My epic studio visit to Rare concluded with a big Sea of Thieves interview with Executive Producer Joe Neate and PC Design Lead Tedd Timmins to discuss future plans, Xbox Game Pass, purchasable pirate pet pals, and customizable underwear.
Jez Corden, senior editor at Windows Central: So what are the duties of an executive producer exactly?
Joe Neate, Executive Producer on Sea of Thieves: Ultimately I have to keep a kind of view of everything from vision, I work with our design team and stuff to make sure we're hitting our vision for the game. I have to look after the business side, timely delivery, the budgetary side, and how are we going to operate this and grow this as a business. And you know, how is Sea of Thieves going to be successful?
I have to kind of hit everything, I oversee my community and communications and just like everything about how we talk about the game, how we show the game off. And then there are people who have to go and own all of that stuff. I have to ensure that all the team knows the plans and what we're trying to do and why.
There's a lot of stuff, and it changes every single day. If there are certain things, certain areas, how do we get more efficient here? This problem this can't get resolved – how do I help resolve that? Or, oh – "this thing's kicking off in the community – what do we do? Let's pull together the right people and figure out the response to this." It's just, wherever there are things that need to be resolved to push us forward, what's the most important ways I can have an impact on those things?
Piracy as a service
You mentioned the business aspect of Sea of Thieves, and obviously there's a huge conversation taking place with regards to "Games as a Service," specifically "loot crates" and so on. How will you monetize post-launch? How does Xbox Game Pass potentially affect that?
So, at launch, there are two options for people to get into Sea of Thieves. You can buy the game, or get in via Xbox Game Pass. Both of those are good for us. One – people buy it, revenue, great! Two – we might be getting access to players who maybe wouldn't have tried Sea of Thieves, but now they have an option. Maybe they'll be there at launch, maybe they'll come a bit later. Maybe they're a bit like "ugh, multiplayer games aren't my thing," but since it's there, they might give it a try. We can potentially convert even more players to become Sea of Thieves fans this way, which is cool.
When I look at success for us, as a business, one is revenue coming in, obviously. Actually being one of the top-played games in Game Pass would be a success for us as a business too. It means we're driving engagement with Game Pass, means we're probably driving more people towards Games Pass. As a platform, as a strategy, and as Xbox, that's one of our goals too. To drive engagement with Xbox and Windows platforms.
We had fascinating closed beta stats early on. The number of people that were playing and streaming was pretty high. It has flattened out a bit since we had more people pile in, but even looking at that and being able to say "this is interesting," the more people we have streaming is a good thing. It'll drive more people towards our game, but it means they're also using Mixer and Xbox as a platform.
As we get to launch, our focus as a development team is listening, reacting, first of all making sure it's a good and stable launch, that our capabilities and services scale. We react to anything untoward that we're not expecting, and also we're listening to the top feedback.
We're also looking at what's our first major update to the game. For now, the focus is on the best launch experience possible, no question, no argument. As we move into our service, probably three months after launch, that would be when we first our first major significant update, outside of smaller things here and there.
I look at updates through two lenses: one is for the most engaged players – what stuff can we deliver to those guys? That gives you new goals, new things to achieve for the most engaged. The people who are in the "middle bucket" who are just having fun and progressing at their own pace, we'll add new quest types, new things to do across the board that creates emergent gameplay. Fishing, for example, is a great thing that would fit into this if we do it, you could bring in a new trading company that could give you new goals to achieve, you could go and get some rare exclusive things. That would be the kind of thing that benefits everybody. I want to bring in updates that service both kinds of player.
When we do that first major update a few months after launch, that's when we'll bring in the option for players to spend more money. The focus at launch should be launch, the game experience, no distractions for us, but then we move to our service operation, I will have a team of people who are still working on Sea of Thieves. I have to look at that and think about additional revenue streams.
When we bring in monetization systems, it won't impact power, it won't impact progression – people will know what they're buying – so no loot crates. We want to add fun social things that really have an emotional value, rather than a functional value. We're going to let people buy pets. We'll treat them in a fun way, they'll be with you on a ship – I'll be able to pick it up and run off with it because they'll be physical objects. I can hold your monkey, or hold your cat and run away with it. If I put it down, it'll come back.
