The vision behind the Sea of Thieves world, griefing protection, and more

Sea of Thieves is an upcoming pirate multiplayer adventure game from the legendary Rare, whose history spans decades of industry-defining titles, such as GoldenEye, Donkey Kong, Banjo Kazooie, and many, many more.

In recent years, Rare's efforts were geared towards supporting Microsoft's (now sadly dead) Kinect peripheral – a fact many long-time fans of the studio felt wasted Rare's unique talents. Thankfully, the studio seems poised to explode back onto the scene with Sea of Thieves, which is already making huge waves. Tens of thousands of players have poured into the game's alpha and beta tests, sending the game to the top spot on Twitch, Mixer, and other streaming sites which could be an indicator of pending success.

Still, much of the game remains shrouded in mystery and intrigue, which is why I'm grateful that Microsoft recently invited me over to Rare to catch up with Design Director Mike Chapman to discuss the studio's plans for the game, and the thinking behind many of its features and systems.

Jez Corden, senior editor at Windows Central: As design director, what sort of duties are you responsible for on Sea of Thieves, and how does that role shape Sea of Thieves?

Mike Chapman, design director on Sea of Thieves: That role often changes depending on where we are in the project. We've got players creating stories, and that's what Sea of Thieves really started as, even before Sea of Thieves was a pirate game. We started with that core vision of giving players this immersive world and set tools, where they truly felt like they were working together. And through multiple groups of players interacting in this shared world, you get this explosion of possibilities, using these tools in different ways, all of these different combinations.

Design director's roles start there at the very beginning. Defining a set principle around the design, how we handle humor, how we handle the freedom we give players mechanically, how players meet together in the world. It's almost like setting guidelines that kind of builds up a language for how we're going to build the game.

We wanted progression systems where all players could share progress. That became a principle that we set in place.

So it started right there with the initial pitch, but then when it became a pirate game, it's the way those mechanics are surfaced to players. So for example, we wanted progression systems where all players could share progress. That became a principle that we set in place. Next, we want people to bond together and feel like they're part of a crew. So, let's find a way to make that work in our pirate world – and that's when you have a mechanic where everyone puts their voyage quest scrolls on the table, voting with the daggers, and you feel like you're in a pirate movie. Or, another principle would be – all progress earned on a quest (or a voyage as we call them) – should be shared amongst the crew. So there's no disharmony, that's one of our principles. That led to one of our decisions to make chest carryable, so when you carry a chest, that's not a selfish thing – I'll want to protect you because we all share in the gold in the end.

The design director's job is to ensure all the mechanics we create live up to the purity of the vision that we started with. That sort of translates to everything I guess, and that's the true pleasure of the job – from the creation of the lore, the creation of the characters, the music, all of this still serves that same vision. It truly is a pleasure to do this role.

Removing the barriers between players

You mentioned player progression, creating crew cohesion and stuff like that. I was pretty surprised when you guys announced that all progression would be cosmetic, why did you decide to go for cosmetics for progression, and why not go for something more level-based or power-based as you play more, you get more powerful, etc.?

As a principle, we want to remove barriers that stop players playing together. The whole point of Sea of Thieves is that you're able to share it with your friends, that's when it truly comes alive. It's great to play with people that you've been matched with online, but it's even better to play with friends – but other games sometimes put a wedge between you. When games separate progression by power, you either have to play at the same pace or very close – that just seems crazy, especially in a game like ours. It's supposed to represent the freedom of the pirate life, you can play with whoever you want to play with.

The power of cosmetics in our game is so much more tangible than some other games – where it truly is just skins – our cosmetics represent trophies of the things you've accomplished in the world. We have a game about using tools, showing off your reputation, choosing to show off your progress by how you're dressed and the title you use. The voyages you put on the table will cosmetically look better to represent its rewards.

Cosmetic progression allows us to have this completely level playing field where the game is more than just the mechanics.

Cosmetic progression allows us to have this completely level playing field where the game is more than just the mechanics – it's the psychology of how you work with other people – how you strategize with the crew. It's less about the mechanical skill – it's not a game where you can only play with people if they can hit a target from 50 metres away. Or only play with people who have the best weapons.

In our game, you can come and play with someone, and you can be the deciding factor in whether or not a voyage is successful or not by being the person who spots ships in the crow's nest, using a spyglass. You're just using the tools we've given you, and you're communicating with the crew using your "soft skills" rather than your "hard skills" of using the controller or keyboard, to contribute to the crew's success. Mechanical skill matters to a point, but what will make the difference is the strategy, synergy of working together, determining roles, and how they go about what they're trying to accomplish.

The morality of pirate ganking

On the topic of mechanical skills, accessibility, and crew-based play, some have expressed concerns how easy it is to grief other players in this game, killing them over and over, stealing their chests, and so on. Is that sort of play "okay" in Sea of Thieves?

It's an interesting contrast. On one hand, what we're saying is that we want to be the most welcoming and inclusive multiplayer game ever – on the other hand, we're giving you this rich immersive world where you can step in and roleplay "pirates" with your friends. We've made decisions where all quest rewards are physical, and all of that stuff is never truly yours until you get back to the outpost. We believe in the paranoia of having that stuff on the ship because you know that someone can come and take it.

We've deliberately said that we don't want to have safe zones – that's why we give you a spyglass – that's why we put the right number of outposts around the world so you've got the choice. Can I see masts there? Do I go there? Is there gonna be people there? All that paranoia is what leads to the drama, that "high high." To have that "high high" you've got to have the "low low." One of the things we've strived to do early on strikes the right balance of "loss."

