Sea of Thieves mega preview: Stabbing sharks, finding gold, and the future of the game

Sea of Thieves

Sea of Thieves is a connected pirate adventure game from Rare, a studio known for some of the world's most legendary and beloved franchises.

Rare takes a unique approach to game development, specifically so with Sea of Thieves, which they are building in collaboration with a community of beta testers. You can sign up to be a Sea of Thieves Insider right here, by the way.

Sea of Thieves is one of Microsoft's flagship future titles for the Xbox One platform, allowing crews of up to four players to command a pirate ship and sail the seven seas on a light-hearted (and often intense) series of adventures.

I spent several hours playing Sea of Thieves at this point. I also had the opportunity to speak to Craig Duncan, studio head of Rare, and Mike Chapman, its design director, to discuss Sea of Thieves, Rare's design process, pay to win, progression, and everything you can expect to see in the coming weeks and months.

(Note: The quotes that appear in this story are not specifically attributed to Duncan or Chapman, because E3 is hectic, and I was so excited to speak with them that I had trouble keeping track of who said what. And my audio recording turned out to be poor.)

My Pirate Adventure

There's something oddly unique about Sea of Thieves. At two events at E3, one at Gamescom, and one at EGX, Sea of Thieves' gameplay booths always tend to make the most noise and generate the most amount of buzz. While other demo booths are filled with pensive, analytical expressions from journalists working out an angle, Sea of Thieves always seems to be a place where even the most jaded video game bloggers lose themselves (sometimes at sea.)

My headset was broken for my co-operative experience at E3 2017, and I found myself in a session with a boisterous (and hilarious) YouTuber (whose name I didn't quite catch), but he was there to film his experience, while I was there to just get a feel for the latest build. Unfortunately, I couldn't communicate with him due to the headset issue, so I set about trying to make his video more entertaining by screwing with his game.

Sea of Thieves

I jumped around, played a lot of pirate music, attempting to communicate in bounces rather than voice commands. By some miracle, we eventually found buried treasure, having deciphered the maps available in the demo and fought off swarms of hungry sharks, fighting disturbed undead skeletons. Unfortunately for Mr. YouTuber, I decided I'd steal the treasure and make off with the boat.

You can't really betray your crew in Sea of Thieves, though. There's no team-killing, and it's easy to teleport to the ship should you become separated, thanks to magical mermaids willing to lend a helping hand (or fin). Whether these mechanics are just to make the demonstrations easier to play is hard to say, but Rare is constantly iterating, based on feedback from the game's Alpha test. There are now around 50,000 players tackling Sea of Thieves test runs, and they were able to connect with players trying out the game at E3 2017.

Sea of Thieves

Speaking of other players, my attempt to steal the boat was short lived, as my other crewmates caught up. Still, it made for great YouTube footage.

There's clearly something special about the formula Rare is putting together.

Atop the crows nest, I spotted another ship on the horizon, moored at a nearby island. A rival crew had clearly made anchor and was scouring the nearby isle for treasure. This made for a perfect opportunity to try out Sea of Thieves' intense naval combat.

In Sea of Thieves, every crewmate must work together to sail the ship. Whether it's adjusting the sails, lowering the anchor, or loading the canon. There's always something that needs doing, and the best crews will be the ones that communicate effectively. That certainly wasn't us. Nonetheless, we had the element of surprise, and I aimed my ship directly at theirs, slamming hard into its side.

Sea of Thieves

A blunderbuss in the back, and the helmsman was dead. A few cannon shots at point blank range, and the ship was taking on water. They didn't stand a chance, and it was hilarious.

Sea of Thieves is an enigma because it's truly hard to convey just how much fun it is in a trailer or on video. Despite the relative lack of game mechanics and more "advanced" gameplay features available in demos, there's clearly something special about the formula Rare is putting together. In my interview with Rare, I tried to get a better understanding about where Sea of Thieves is heading.

Pirate communications

I met up with Rare in a gloriously air-conditioned booth at E3 2017, decorated with murals and community stats from Sea of Thieves' Alpha and various public gameplay tests. Rare also had a pirate band, fake pirate tattoo sleeves, eye patches, and various other bits of swag for those who wanted to take their experiences home with them. Every time I've played Sea of Thieves throughout its Alpha and various other events, each adventure has been a little bit different. So I was eager to find out what comes next.

Sea of Thieves

It will be all text-driven and localized, allowing teams from regions with different languages to be part of the same crew.

I described my playtest with Rare, and the tale of the broken headset. Rare spoke about how future versions of the game will have full blown, contextual emote systems to help people communicate.

Communication is so key to Sea of Thieves, you sound like you had a great experience even without the headset, but we're actually working on a non-verbal chat solution. Either for people who can't speak, due to accessibility difficulties or for people who don't have a microphone or even a situational thing.Maybe they have a small child and they don't want to wake them up, for example. We're looking at this from another perspective: How do we let players talk about the things that they need to do, or the things they are doing? Can it be context sensitive? Are they on the cannons? Are they steering the ship? And at the same time, it still follows the rules of proximity voice chat. It will be all text-driven and localized, allowing teams from regions with different languages to be part of the same crew.

The path to gold, progression, and player-shaped legends

In the booth, Rare had set up an intriguing "Wheel of Emotions" that followed a spectrum of positive, negative, and neutral emotions. Rare told me that it was their intent for players to experience the whole range of emotions while playing, because it will be the players that shape the narrative and persistent world of Sea of Thieves.

