Recently I got to play Sea of Thieves for the very first time. And what immediately stood out was just how different it was to anything I’d played before. A shared open world adventure without a compass. Well, a traditional on-screen game compass showcasing exactly where you are and where you need to head next.
In Sea of Thieves there’s a real emphasis on working together as a team. Using a fits-in-your-avatar’s-hand compass to figure which direction to head, and looking at an actual map sitting on a table instead of pressing a button to bring up a separate map screen.
That, and just having fun drinking grog and playing instruments.
Design decisions that may not paint a clear picture of the overall Sea of Thieves experience, but at the very least an entirely new direction for veteran studio Rare. And Microsoft too, with Sea of Thieves already positioned as one of the flagship Xbox titles for 2018.
Beneath all the individual design choices and mechanics lies a simple game where you get to become a pirate. And become the pirate that you want to be. Which made the real-life boat setting for my discussion with Joe Neate, Executive Producer at Rare, all the more fitting.
AusGamers: With studios that have been around for a while people assume that it's the same people that are there after 20 years or more, but that's not how the industry works. I'm assuming the culture at Rare was established a long time ago, but Sea of Thieves feels different to just about everything we’ve seen before.
Joe Neate: Rare has been around for 32 years now and it's a studio that has always grown and evolved to kind of look at what new trends are emerging in the industry or kind of where player tastes are going and almost changing what they make and what they do to meet that. If Rare did just make the same stuff over and over they probably wouldn't still be around. Because player trends change, and player tastes change, I think what has always stayed true to Rare is that every game they make reflects the people who worked on it. So, the team's sense of humour, the culture of the studio, the values that Rare has. And so, every Rare game that you've grown up playing will have had a sense of humour, and it would have made you smile, -
AusGamers: There's a very British and dry sense of humour throughout all of Rare's history.
Joe: For sure. With Sea of Thieves, how we do that in the modern age, and a very different game than something that Rare has made before has been interesting. We've got this multiplayer game. We give players the tools to almost create their own humour. So, firing stuff out of cannons, getting drunk, and um, being able to be sick, and throwing up into buckets and throwing up on each other. All those things. It's almost like the difference between improv comedy and stand-up comedy. A game that delivers the jokes to you and tells you the jokes and makes you smile is like a stand-up comedian. Whereas in improv comedy, it's very much situational and dependent on the kind of tools you're given. But it's still funny.
AusGamers: Just a different format for the humour.
Joe: You will smile and laugh playing Sea of Thieves. That's purposeful, because one of the key challenges and opportunities for a game like Sea of Thieves: bundling strangers together and getting them to have a great time as a crew. Then ultimately, hopefully making friends on Xbox Live, and everything. So, putting those things in there that make you smile has been deliberate. When you smile with someone, or laugh with someone, a stranger in any environment, you end up bonding with that person and becoming friends. We very much made that decision to do the same thing with our mechanics. Even musical instruments, the fact that I start playing and it's fun to watch the animations and everything. But if you start playing, the music syncs up, it makes you smile. It makes you laugh. There's no mechanical value to a feature like that, but there's an emotional value.
AusGamers: These real-life connections, people bonding over music. People bonding over sharing a beer. So that's something that consciously informed the design of Sea of Thieves?
Joe: Absolutely. I think the number one challenge we set ourselves was that we knew friends playing together would have a great time. Our challenge was ‘Can we make a game that bonds strangers together?’ Because not everyone's gonna have friends coming into this game and into this world. That's why we've been running a technical alpha since December last year. We started with 1000 players and 140,000 have been invited in. But we purposefully didn't, when we filtered the people coming in, we didn't allow people to bring their friends. Even though people were like "Come on, let me bring my friends in! I want to play with my friends." It was like "No. We want to test. Can you bond with strangers?"
We can look at our telemetry and go "These players have played together. Have they become friends afterwards?" One of our top players that we checked a few months ago, there's a lady called BlondieButGeeky. That's her Gamertag. She's a big Xbox fan. She came into our alpha and after about three months, she'd made 42 new friends from play the game. The next one had like 36.
AusGamers: That's always a good sign.
Joe: Not only is it great for the health of our game and the health of our community, it's also just cool, isn't it? That we're making this social friendship tool. That's something really powerful for us at Rare, and gives me a warm glow as a game developer.
AusGamers: I got the chance to play for the first time and one of the things that stood out to me was this level of confidence that you have in the game mechanics or how it works. For example, it's the absence of stuff that people may be used to, there's no compass, no directional arrows on the screen -
Joe: There's no mini-map.
