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Sea of Thieves: Rare Studio Head Craig Duncan Talks High Seas and High Pirate Community Expectations
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 06:04pm 01/09/17 | Comments
We had a very lengthy chat with Rare studio head, Craig Duncan, about their forthcoming and hotly anticipated Sea of Thieves. Read on for what he had to say...

AusGamers: Over the past two years, I've expected you guys to follow, without a doubt, this concept that realistically you have pirates. And the community's clearly had such a huge hand in how all of this plays out. Can you talk a little bit about how much of an influence they've had? Things that you may have thrown out there that just didn't work? Things that you've thrown out there that the community's embraced or changed in some capacity? Just kind of give me a broad spectrum of what the community's done for the development of the game.

Craig Duncan: Yeah, I mean... two things we learnt from the start. One was we're going to build this game with our players and two, we're going to have a really open, transparent development. And when we said that, we didn't really know what it meant.

You know Rare’s history, which was really secretive and did everything in a bubble. So one thing was, ‘hey, we need to be building a game in this way’. Like, we're going to go build a new IP, to do that in a very open, transparent way, and get a community involved who will actually help [we need to] make sure we're building a game that people love and resonates with them, but also has this really nice side effect that people go on that development journey with you, and they kind of get that passion to understand what you're trying to do. This is where the transparency comes in. We've been very open. Since we showed gameplay for the first time last E3 we've been very open with our community talking about, "Hey, this is some of the stuff we're thinking about, here's some of the stuff on the roadmap". And, as well as that, running these technical alpha play tests, where we have people come in and play and give us direct feedback on features, give us… (obviously we survey them when they play), so give us feedback on how much fun they thought it was, how buggy they thought it was. You know, some really, really good stuff.

The other thing we said from the very start, is this is all about players as the critical source. And we wanted -- the way games are made now, how you socialise your gameplay experiences, whether you're tweeting about them or streaming or making videos -- people share games very differently. We can't say, "Hey, we want to make a game where every time you play, it's magic and it's a different story and it's unique and it's your adventure". So you kind of put those two things together, and, really, you need to build a game with community to go do that, because everyone can play our game in a completely different way. And our players do: some players are very aggressively motivated and want to go seek ships and steal treasure and kill other pirates. Some are very exploration motivated and want to go travel the world. And some are very socially motivated, they just want to go have a good time and play a game with their friends, so socially they can just go and have some fun.

AusGamers: Yeah.

Craig: And, again, it's one of those things that's kind of impossible to really test without having an active population of thousands of players to actually see what happens, cause our vision for the game is: how do we make sure you're out on this adventure with your crew, but you know other players are out doing the same adventures in town, and then when you see them, what happens? And that's something that we've honed the shipping counter-frequency, ship visibility, ship visibility at night, all based on player-telemetry feedback.

AusGamers: That leads perfectly into what I want follow-up on that, which is do you have contingencies for the player meta, and have you witnessed player meta in alpha, and is it a good meta, is it a bad meta, are you expecting a mirrored, kind of, spread, once again, is that in the log? Because these types of games, tend to lend themselves towards players playing with systems on systems on systems.

Craig: A little bit, yeah.

AusGamers: And then, when you allow people to manipulate those systems, then what's to say there's not just, say, a bully ship that just goes around bullying? They don't play the game for the reason that you truly made it?

Craig: And this is why we're trying to develop [the game the way we are] and this, we can talk about this for hours, literally. So we're trying to blend all those scenarios, to [try and] create the right community. The awesome thing we've learned is we have an active community of people that are super welcoming to new players coming into the game, [but] you're actually right. As we scale, we will have some degree of toxicity…

AusGamers: But I'm not even talking about toxicity. I'm talking about people that just don't play the game in the way that it may be intended.

Craig: And what we're trying to do is design [Sea of Thieves] to make sure we enforce positive motivation. So we have a lot of very crew and cooperative-based goals. So really encouraging you. You know, to succeed in this game you've got to properly play it with your crew, and really succeed together. Because I think you can motivate something positively, that gets a lot more reaction than…

AusGamers: Yeah, having your way at the end.

Craig: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. But what we've seen in the meta, and this goes back to player behavior, is people play, and they write their own stories. I mean, literally write. So you could go into our forums and see people write a wall of text about, "Hey, I played Sea of Thieves, this happened, this is what I was trying to do, this is the adventure I had". People then go in and comment on that. People will, ultimately, play the way they want to play, and what we're very keen not to do, is go, "Hey, here's a linear path that every single player's gonna go through, and everyone has to play Sea of Thieves the way we've designed it".

