Recently we took a trip to Rare's big studio in the UK to find out all about Sea of Thieves, the upcoming pirate adventure multiplayer game.
Neither Rare, nor Xbox, are names one would directly associate with PC, but the studio is hoping that it can deliver on the big expectations and freedoms enjoyed by PC gamers the world over.
We caught up with Ted Timmins, who leads PC development on Sea of Thieves, to discuss optimization, the oft-criticised Windows 10 Microsoft Store, and much more.
All about optimization
Jez Corden, senior Xbox editor at Windows Central: We talked just now about how Sea of Thieves runs on a Surface Pro 4, which obviously sports integrated graphics. How important and how much focus have you guys put on optimization? What can PC players across the whole spectrum of hardware?
Ted Timmins, PC design lead for Sea of Thieves: Great question, when I started out at Rare two years ago, I had a great conversation with the rendering team about what is our "min spec." And, the challenge we kinda came up with was how low can we go. That we shouldn't just pick an arbitrary number or hardware model, we should first of all see – if we turn everything off graphically – what does the game look like? The art team has done such an incredible job on the art style, that it lets us transcend many different setting levels. Of course, we've taken a bit of tonal license and it goes from "cursed" to "mythical" for our graphics settings.
It's important because we know that there's a lot of people out there who aren't necessarily – wouldn't consider themselves "gamers," but they might jump in and play The Sims or some casual World of Warcraft because their lower-end device supports it. And because of that, that's a gateway for them into the worlds we create.
If you just decide 1080p is the min spec, and the graphics settings only went down to say "medium," yes the game is going to look great, but you'll probably siphoned off 80 percent of the people who might have been interested in playing your game. So, we went as low as we could and played it with our art director, and for him to go "yeah, pretty happy with that," that was our "great, right, we've got it in writing now, we've got it working on the potato, let's go up from there."
Then of course, you look at the top end, and you've got the Surface Book 2, almost at 4K resolution on the horizontal plane. And you go right, let's get this up and running. GTX 1060, "mythical" settings (and we were astonished at how powerful the Surface Book 2 really is).
Then you look at the desktop PCs themselves, GTX 1080ti, RYZEN, all the variants in between. We designed our play session lab to sport a different device in each booth, we'd organically perform compatibility testing without realizing it. We've got great partnerships with AMD, NVIDIA and Intel. Every two weeks we have a call with each of them individually, they get regular builds of the games so they can update their drivers, we've had this partnership for two years.
All of those things have hopefully put us in a good place for when we release on Xbox One and PC simultaneously, that the PC version meets player's expectations. Particularly around stability, performance, and going to that really low-end.
Dissecting the Windows 10 Microsoft Store
One of the big things the PC community is going to be saying is, why is this locked to the Windows 10 Microsoft Store? Why is this not coming to Steam? Or even Windows 7. What would you say to those players?
It's a really fair question. When you develop a game, you can obviously spend resources in a multitude of different ways. Both as a first party developer, where we have our responsibility to Xbox and the wider organization, but also as a developer who wants to build Krakens, skeleton forts, and support minimum specs and up to ultra specs – all of that is work. We get together and go, "how do we save the most time? How do we work the most efficiently?"
What we do get from the Microsoft Store is that we only have to build the game once. We build one game, and it works across the whole Xbox platform, including Windows 10. That allows us to build one set of achievements, one set of multiplayer services, one sec of min specs and everything between there and ultra. Of course, then you've got the cross-play that brings, Xbox Play Anywhere, Xbox Game Pass. It literally ties everything together.
Of course, we could put the game on Steam, but then we'd have to do unique work for those other platforms and their systems. The way the APIs work, the voice chat systems would have to work differently. What's important for launch is that the game is feature rich, that it's stable, FOV sliders, resolution sliders, every graphic option PC players expect, keyboard bindings, text chat, and so on.
We engaged PC gamers very early on and asked for their expectations on Sea of Thieves on PC. In those surveys, the ability to play the game on a different platform was barely mentioned. When players think about what they want in a PC game, it's about the features. When you're actually in the game, you're thinking about the things we just talked about, all those various settings and options, rather than the delivery system.
We had 25,000 responses, and we prioritized those features in the order of which was most important to them. We've never built a PC game before, so it was important for us to work that bit harder to really prove that we know what we're doing. If Bethesda make a PC game, everyone's like, "yep, they know how to make a PC game, they've done it for the last 20 years." Whereas Rare, who have made N64 games, who have never made a PC game – and that audience is not going to just give us credibility, we have to earn it.
After we did those surveys, we actually had a portion of the community – perhaps a little harsh – but we took it, because we left off "push to talk" for voice chat off the survey. We got together and we were like "damn guys, we really dropped the ball here. How do we solve this?" Rather than stick it in the roadmap, we decided to prioritize that feature now. There was enough chatter around that feature in the community, we wanted to prove that we not only listen, but action.
