for unique cosmetics. It’s meant to provide downtime after the rush of victory.
To add tactical depth and flair, ships can now be damaged in unique ways. Aiming at the mast might knock it over and slow down ships. Blasting the ship’s wheel can limit manoeuvrability. In addition, new weapons like harpoon guns can help with boarding, enable ships to turn quickly, or even let dead-eyed pirates snatch booty from their enemies’ hands.
“You always feel like you have a chance of coming back,” Neate said. There’s a real good ebb and flow. It always feels like you could make a decision. Winning feels a lot like that PUBG or Fortnite kind of success, but in a very different mode.”
Rounding out the Sea of Thieves experience with story and PVP brings the game closer to the varied experience that players wanted. At launch, players criticised Sea of Thieves for a lack of content and ways to make progress. It was a grind, one made more fun with friends, but still slow and repetitive. The launch itself was plagued with server troubles and even hackers.
Neate was open about the lessons learned during those difficult first months. “It has been a roller-coaster ride of all different kinds of emotions,” he said. “It felt like you were in the Jurassic Park control room, and the gates were down, and you needed to find out how to get them back up.”
Part of the solution to overcoming pitfalls has been to communicate often with the player base, both through blog posts and weekly livestreams with the developers themselves, he said. It was a learning process, as designers adjusted to spending time in front of cameras. Sometimes changes occurred without communication, such as when adjustments to inventory management and ship barrels led to angry feedback. Those changes were implemented to help make it easier to manage Tall Tales’ new items and goodies, but a lack of communication left players feeling the decision was arbitrary. Neate and the Sea of Thieves team have been careful to communicate their decisions more clearly as time moved on.
“We acknowledge when we get things wrong,” Neate said. “I love the relationship we have with our community and how we can talk about pretty much anything or change our plans because shit happens. Because it does.”
Rare’s designers didn’t have much experience with live service games before Sea of Thieves, and the adjustment has been rough. Numerous content updates have required teams to rotate members in order to release new monsters and activities. The first year was tumultuous and draining, as the team worked to get Sea of Thieves where in the state they wanted, he said.
“We haven’t found the right rhythm as a studio about working sustainably as a team and what that right balance is,” Neate said. “We want to be focused on players and the experience and what we bring in next, but we need to be learning how to run these teams sustainably.”
“We haven’t quite struck the right balance in the last year, but now it’s a conversation we have in the studio and we want to do better as we move forward,” Neate added.
The Anniversary Update is ambitious, bringing in many of the things players want. Moving forward, Neate envisions that releases will be smaller and more manageable for the team: a new story chapter here, new voyages and missions there, special cosmetics from time to time. The second year aims to round out the Sea of Thieves experience, but it will hopefully also be done in a way that’s less taxing on the team. It’s a way to make players happy and the workers behind the scene healthy. The end result will hopefully offer an experience that offers something for all kinds of players.
“There should be no reason not to fall in love with Sea of Thieves now,” Neate said.