What we hope will happen is people will start to crew up with people that are like-minded, and as we continue to balance things like matchmaking and player encounter frequency and which ships encounter which ships... I kind of like the idea of a crew building up in notoriety around being hunters and aggressors. At the end of the day we're a great big open-world with ships in it, so it's not like... we're not, like, a PVP camping game, where you're always gonna encounter that same player, you're always gonna get sniped from that same point. We're an adventure game that you just happen to be adventuring in the same world with other players. So you can avoid them, or you can team up with another crew to go take down that notorious crew. We think that player motivations all play some of those things out.

AusGamers: Yeah.

Craig: Of course, if we have to get things, like... a bit more aggressive, segregation of matchmaking or how we flag and tag players. But I think we'd like to do that in a positive way with the community.

AusGamers: Yeah.

Craig: Rather than try and over-design or restrict groups of players.

AusGamers: Yeah, sure.

So, the other question then, kind of stems from: what's the point of the game? It's a really broad, philosophical kind of question, but to get the average punter in, and they’re, like, "Oh, pirate ships. It sounds cool. I'm teaming up with some people. That's cool. Getting treasure, that's cool. But what do I want my treasure for? I can build up my ship, and then I'm building up my ship to go on one more treasure hunt". So, at what point does the surface stop and there be an end point?

Craig: And this is where we try to build a game that we can continue to layer on features and evolve. We're playing, and this is by no means final, but we're playing around with a number of areas I think are super exciting. One is: we want you to have the ultimate goal: to become a legendary pirate. And to do that, you need to find a crew that you can go and achieve things together with. And one crew could be us playing together, one crew could be you and a different set of friends. We need to make sure you, as a pirate, continue to increase your ability to [play with] other crews. But, we want people to be able to do that in their own way. So, if you are more of an explorer, you want to travel the world and find treasure, that's great. If you're more an Achievement hunter, and you want to go solve these hidden riddles, or you want to go be the notorious pirate in the game, and out of the game (through social means), maybe by sinking tons of ships. We want to find ways to make sure we reward players for playing the way they want to play and, almost, not force one type of player or another.

AusGamers: Yeah.

Craig: And we love this idea of ‘legendary’ or ‘notoriety’ either in the game or out of the game. Because we don't have a Blackbeard. Yeah, we have war in the game, we have a ghost ship, and we have skeletons in the Pirate's Pass, and we have cabins... But we want the lore in the game to be built by the players that are playing. So I'd love a pirate crew to have the notoriety, maybe because they're making videos or streaming about their awesome adventures. Or maybe they've done something so awesome in the game that that becomes a tale of legend and a tall tale. And we've started to do this with our tech alpha. The first player that died in the game, in our first tech alpha, is immortalised now.

So you go in the ghost ship, and you go down to one of the wooden planks his gamer tag is there.

[And] what I love about that, we want to do that more, because we're building a game that we can continue to update. So now you've heard that story I'm going to give you something you don't know. We've been releasing Sea of Thieves weekly for over a year. So, we've done 86 content updates to [the game], and we haven't even shipped yet. So we hold the record of a game that's been updated more times than any other game in Microsoft’s games portfolio, and we haven't even launched yet.

What that means is basically, we're building a game that we can continue to add to, and every time we add features, it gets…

AusGamers: So even your update pipeline is going to be streamlined to the game directly?

Craig: Absolutely. This is all the stuff we're testing now. And that enables us to do things like immortalise players. That enables us to do things like... we're running a campaign (in alpha) where we've hidden caches of treasure chests, and we're giving community clues through our forums, so they can solve these riddles together to go find them, and then we're rewarding them with real-world prizes.

AusGamers: Okay, that's cool.

Craig: Not saying that's where the game will ultimately end up, but it's all this sort of stuff we're enabling, we're playing around with while we're in this [alpha] stage, because the idea of having time-limited quests or special things the community worked together on, or immortalising players, I just think it's so, so powerful, and it's like the other end of all the work we're doing with the community. It's almost, building a game for them that they want, that almost asks them for all the input and feedback...

AusGamers: Yeah. So, this can be quite... it might not actually play into [the game], but the concept of PvP and the multiplayer, like team-up stuff, especially with the idea of a crew... if you look at games like Destiny and things like that, Raids are really big way to reward people that have played together for a really long time.

Craig: Yep.

AusGamers: Are you guys looking at things like that? The Kraken is definitely a known entity. But there’s clearly a lot more in pirate lore and mythology…

Craig: Yeah, yeah.

