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Sea of Thieves – a few big buts in an ocean of booty

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If you ever want to give yourself a mild existential crisis, take a glance at the stats for your favourite game. It turns out I’ve spent a solid 40 days of my life sailing the Sea of Thieves since its launch back in 2018 (I’ll admit to that being considerably less than I was expecting), which might go someway to explaining why, four and a half years on, its vast oceanic expanse feels like a second home.

Given how much of a sucker I am for a swashbuckling pirate yarn, there was a certain inevitability to my love affair with Sea of Thieves, but pretending it was a foregone conclusion would do a huge disservice to developer Rare’s astonishing work imbuing its game with such distinctive charms. Even at launch – when, for all its fancy pirate dressing, its endless roiling oceans and multitude of beautifully wrought islands, it was, at its heart, a pretty simple game of tug of war – there was a special kind of magic to Sea of Thieves that made it so much more than its component parts.

Its core loop was, and to a certain extent still remains, a simple one, where every treasure gained was a treasure waiting to be stolen, and every treasure stolen was treasure waiting to be retrieved. But its power was in the peripheral details, where every journey existed on the thrilling edge of chaos as its emergent additions – the pervasive threat of other players, a passing storm, a kraken attack, or perhaps even all three – coalesced around its functional core to create always unpredictable yarns.

Here’s a video deep-dive into season 7 of Sea of Thieves.
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But beyond even that there was just something completely intoxicating about the richness of its vast, gorgeous world – an expanse that always seemed too big, too full of potential to be left in service of such a simple core. And that seemed to be the general consensus at launch: this is fine, fun even, people seemed to agree, but give us more to do and more to see in this huge, beautiful world. And that’s exactly what Rare did, slowly imbuing Sea of Thieves with new life, new purpose, new threats, and new tools, and the resulting first year brought some indelible gaming memories that remain special nearly five years on.

I still vividly remember the introduction of Skeleton Ships and the tenuous ceasefires between crews as entire servers would hunt fleets of the undead; I remember the creak and groan of my tiny rowboat as volcanic detritus rained down around me in the Devil’s Roar; I remember the first time I was lost in an impenetrable fog out on the waves, and the spine-tingling fanfare that, after countless hours on the seas, heralded my hard-earned access to the Legendary Hideout. But most of all I remember the introduction of megalodons, and the beautiful camaraderie of the six-ship convoy I found myself in one night, everyone laughing and joking, vomiting and dancing, as we sailed in joyful union to wake a great beast from its slumber. What had started life as a pirate-infused multiplayer skirmish generator was slowly becoming something bigger, more vital, and finding its soul.

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It would, of course, be criminal not to acknowledge Sea of Thieves’ ever-tumultuous oceans. Four and a half years on, it still boasts the most convincing, breathtaking water in all of video gaming.

And it’s in that same mode that Sea of Thieves’ ceaseless expansion has continued in the four and a half years since launch, Rare gradually colouring between the lines to bring even more vibrancy and wonder to its world. Some of those additions – richly cinematic story adventures known as Tall Tales, for instance, or a multi-tendrilled Emissary system that wraps around everything from a risk/reward-heavy bounty-like mechanic, to monthly leaderboard prizes – have had a profound effect on the game. Others – exploding skeletons, fishing, cooking, cursed chests, boss fights – have been smaller, but no less important, helping add welcome texture to the world. Still others – tomb-raiding, ghost battles, wreck hunting – have occupied the middle ground, cleverly reworking existing mechanics into something smarter, more substantial to create a richer series of goals.

In 2022, as you spawn at an outpost ready to set sail, there are countless answers to the question ‘where to today?’, but that pervasive magic remains. Rare’s passion for its piratical adventure is unmistakable, that love shining through in even the smallest details. It’s in the rats that scurry from the decks of waterlogged ships, the musical flourish that accompanies the opening of Sea Fort vaults, or the haunting plunge to the ocean’s depths in last year’s Pirates of the Caribbean themed Tall Tale; it’s in the grand spectacle of a dozen ghost ships circling an island by moonlight, the note-perfect tutorial with its Goonies-style secrets and subsequent theme-park-like ride through the Devil’s Shroud, or simply in the way water shifts back and forth on deck with each rock of your vessel, or in the beautiful sunset at the end of a day’s adventuring that, no matter how many times I see it, never gets old.