We spent three weeks working with the Xbox party chat team at Redmond, of course, internally on getting keyboard bindings set up. Three weeks later we released a build to Alpha with that feature.
Having that extra pressure, on us, that we need to prove ourselves, really makes us want to deliver above and beyond expectations.
Working with the Windows team
You've kind of got double pressure there, because you're also representing the Xbox platform on PC, which frankly isn't the best experience in my opinion. When your community gives you feedback and says "these features aren't working," but it's not your fault – it's the Windows or Xbox Platform's team's fault – how do you turn that feedback into action?
What I will say is that we do know the Windows and platform team very well. As a first party developer, they come to us and say "what's important to your game?" And we'll give them a list of, not just player-facing features, but there's a lot on the pipeline and delivery side of things. Like how we service the game with multiple updates over time, and that kind of flow. And then likewise, they come back to us and they say, "what can we do better? What do we need to do from your community?" So there's a real dialogue there between us, and the Windows team, and like you say – we take the community's feedback and pass that on.
They're a very diligent team. When you think of any storefront, going back early days of EA Origin, or Steam, even just when the Xbox 360 first came out. We were entering this new era of DLC, there was always growing pains, every single time.
So I have confidence, over time, we will start to really start to deliver on that expectation. I think we're already on that path, but, certainly we're trying our best as a game developer to not just push on that team, but also support that team. And say look, we think we're making a really great PC game here, and our players are saying to us that they're having some friction in trying to establish parties, creating sessions and that type of thing. How can you help us? And likewise, how can we help you to better that experience?
Nobody woke up one day and went, "we're going to make it harder for people to make party invites," it's part of that process. Even actually when you think about Sea of Thieves, when we put in features very early on, like gunplay, it was pretty ropey. It was our V1, our very first pass. That's the nature of a service. Now, we're really happy with our gunplay. We've got tracer fire, it works great in cross-play, focusing on timing and accuracy, so it's balanced across both platforms and all inputs. Again, we had to get there, we had to go on that journey – "hey community, bit rough around the edges, but you can shoot each other now. We plan to take it here."
Maybe there's a messaging thing here too that we need to look into as a company, but I have a lot of confidence. I've seen that roadmap for the platform team, and they're passionate about what they do.
On the topic of cross-play
You mentioned crossplay. What considerations do you have to make building the PC version for people who do have an advantage turning with a mouse, without sacrificing accuracy, for example? How does Sea of Thieves balance that against slower turning console controller players?
I guess like you say, any first-person game you sit there and think of twitch-based, competitive games, where all you do is shoot and kill. Whereas when you think of Sea of Thieves, it's not twitch-based, it's a game that's just enough about boat combat, or even more about boat combat than it is pirate versus pirate "PvP."
We had the opportunity, because we had an Xbox playerbase initially in the tech Alpha, and we had PC players separately. We can actually say to our analytical team, how do PC players get along fighting skeletons vs. Xbox players? We found that PC players did have a 4.5% advantage in skeleton killing. We took that as our initial data set.
We began looking at our shooting mechanics. We decided it was silly that when you fire a bullet, it actually hits immediately. When you fire a bullet, it should arc, it should have a trial and have a particle effect that carries it. These are pirate weapons from hundreds of years ago, they're not AK47s or M16s. While that benefitted crossplay, putting a greater emphasis on timing, it also fits tonally within Sea of Thieves.
When we started talking about inputs, like you say, the mouse can turn quicker. We figured since we have a mouse sensitivity slider, we need to enable that for controllers as well. Same for the field of view (FoV) slider. Why wouldn't we? Why don't more console developers do that? When we added keyboard bindings to the Alpha, why would we not do controller rebindings too? Very few games seem to do that now, but why not?
I think being new to PC games allowed us to think a little bit more outside of the box. We had no prior concept of making a PC game, so we tried to focus more on the player, rather than the "process" and the whole "this is how it should work." This applies both to the game, and the device specifics as well. It's a good culture.
Thanks to Ted Timmins for talking to us!
Having seen Sea of Thieves running on ultra "mythic" settings at 4K 60 FPS on a high-end PC side by side on "cursed" low settings on a Surface Pro tablet, it certainly seems as though Rare is going all out to ensure as many PC gamers as possible can experience Sea of Thieves.
I'm a firm Windows 10 Microsoft Store skeptic, but if Sea of Thieves proves as successful as it potentially could be, maybe it will incentivize the Windows and Xbox platform team to actually sort out the usability issues with the Store.
In any case, Sea of Thieves is shaping up to be something truly special, so be sure to take a look at some of our other recent content on the game below!
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!