Tall Tales are great. But how many of us are playing them?
This week, I finally got around to finishing the "Tall Tales" in Sea of Thieves. They are a series of adventures, each one a small piece of a larger narrative arc, that were added into the game with the Anniversary Update back in April. At the time, they were mooted as being the campaign that Sea of Thieves had needed since launch; a way of bringing the game's rich lore to life, and as a way of introducing new players to the massive sandbox that they'd just entered in a way that would give the game context that it never had before.
The tales themselves were amazing. I have to say that up front. They tell a long tale broken into a series of smaller ones, each of which gives insight into a character or a location. We've heard of some of these characters before and have almost certainly visited the locations, unaware of the history surrounding us until now. Rare's aim was to add a level of depth and sense of context to the game and its locations - and I think they've succeeded in grand style. Sea of Thieves feels now, more than ever before, like a place that we are new arrivals to; a place with its own history and its own legends. Some of them are recent additions, some date back to ancient days. All of them cast their own shadow over the experiences we've had, and will continue to do so into the future. Through the course of the tales, we're introduced to memorable characters and plot devices that run the gamut of human emotions through stories of love, revenge, loss, and betrayal. The final tale (the titular Shores of Gold) ends in a massive series of underground caves - complete with booby traps, spikes, platforming and combat sections that tonally feel like an enormous homage to The Goonies. They probably are - Rare has never been shy of mentioning the game's reference points, and that movie is a massive one. I had enormous fun with the tall tales. They're the campaign that players asked for, and they're often better than any of us dared to hope. I guess what I'm saying here is that if you haven't played them yet, you should.
Anyway, we finished the last one, lifting the Gold Hoarder's skull and legging it for the boat - and an achievement unlocked. This achievement informed us that we'd completed the 9th and final Tall Tale, and that we were in the company of only 1.31% of the player base. Not many of us, right? It seemed low. It is low. The next day I did a quick trawl of the Xbox App on my phone, and found that every single achievement for completing a tall tale is currently a rare achievement (meaning it's been unlocked by less than 10% of the installed player base). It got me to wondering why these rates are so low - and what this could mean for further Tall Tale entries moving forward. This graph is based on today's data (28th July 2019, a little under 3 months after Tall Tales went live):
It's not a million miles away from the engagement you'd expect for a campaign in a video game: the first mission has been completed by the most people, with a steady decline in numbers down to the last one. The thing that really stands out though isn't the shape of the line, it's the values on the Y-axis. A little over 7% of the player base have completed the first tall tale, declining down to 1.31% having finished the last. It's amusing to note that the 8th tall tale (Revenge of the Morningstar) has actually been completed by 0.01% fewer players than the last one - meaning that some players are skipping it. It also has a reputation for having the hardest boss. Coincidence? Maybe. What this means though is that 93% of players have never completed a single tall tale.
Before anyone gets too excited, it should be made clear - these figures, while telling a tale, don't tell the whole story. There is some critical information that cannot be extrapolated from the above, and which would be incredibly important to a design/development team. What we can't see from this data set is how many players have started each tall tale and failed to complete it, for whatever reason. Each tall tale includes multiple commendations that players earn through the process of playing it - I'd love to be able to see that data, because I think it would highlight some interesting points. I'd be willing to bet that Rare are looking closely at that data set, identifying the points at which players fail these quests, or the point at which they quit out of them. Trends like this help to drive designers toward ways of keeping players engaged for longer - as for any game-as-a-service, long-term player engagement is the name of the game. What we also can't see is what proportion of the total player base is still considered "active" in the context of these numbers - as the game has been out for nearly 18 months, and populations always fall off from launch down to a more settled base that may fluctuate with new releases. That 7% of player base may reflect a considerably higher proportion in the context of comparison with players that engage regularly, rather than the context of every player who ever logged into the game and created a character. These caveats need to be borne in mind as I carry on into the points below - as I'm making some potentially shaky assumptions based on the limited information I can see - but I'm acutely aware that I can't see the whole picture.
All of this got me to thinking: if the crew I sail with had so much fun with the Tall Tales, what could the causes of these low completion rates be? I've had a chat with a couple of people about this over the last couple of days. Some of them are reasonably dedicated players. Some of them are more casual. A couple of them could best be described as transient, wandering in and out of the game occasionally but with no real dedication to it. A couple of them are what we'd probably consider "hardcore" - Pirate Legends, lots of experience of base game and past expansions over the months since launch. They all put forward a couple of reasons, and interestingly several of them actually overlapped. The first point they raised related to the onboarding - the process of actually starting the tales off in the first place, and knowing where to find them. This is something that Rare have improved since they initially shipped; new players are now prompted to speak to the Mysterious Stranger in the tavern and thus begin the first Tall Tale, and tool tips on loading screens instruct players on how to find out where each Tall Tale begins.
