Sea of Thieves and the Joy of Discovery

Sea of Thieves Sunset

Hello readers! I’m working on expanding the scope of what I write about, so I decided to tell you a bit about a new game coming out. I intended to have this up earlier than the eve of the game’s launch, but life tends to get in the way. Let me know what you think, and if you would like to see more content like this from the blog.

Thanks!

Paul


Sea of Thieves is the pirate simulator from Rare, a game studio with 30 years of experience in the industry. Officially launched for the PC and Xbox One platforms on March 20th, the game has been in various stages of Alpha and Beta testing for months. Now, on the eve of its release, let’s take a moment to look at this game through its stages of development, and see what makes these seas so special.

When you drop into a Sea of Thieves session, either solo or with a crew, you will spawn on an island or outpost with a ship nearby. You’ll find that you are loaded out with standard equipment: a compass, shovel, bucket for bailing out water, and a few other items, and that’s it. You are given nothing by way of tutorials or instructions apart from cryptic clues on the title’s load screens. You are not given any on-screen prompts to get acquainted with the various controls and menus. The only references to the controller that appear on screen are interaction prompts (press “X” to pick up chest, X to climb, etc) but that’s it. After selecting your avatar and ship/crew size, you are simply placed in the world and set loose. This is a sharp contrast to the tutorial sequences and hand-holding training quests assigned to the player in other titles. This “learn by doing” approach to the player experience is rarely implemented, but I believe it is at the core of what makes this game so great. It preserves the joy of discovery for the player, but more on that later.

My First Session

When I dropped into my first session in the early Alpha, I found myself on a ship already en rout to it’s destination. The crew aboard had accepted the task of traveling to a far off island in search of treasure. (This was before the faction system was introduced, so maps were available from the Shipwright on the docks of every outpost.) As far as gaming with random strangers goes, I got lucky with this one. The crew I joined was full of communicators with more of a handle on how things worked, the ideal situation for a newbie such as myself. Before long, I was helping them chase down treasure with maps and riddles and loving every minute of it.

Later in the development process, the Beta was made available. This added the Gold Hoarders faction and the Sloop, which is a smaller and faster ship that could be sailed alone or with two players. After dropping into a few less than stellar crews, I decided to sail solo for a while. Once in a sloop, a few things became very clear very quickly.

      1. While small ships can be sailed alone, it can begin to feel like spinning plates when things get hairy.

      2. There can be a level of respect between strangers passing in the open sea. An unspoken ceasefire.

      3. Paranoia is a great motivator.

While sailing solo can be incredibly lonely on the sparsely populated test servers, the world that Rare has created is so beautifully rendered and executed that I found myself reaching something of a meditative state in this virtual realm. The crashing waves, the thunderous storms, and the beautiful music played on the in-game instruments really provided an experience unlike any other game I’ve played in recent memory. All of it adds up to a perfect backdrop to the somewhat repetitive tasks the game offers so far.

As more and more features were added to the Beta, I spent more and more time just exploring and discovering new things rather than chasing chests. Eventually, the merchant faction was introduced in the final Beta which provided a peaceful way to earn currency in game by catching pigs or chickens or fulfilling orders for barrels of gunpowder.

A considerable amount of cosmetic items were also added to the game, which gave players dozens of items to spend their hard earned or stolen plunder on. But, and this may prove to be a divisive issue with the players, as all of the purchasable goods are purely cosmetic. Shirts, pants, hats, sails, guns, musical instruments, and more can be picked up to change the appearance of your player character, but they do not modify any stats or imbue the player with any special abilities. You can buy items to make your character and ship look better, but all players have the same strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the mechanical stats in game.

Sea of Thieves Sunset
I mean just look at this! This is in game!

No Training Wheels Sails

As I mentioned before, the game’s take on player tutorials is that it has none. When you’re dropped into a new situation with little to no instruction, the simplest tasks can take time to learn. Sea of Thieves has the foundation of a first-person-shooter, and that brings at least some level of familiarity to the game. Everything else, from sailing to finding treasure, is up to the player to figure out. But it’s not like you’re trying to solve a puzzle with intricate physics mechanics. You’re just given items like wooden planks and a bucket on a vessel that is prone to leaks when someone shoots a hole through it. The puzzle is just “do what you think makes sense in this situation,” and you’re usually right. The compass tracks North (unless you hit a bad storm), the watch tells time, and you can even turn them around to show your friend if they’re busy steering the ship or playing a jaunty tune on the Hurdy-Gurdy.

The experience of learning how to play Sea of Thieves was new, but very familiar at the same time. The basic mechanics are all there; “A” to jump, “X” to interact, left trigger aims, and right trigger shoots. The same basic FPS controls that are present in nearly every shooter of a console generation. In the earlier stages of my development as a gamer, I would spend a few days with new games here and there whenever my parents saw fit to take a trip to our neighborhood Blockbuster. You see, back in the days of physical game rentals, you didn’t always get a manual with your cartridge. If you wanted to learn about the different aspects of your weapons and abilities in the game, you had to start pressing buttons. On top of that, game developers didn’t always tell you how to play the game outside of that little paper booklet. Whenever we would start out a new game, my friends and I would just have to learn by doing.

And that is where Rare’s heritage really comes through. The studio has been making games for thirty years. They are the company behind titles that were very important to my early gaming life. Titles like Banjo-Kazooie, Blast Corps, and Perfect Dark. If you are not familiar with these titles, the short version is this: These folks know how to make a video game.

So What Does It All Mean

I cannot really call this a review of the game, as I have not played the full launch product yet. I cannot tell you that you should absolutely go out and buy this game if you have an XBOX One or a PC, because not everyone will enjoy this style of gameplay. From what I have seen in the open beta, other new players seem more interested in blowing up everything they see rather than actually playing the game, but I’m confident that will calm down before too long. To paraphrase Sartre, Davy Jones’ Locker is other pirates. At the end of the day, this game just really scratched an itch I’ve had for a while. It’s the first game that I’ve been really excited about for some time, and it’s the first game I’ve pre-ordered in even longer. Everything I’ve discussed in this article was enough to secure my funds, and it isn’t even the whole picture yet. And, on top of everything else, the visuals are absolutely STUNNING. It looks almost cartoonish at first, but the artists at work here really did something amazing. It’s all in the details.

Rare hasn’t had a huge hit on their hands for a while, but Sea of Thieves has a strong chance at changing that. I’ll be practicing my nautical vocabulary until my download is ready. See you on the open seas!

Sea of Thieves Skull
I gave this one a hat. Without context, I can see why this may be unremarkable.

 

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