AusGamers: Right, no mini-map. When you're steering the ship, the sails are in front of you and you can’t see. How did that evolve? Was that something that was there initially? Because it seems like a pretty bold choice to say, "We're going to trust that players are going to figure out navigation and searching for treasure without these assists that have become the norm."
Joe: I think, especially the team, the leadership team, the design team on this project are always looking at it like "Why do we have to do something that's always been done before? Can we not try something new and something different?" I think that scratches our creative itch and it's just the way that we are. We aren't fans of games that have a million things popping up all the time, loads of HUD everywhere and everything else.
Also, we purposefully picked pirates as a theme, because we knew that we could put players into the world without a convoluted tutorial. That sense of discovery and figuring things out is really rewarding. If you put players into a world that they kind of understand, in that just about everyone's read a pirate book or seen a pirate film so they kind of know what they want to do as a pirate, most people will figure out how to get a boat moving. They're going to figure out that there's probably not an accelerator. The boat's not moving, so how do we… Well, there must be an anchor somewhere. Where's that? Then, it's like the ‘the sails, we need to get all those down.’
Even the bit you're talking about with the middle sail being so low. That's on purpose to encourage communication and encourage someone to be in the Crow's nest or the front of the ship. Also, you can raise that sail just a little bit, and you can see out. But you sacrifice a bit of top speed because the sail's not fully down and you're not catching as much wind. We wanted to give players those choices and that sense of discovery. When you figure out "Oh, I can just raise this a bit and now I can see! Cool, okay." Or actually "No, we want to go full speed," we're trying to escape this ship, I need someone in the Crow's nest kind.
I remember the first time we prototyped this stuff, and I just sat in the Crow's nest. We literally just had a ship you could sail, and the core mechanics of it. We set ourselves the challenge of going from one island to another and we placed a bunch of rocks in the sea. I had my doubts about just sitting in a Crow's nest, just looking at stuff. I didn't think it was going to be enjoyable, but it was really fun on the water. It was a feeling like, "Okay, I think we've got something here." So, we had a lot of confidence from our own internal playtest, but the reason we started our insider programme and our alpha was – sure, we have confidence, but we need to test this with players. What we've seen is that players are kind of refreshed by having a new approach.
Like the fact that the ship's map is on the middle table and you're having to use skills that you've got in real life, rather than mechanical game skills. It's almost just your standard skills as a human being. Being able to use a compass, or being able to look at the shape of an island and figure out that we’re here and let’s navigate around to here. It's kind of like when you drive with a GPS all the time. If your GPS breaks, you're suddenly like "I have no idea how to get to work!" Because you're so used to watching this dot and not actually looking around you.
AusGamers: I think gamers are used to that too. The in-game GPS. Like in a GTA or an RPG that tells you that you're 100 metres from where the hidden treasure is.
Joe: A slight tangent, but here it goes. I ride motorbikes, and I do quite a lot of travelling around Europe and I love going on tours on bikes. And I purposefully don't use a GPS. I did for a bit, but then you don't end up looking around you at the kind of things you need to. It's quite refreshing to go look at a map and go "Well I have to, I'm going to this city and then this one," so you end up looking at the signs and looking around. It's much more enjoyable, because you start taking in what's around you. I think with applying that idea to a game - and my personal belief is that some games go too far with handholding - we shouldn't patronise players. We should trust them and have faith that they're smart, they can figure things out. That they can use the skills they've built up in life. Definitely a conscious decision for us as a studio, and it has paid off.
AusGamers: Because you guys are testing so heavily, you must have noticed a younger audience that might only know that ways of the GPS. So, they may not even have that real world skill you’re talking about. Have you seen people going "Oh, I've never actually used a map properly before"?
Joe: When they start testing, everyone fills out a survey. We gather a load of information about players like - have they played Alphas or Betas before? Have they given feedback before? Have they played early access games, or are they the people that usually come in later? Maybe we'd assume they need a more detailed tutorial or handbook. We've been picking different players, people we call early adopters, and people who may be more of the kind of traditional early adopters. Bringing them all in, and testing with them. We know that we need to do a slight bit of onboarding in terms of teaching them the basic controls, like how to use your inventory. That stuff’s not logical. It's not something you've picked up in real life. But the other stuff? That sense of discovery, of figuring out how to use the ship, is really rewarding to figure out on your own.
There's been a lot of studies done around teaching people things versus them learning stuff themselves. If you learn something yourself, you remember it much more clearly because you have this emotional response in your brain. It's a better way of teaching people, by allowing them to discover it themselves. And they remember stuff over a prompt popping up telling you to press B to crouch or press X to go faster.
AusGamers: So how have you been treating that side of Sea of Thieves - the tutorial?