Pets will be our first feature that will allow players to spend additional money. We'll treat it in the right way, and I want to be able to fire pets out of cannons. I'll fight tooth and nail with our design team to get it done. A cat will always land on its feet, of course, because it's a cat … it's just a bit of fun and silliness.
If you bought a pet, other people should be able to mess around and use it and experience the joy of it – it should add to the fun social silliness of the game – it's not necessary and won't bring a mechanical benefit.
Adding to that area, allowing people to spend money on things they enjoy in that area to support us, I think that's cool, I think that's okay. It'll be the players that love the game and love that side of it that will happily spend on that. I would pay for a monkey that might have a silly hat.
As we add additional stuff to the game down the line, there's no intent to charge for the content updates – there's no season pass, there are no DLC packs, that stuff will be delivered for free, we don't want to separate our players. But at the same time, we'll bring in an optional way to spend money, and as we grow and evolve the game and new stuff comes in, we'll be trying other things – what other things can fit into that same kind of vision – fun potions? Maybe it lets you drink it so that you look old – adding emotional value as opposed to anything else, that just fit into our Sea of Thieves world.
From launch as well, we plan to be doing timed events and things that feed into the game. There might be an NPC in a tavern one weekend, and they might set you on some fun, time-limited quests for some exclusive stuff. We'll always introduce those things in a way that follows the lore of the game. Between those bigger updates, we'll be looking at doing those sorts of events while adding smaller mechanics. A shouting trumpet for example – if you were to have a trumpet that you could loud hail across the map, we wouldn't hold that back for a big "marketable" release. Those would just flow into the game.
Looking at other live service games, like Destiny, some seem to be struggling with getting the content to players as fast as they want it – how fast can players expect new content and features in Sea of Thieves?
We have the ability to release almost daily, at the moment we've been releasing weekly. We might not do it every week at live, looking at value of smaller updates vs. larger projects, but, when we look at things that just enrich the game experience, so, customizable underwear, for example, that might be something that as soon as we have it, we'll just turn it on.
Ted Timmins, PC Design Director: Tattoos, mugs, scars. And when we're thinking about the levers we can pull, there's a lot of things we can change in the world – that if you come back tomorrow, we can up the frequency of sharks for a day for example, or add more vicious storms, we can raise the tides.
We can do really cool things, for one day, maybe all the voyages point to the wilds, and we call it wilds Wednesday as a one-off event – it's a daily thing that happened – but for those people who came along that day, it was a completely different experience. We think about daily to weekly, and then the bigger updates, and then maybe the even bigger features that come every 6 to 8 weeks. Smaller level, then middle level (underwear), bigger level (pet systems).
Neate: It's things that enrich the emergent things in the world, we'll just add those as soon as we can turn them on. We're planning to add white flags for surrender and other sorts of signs. Those are things we'll just add, post them on social media, send out a little video. It might not reach the wider outside gamer community, but the larger updates like ship captaincy – those will be bigger. I look at ARK: Survival Evolved as a good example of a game that added a lot of stuff quite quickly, they added new dinosaurs and other things in the world, I felt like I was constantly seeing new things.
Timmins: We'll do stuff with the clothing as well, more apparel. When you go to the clothing shop or the item shop there will just be new things available that day.
Shop needs a glasses section.
Timmins: Good shout, you're giving me more work, Jez.
I saw a merchant with glasses, and I was like … I want those glasses.
Timmins: The merchant rig is the same as a pirate rig, so if a merchant can wear it, theoretically you can wear it. In the vanity chest, it's a tab that we can tweak … it's just feature creep with you isn't it? You should be a game designer.
Thanks a ton to Joe Neate and Tedd Timmins for talking with us!
In a world where casino-style loot crates are creeping into almost every major game, it's nice to see Rare take a different approach to help fund its free update model. There's certainly a ridiculous amount of untapped pirate potential Rare could include in future content drops, and it'll be really intriguing to see how the game "as a service" evolves in the coming years.
Be sure to take a look at some of our other Sea of Thieves coverage, which includes design decisions, the intriguing pirate hideout system, and the legendary Kraken boss fight!
Sea of Thieves launches on March 20th, 2018 for Xbox One and Windows 10 as part of Xbox Play Anywhere for $59.99, or as part of Xbox Game Pass for $9.99 per month.
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!