Rare just cancelled toxicity in Sea of Thieves' Arena mode - and it's absolutely fine.
Rare launched the first season pass for Sea of Thieves today, and also dropped some information yesterday that has the player base in the middle of a... somewhat heated disagreement. In among the trailers and tweets about the new season pass, how it worked, and what it contained, there was another tweet. The tweet linked to a post on the official Sea of Thieves forums by Executive Producer Joe Neate. You can read it here - the short summary is that following today's patch, comms in the game's Arena mode are going to be limited to chat within your own crew only. If you want to talk or type messages to the other players queuing for a scrap in the Tavern, you're going to be out of luck by the time you read this.
Sea of Thieves' PvP only Arena mode has been a tricky addition to the game ever since it first appeared in March 2019, following a lengthy period in the game's Insider test programme. It originally placed players into crews of four on galleons, but regularly struggled to fill ships - joining an apparently abandoned galleon in the middle of a match was a common situation in the early days. Rare gave the Arena another solid development pass, with massive changes to the mode dropping in May 2019 (I wrote up my thoughts at the time - you can read 'em here).
That pass introduced sloops, shortened the matches from 24 minutes to 15 minutes, and made some fundamental changes to how the mode worked. Where previously, every ship would be given the same set of maps, now there was one chest - and everyone could see it. The number of places to sell the chest was also reduced to one, and as soon as the first chest was dug up, the next would spawn. These changes did a lot to improve the situation - at least in the short term. Arena suddenly became a viable way of playing the game for a short period of time, which was something the game had always struggled with. Matches could be laggy, and getting stuck against PC players using mouse and keyboard at 120fps while you were using a joypad on an Xbox One at 30fps was guaranteed to be painful, but it felt like an interesting new way of playing the game. Even back then though, it had its problems in terms of the sheer toxicity that was often on display in the mode. All the way back in May 2019, I described it thus:
"If you're playing with your kids (I know lots of us do), be sure to mute chat from other crews - including text chat. Salty players make for salty messages, and the swear words flow freely from the players with keyboards - each letter separated by a space to beat the text filter."
The player base immediately split into two camps over the announcement that comms in the Arena would be permanently disabled. Based on the social media responses I saw, the majority of responses to the news were negative - with plenty of them unwittingly proving the accuracy of the reasoning behind the decision. For me though, I think the most interesting information behind the decision offered by Joe Neate was a statistical tidbit - 3% of the hours played on Sea of Thieves take place in the Arena... and over 50% of the reports of toxicity come from it.
As someone who (professionally) examines usage statistics to prioritise development effort, this is a staggering statistic. It's also telling that a large proportion of these are teams communicating with other crews. Given the game's reputation for server boosting via Discord, I'd imagine that these complaints are a mix of teams trying to gang up against other crews to reap benefits, along with the usual nastiness that you can come across in online games - with Sea of Thieves (as much as I love it) being absolutely no exception to the rule. If the aim is to make Arena a "more welcoming place," then hitting a server where players have already grouped up to stack the deck in their favour is not a welcoming place to end up, and neither is one full of people swearing at you and hurling insults - whether in voice chat or via space separated text posts.
I think the reality is along these lines: Arena has been in trouble for a while, with a dwindling player base and a recent announcement that further development on the mode is being wound down. If 50% of toxicity complaints are coming from such a comparatively small area of the game (and at this point, Arena players, it IS a small area of the game - and getting smaller every day), anyone looking at the future viability of the mode would be asking questions. A toxic mode is one that will ultimately be populated only by a dwindling minority of toxic players - as new players wandering in and experiencing the negativity likely won't come back to the mode. Even worse, they may not wander back to the game at all - and that's in no-one's best interests. Not even, ironically, those of the players creating the toxic environment in the first place.
So, do I agree with these changes? Yes. Yes I do. I think Rare needed to do something, and this is what they're going to try. The stats alone back up the need for something to be attempted. Do I think this is the end of the tweaks in this area? No. No I don't. There are players who maintain that their experience of Arena was overwhelmingly positive - and these are the players that I hope will find new ways to enjoy their time in the Sea Dogs' Tavern. I applaud Rare's efforts to make their game as welcoming a place as it could be, and their efforts to prove that a game about piracy does NOT have to be a toxic place. In today's climate, to do nothing to protect the integrity of the online space they've created is inexcusable.
For the most part though, those against the change have made all the traditional arguments - "censorship" being a pretty common one. Lots of "snowflakes ruining it for us all" was floating around, along with a bit of "most players aren't good enough to be toxic," which, I'll admit made me simultaneously shrug, laugh, and shake my head. It's worth reminding all those whining about "freedom of speech," that no-one's stopping them from being as unpleasant as they want to be... Rare just aren't giving them a platform anymore. They don't owe these people a damn thing.