Joe: I think what we'll do is we'll put the minimum in, and then we'll go and test it with our players and be ask if that’s enough or if we need to do more. Or, less. Like everything else we’ll get it right by testing it with players. That's what our Alpha has done for us since the start. It's kind of our version of Early Access. We're Rare, and we're Xbox, so we don't have the excuse of needing to generate revenue to finish the game. So, we wouldn't do that traditional version of Early Access. But because you do get those players in early, you get to test your mechanics, you get to build a community, the insider programme is basically our version of Early Access.
AusGamers: The Early Access model, of a game that’s continuously in development and keeps changing and evolving. I'm assuming then, when the game is released, that it's still going to be a continuously -
Joe: Growing and evolving experience, absolutely. We've set ourselves up from the start with that in mind. For about the last 18 months, we've been releasing updates on a weekly basis. We changed our entire culture in the studio to achieve this. We've embraced this development approach called ‘continuous delivery’ which basically means that we never build up technical debt.
Normally on a game that you've got a single release point for that you're working towards, you kind of just get the feature working. It's a bit rough - the effect, the sounds. Maybe the frame rate's not perfect or whatever, and you kind of move on. You come back during the last six months to polish it and fix the bugs. But you'll have this massive bug count of 3000 bugs or something. With Sea of Thieves we didn't want to do that.
We want to be able to update the game almost at will, and keep growing and adding features. Looking at some studios in Early Access, they've been doing that really well. It was like, we need to do that, but we need to do it with a kind of Rare stamp of quality. So, our game is always performing framerate-wise. We’ve never had more than 100 bugs open at any time, and it's been a big cultural shift.
AusGamers: Traditionally, Rare has been one of the most secretive development studios in the industry.
Joe: Yeah, it really has. But we knew that to make a game like Sea of Thieves, we had to flip that on its head. We look at what is going to be the right way to bring a game like this to market. Sure, Rare has a fanbase that's grown up playing different types of games, but for Sea of Thieves you also needed to build a new community, a new fanbase. You're not going to automatically take all those fans of Banjo and transition them to this, because it's a different game.
We knew that we needed to build a new fanbase for a new idea, and a positive, welcoming community that's knowledgeable. Also, we build that trust with our player, so being open and transparent. Releasing weekly videos, updating our fans about our decisions in the forums or in our weekly emails that we send out. It builds that trust, and then you have this really good two-way relationship with the community.
AusGamers: What have been some of the key milestones in that regard for players. Not unanimous, but a sizable chunk of players pointing something out that you guys will say "Okay, we need to fundamentally reassess what we've done there and maybe shift direction." Has there been any cases like that?
Joe: A lot of the stuff that we've heard from our players has been validation of the design decisions we've made around the compass, the nature of the ship, does that work, and the map stuff that we talked about earlier. One of the most recent minor things that we've changed is we put the small ship into the game for the ability of one or two players to crew a much smaller ship. And we had just one ladder on one side. Because there's a ladder on either side of the big ship we'll just put one on the smaller ship.
The reasoning was if you're on the ship on your own, you want to be able to defend it from someone that's boarding so if you've got two maybe that's too much to handle. But the feedback we got unanimously was that they were used to having two ladders, and that players kept jumping in and having to swim underneath the boat. Also, somebody else can get on your ship and then you can't get back onto your own ship because there's only one ladder.
AusGamers: They'd just block the ladder.
Joe: Exactly, so we put the second ladder in and now everyone's happy. But there haven’t been any fundamental shifts. We always knew we wanted a smaller ship and also a non-verbal communication system. Because everyone's not going to want to talk online. Maybe they don't want to identify themselves online, maybe they've had toxic experiences in other games, or whatever. We always knew we wanted to put that in, but we were always kind of looking at our community and going "How many instances of toxic behaviour are there?" or "How many instances of people not wanting to use voice are there?"
It's the same with the ability to banish a player to the brig. Basically, if there's someone in your crew being toxic, as a democracy you can all vote on putting this player, basically locking him or her, in the brig. And the only way that player can get out is if they get voted to get out. So, they almost have to apologise or seek forgiveness. Players can do that, and some people roleplay and have a lot of fun with it.
AusGamers: Yeah, this could be an amazing game for LARPers, roleplayers, or anyone that's interested in pirates and loves that sort of -
Joe: Real roleplaying as pirates and stuff. We purposefully made the decision to put that in player hands, to manage their crew and toxic behaviour. Also, you can't kick a player out of your game. You can lock them in the brig and then if that player continues to be toxic, you can mute them, so you don't have to hear them anymore. That player must choose to quit the game.