Rare has done an incredible job bringing life to Sea of Thieves’ once rather empty world through constantly evolving lore and the introduction of memorable characters like Bilge Rats leader Larinna.

Rare has more than delivered on its promise of the ultimate pirate fantasy in the last four and a half years – and there’s such richness to Sea of Thieves in 2022, that it can be difficult to appreciate it all. Starting to pick that apart to see what is and isn’t working nearly five years in, then, is a pretty daunting task, but it’s clear some things just don’t feel like they’re where they should be in 2022. There is, for instance, a niggling sense that while Rare has done an admirable job piling fun new activities around Sea of Thieves’ original tug-of-war core, it continues to lean too heavily on building blocks that, four and a half years after launch, are feeling increasingly wobbly, and there’s the sense that any new additions will continue to suffer without a serious refresh of its ageing core.

The increasingly impenetrable muddle of Sea of Thieves’ UI is perhaps the most immediately infuriating legacy element, but hand-to-hand combat is probably a better example here; barely serviceable at launch, it’s now the unsatisfyingly cumbersome focus of far too many activities – awkwardly propping up everything from Sea Forts and Tall Tales skirmishes to PvP – and its whiff is far more pervasive than it should be. Even sailing – the absolutely sublime cornerstone of Sea of Thieves – has become increasingly stagnant as Rare has shifted its development efforts almost completely away from fleshing out the experience of the journey itself to focus on new destinations for players.

The Devil’s Roar, introduced back in 2018, is a wonderfully distinct part of the map, with its erputing volcanos, geysers, and frequent tremours. Like a lot of legacy elements, though, it’s been left to stagnate.

It’s been four years since Rare has added a new emergent element to the oceans – fog banks in 2018 – and Sea of Thieves has increasingly struggled to conjure new chaos and create thrilling emergent stories around its sailing, by far the thing you’ll be doing the most of in-game, since then. In its first few years, Sea of Thieves was a wonderful story generator, regularly constructing memorable moments on the water as kraken attacks coalesced with skeleton ships, fog, storms, and fellow players, but almost five years in, that stagnant toolkit has lost its ability to surprise.

These legacy issues are, I think, at least partly why Sea of Thieves’ seasonal model, introduced early last year, has so often felt like a swing and a miss, with too many of its new additions struggling to generate the impact needed to carry a season through. But even the updates not directly tied to legacy elements have felt disappointingly slight, failing to have much of a tangible impact beyond the extremely immediate term. That’s a real problem, particularly in a game with a paid battle pass designed specifically to keep players around for the long haul, and it’s one, I think, that’s gradually causing Sea of Thieves’ sense of momentum to stall. All the pieces are in place – each three-month-long season brings a new flagship feature, a new battle pass, and, as of the start of this year, a new limited-time monthly story Adventure – but the implementation never quite seems to gel in a way that brings sufficient freshness to make the prospect of eking out enough XP to complete another battle pass anything but a chore.

Expecting something as ambitious as last summer’s wonderfully meaty and surprisingly replayable A Pirate’s Life Tall Tale each season is unreasonable, but it feels like there’s a middle ground to be found.

Just looking at recent examples, Season Six’s Sunken Kingdom was a presentational dazzler but a real waste of potential – woefully under-utilising its gorgeous spaces after an entertaining initial quest by turning them into a cavernous depository for a single mid-value item that always spawns in the same place, robbing players of any reason to re-explore. Season Five’s bury-your-own-treasure mechanic was a cute bit of piratical texture but a novelty at best, and Season Six’s Sea Forts, offering wave-based battles in spatially identical surroundings, grew almost immediately old. Even the current season, with its long-awaited Captaincy update, has floundered when the only nod toward longer-term objectives is Rare’s all-too-familiar fallback – a passive progression track with a protracted grind.

