You don’t play a game in the same way after ten hours - and you certainly don’t play a game in the same way after a hundred hours. I don’t know how many hours I’ve racked up on Sea of Thieves at this point. The average player has played for 22 or so, apparently – I’m confident I’ve put a lot more hours in than that.
When you play a game that allows you to increase in power level, that feature inevitably changes the way you play over time. This is intentional on the part of the designers; access to new skills or perks, new weapons or new ways of using them encourages players to experiment with the sandbox and approach familiar scenarios in unfamiliar ways. Players end up being massively overpowered – enemies that would be a significant threat at the beginning of the game end up being just another bump in the road of the player’s journey by the end, while the lesser encounters don’t even rattle the suspension. Some players resent this period of the game and desire an endless grind against meaningful opposition; personally, I see it as the pay-off for investing enough time with a game to reach that point in it.
But how can games that skip out on the features above in favour of a purely cosmetic ‘progression’ system inform the same degree of player agency? This is a question that must have been faced by the game designers at Rare during the ongoing development of Sea of Thieves. I’m not sure that they know the answer beyond the delivery of additional content – but I’m finding something out. The more I play it, the more I enjoy it – but I’m enjoying it in a very different way now to the way in which I was enjoying it when I first began playing it at launch. That is to say, my play style is constantly evolving – a fact which came home to me during a session a few nights ago.
I was sailing a galleon with my son and my brother. It was just the three of us, and we were enjoying a very chilled-out, low stakes session. We’d done some Gold Hoarder missions and some Order of Souls missions, and along the way we’d been destroying mermaid statues and diving on shipwrecks. Music had been played, grog drunk, people shot out of cannons for a laugh. I was doing the captain thing, steering, calling out for sails and directions and basically keeping everything ticking over nicely. My brother is comparatively new to the game – I think he has maybe 5-10 hours of playtime behind him. Anyway, we’d had a reasonably successful run – the Captain’s cabin had a fair amount of stuff rammed in it and we hadn’t seen another ship since a galleon had raced past us in the direction of a skeleton fort. He’d ignored us entirely – which was fine with us as we were a man short, and not exactly an experienced crew in terms of the PvP side of the game. We were making our way to an outpost mainly because to head to our next island we had to pretty much sail past one, and were travelling at full sail when the sea around us went black.
“Um, dude… what’s happening?” The sense of panic in my brother’s voice was palpable.
“It’s just the kraken mate. Stay cool, shoot the tentacles. I’ll fill the holes, it’ll be cool.”
“But, but… what if we don’t manage it?”
“Then we sink,” I replied. “No biggie.”
“No biggie,” he replied, exasperated. “No fucking BIGGIE? Mate, we’ve got a cabin full of treasure.”
“Nah man,” I said. “We’ve got a couple of good chests, most of it’s mid-range stuff. Nothing we can’t replace.”
By this point the attack had begun in earnest. I’d expended all of my sniper ammo and had progressed to firing a cannon at the nearest tentacle. My son was chuckling away in the way he does when he’s under pressure, firing shot after shot into a distant tentacle with a childish accuracy that I can only fantasise about commanding. And then it came back – the retort that made me realise just how much my perspective of the game has changed.
“Easy for you to say,” he said, “with your two hundred thousand gold and sexy ship. The treasure we’ve got in that cabin is more than I’ve ever fuckin’ seen.”
We fought off the kraken and made it to Golden Sands outpost, where we sold everything that we had. Sure enough, the 4000 or so gold we made was pretty insubstantial to me, but got my shipmates a bit closer to their next jacket or hat. They were pleased with their haul, but I think I was more pleased with my realisation – that I knew something about the game that they hadn’t figured out yet. Gold is abundant in the world of Sea of Thieves. Gaining enough to buy what you want takes a lot of time, but not a lot of effort – because if you’re enjoying the core mechanics (which I do, enormously) the effort doesn’t feel like effort. You just play the game, and eventually you amass what you need. And once you realise that, and lose some chests along the way as we all do, you come to accept that losing stuff is a necessary part of the game because it makes the sweetness of handing them in after a perilous voyage that little bit more meaningful.
My pirate has a selection of jackets and hats, and at least one of every different weapon type. He has a nice compass and a nice lamp and a nice shovel – not the best, but ones that have been purchased from one vendor or another. He’s got a hull and a selection of figureheads and sails – all things that I’ve saved up for and felt quite proud of when I’ve finally coughed up for. I’ve hit the point where I’ve got what I want for him for the most part, so am now just squirrelling gold pieces away so that when I hit Pirate Legend I’ll be in a position to blow 900,000 gold pieces on all the of pirate legend ship mods. I’m up to 205,000-ish, give or take a few thousand. And like a bored millionaire who takes up extreme sports, kickboxing, or vigilantism, his newfound financial comfort makes my pirate more and more willing to take bigger and bigger risks in moment to moment gameplay.
It's a simple truth: Once you get to the point of having this much gold kicking around, it changes the way you play. You’ve gained and lost so much gold along the way that you understand the scale of the game much better than someone who’s just started – and losing that amount of gold, in the scheme of things, is nothing more than a tiny little inconvenience. It makes you more prepared to take risks – or more accepting of paying the price when a gamble fails to pay off. Either way, your strategies and methods change due to being more comfortable in this dangerous world.
Back in the early days of the game, sighting a galleon in the distance was enough for me to turn tail and run. These days, that’s not the case – even if I’m solo slooping. A galleon on the horizon may have no interest in me, or may see me as a target. At this point, I can normally recognise which of those scenarios is the real one much earlier than I could before. I’m experienced enough to tailor my response. I make sure that I’m in game chat – so that if an approaching ship has anything to say, I can hear them. And if they aren’t responding to me, I can proceed with caution. I can look at the wind – if it’s against them between their position and mine, they’re unlikely to chase me down unless they’re aggressive, and I can outrun them easily anyway.
The idea of sneaking aboard another ship, outnumbered 4:1, would have filled me with dread – these days it’s a fairly common occurrence. Once aboard, sometimes I’ll just dance and play music and jump off. Sometimes I’ll steal a chest, sometimes I’ll throw chests over the back of the ship until I’m spotted – for no reason other that in the past, someone did that to me and I remember it happening.
I’m more willing to leave a sloop full of chests parked up while I get off an explore an island or complete a mission on it – because I’m confident in my ability to spot other ships from far enough away that I can act before they arrive. I’ll even leave my sloop sailing in a straight line and launch myself onto an island in order to pick up supplies and catch a mermaid back. All of these are actions that become comfortable once you’re at the point where no mission is going to add a massive amount of gold to your fortune, and you really understand that no loss is going to dent it that badly either.
I think it’s the increased willingness to take risks that is one of Sea of Thieves’ biggest payoffs for players. It’s not quite the same as being overpowered in a single player sandbox, but in a game where PvP often rewards the bravest or the craziest, reaching the point of stopping being so concerned about protecting your ship and the chests it’s carrying serves a similar purpose. And I'm pretty sure that Rare will have had this kind of player experience progression in mind from day one.
And damn, if it doesn’t continue to be the most fun I’ve had on my Xbox One.