Some of the multiplayer survival games we were looking at previously – such as DayZ and Rust – they had that drama, but the lows were so cripplingly low, you'd play for hours and hours and might lose absolutely everything. For us, we feel that we've struck the right balance for our game – yes you'll feel a sense of loss, which I feel is critical to a game where you'll feel a wide range of emotions. You don't want it to be this pure power fantasy where you're never getting better – you want to feel that you've bonded with your ship, and feel something as it sinks below the waves. You want to feel like it's part of the adventure.

That said, we'll try to do everything in our power to get your adventure going again. Yes, you may lose the chests on the ship, we're not going to take your accrued gold away, anything you've purchased away, or your voyages, or your reputation. All we're going to take are the deferred gold locked in the chest, bounty skulls, or animals, that feels like the right balance to ensure that you've got that paranoia that we treasure, you've got the pirate story, scanning the horizon all the time trying to look for potential enemy sails.

Sea of Thieves Kraken

Sea of Thieves Kraken (Image credit: Xbox)

There's a reason there's no fast travel, there's a reason you have to sail everywhere. It's because a ship isn't just going to come out of nowhere unless you've let it come out of nowhere. You've not paid attention, an enemy ship has literally just snuck up behind you because you've left your lights on at night. That's the kind of thing we'd love players to strategize over.

At the same time, I'm kind of seeing that we'll probably address for release. If people are figuring out where respawns are – that is a number we can tweak. Maybe we spawned killed players in that particulate place because it's close to their voyage, but we could push them further away to prevent repeated griefing, for example. All of these sorts of things we wanted to address by running a closed beta.

Moving respawns further away sounds like a good plan. We certainly experienced situations where we were able to kill enemy crews multiple times after stealing their chests. We joked about how we'd caused them to cancel pre-orders. Sure, it felt like fun for us, but it did make me wonder how unforgiving it might be for others.

For you to feel great in a multiplayer game, there has to be someone on the losing end. It just has to feel like a story for them, that they can bounce back. We always believed in the potential revenge story – you do that to someone, but we'll give them enough time to regroup so they can come back and get revenge.

When we add ship customization, say you've chosen a ship with red sails – you'd only be able to change that an outpost. On your adventure, your ship's loadout will be fixed. So when they see your ship on the horizon, they'll be like "it's those guys! Let's go get them." They're the kind of stories we don't want to jeopardize too.

Sea of Thieves and the future

Speaking of red sails – ship customization, pirate customization, and so on, will it be there for launch?

Tons of customization at launch.

For Sea of Thieves to have longevity, it'll require cash flow beyond launch. One of the big questions is, how will you monetize that? Will we get gambling-style loot crates with random cosmetic items? How will you handle that?

We're not doing anything like loot crates. Feedback comes first, the whole reason we built this game in an alpha state is to get that feedback from players. It'd be the wrong move for us to put microtransactions in at launch, our focus is to get the right features in for launch, see how players are playing, and then add meaningful content where we see they're finding value.

Anything we do around microtransactions will be ways for players to express their love of the game. There will never be loot crates in Sea of Thieves.

Some of the stuff on the roadmap is so cool that we've just got to do it, but we're deliberately keeping gaps in our content plans to include things based on player's feedback. As part of continuing to run a service, if people love our game, and they want to spend money in ways that are meaningful to them, we'll look at ways to support them in the future. But as I said earlier, the game is built on a firm set of principles.

Anything we do around microtransactions will never jeopardize the progression of the game, will never make any of the elements of progression feel meaningless, it'll never be anything "pay to win," which is so alien to what we're trying to do in Sea of Thieves. It will be ways for players to express their love of the game. There will never be loot crates in Sea of Thieves.

So far we've only seen tropical islands, is there any potential for different biomes? You could tap into the legends revolving around British explorers going to the north pole, cracking through the ice, like you say, there are so many nautical traditions and legends you could tap into.

In other games, you see developers bolting on new pieces as time goes on, but for us, the world size is intrinsic to the number of ships you see. It's less about how physically big the world is, and more about the frequency of encounters. We have an exact ratio or metric on how many islands there needs to be, how many outposts there needs to be, to guarantee that average 15 minute to 30-minute ship encounter time. That's something we're iterating upon in the technical alpha.

There are currently three subtly different biomes in the game right now, Shores of Plenty, Ancient Isles, and The Wilds – we don't mark them on the map – but one's more ancient civilization, one's more Maldivian white sands, one's more dark and oppressive. I'm sure beyond launch we're going to expand the size of the map, as we grow. We'll look at increasing ship numbers per world.

The world is dynamic and changing – new islands can appear in our sea, islands can be destroyed, and what's on the islands will change over time too. Biomes can change. Imagine a curse is released and part of the world changes in some way. We'll "bolt on new bits" to some degree – but we'll do it intently to not jeopardize the ship encounters, and we'll also do things to our existing world too. For launch though, this is our world size. We're changing some things around, adding new reefs, adjusting placements, but this is the metric we believe in for our ship encounter frequency at launch. We've got a lot more island designs waiting in the wings… and we've been considering when to build and add those in.

A huge thanks to Mike Chapman and Rare for talking to us!

Sea of Thieves is shaping up to be something truly incredible, poised to give Microsoft Studios a much-needed big hit outside of its Halo, Gears of War, Forza trinity. If Rare nails all of its plans and builds on what we've seen already in the closed beta and more advanced versions at Rare, I firmly believe Sea of Thieves could be truly huge.

For more of our Sea of Thieves coverage this week, hit the links below, and drop any questions you might have about the game in the comments!

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.

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!