AusGamers: It seems like Raids would be right for that kind of…

Craig: Yeah, like I say, we don't really see our game as a PvP, PvE game, and this is why. Again, we’re locked on this theme of a shared-world. We want it to feel like a cooperative adventure game, which is you and your crew going on these adventures. And that goes back to, and again, the romantic fantasy of whether it's Goonies, or Treasure Island, we've got a crew, we've found a map, we're gonna go on that adventure.

AusGamers: You could argue that the first half of Goonies is the ‘shared-world’ experience that you're talking about and that the second half of Goonies is the Raid…

Craig: Maybe, but what's wonderful about our game, is you can set off to go do something, and then what you'll end up doing will be completely different.

AusGamers: Yeah, right.

Craig: You'll see a shipwreck, and you'll decide to stop and do it, or you'll see another ship…

AusGamers: So, it's emergent.

Craig: It is emergent. I think emergence is a really, really overused term in building games though. For us, it's really... I have to say, every time you play Sea of Thieves you'll get a different adventure. And what we can do, because of the systems we've built, the riddles we chose, the riddle map – it’s in the build now, and there are many riddle maps -- what we showed in the E3 briefing was kind of like a two-step riddle. It was like, "Hey, find the place where there is no sky, which is the cave, on this island. Go and hold the light up in front of the altar. Activate the altar. Walk X number of paces". So it's kind of: ‘find something, action, step’. The fact that we make them rhyme is awesome. Our first riddle prototype was like a list, like a shopping list. Go here, do this, do this. When we made them rhyme, that was the magic bit for us. But we can obviously make quests and make voyages more complex. We've got multi-step voyages. We map things where you'd have to visit more islands. We can do things like treasuries, where you've got to take a shipment of something from A to B. Because of the way we've built the game, with systems, we can layer up the difficulty and complexity, which actually makes more and more complex voyages and quests which need more experienced crews. I think a lot of shared-world games are quite dog-eat-dog, and that's never ever been our goal.

AusGamers: Yeah, I mean you guys cut out the idea that one pirate in your crew could just shoot you and take the loot.

Craig: Yeah. Because we want... It's you and your crew against the world. That's why the treasure chest is this whole weird thing that you've got to get back to the town. That's why...

AusGamers: Well when we played, we sunk our ship, our gold was left on the island, so I renewed our ship, and the ship respawned elsewhere with all the crew except for the treasure holder who was left back on the island, so we had to go back to the island to collect him, and he was just standing there waiting for any skeletons to come, and…

Craig: Yeah. But what if another crew would have found him and the treasure?

AusGamers: Exactly. Like, yeah. That's the stuff that I'm really looking forward to. I'll finish it up, cause I’ve probably gotta let you go. So I'm not sure how much from the technical side of things you can talk about, but clearly you guys have been in on the loop on Xbox One X for awhile.

Craig: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

AusGamers: But you're also, for the very first time, in Rare’s history using an external engine in Unreal 4. Can you talk about the jump from what you've been working on to what we'll get with Xbox One X?

Craig: Yeah, I mean, it's early days. All I can say is, we’ve had dev kits in the studio for a couple of months now.

AusGamers: Yeah, sure.

Craig: So we have the game running in 4K. If Ted, my PC lead was here, he'd wax lyrical about tetra size and screen resolution and stuff that I don't even begin to understand.

So we've had the game running on high-end PCs, and everything I've heard from my engine team and my tech team when they got Xbox One X dev kits, they were, like, "Wow, these things are awesome. We got the game up and running in, like, two days".

AusGamers: Right.

Craig: So for us, it's like, I'm a big fan of Phil [Spencer’s] vision, which is: we want people to play Sea of Thieves regardless of their device. For us, it's really about making sure it's amazing on Xbox One S, making sure it's amazing on Xbox One X, making sure it's amazing on PC -- whether you're a high-end PC gamer where things like FOV and all those things that matter, right down to, "Hey, I can run Sea of Thieves on my Surface. So I can go into Redmond -- and we’ve been play-testing weekly cross-play as well – and so last time I was in Redmond, I was playing on my Surface, with people playing on their Xbox One back in the UK.

AusGamers: How was your lag?

Craig: Again, we’re not a twitch-based game. We've built it to cope with low latency. It's really about... We want people to play together.

AusGamers: Yeah, sure.

Craig: We will remove any barriers that stop you playing with your friends.

AusGamers: Alright, perfect. Alright, great. Thank you so much man, I really appreciate it.

Craig: Really good chat, awesome questions. Thank you.

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