Will Sea of Thieves ever fully cater for PvE fans who hate PvP?

Sea of Thieves Sunken Ship
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Sea of Thieves has triumphantly established itself as a wildly successful Xbox first-party title with a booming player base on console and Windows PC. Following a polarizing launch that was universally criticized for its lack of meaningful content, Rare hoisted its sails and tirelessly battled oceans of overwhelming obstacles to ship massive updates to the ongoing pirate sandbox. This determination from the team ultimately lent itself to tremendous growth and a dedicated community of over 30 million players.  

This nautical high-seas adventure uniquely combines PvE and PvP into one online experience. Despite its passionate collective of avid supporters, a vocal contingent of critics has strong feelings about Sea of Thieves’ approach to unpredictable social experimentation. Participants are empowered to engage with this multiplayer centric-offering in whatever ways they wish. This means when voyaging through the stunning locations in Sea of Thieves, other players are free to enrich or disrupt your ultimate objectives.  

While proponents of Rare’s fascinating twist on conventional gameplay principles adore the compelling dynamics of interacting with strangers online, some would-be sailors simply want Sea of Thieves to introduce PvE-only servers. This controversial debate has raged on within the community for years. Regardless of outspoken detractors, Rare seems steadfast in their mission of co-mingling PvP and PvE. However, recent additions included with Season 8 appear to demonstrate the team’s willingness to appease PvE-oriented players. But can Sea of Thieves truly satisfy the audience that wishes to see PvP stripped from the title?   

The current state of PvP in Sea of Thieves

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For players unfamiliar with the swashbuckling antics of Microsoft's premiere pirate fantasy title, there are definitely eccentricities that profoundly set it apart from other online multiplayer experiences. Features like Tall Tales and Adventures introduce somewhat traditional narrative beats that help flesh out the gripping lore of Sea of Thieves, but what primarily solidifies the hook of this special offering lies in its gameplay philosophy that promotes "tools, not rules." Amateur buccaneers can freely and immediately charter courses based on their own ambitions and desires.  

While this emphasis on autonomy and player choice propels Sea of Thieves to an unmatched caliber of social gaming, it also incorporates the erratic human element. Catching a glimpse of opposing player sails on the horizon commences, a feverish internal dialogue on how to manage the impending encounter. Will this crew be friendly and offer a beneficial alliance? Or do they prefer to decimate your ship and pillage its remains? The beauty of Sea of Thieves is that both of these options are equally likely.   

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On the other side of the situation, you can be the catalyst that initiates player interactions through various methods. Text communications and in-game proximity chat establish adequate means of conveying your intentions. If you're looking to partner up with like-minded adventurers to tackle challenges, throw up your Alliance flag and shout a declaration of peace from your Speaking Trumpet. And if scorched earth is more your speed, raise your Reaper's flag and unleash a barrage of cannonballs.

No two interactions in Sea of Thieves will be the same, and that dichotomy is simultaneously polarizing and intoxicating. There are inherent conflicts between the intentions and goals of different player types. Occasionally, you aren't in the mood for sweaty PvP encounters and just want to kick back, cast out your line, and catch ruby splashtails. While you are given the instruments necessary to fulfill your fishing fantasies, nothing stops a rival crew from fulfilling its dream of sinking any ships they find engaging in water sports.

These aggravating struggles have completely soured the appeal of Rare's otherwise enchanting online pirate expedition for a dispirited group of players.

Frequently frustrated pirates will take to social media to air their grievances surrounding miserable PvP encounters. From losing hauls of treasure that took hours to amass to getting bullied by bored veteran players looking for cheap thrills, anyone who's played Sea of Thieves has likely endured some form of griefing or unsavory confrontation. These aggravating struggles have completely soured the appeal of Rare's otherwise enchanting online pirate expedition for a dispirited group of players.   

Previously, Sea of Thieves attempted to quell aggressive pirates' relentless bloodthirst by delivering The Arena. This side mode enabled players to matchmake directly into PvP-only environments. With unique rewards and a focus on fast-paced pick-up-and-play action, initially, this was an overwhelmingly welcomed addition to Sea of Thieves. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the player base preferred engaging with the core open-world sandbox, and eventually, The Arena PvP spinoff was shut down.   