That's a real psychological shift from, well, if you get your kicks out of being a toxic player, which some people do. Then it's almost like a badge of honour if they get kicked out of the game. With the brig mechanic, you have to choose to leave. You can stay locked in there too, and if they want to mute you, you're literally just there admitting defeat. It's managing player behaviour and everything else. So far, it seems to be going down well.
We wanted to put our own spin on this aspect of multiplayer gaming. To not necessarily look at what other games are doing, but look at what's right for Sea of Thieves. We felt that bringing this feature in now, because more and more players are now experiencing Sea of Thieves (we started with a 1,000 and now we're at 140,000), was necessary because you get more instances of this kind of stuff happening.
AusGamers: So how then do you track negative behaviour or toxicity?
Joe: We send out surveys after each beta test, that players fill out and answer a bunch of questions. We have a user research team as part of Xbox, and they actually sent us a report this week about the instances of toxic behaviour we've had and what are the key things that players are finding problematic in the game.
We also have our community team and our designers going through the forms and looking at feedback after each play session. So, we have a mix of all that, and every week we meet and discuss what other feedback points are in the game, what we need to do, and which part of the team is going to adjust that.
We've been building that kind of culture and muscle over the last year. Just getting into that process, because we know it's so important, especially the more and more we grow the game and more players come in. Again, just one of those cultural changes that we knew we had to go and do, and we'll trial-and-error it for a little while until we figure out what's the best way for it to work. That's kind of the process we take with that.
AusGamers: Because the game is so free in terms of wanting players to go off and explore at their own pace, are there ways that players are surprising you? Maybe you put something into in the game, but didn’t anticipate it to be used in a particular way.
Joe: Totally. One of those was the concept of cursed chests. Occasionally, when you dig up a treasure chest, you discover a cursed one. This is where the souls of pirates have been trapped in chests as part of the fantastical world we’ve built. And one of those is the Chest of Sorrow, which basically is a chest a that cries. Occasionally, when it starts crying, water starts pouring out. So, if you have that on your ship, your ship will start filling with water. We put that in as a bit of change because you decide when you want to cash in your treasure and everything else, so your number one goal is to get it back to an outpost as soon as possible and cash it in. Because you're having to deal with this mechanic and you're like "Oh god, the chest is at it again, someone go down and deal with it." Like you've almost got this baby on board.
But after we put it in, players started using it as a weapon. You'd sneak on board someone else's ship and hide it in the bottom. Then you'd get off and sit there and watch, and wait for them work it out. We were like, "Of course!” Players can do stuff like that, and that's fine.
One of the most recent examples was with the brig mechanic, and this is funny. Obviously, your ship can fill up with water, like when you take damage or hit a rock or get hit by cannonballs or something. A group of players put one of their friends into the brig, and then filled up the bottom of their boat so that the water was just above his head, and then using the bucket, you could scoop out a bit of water and it would drop. And they were basically interrogating him, like "Oh, we don't like that one," and putting the water back in. And then you're like, "Alright, I never would have thought of that." Waterboarding. But it was people roleplaying and having fun with the mechanics. I love seeing that kind of creativity from players in the game.
The thing that excites me the most about the future of Sea of Thieves is after we lift the NDA for the game, and allow people to stream and crate content and tell their stories. That's when I think we'll see loads of that creativity from players, of using mechanics in ways we haven't thought. Then we'll be like "Okay, that was a really cool video, a really cool story." How can we commemorate that in the game? How can we make that apart of the world and lore?
AusGamers: It seems like Sea of Thieves is the sort of game that you need to play in order to get it. But it also seems like it's a huge release not only for Rare but for Microsoft, and the Xbox, and Windows 10 platform. I don't understand exactly how the rollout will go but I assume it won’t be traditional?
Joe: That's an interesting question, firstly, I think, there is a way to experience Sea of Thieves without buying it to understand it. I think watching people play, whether that's streaming or YouTube or anything else. When you see people laughing and smiling and messing about with each other, I think that captures a lot of the spirit. And you'll see it here. If you stand behind players and just watch them play, it's fun to watch people play. To see their reactions, to see their laughter and smile. You kind of feed off their emotions. I think that's going to help bring a lot of players to Sea of Thieves and get them to understand what's magical about it.
We definitely have plans as we move towards the release of the game, giving players the opportunity to come in and try Sea of Thieves. We know that when players play, they have a great time. We're in our Alpha phase of the game, but we've got plans between the Alpha and release to give people the opportunity to try the game for sure. I won't confirm that stuff yet but before the end of this year, we'll be talking about one, our release date and two, what our plan is leading up to it. We should do everything we can to give as many people the opportunity to play it, because it's a great experience and that will sell people on it more than anything else.
A big thanks to Joe for his time, the team at Xbox Australia, Rare, and Microsoft in making this happen.