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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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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!