The recently released Season 8 of Sea of Thieves ushered in further transformative alterations to PvP. Players can now opt-in to on-demand PvP matchmaking from the standard game mode. After pledging allegiance to one of two factions, battle-hungry pirates submerge into the depths of the sea, searching for opponents. Once an adversary has been secured, your ship emerges from the waves and braces for ship-to-ship combat. Yet another obvious gameplay decision designed to encourage focused PvP encounters to potentially quell the complaints of PvE enthusiasts. 

An impossible balancing act

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Despite the efforts from Rare to incentivize and reward all player types and maintain its commitment to the "tools, not rules" mantra, opinions surrounding Sea of Thieves continually clash. This online-only pirate adventure was fundamentally built upon the variable dynamics of player interactions, and sea of Thieves supports and sanctions the aspirations of millions of sailors. Because we all want something different from the experience, achieving a satisfactory balance for all parties feels almost impossible.  

The most devout denigrators of PvP in Sea of Thieves want the option for PvE servers. For this embassy of easy-going pirates, eliminating the unpredictable aggression of random crews is the only acceptable path forward. With an ever-growing array of narrative-driven quests, boss-like enemy encounters, and voyage types, this collective believes there are plenty of reasons to engage with Sea of Thieves outside of blasting and sinking player ships. 

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I will never forget countless moments from my endeavors on the seas because of how Rare celebrates humanity in its social offering.

Purists like myself can't imagine what Sea of Thieves would be like without the thrilling possibilities of sporadic human decision-making. The delicate dance of trust, betrayal, and redemption when interacting with other crews is unlike anything available in modern gaming. It doesn't always play out in your favor, and there are occasionally instances where people are downright awful. Still, those extreme highs and lows amplify the moment-to-moment gameplay in Sea of Thieves.  

I will never forget countless moments from my endeavors on the seas because of how Rare celebrates humanity in its social offering. From rallying to assist a fellow sloop actively being overrun by a hostile galleon to cautiously assembling four different crews on one ship to summon a megalodon for the first time, the magical memories in Sea of Thieves are marvelously earned through overcoming uncertainty. While I completely understand the vexations levied against this online multiplayer project, I find myself deeply conflicted about the necessity for PvE-only servers.  

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On the other hand, Rare potentially tips the scales too heavily towards PvP by introducing factions like the Reaper's Bones. Before the rollout of Sovereigns for ship captains, Reaper's Hideout served as an outrageously convenient one-stop shop for unsympathetic pirates. Positioned in a hyper-centralized location, players flying the Reaper's Emissary could camp in the central area of the world map and wait for hard-working crews to gather treasure for them. Outside of the permanent marker displayed on everyone's map, there were a few downsides to being a PvP edge lord. In fact, it was more financially beneficial to just sink other ships.   

Rare continues to finetune the PvP vs. PvE equilibrium in Sea of Thieves. The recent incorporation of PvP on-demand showcases the team's willingness to cater to its audience and their preferred methods of enjoying the game. However, passionate figures like Mike Chapman and Joe Neate have repeatedly emphasized the importance of co-mingling PvP and PvE in Sea of Thieves. With a lengthy roadmap of content planned for the future, we'll undoubtedly see further overall gameplay balance, but whether or not the perfect blend will be discovered remains to be determined.

Is there a satisfactory compromise for PvE players?  

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As I dissect the community's stance on PvP in Sea of Thieves, my biggest question is, can there ever be a compromise that satisfies PvE players? It seems clear that Rare is adamant about upholding its vision of delivering a shared online pirate world, and completely separating PvP from PvE doesn't align with those principles. Continuing to further enhance the benefits of jolly cooperation and alliances can alleviate some of the pains associated with suffering a PvP loss.   

I won't pretend to have all the answers here, and I certainly can't speak for everyone who loves Sea of Thieves. The community of players who've connected with Rare's open-world multiplayer title often sing its praises from the rooftops, but what's particularly fascinating is the magnitude of reasons fans cite for their admiration. Sea of Thieves continues to be one of the best games on Xbox Game Pass and stands as a shining beacon of the importance of investing in worthwhile new IP in the AAA space, regardless of how you feel about PvP.  

Miles Dompier is a Freelance Video Producer for Windows Central, focusing on video content for Windows Central Gaming. In addition to writing or producing news, reviews, and gaming guides, Miles delivers fun, community-focused videos for the Windows Central Gaming YouTube channel. Miles also hosts Xbox Chaturdays every Saturday, which serves as the Windows Central Gaming weekly podcast.