The most common criticisms of Sea of Thieves are the reasons I love it.
Rare’s latest effort has been out for a little while now, and the Microsoft exclusive Sea of Thieves is proving to be fairly divisive. People who love it do so deeply, while those who don’t are being extremely vocal in their criticisms of the game – specifically around its ‘lack of content’. The recent “The Hungering Deep” event is about to conclude – and it’s going to be interesting to see whether or not player perception remains improved once the time-gated questline disappears in a couple of days’ time.
Just in case you’ve been hiding in a cave, the basic premise of Sea of Thieves is to be a pirate. You take on missions from one of three factions – leaving you to dig up treasure, kill skeletons, or ferry animal cargo around. Completing missions rewards you with gold to blow on cosmetic upgrades for your pirate, and rep with which you level up with each faction. Hit level 50 with all three, and you become Pirate Legend – giving you access to a hidden hideaway and some even cooler cosmetic gubbins.
There is a solid argument that doing one of each of these mission types allows you to see the whole game. I’m not going to argue with that – that argument is absolutely correct. However, it also fundamentally misses the point.
For me, Sea of Thieves is often at its best when I’m doing very little. I find the actual process of playing the game sufficiently enjoyable to justify my continued expenditure on it. I find the interaction of sailing my little sloop to be a lot of fun, with my attention fully diverted. Adjusting sails, adjusting steering, scanning the horizon for threats, checking the map, all the while either chatting with my crew mates (my wife and son often sail with me, and I play with a lot of the guys in my Destiny clan too) or just listening to the sound of the water and the wind. It’s a therapeutic experience, incredibly calming right up until you spy another sail on the horizon. As a game with no levels or perks to chase, no different loadouts or weapons to win, and few ‘endgame’ challenges to overcome (neither the Kraken nor the Megalodon are especially difficult), it’s a game that confuses a lot of people who expected either an epic RPG or an MMO style grind.
It’s also a game that contains a massive dichotomy with PvE and PvP taking place in the same environment, and often at the same time. For every chilled-out sailor who just wants to mind his or her own business digging up treasure chests or chasing chickens, there’s a crew who are hell-bent on the destruction of every other ship on the server. The early days of the game were chequered by a lot of griefing taking place – I myself was spawn camped for long enough that I quit out of the game, and my experience was a common one. It led to Rare facing an interesting conundrum: PvP players being bored of the game because there was no-one to fight, and peaceful PvE players walking away from the game because of the aggressive PvP players. Effectively, the players were their own worst enemies.
Rare resolved it to a degree by changing respawn distances and making instructions on how to scuttle your ship (which results in server migration) more prominent in the game. Recent steps to improve player communication and incentivise teamwork in The Hungering Deep appear to have worked well – while ships are still attacking one another, a new tool within the game allows you to get an idea of another ship’s intentions while it’s still far enough away to be able to do something about it. Warnings are being given before cannons are fired.
Put simply, Sea of Thieves is a game that expects you to make your own fun. That’s a bloody brave stance for a game to take today. I’m going to take a moment to sound like an old fart here – and I’m not going to apologise for it, because I reckon it explains my appreciation for this game in quite an elegant way.
I started playing video games in the early 80’s. The first game I ever truly adored was The Legend of Zelda, which I was introduced to in an apartment in Miami in late 1987. It was a game that in some ways is very similar to Sea of Thieves. It began, dropped you into a world, gave some hints that there was something going on and something to do, and then left you to find it. There was no tutorial. No lengthy exposition of who you were, why you mattered, or what your aim ultimately was. There was a world, and a sword, and some enemies, and your imagination. For me, that last piece of the puzzle was critical.
The Legend of Zelda was a great game – but it was never as great on the screen as it was in my head, as my 8-year old brain conjured up all the possibilities that the world could contain. I spent hours in that game slowly uncovering the mechanics and coming to understand that exploring the world was one of the most powerful ones in the game. Sea of Thieves has done the impossible for me – and caused the cynical middle-aged gamer I’ve become to re-experience the wonder of a digital world that is presented, but not really explained.