It's easy for games to be about rage and violence, most games just are. For us, we want you to experience a fuller range of emotions. For example, you have your story about stealing your crew's ship, you would've felt differently from your crew. They might have felt surprise, for example, where you might have felt remorse, or probably joy. But, whatever happens in-game, there's always an emotion and a counter emotion. We want to see a wide range of stories, and a wide range of emotions.

Sea of Thieves

Indeed, Rare's aim is for players to shape the game's legends and stories. The company told me about how the very first player who use the Ferry of the Damned resurrection mechanic, now has their gamertag etched on the boat permanently. Twitter fans Geordie Tommy and Xbox Addict also have permanent features in-game, owing to the custom controller they had built for the Sea of Thieves development team.

There are already 20 to 30 Easter eggs in-game based on the real-world contributions of players.

The most legendary players, streamers, and stories will somehow find their contributions reflected in the game's world, owing to Rare's plan to continually develop and update the game. There are already 20 to 30 Easter eggs in-game based on the real-world contributions of players within Sea of Thieves.

You're building your own pirate legend, the way you want to be perceived. We think about ship customization, liveries, and ship figureheads. That means that "Pirate Jez" could become the Blackbeard of Sea of Thieves, where people see you coming over the horizon and go like "oh wait, I've heard about this guy ... " through the way we have wanted posters and the way we've built around our community. They might react differently to you - "I'm not going anywhere near pirate Jez."

Sea of Thieves

There's nothing stopping us rewarding players at any time. We can reward with quest discovery, can reward at quest trade-in, we can reward you whenever. For us, finding treasure together, solving the clues, solving a riddle, getting back to an outpost, sharing the spoils - and then deciding what to do next - but how you spend that gold will be on your pirate.We've got a lot of ideas how players can spend their gold, we've played with ideas for spending gold on things that benefit the crew. It's in the roadmap, it could change, but we're also looking at player customization, ship customization beyond that. We'll continue to look at features and priorities as we go.We kind of want you to always have adventures you can go on. We always want the crew to be motivated by things they can achieve together. The persistent element will be your pirate. So, Pirate Jez, whether you play with us, or a different crew, it will be your pirate, accumulating gold to spend on your pirate.

Progression, solo-play, and micropayments

I asked more about player progression beyond gold accumulation, which is another aspect of Sea of Thieves that has remained in the dark since its original announcement. Accumulating cosmetic rewards is always nice, but what about something beefier, something that makes you more powerful? Rare still isn't ready to talk about it, but we might not have to wait too long to find out.

We have plans to go deeper on [progression] later. With Sea of Thieves, we only show them when they're real, and when they're live in the Alpha. We'd rather talk about them then, rather than talk about the design before it's finished.

Sea of Thieves

We love this idea of reputation. We love the idea of you gaining reputation in different ways, from playing in different ways. Think back to encouraging players to play in different ways, and the range of emotions we want you to experience. We don't want it to be basic like "oh you've killed 100 skeletons, you get 100 EXP," we don't think that's Sea of Thieves.We love the vision that every pirate in the game is a real player. We want the "Blackbeard" in our game to be real players. We want players to have notoriety inside and outside of the game. We want players and crews to be known. They're either known for mastery, like every time they get into a ship battle, they're awesome. They're so good at reading the wind, firing the cannons - if you meet "them," look out. We want players to build their own notoriety.

Speaking of supporting different playstyles, I wanted to get an update from Rare on the possibilities for solo play, given the fact the game is a persistently-connected world designed for crews of four. Could a player become renowned for being a lone wolf like Jack Sparrow?

So we hear the question in weird ways, "hey is this single player?" - you're always in a shared world. That's the magic of Sea of Thieves. We love the idea of solo play, but we haven't put it in yet, we're still balancing the game for communications, shared goals, and the like.It's way harder to develop these things for crews of four players. We know we can do one or two player co-op a lot more easily. Our term for it is "solo play in a shared world," and we have a prototype version of this internally. This idea of a smaller ship, something someone can sail solo or with one other person. You'll always see the big galleon with a crew of four, but solo play will obviously give a very different experience.

Sea of Thieves

When you want that kind of half an hour experience, sometimes it might be nice to just jump on a single-player ship. Maybe you'll jump on a big galleon for longer sessions with friends.

I asked Rare about the possibility of random loot crates for micropayments, given industry's fondness for them across Gears of War, Halo 5, Overwatch, and beyond.

We're not a free-to-play game, we're definitely not a pay-to-win game.

I made the point that, given how rewarding it is to find a treasure chest in Sea of Thieves, wouldn't it devalue the entire experience if someone could buy a chest with real money?

We're not really talking too much about this yet, purely because we've not thought about it too much yet. We're not a free-to-play game, we're definitely not a pay-to-win game. We think Sea of Thieves is awesome, and we'll charge a price for it. It'll be a game you'll buy, and we'll look at the on-going evolution of Sea of Thieves in the future.We want Sea of Thieves to be a successful game that has an awesome community but one that also a successful business, because it allows us to further develop the game and keep adding content. We have strong principles against pay-to-win.

Sea of Thieves

Closing thoughts

It was incredible to meet Craig Duncan and the other members of Rare. Of course, there are things they can't talk about due to the game's marketing strategy, but there's rarely any PR speak or the refusal to answer questions. There's nothing but passion and the drive to delight the studio's fanbase, which is large.

Rare is laser-focused on making Sea of Thieves as good as it can be, taking feedback anywhere and everywhere the company can get it. They took my feedback about having parrots (and being able to kill other player's parrots), but sadly I forgot to ask about flame-thrower canons this time around.

Sea of Thieves is targeting an early 2018 launch across Xbox One, Xbox One X, and Windows 10, and we can't bloody wait. Yargghh matey, ye scallywags, and all that.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is 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 tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!