Home / Tech News / A pirate's life for me: Rare's ambitious plans for Sea of Thieves revealed

A pirate's life for me: Rare's ambitious plans for Sea of Thieves revealed



The Xbox and PC online multiplayer pirate adventure will boast sea monsters and skeleton forts – and this is only the beginning

‘A playful, friendly and cooperative universe’ … Sea of Thieves.






‘A playful, friendly and cooperative universe’ … Sea of Thieves.
Photograph: Microsoft Studios

When the veteran British games studio Rare first revealed Sea of Thieves in 2015, it’s fair to say the response was positive. After years spent concentrating on the controversial Kinect device, the creator of luscious SNES and N64 classics Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie unveiled an online pirate adventure where groups of friends would set sail on an open ocean, seeking out treasure and doing battle with other player crews. It felt like the beloved developer had truly returned.

Two years later, anticipation remains high. Within five hours of the recent closed beta test going live, it was the most watched game on streaming service Twitch, beating even the mighty League of Legends. In the end, more than 300,000 people signed up to play, spending 2m hours and completing 400,000 quests in the week-long test.

But the beta provided only a limited glimpse of what Sea of Thieves has in store. Players could choose to set sail in four-person galleons, two-person sloops or single-player boats, and then carry out a series of simple fetch quests for the trading companies hanging out at outposts dotted around the environment. With either friends or strangers, players quickly learned how to share sailing tasks – steering, navigating and keeping the cannons loaded – while locating buried treasure and fending off skeleton warriors.

Missing from the beta were the features that will give Sea of Thieves longevity and structure: public events, which will see groups of boats taking on challenges together, and the progression system, which rewards players for their heroics. During a press event held at Rare’s 100-acre base in rural Leicestershire last week, more details emerged.



Encountering other crews in Sea of Thieves is always tense, but combat is not the only outcome – fragile alliances can emerge.



Encountering other crews in Sea of Thieves is always tense, but combat is not the only outcome – fragile alliances can emerge. Photograph: Microsoft Studios

The Kraken, the legendary sea monster hinted at throughout the game’s development period, has been confirmed and sighted. Rare showed a video of the beast, or at least its eight giant tentacles, bursting up from the brine and attacking boats; crew members were lifted up from the deck and thrown into the water, whole galleons dragged beneath the waves. It looked chaotic and fun.

The Kraken will be one type of public event when Sea of Thieves launches. Players will be able to spot the tentacles on the horizon and then sail in for a monster fight, joined by any other boats in the vicinity. (It looks like the game is likely to allow around five or six ships in each multiplayer “instance”.) “You have a limited amount of warning before the Kraken strikes,” says designer Mike Chapman. “The tentacles can attack multiple ships at the same time, wrap around the deck, pick you up and slam you against the hull, dunk you – and you get squid ink in your face as you slash at it. The idea is, this is a replayable game element – there are different strategies, and each time you encounter it will be in a different context.”

The aim, says Rare, is to add nuance to the relationships between different boat crews. Usually, players will just fire cannons at each other on sight, or sneak aboard the other ship to steal treasure. But in a kraken attack, the beasts can be vanquished only by multiple crews – just like the public battles in, say, Destiny. “I love the player choices that spring up,” says studio head Craig Duncan. “If you see it attacking a ship, do you try and help or do you wait until it’s taken down and then steal their treasure?”

Each world will also contain a set number of skeleton forts, teeming with bony warriors and overseen by a captain. A skull-shaped cloud floating over the building will let players know it’s occupied – and if it is, there will be a stronghold to discover, absolutely loaded with treasure. Once again, all boats in the vicinity will be able to see this event and join in. “It’s a really hard horde mode-style challenge to overcome,” says Chapman. “It’s in your interests to work together with another crew.”

But all alliances in the game are likely to be shaky at best. As with the treasure chests player crews can dig up on islands, this skeleton loot has to be carried back to your boat, so you can easily be ambushed and betrayed.

