I'm still playing Sea of Thieves. I think that at this point it's probably the game I've played for the longest single continuous period of time in my life - it came out 20 months ago, and so far I've not taken a break from it in the same way that I had by this point in the lifecycles of both Destiny and Destiny 2. It's holding my attention I think partly because of the way in which I play it, and partly because of who I play it with, and partly due to the constant flow of content. At this point, it's become a game that I consider to be an essential part of my gaming life - one I hold in the same high regard as some of the ones I played when I was a kid. It's a place I go for excitement, and for relaxation, and for a sense of discovery.
I'm lucky enough to have four little groups that I sail with often enough for me to be able to call it "regularly." Each of those groups allows me the chance to experience the game in a slightly different way. Playing with my kids probably gives me the most chaotic experience. The three of us rarely log in to actually achieve anything - because actually making progress in Sea of Thieves these days actually takes a lot of effort (more on that later...), but instead to just see what chaos we can create for ourselves and what trouble we can get ourselves into and then out of. Play sessions with my little brother (I say 'little', he's 38 - but that's younger than me so the 'little' title remains in place indefinitely) consist of chilled out fishing while we chat about other important stuff in life; jobs, parents, kids, significant others... Street Fighter 2 strategies. These evenings accomplish little in terms of 'the aims of the game' but are some of the most enjoyable evenings I spend with it. I've never been fishing in real life, but if this is what people do when they go fishing, I guess I can see the attraction of it far better now than I could before - but I digress. Time spent sailing with my wife and some mutual mates is fun but in some ways like herding cats - they bought Xboxes to play this game after spending an evening on it with me, and they're still learning the finer details of controller button descriptions and how Xbox Live parties work. It's fun regardless, but as they guy in the group who acts as Captain pretty much every time, it can feel a bit exhausting by the end of it.
The final group is probably the most serious of the four. This is the group that all log on together at roughly the same time pretty much every Sunday night and do something. That something can vary, but rarely is that session a free-roaming wander in the same way that some of the others I play are. This is the group of mostly ex-Destiny players that I rely on to get stuff done. We run Athena voyages, finish Tall Tale commendations. This is the group that, since hitting Pirate Legend, are the ones where the real progress grind happens. And the way we're playing seems to be changing.
In the last couple of months, Rare have brought their pipeline under what looks like pretty tight control - at least from the outside looking in. Knowing what software development processes look like, I doubt it's anywhere as serene within the organisation as it appears to those of us without, but the fact remains that for the last couple of months, we've had new stuff drop as regularly as clockwork. This new content has included stuff as diverse as a massive new spin on an existing fort (the Fort of the Damned, where Old Boot fort used to be), down to smaller details like the introduction of a storage crate, an increase of loot floating in the water and found washed up on beaches and some new behaviours for the Megalodon. A game that felt quite static (even if it was full of things to do) has suddenly become to feel dynamic with the experience constantly being tweaked and adjusted. The longstanding 'tools not rules' philosophy that Rare subscribe to feels more and more a driving force of design with each update - the most recent one introducing a fire mechanic that has pretty much thrown the pre-existing flow of combat out of the window and replaced it with something even more punishing if a mistake is made.
The introduction of all of these tools has led to more and more emergent play arising - to the point where actually progressing in the game as a high level player has become very difficult, almost an opportunity cost decision. Allow me to explain.
I'm a Pirate Legend. I have been for almost a year now (my anniversary is on 3rd December). When you hit Pirate Legend, you get an achievement and an outfit and the chance to buy a new ship... and you get access to the endgame "Athena" voyages. Each of these missions will give you a variety of maps; you'll have a couple of islands to dig up treasure on, a couple of islands to follow riddles on, a couple of islands to fight Skeleton Captains on, and a couple of Merchant deliveries to complete. Completing each of these things drops a final map - an island containing a lone "Chest of Legends" that can be returned to a tavern and sold in exchange for quite a lot of gold and a tiny slice of Athena's Fortune reputation. These voyages are often spread across the map - meaning you're extremely likely to encounter storms, krakens, other players, and various other distractions along the way. They can take hours to complete. There are a couple of other ways of earning this rep in the game - but they feel like token gestures, and the rep reward is tiny. And herein, for me, lies a weird problem with the game. Now to be clear, this doesn't bother me anywhere near enough to stop me from playing it - but it's a frustration that grows in each session.
