My first time playing Sea of Thieves, it took me all of one minute to figure out how to equip the mug of grog i.e. “pirate booze” in my inventory and drink it.
I then spent the next five minutes trying, unsuccessfully, to join my crew aboard our ship. They watched in bewilderment as I drunkenly stumbled off the dock and into the water, repeatedly.
The real kicker, though? The ladder was only accessible from the water. When I finally reached the end of the dock without falling in, I still had to dunk myself in order to climb aboard. Oops.
The magic of Rare’s cooperative pirate simulator seems to be contained within these moments. Whether it was my own grog incident, or two of us sailing off while a third member of our party was still at the bar, or all four of us actually working together to fend off other players waiting in ambush, Sea of Thieves is built with an eye toward letting you write your own pirate adventure. Or misadventure.
That’s the intention.
“The vision we had was a game where players could create their own stories,” design director Mike Chapman said. “It was about giving them a world [and] a set of tools, and then having this great cooperative experience.”
In some ways, Sea of Thieves finds common ground with ship crew simulator games like Artemis and its virtual reality comrade-in-arms, Star Trek: Bridge Crew. But there’s one notable difference: no one in Sea of Thieves has a set role.
“You’re constantly being challenged, and how crews react to those challenges is what makes it special,” Chapman said. “How you strategize as a crew, how you work together that’s what makes a difference between good crews and excellent crews.”
In my case, there was a definite learning curve. The first time I hit the open waters with three pirate companions, a comedy of errors ensued. First we spent more than a reasonable number of minutes figuring out how sails work. Then we sailed into an embankment of rocks and sprung a leak. Two of us peeled away to bail water out and with no one left to navigate, we steered way off course.
Chapman made a distinction between “good” and “excellent” crews, but as I learned when I played it’s equally entertaining to sail with a “bad” crew. Rare, the game’s developer, has a penchant for mischievous humor. And that, in many ways, felt like Sea of Thieves‘ lifeblood to me.
The grog incident speaks to the tools you have to work with from the outset. In addition to the normal stuff that makes a pirate’s life easier cutlass, pistol, shovel, treasure maps you have things like mugs of booze and musical instruments that, based on what I played, seem to exist purely for flavor.
And it works, too. When the crew fanned out to assume different roles helmsman, navigator, crow’s nest lookout I suddenly found myself with nothing to do. So I posted up next to the helm, whipped out my accordion, and started playing sea shanties.
“Is there a better expression of co-op [than] being on a ship together?” Chapman asked. “It just felt like this perfect marriage of this cool, ambitious vision and then a pirate world that just feels so right for Rare.”
There’s another layer to Sea of Thieves that makes your voyage into the unknown even more exciting: other players.
This is a game that exists in what’s called a “shared world.” You’re online with an unclear number of other pirate crews and there’s always a chance you’ll cross paths. You’re not joining a multiplayer lobby where you can see a list of who’s in there with you; it’s more organic than that. There’s lever-pulling code operating behind the scenes to stagger everyone’s online encounters.
“The surprise and the delight is what’s important to us,” Chapman explained. “We don’t expose that there are other players in the world. But you know there’s always a chance … someone up in the crow’s nest spots a sail on the horizon. Do you carry on to cash in your treasure or … do you go and seek out conflict?”
In my case, conflict sought us out. We sailed to an island where treasure was hidden away, but failed to escape with it because another pirate crew ambushed us. All four members of our crew perished, but not before both boats ours and our attacker’s sank.
When we reappeared at a nearby port, we regrouped and sailed right back to the island where two of our attackers were still stranded, plundered chest in hand. Now with more experience behind us, we started to work like a well-oiled crew and won our treasure back.
We could have ignored the whole incident and simply set out in search of a different treasure, but we all wanted revenge. It was suddenly personal. That’s the kind of emotional investment Rare is looking to create out of your less-than-common encounters with other crews.
“We don’t always want ship encounters to end in combat, but you feel the presence of other players. That sense of: you’re on an island and you’re having an adventure, but you’re always scanning the horizon,” Chapman said.
“It’s less about having tons of players around you and more about, when encounters do happen, they’re really impactful. And it leads to a story you remember.”