Producer Joe Neate also promised special limited events. “During the first three months we’ll make small additions to enrich the experience,” he says. “We’re running timed events, so for a weekend there may be a character in the tavern whom you’ve not seen before. If you chat to him, he’ll set you off on a quest to retrieve something he’s lost and he’ll give you a reward you can only get at that time. Later, we’re always going to be looking at things that enrich [the game] for everyone – that could be new quest types, new trading companies or new mechanics like fishing.”

The exclusive Pirate Legends hideaway, built in the side of a wrecked ship and accessible only to the most experienced buccaneers.



The exclusive Pirate Legends hideaway, built in the side of a wrecked ship and accessible only to the most experienced buccaneers. Photograph: Microsoft Studios

Rare also provided more detail about the game’s progression system. As players carry out quests and voyages for the trading companies, they earn reputation points that in turn open up more complex and difficult missions, while also unlocking custom items such as clothing and pimped weapons and items. The ultimate goal is to level up your character to the rank of Pirate Legend, a status update that gives you access to legendary quests and gear. “We want it to mean significantly more than just a cool hat or a cool title. We want it to change the way other players see you,” says Chapman.

To that end, Pirate Legends will be able to access a secret pirate hideout, known as the Tavern of Legends, which is hidden somewhere on the game map. Inside this shady little den, non-player characters appear as ghostly drinkers, giving hints about future game updates as well as new trading companies or characters. (In the demo we saw, the pirates from the E3 2016 demo are sitting around a table drinking grog.) “Also, up in the captain’s cabin is the Pirate Lord,” says Chapman. “He will give you legendary voyages – the most challenging and rewarding in the game – and they lead to a set of rewards that no one else can access.”

Interestingly, those who achieve Pirate Legend status will be able to embark on legendary quests with any other players, allowing even complete novices to share in the more generous prizes and exclusive loot. “Everyone wants to be friends with a Pirate Legend because of what they have access to,” says Chapman. “It’s like Jack Sparrow having the map to the Fountain of Youth: he needs a crew to reach it, but the crew needs him because he has a map. That’s the psychological relationship we’re trying to build here.”

It looks as if, later on, Pirate Legends will also get to celebrate their veteran status through owning and also running their own special craft. “We’re adding ship captaincy as a goal for Pirate Legends in our first major update, which means the ability to own and captain legendary ships,” says Neate. “When you’re sailing out into the world, people will see that ship and know you’re a legend. It’s part of how we want to celebrate players in the world.”

Rare’s representatives talk about Sea of Thieves’ monetisation system, too. Players won’t be able to earn or purchase more powerful guns or swords; as in Overwatch, the weapon set remains fixed (although in Sea of Thieves you can earn or purchase cosmetically customised versions). Instead, players are able to buy items that add fun or variety to the quests.

“The first example of that will be pets,” says Neate. “I can have a monkey in a hat on my shoulder. I can have a cat. But other people will be able to interact with my pet, too. If I have a monkey, you’ll be able to pick it up, run off with it, throw it overboard … but it’ll come back. I desperately want to be able to fire pets out of cannons. Again, they’ll be fine – cats always land on their feet. We’ll look to add more things to that area of the game – like fun potions that you can drink, which might make you really old.”

Rare’s plan is to offer a lot of the familiar tokens of online multiplayer games – character progression, ranked quests and public events – within a playful, friendly and cooperative universe. The closed beta, and the thousands of hours of Twitch streams that came out of it, showed that the idea of sharing a pirate fantasy with friends is working. But Rare knows that the novelty value – those initial hours of fun as you shout “Yarr!” into a headset and learn how to not steer straight into islands – won’t sustain a community for months or years. Sea of Thieves has to offer depth, progression and dynamism – and that’s exactly what the team is aiming for.

“We’ve had people playing the game for 15 months, we’re on our 150th update – and we’re not even out yet,” says game designer Ted Timmins. “We’re talking about being a 10-year title, and it’s what we’ve done already that gives us the confidence to commit to that.”

  • Sea of Thieves is out on 20 March


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