The grind to hit Athena's Fortune level 10 feels insane. It's the only really obvious bit of progress that I have left to complete at this point - commendations for various other activities are there to be chased, but once you hit Pirate Legend it would be remiss of me to try to say that this isn't the main progression focus - because it absolutely is. It's the last real progression measurement for a player... and in a little under a year, I've hit level 7 out of a maximum 10. Now I'll admit, this grind is not one that I engage with every time I log in to the game - that's partly down to who I play with and how... and partly because as I mentioned above, the amount of time it takes to earn that tiny little slice of rep makes it really difficult for someone who plays the way I do to achieve. And knowing that makes motivating myself even more difficult. Since the game launched, there have been massive changes introduced for players that are making their way to Pirate Legend - but almost none to change the experience for those of us who hit it a while ago.
The grind to Pirate Legend itself is long, but not especially challenging. When the game originally launched, you had to hit level 50 with each of the game's 3 trading companies - selling treasure to the Gold Hoarders, selling skulls to the Order of Souls, and delivery livestock to the Merchant Alliance. Each update has served to make that journey easier in one way or another. More and more loot found randomly in the world (whether washed up on beaches, hidden in shipwrecks or just floating in the open water to be discovered as you sail) allows players to level up far more quickly now than early adopters could. The introduction of Cargo Runs reduced the effort needed to raise through the ranks of the Merchant Alliance dramatically. The introduction of additional factions in the Hunter's Call and Sea Dogs also serve to give players more options in which areas of the game they concentrate on in their journey to the Pirate Lord's tavern, by allowing players to hit level 50 with any 3 out of the 5 factions available. It's a wise move on the part of Rare - the best thing about the game is the world itself, and all of these additions leverage the emergent nature of it. For a long time, players such as myself would simply sail past a Megalodon as fighting it gave us nothing. The increased spawn of loot (and thus the opportunity to gain levels through reputation earned by selling it) gave us a reason to engage. More and more activities offer more and more opportunities for newer players to profit, and for us legends to make gold hand over fist. The sheer fun from this emergence is absolutely the reason most of us keep coming back. The emergence renders the need to concentrate on a fairly rigid voyage structure redundant; the opportunity for progression is ubiqitous.
Once you hit Pirate Legend, that all changes. The gold earned from completing such encounters is nice, but it doesn't actually offer players like me access to anything that we didn't have access to already. When you're wandering around with over 1,000,000 gold pieces, pursuing even more of it doesn't make much sense - I can afford all of the cosmetic items I could possibly want, the only ones I can't buy are the ones demanding commendations. The only way to progress, via Athena Voyages, really ask you to ignore a lot of the exciting things happening around you - because if you want to earn that Athena rep, staying laser focused on the voyage is the key. The more I play, the more it feels like a missed trick in a game that always seems to have yet another trick up its sleeve. At its highest level, the progression system is effectively punishing you for just messing around in the world - which is where the game is at its absolute best. Just to be clear, I can understand why the game works in this way - there are far more players who haven't reached Pirate Legend yet than there are who have. Current estimates are that Pirate Legends make up less than 2% of the player population. Updating the Athena progression system is a lot of effort to please a very small slice of the player base - I guess the defiant optimist in me just hopes that at some point, Rare do it anyway. One thing seems almost certain at this point: whenever that happens, I'll be on board. Waiting. And until then... the grind will continue. Very slowly. Fit in around doing far more interesting things in the world.