Sea of Thieves is similar to that. At a basic level, the mechanics of sailing your boat are left for you to discover – the game doesn’t tell you that you have to put the sails down and pull the anchor to move. It doesn’t tell you that angling sails to catch the wind will make you move faster. It doesn’t tell you that gulls circle shipwrecks, or that you use planks to repair holes in your ship. It puts little rhyming couplets on loading screens that give clues, but nowhere does the game explicitly spell this stuff out to you. It doesn’t tell you that you can fire yourself out of a cannon, or catch your own vomit in a bucket and hurl it into the face of an enemy. In fact, the game doesn’t tell you far more than it does.
In an era of tutorials and button prompts, Sea of Thieves stands out for this – and the same approach is taken to the content. You’re left to figure out and decide for yourself what your objectives are, and they can vary dramatically. I have a long-term goal of reaching Pirate Legend. Shorter term, there’s a new hull I fancy and some very cool swords for sale. None of these goals are being pushed on me by the game – they’re almost entirely internal, but no less compelling for it.
What all of this observation is leading to is the realisation that the very things that appeal to me most about Sea of Thieves seem to be the same things that other players (often ones that are younger than me, let’s face it) criticise it for.
I like that there’s no real meaningful progression. I can come across people in the world who have played for five times the hours I have, and still stand a chance against them. They don’t have more powerful weapons. They don’t have faster ships, or better cannons. They haven’t unlocked skills or perks or abilities that I don’t have. They haven’t learned the PvP maps better than I have. They may have more experience, and that’s unavoidable – but the playing field is as level as it can possibly be. Some people see this as a problem, while I see it as one of the game’s biggest inherent strengths. Newcomers to the game have the exact same abilities as someone who’s played for hundreds of hours. What separates them is knowledge of the game. And appearance, of course.
I like that the game doesn’t make me feel like I MUST sign in every day in order to keep up – partly down to the levelling system just not existing, but also because the game remains basically constant. New items become available but are so expensive that a lot of players can’t afford to immediately buy everything. The roadmap mentions that weekly events are on the way – for me, it’ll be interesting to see what impact they have on the game and how they change the way I play it. Sea of Thieves doesn’t punish you for playing other things or having other things to do.
To be clear – my stance on these things doesn’t assume that I’m right and that those people demanding progression or weapon advantages are wrong. I just think that those people are missing the point about what Sea of Thieves is, and what it wants to become.
I think a big part of the way in which content is being handled in Sea of Thieves is linked to the way in which the game itself is being delivered – it’s the first first-party Microsoft game that’s being delivered as a service. To the best of my knowledge (correct me if I’m wrong!), no-one at Rare or at Microsoft has actually come out and stated that explicitly – but the inclusion of the game as the first ever big game available via Microsoft’s new Gamepass service on day one was not a coincidence, or an accident. It was a statement of intent, which surprisingly few people seem to have picked up on.
Everyone I know who is playing it has signed up to Gamepass in order to do so. The game release, arguably light on content, was perfectly acceptable to a large group of people who are paying a small monthly subscription to play it, and Rare’s transparency with their roadmap and future plans further confirm that the game was always intended to be delivered as a service, with long term intentions. A big objective of the game is to drive Gamepass subscriptions – and this openness and iterative approach is the best way to do that. It’s also a contributing factor to why Sea of Thieves’ in-game systems work as they do. Rare’s and Microsoft’s business model for the game (and more widely, Gamepass) requires new players to be brought onboard steadily; and the game functions in a way that doesn’t put these new players at a massive disadvantage from the start.
A service game can release feature complete but content light (a version of software known as ‘MVP’, or Minimum Viable Product) for the simple reason that it has been built in such a way that additional content can be added quickly – and this is certainly the case with Sea of Thieves. Every patch seems to bring something new as well as bug fixes; while problems introduced by patches are rolled back and rectified at an impressive pace. Rare have publicly stated that all future DLC will be free, and have also stated that they’ll increase in size with each subsequent pack due to how their teams have been structured. Sea of Thieves is designed to be played for a long time, and everything about the content, design, and plans for the game back that premise up. For a large game, it’s incredibly focussed. The only question that now remains is how successfully Rare will steer their ship through the treacherous waters of the video game landscape.
This sailor’s prepared for a long voyage.