E3 2018: Calming troubled waters - how Rare is knocking the rough edges off Sea of Thieves
Rare producer Joe Neate and senior designer Shelley Preston explained what has happened in the four months since launch and what the team have planned for several updates to come.
WHY can’t we all get along? In the quarrelsome world of videogames, it’s no wonder players’ instincts bend inexorably towards shooting first and asking questions later.
Yet even respected UK developer Rare seems to have been taken aback at quite the level of free-for-all that prevailed in its slapstick pirate sim Sea of Thieves. Obviously, even the title suggests something akin to every man for himself. But when the game debuted on March 20 as an Xbox/PC exclusive, it quickly became apparent that conflict was at heart of most encounters between crews – and even among crew members.
Rare’s mantra is “players creating stories together”, so the Brummy studio forced crews to cooperate for some missions in its recent big update, dubbed The Hungering Deep. Suddenly, Sea of Thieves became Sea of Friends, and the game was all the better for it. Rare realised it was on to something.
At E3 last month, Rare producer Joe Neate and senior designer Shelley Preston explained what has happened in the four months since launch and what the team have planned for several updates to come.
“Hungering Deep changed player behaviour in Sea of Thieves in an incredible way,” says Neate, speaking just weeks after it had been released. “Ship encounters ending in a battle dropped by 50pc, so our game became twice as friendly during The Hungering Deep.”
Preston adds: “In terms of within a crew, the biggest issue that we had for was misuse of the brig mechanic – where you had three players who wanted to play together and they couldn't choose to lock off the fourth slot.”
Players reacted by throwing the random fourth player in the brig, from which they couldn’t escape without permission.
“So quickly after launch we gave them the ability to lock off that fourth slot and that misuse of the brig halved – we know that through our telemetry,” says Preston. “We were able to be really reactive with that.
“In The Hungering Deep, it was a risk, it was like, we're gonna enforce cooperation. How are players gonna find that, are there going to be griefing issues? But, actually, it's exceeded our wildest expectations.
“We looked at the Hungering Deep and the social side went down really well, it was a little bit of an experiment for us – how are people gonna find that enforced working with another crew? People really enjoyed it, we had so much positive feedback.”
However, the team at Rare are still a little bruised by some reaction to the game at launch. Many reviewers, including myself, pointed to the relative paucity of activities beyond the core loop of exploring and fetching quest items from the islands. Rare is addressing that with time-limited events, more cosmetic items to dress up your character, a new faction called the Bilge Rats offering additional quests and, of course, a stream of content updates that includes July’s Cursed Sails and September’s Forsaken Shores.
“I feel good with what we launched with,” says Neate. “Everybody was talking about Sea of Thieves, everybody had an opinion. The awareness was huge. It was a cool place to be in and we had quite the adventure that first couple of weeks.
“We made a game that was purposefully different. We tried to create this kind of world that goes against the grain of multiplayer games in terms of our progression system. So that's always gonna be a little polarising. With games as a service, you have to pick a point to launch it.
“It's a unique game and a unique proposal and we've been trying to educate as many people about what we wanted this game to be.
“We had such a successful launch and our goal for launch was to be a breakout hit as a new IP, which is hard. We overachieved on every single metric that we set ourselves. We had a target for end of June - and I'm not going to tell what it is - and we hit it on Day One. We literally exceeded our target on Day One.”
Neate doesn’t take kindly to the suggestion that Rare overpromised in the run-up to the launch, writing cheques that Sea of Thieves couldn’t cash. My mention of parallels made by others to the ill-fated debut of PS4 exclusive No Man’s Sky in 2016 makes him bristle visibly and he leans in to emphatically reject the comparison.
“I think that's fundamentally untrue. We delivered everything that we said we would. I believe really strongly about that. We very clearly set expectations about what our game is, as much as we could.
“What was really interesting at launch is that we always knew the game would be watchable and shareable. We had so many creators and streamers and YouTubers come to Sea of Thieves. So some people came to this and started playing it in the PvP style because that's what they're used to. They love Fortnite, they love PUBG. And they came to Sea of Thieves and were like, let's go sink some noobs.
“We did then see a big influx of people who were coming and playing it in that way - much more PvP. So we put some videos out on our channels about, like, hey, how to play the single-player ship, or what was our intent behind this or that – things where we were seeing misunderstandings.
“Over time, that player base has often starting playing in the kind more of the way that we expected. Of course, some maybe we've lost too – they've gone away for a bit until maybe we do more things that appeal to them.”
Rare has plans for Sea of Thieves that span several updates more, presumably as long as the audience stays with the game. Players can expect new major content every eight weeks or so.
Neate elaborates: “We've split ourselves into three teams at the moment across different content updates, so there's one team that did The Hungering Deep. They had about seven weeks to deliver it because they started two weeks after launch.
“Then you've got the Cursed Sails team who had about 12 weeks' lead time to get the content out. Obviously, that's a bit bigger and bit more meaningful in terms of the impact of the changes in the game. Then the Forsaken Shores has 17 or 18 weeks - again that's going to be a meaningful step forward. The Hungering Deep team are already on to the fourth content update.
“We're going to start getting to four, five months' lead times for these content updates and they're going to deliver every six to eight weeks. I don't know of many or any games that deliver that frequency of content and that level of change to the game,” he says proudly.