This week, Sea of Thieves got another impressive content update. Ships of Fortune brings with it a new emissary system, a boosted level cap, a revive mechanic, some sweeping Arena mode changes... and the cutest paid DLC in the history of cute things as paid DLC. It's also brought with it some rumblings from the community, some of whom are excited about a heightened emphasis on PvP activities, and a lot of whom have grown accustomed to the pleasures of going about their business in a world that has become slightly less aggressive in recent months.
It's always interesting to watch live games evolve, and to see the developers at the controls tweaking the settings that govern the behaviour of us players. A tweak to loot value here, a change to a spawn setting there acting as a gentle tug on the strings of us puppets - and suddenly we're doing things differently to take best advantage of the new rules of the system. The best live games make these changes incrementally to get a feel, then spin the knobs and slide the levers in one big change to see what happens. I think Ships of Fortune might be that latter kind of adjustment, and I understand why it's happening - even if I wasn't certain it was what I personally wanted in the run up to its arrival.
There's a perception that, somewhere along the line, the Adventure mode in Sea of Thieves has lost a bit of its edge. I have no access to the raw data, but anecdotally and based on my own experience, I've seen a few more server-wide alliances develop organically. I've stood fishing at seaposts while other ships have sailed in, docked, sold their stuff and departed without anyone firing a shot. It's come to feel as though as a playerbase, we've figured out that co-operating and sharing a larger pool of loot makes more sense than all of us fighting over a smaller one. That's not to say that PvP never happens - but when I think back to the days before alliances (a long time ago now...), you could pretty much guarantee that every ship you saw would pick a fight. Over the years, there's been peaks and troughs of PvP. Forts have always been a bit of a hotspot for it, but nonetheless it does feel like there's been less of it overall lately. This latest update apparently tends to "rectify" that by introducing some interesting high-risk/high-reward mechanics for all of the existing factions alongside the introduction of an entirely new one. The "Reaper's Bones" exist to serve a single purpose: return of old-school piracy to the Sea of Thieves.
It begins when you spawn into a tavern. You can spend some gold on an emissary title for each faction, and then opt to join them as an emissary - from there you drop a voyage as normal. Each item you locate in the world that can be sold to the faction you're representing levels up your emissary status - which in turn adds a multiplier to the reputation and gold you receive for selling items from the world to that faction. It maxes out at level 5; at which point you can collect an emissary voyage that gives you the opportunity to earn a LOT of gold and rep. This voyage is the reward for the perseverance: the Gold Hoarder voyage will give you approx 20 Captain's Chest spread across the world. The risk? You become visible to any Level 5 Reaper's Bones emissaries who are on the server - who will no doubt wander in your direction. If they sink you, you lose your emissary status, along with your loot (let's assume they'll steal it all). For them, they gain points for killing other pirates, sinking ships, stealing loot, and selling emissary flags from sunken vessels at the Reaper's Hideout in the middle of the map. The risk for them is that they're always visible on the map - to other ships who may seek to avoid detection... and to other Reapers who may well see them as a fair target.
The reaction to this change has been mixed, from what I've seen. There seem to be a lot of players lamenting the seas becoming a bloodbath at the expense of the chillout sessions they've been using the game for. There also seem to be a lot of pirates looking forward to taking on entire servers on a solo sloop, hellbent on cannon-balling the world and burning every ship they see to the ground. Comments implying this change could "kill the game" aren't exactly difficult to come by. As ever, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The first thing I'd say on this isn't so much based on this update, but just on long experience of playing service games - and it's "don't believe the internet panic." The internet seems designed to just illicit vocalisation of the strongest responses - both positive AND negative. Just because lots of people post their opinions, it doesn't necessarily mean the game will reflect the realities they're dreaming up - or even that their experience will come close to yours. The second thing is probably the more important one though - and that's that "updates have long tails."
Whenever a big set of changes are applied to a game, it always takes a period of time for the game to settle back down into new rhythms. It's like a deck of cards thrown into the air. They don't all land on the floor at once, and they certainly don't land in a neat pile. Player's motivations are going to be mixed up and changed, and that's going to change how they play. In the last couple of days, I've ended up on servers full of Reapers, and also been on several that were full of emissary ships for all the other factions without an aggressive player in sight. I've also ended up in a running battle with another emissary ship of the same faction as me - who I assumed would enter into an alliance but instead let rip with an unexpected broadside that almost sank me. My fears of constantly having to battle for every inch of progress so far haven't come to pass - but I am keeping a more weather eye on the horizon and on the map than I've felt the need to for some time.
For me, it's having to do this (along with seeing reputation being earned from the Gold Hoarders, Merchant Alliance, and Order of Souls for the first time since I hit Pirate Legend in December of 2018) that's really making the game feel fresh following this update. A long time ago, as a new and inexperienced pirate, I learned to keep my head on a swivel and to never trust the intentions of another ship. I remember that feeling in a positive way. It got the blood pumping in a way that no other game did... or has managed since. The simple Not Knowing what that other ship was up to was a big part of the game's X-factor for me - along with the knowledge that they were probably eyeing my ship and feeling exactly the same trepidation. That feeling has taken a back seat in the experience for a while - partly due to my growing experience, and partly down to the seas calming down. Right now, for the moment at least, it's back. And it's back with a vengeance.
It's worth saying, that as with all things in Sea of Thieves, a lot of this content is optional. If you don't become an emissary, the Reapers won't be able to see you on the map. You'll still be able to see them. If a chilled out session is what you want, you still have options. Check the emissary tables on the outpost - if the Reaper's Bones one is empty, the server is as safe as any other. If it isn't, check the map to see where they are... and go elsewhere. Alternatively, quit the game and re-launch it to server hop. These are the soft options though, in comparison to the third and final thing I generally say about live game updates - and that's "don't be afraid to walk away for a while." If the idea of this really turns you off that badly, play something else for a couple of weeks until it settles down and then come back and try it again.
Damn, I've rambled on here for nearly 1400 words and haven't said anything about Arena. Or my new pet cat, for that matter. I'll post more on those individually at some point, I guess. For the moment, my parting shot is this - I'm gonna go out on a limb and assert that this is a really good set of changes. I was reticent at the idea of PvP becoming more of the focus - but as ever, Rare seem to have managed it in a way that balances it out and makes it worth it even for those of us who will end up being the cannon fodder. We'll need to wait a couple of weeks to see what the longer term effects are... but for the moment, Sea of Thieves feels like it's in a good place. If anyone needs me, I'll be somewhere in the Shores of Plenty breathing a sigh of relief and plucking Pondies.
See you all on the seas.