We *still* can't sail together - Sea of Thieves.
It's been a while since I said anything on here about Sea of Thieves. Where once it was the game I talked about the most, in recent months it's slipped down the list of conversational priorities. Those of you reading might therefore be surprised to hear then that it's still a game that I play - and that I still play it quite a lot. In an average week, I'll hit the seas at least twice - on a Sunday night my "get-it-done" crew continues to set sail most weeks, while on Saturday night I sail with a crew of RL mates. After last night, they're all Pirate Legends now too. That's Lachesis cheering at the back - she was the final one of us to get there, crossing the line last night with a nice Gold Hoarder emissary voyage.
It's still my favourite game of the generation, and since launch it's changed to the point of being almost unrecognisable. I've been here for every step in its post-launch evolution, and it's charted an impressive course. To give you an idea, in case you haven't been paying attention, developer Rare recently published a video to YouTube that details every single feature in their "lacking content" game. It's 18 minutes long (and you can watch it here, if you fancy it) - and these days whenever I see someone whine about how little there is to do in the game, I point them toward it. Weirdly, they never seem to have anything else to say...
Recent additions include emissary voyages that boost gold and rep earnings with a particular faction, and the introduction of a Reaper faction that was intended to increase opportunistic PvP (and reward it!) within the game's core "Adventure" mode. Rare have also re-purposed parts of the narrative Tall Tale mechanics to add new voyage types to one of the factions - a welcome addition but not, if we're being honest, really a game changer. The last big feature they've talked about though, and since gone extremely quiet on, is one I was most interested in though - and that's the small matter of private server support. It sounds as though noise was being made about putting it into the game - with an interesting caveat.
I've had opinions on this for a long time. Not private server support, specifically, but on the way in which Sea of Thieves limits the size of your crew and makes it extremely difficult to get more than one crew into a server. I wrote about it on this very site - all the way back in February 2019. Since then, more features and tools have been added to the game than I would care to try to count - and yet this fundamental shortcoming remains unresolved.
Earlier this year (deep in the COVID19 lockdown), Rare began making noises about the provision of private servers. The aim for these was to ostensibly support community creators, such as the guys behind the Race of Legends - to allow them to easily set up a server and get the crews in so that they could create their content without having to spend hours convincing crews to leave a server so that their friends could join it, thereby creating a space on the seas with no hostility. By all accounts it was tested... and has since gone back into the black hole of onward development. As they progress though, they're likely to eventually hit live with the following set of features:
Ability to set up a Custom Adventure server
Customisation of ship numbers and types prior to starting
Generation of a code to distribute to community members to allow them to join
No gold or reputation progression from Custom Server sessions
There are also rumours that they'll come with a cost - which is something I don't personally have a problem with, as servers are expensive things to run. The thing that bothers me, really, is that they don't actually solve the problem that I (and many others) face. I'm sure they'll be invaluable for content creators who want a nice quiet patch of sea to do whatever they want to do - but the majority of us are NOT content creators. We're just people who want to play a game we love with more than 3 of our friends at once without having to spend hours messing around. The problem with having to set all of this up before starting is that it still removes any flexibility from the game - and that's where the core problem is. It happens to me all the time.
We'll be happily sailing along, maybe on a sloop, maybe on a brig. Either way, the ship is full... and a notification pings up saying someone else has joined the party.
"Hey," the voice says. "What're you doing?"
"We're in the middle of an Athena run."
"Cool," the voice replies. "Any space?"
It's just sad, and kind of a shame. Our options are to abandon hours of voyage progress to bring someone else into a crew (usually meaning we'd end up having to use the galleon which is, to be brutally honest, the least fun ship to use in the game), or we tell them to sail alone. The motto of the pirate legend shanty is still "We shall sail together" - and we would if we could. But still, after several years of being live, the game seems to go out of its way to make it as difficult as possible for us to do so. Private servers, as currently proposed, do nothing to solve that problem.
And even if private servers were the solution to that problem, there's still the slightly bizarre insistence on the "no gold or rep" rules as well. Gold earnings and rep progression are something that Rare seem quite precious about in terms of private servers - and that strikes me as odd.
Because every single enhancement that has been added to the game since day one has made gold and rep easier to earn - to the point that a player starting the game today can reach Pirate Legend rank in a matter of weeks, as opposed to the months (or even year!) that was common when the game first launched.
Where once loot (and therefore rep) was difficult to come by, these days... it's everywhere. Loot can be found floating in the sea, washed up on beaches, sat in shipwrecks - it just appears in the world today in a way that it never used to. I'm not complaining about that, to be clear - but if scarcity is what drives value, then loot and rep is considerably less valuable in the game now than it has been at any point in the past. The emissary system adds multipliers that exacerbate the situation. Every single new emergent feature added to the game - whether the megalodon, the ghost ships, the Fort of the Damned, the fleet battles, or the Flameheart fight have one thing in common. They're a new source of gold... and gold still means reputation to the vast majority of players. At this point in the game's lifecycle, and bearing in mind how it has evolved to where it is now, the decision not to allow rep or gold to be earned from these sessions feels like a strange place to draw a line in the sand.
Some players, of course, share Rare's view on things. "Why should people be able to earn rep in a "safe" PvE environment" you can hear them ask?. "Sea of THIEVES," they say. And the old classic: "I earned Pirate Legend without doing any of that." And indeed they did - as did I. I can see their point... but honestly, I think they're missing something fundamental: These "safe" PvE servers already exist. Discord chats exist that seek to create them and then keep them running for as long as possible. These player groups have been created and managed purely because lots of players actually want to earn rep in a "safe" PvE environment - in short, they've come into existence to fill a gap that the game's developers are apparently reticent to fill themselves. I've found myself on a couple of servers like that by accident in the past - and the experience has always been pleasant and lucrative. I don't know - the argument against the inclusion of loot and gold in private servers just seems like a spurious double standard at this point. PvP fans have a whole mode for themselves, but it's somehow "detracting from the core idea of the game" to provide PvE fans with the same thing? Hmmm. I'm not entirely convinced. There's a perception that later players achieving something more easily than early adopters somehow devalues the experience of those early players - and that perception is flawed, yet pervasive.
For my part, I'm still in the same place that I was when I wrote that piece over 18 months ago. I don't want a private server, particularly - and I certainly don't want one in which I will make no progress at all in spite of the limited progression that's still available to my pirate. What I would like continues to simply be a way of bringing more ships into a server, and doing so fairly flexibly. If that means limiting the number of players in a lobby to half of a server (three ships maximum), then by all means - it's a limitation that feels fair. If it means limiting a crew to a single ship size change (say from a sloop to a brigantine or galleon or even downsizing as people leave), fine. Or, if it means limiting it to one extra ship being available for the entire server, subject to the number of ships already sailing around - not a problem. All of these would work to help alleviate the core issue as I see it - which is that 3 people is simply not enough people to sail with sometimes, and the hoops that must be jumped through to allow us to play with more are a barrier that a lot of us would be happier without.
I'm not a game developer, but I like to think of myself as being more aware than many players of the development complexity that this would entail - but I still think it's a more elegant solution to a problem than just separating the player base between those happy to play in a private playground and those that aren't. The middle road is often the best - and I'm still hopeful that Rare will come up with a way for more of us to sail together.