Secondly, the less experienced players pointed out that the Tall Tales are hard. The further you play through them, the more the game gives you clues as to where you need to be going and what you need to be looking out for. For experienced players, who know the layout of the map as well as features of individual islands, these sometimes take a moment or two to figure out. For a new player, some of these riddles require knowledge of the world that they'll need to work to obtain - and this leads into a further criticism that they voiced; in that the Tall Tales just take far too long.
If you play Sea of Thieves regularly, you'll know that time is something that it requires of you. Any PvE involvement with the game takes time - and you can ramp the time taken to do things up considerably if a crew of other players decide to engage with you in combat. This is true of any activity in the Adventure mode, not just the Tall Tales. I'm sure all of us who play it regularly have experienced that cold feeling in the pit of the stomach where, having picked up the final (and most valuable) item in a quest chain, another ship turns toward you and begins pursuit. For us, that's a key part of the game and something I'd never want to be without - but for a new player who is engaging with one of these quests (and possibly the world itself) for the first time and faces losing hours of their time through no fault of their own, it seems to only ever be a negative. This fact, something that's accepted at worst and celebrated at best by the hardcore players of the game, can absolutely make-or-break the experience for a new player; and while I don't know many serious players who'd want to change it, the more casual and transient players I talked to all raised it as being something they view as a massive barrier to entry for them. We can argue that "maybe the game just isn't for you"... but it doesn't change the fact that service games need to constantly attract new players. It wasn't just the length of the tall tales that they mentioned, but also the ways in which they intentionally eschew generally accepted game mechanics.
Think about other adventure games you've played. Now think about ones where you need specific items to open doors, or solve puzzles, or otherwise advance through an environment. In any of those games, can you lose these items or have them stolen from you? In Sea of Thieves, you can. The objects required to progress through the tall tales are treated as treasure - with all the inherent perils that that brings with it. Is this in keeping with the game? Absolutely. Does that make it interesting and more challenging? Definitely. And is it as frustrating as hell if you lose one of these pieces, or have it stolen from you. Yes. This point was cited by several people I spoke to. One of them had had items stolen from him by other players. Another had sunk in a storm and lost his items that way. Both of them had been annoyed by this - in the case of one of them who experienced this after hours of playtime, he'd rage-quit and not come back. I've failed two tall tales as a result of interference by other players - but as an established player I'm accustomed to this. The impact it has on me is simply not the same as the impact it has on new players. I expect to fail voyages on Sea of Thieves occasionally - these players do NOT expect to fail campaign missions, as it's something that doesn't really happen in other games.
As is often the case for games delivered as a service, Sea of Thieves finds itself in a place where it's trying to keep existing players happy and attract new players simultaneously. If nothing else, the issues thrown up by the Tall Tales demonstrate the nature of these challenges in a microcosm. What is difficult for new players is very different to what is difficult for established players; what is deemed "unfair" or a reason to not continue for some players is on the contrary a mechanic adored by others. There's no easy route to a solution, other than maybe to wilfully target content at different areas of the playerbase - and even that will draw criticism from the area of the playerbase that the new content is NOT aimed at. So far, Rare's vision of what Sea of Thieves is has been uncompromising. I've lauded them for this and will continue to do so - but looking at these statistics, I have to wonder whether I'm in a minority in loving this game for the number of video game tropes that it wilfully discards.
Mostly though, I wonder what impact data points like this are having on the internal development direction for the game at Rare. Features the size of Tall Tales don't end up in video games by accident. Development resource is incredibly expensive; any game of this scale will have that resource managed carefully. Generally speaking, you'll want to have as much of the team as possible working on features that will be engaged with by as high a proportion of the playerbase as possible. We already know that the effort put in to the design, development, and deployment of Tall Tales was massive; recent conversations initiated by the developers on the cadence of new content releases have all referred to a want to re-address the work/life balance of the teams involved. This indicates to me that shipping the Anniversary Update was labour intensive, possibly involving some crunch. While that release didn't only include the Tall Tales (as the PvP centric Arena mode formed a part of the same update), it wouldn't surprise me at all to hear that someone at Rare is looking at the metric of that time invested vs the number of players engaging with the content that time produced and wondering whether or not it was the right decision. The figures for the Arena are less easy to extrapolate based purely on achievements, but they'd be an interesting comparison to those for the Tall Tales. Maybe they're playing a long game, and not expecting most players to engage with these right at this moment, and instead expecting the values to slowly increase over time. I hope that's the case - I'd love to see more of them come to the game in future content drops. At the moment though, based on the limited data that's publicly available, you have to wonder whether or not they're seeing this as an equation that balances as they'd expect it to.
Mostly, I'm sitting here hoping that that piece of the puzzle that I can't see (which is completion rates for active players as opposed to for entire account population) is big enough to have rendered all my thoughts here irrelevant. I want more Tall Tales. I love the PvE element of this game; I've been playing it since technical alpha and am showing no signs of slowing down, and nor do I intend to. Sometimes though, the numbers make me think.