There are clear signs Rare knows that seasons have a longevity problem, though, and its recent answer, narrative-focused monthly Adventures, are undoubtedly a step in the right direction, even if the implementation still doesn’t feel quite there. A grand, world-shaping storyline is the perfect fit for Sea of Thieves’ expansive world, but when even an hour’s adventuring feels both excessively slight and cynically padded – dragging out their handful of endlessly repeated objectives by constantly sending players to the furthest corners of the map – they’re not, for players at least, really doing what they’re supposed to do. Promisingly, though, last season’s The Forsaken Hunter was by far Rare’s best effort yet, combining a strong narrative and rewarding sleuthing into a tightly paced episode that, for once, had a real sense of agency. Long may that kind of thing continue.

Alongside Adventures, Rare has introduced ongoing ARG-like Mysteries that require players to scour the world. Locking clues behind social media engagement thresholds does rather sour the experience though.

Of course, for someone that’s only just stepping out into the world of Sea of Thieves, blinking into the sun toward a horizon of possibilities for the very first time, I realise there’s a fair chance none of this will matter. And I also know that, as a long-time player with nearly five years of nautical adventuring and skeleton-bashing under my belt, I am innately harder to please. But maintaining a healthy core with enough freshness and variance to carry players from one season to the next without it feeling like a slog seems like a fairly fundamental requirement for a live-service game, and Sea of Thieves, for all its many positives, still doesn’t feel like it’s quite there.

There is, though, one final area it feels remiss to leave unaddressed, and it’s tied to the changing face of Sea of Thieves’ PvP. Back in 2018, player encounters were the absolute chaotic heart of the game, sometimes friendly, sometimes tense, but generally good-natured and unpredictable in a way that always enhanced the game. PvP in 2022 though, is a very different beast, evolved largely through the attentions of big-name Twitch streamers into a hyper-aggressive, hyper-competitive style of play that increasingly feels at odds with Sea of Thieves’ casual, supposedly welcoming core. Gone is the carefree spirit of the game’s early days, where anything might happen when two paths crossed, replaced with an unpleasant stab of inevitable aggression that all-too-often sours the tone.

Expect to see a lot of the Ship of the Damned – Sea of Thieves’ gloriously atmospheric post-death holding pen – given the current, hyper aggressive state of PvP.

PvP remains a vital part of the Sea of Thieves experience, but it’s simply exhausting right now, when every session seems to quickly devolve into unpleasant battles of attrition preventing you from fulfilling your own personal objectives and getting anything done. Player interactions remain an area where Rare’s efforts to inject more variety and unpredictability have been consistently, frustratingly half-hearted, relegated largely to the introduction of alliances early in the game’s lifespan. To me, when I can’t get a single member of my long-term pirate crew to log in anymore because of the sourness of PvP, if feels like we’re at a point when the developer should be ruthlessly incentivising different forms of player interactions in order to soften the currently crushing inevitably of aggressive player encounters and reintroduce some of that glorious, unpredictable chaos into the game’s core.

For all the above, though, Sea of Thieves still has my heart; even four and a half years on, nothing quite captures the magic of stepping out of a starting tavern into the blazing sun, gently lapping waves teasing imminent adventures to come. Still, the creak and groan and sway of my ship, the splash of sea foam at the bow, the heave and thrust of those beautiful waters are all-consuming, losing me to the sea for hours on end. I can still feel the warmth of the gold snatched in the midst of danger, the coolness of the air in forgotten underwater tombs, and the endless calm atop a mountain, watching the sea turn to fire beneath a glorious setting sun. Perhaps some of that lustre is fading, but it’s certainly nowhere near gone; Sea of Thieves just needs to scrape off the barnacles and stitch up its sails a bit, ready to raise anchor and cast off for thrilling horizons anew.

This piece is part of our State of the Game series, where we check in on some of the biggest service games running to see how they’re getting on. You can find plenty more pieces like it in our State of the Game hub.

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