The more we’ve seen of Sea of Thieves, the clearer it’s become that the simple act of playing it will be fun. Its mix of gentle action and almost hardcore seafaring (seriously, you try manning a galleon with three people who don’t know how sails work) is immediately engaging and, more importantly, hilarious.
But what bookends that moment-to-moment play has remained resolutely mysterious since the game’s announcement – how does Sea of Thieves begin, what’s the story, and what are we working towards? After visiting Rare and talking to several of the game’s developers and producers, finally we have some answers.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Sea of Thieves will open with you choosing your pirate. “Choosing” is a deliberate choice of words – this isn’t character customisation. Rare’s made a purposeful decision not to include slider-filled menus. Instead, you begin in a tavern, with eight procedurally-generated pirates to inspect. They’re created based on twenty different parameters – everything from age, to body shape, to overall ‘wonkiness’ (essentially, how asymmetrical they are) – leading to a “practically infinite” number of variations. If you don’t like the 8 you’re shown, you can regenerate another 8 as many times as you like until you find a favourite.
The idea is to get players to choose a character they’d like to role-play as, rather than simply trying (and, as in most games, failing) to create themselves. If possible, Rare wants players to choose someone they’d never normally make. While I have to admit that I’d love to play with a wonkiness slider, I can understand the thinking here – the selections we see are full of appealing oddities, from pistol-wielding old ladies to crooked little guys toting hurdy-gurdies the size of their torso. Just make sure you’re sure you want to spend hours with your pirate – you never get a chance to alter their physical appearance again.
Once you have a pirate, you’ll need to choose a ship – and here we finally get an answer on how boat ownership will work. Like the beta, your selection essentially boils down to a galleon (built for four players) or a sloop (built for one or two) – but the ship you choose only lasts as long as the gameplay session you’re in. You can try manning a galleon alone, log out, and then over-fill a sloop with four players. The point here is that in a game built around the flexibility to sail alone, with strangers or with friends, everyone “owning” a boat doesn’t make sense – whose would you pick?
The compromise is in how boats are customised. Players can buy cosmetic upgrades – figureheads, sail designs, and specific hulls – that they keep forever, in the same way as clothing or equipment. They can be applied to any boat, meaning each time you play, you and your crew can decide on the look of the ship as you sail. You might want to make it known that you’re a threat, rigging black sails and making clear to your server that you’re bad news. Or maybe you could do up your sloop as a merchant vessel, hoping that players will take mercy as you pass. If you’re disappointed by that, lead designer Mike Chapman hints that there’s a more concrete sense of boat ownership as you get further into the game – we’ll say more on that later.
We also, finally, have some description of the storyline, too. Set a little before the Golden Age of piracy (which began around 1650), the actual Sea of Thieves is pitched as a physical place in our world, a mystical land that can only be found if you know where to go. Think Wonder Woman’s Themyscira, but where everyone has way less fashion sense. Chapman sums it up in evocative fashion by saying it could be found in “the crease of a map” – your pirate has found their way into that crease at the beginning of the game.
As with any good pirate yarn, there’s a massive treasure haul to be found, Athena’s Fortune (no developer would elaborate more than giving me a name), but your immediate goal is something we’ve heard a lot of from Rare, but never had truly explained – to become a Pirate Legend.
The hideout includes a waterfall that your ship explodes out of “like Batman leaving the Batcave.”
‘Pirate Legend’ is a much more tangible title than the buzzwordy E3-speak it’s previously felt like. We’ve already been told about the game’s three factions: the Gold Hoarders, the Order of Souls and the Merchant Alliance. Each broadly offers quests along different lines – the Gold Hoarders focus on treasure hunting, the Order on bounty hunting and the Merchant Alliance on gathering and trading. Completing the three types of actions increases your reputation with each faction – but increase your reputation enough with all three, and you attain Legend status.
A lot comes with that status – we’re shown a snippet of footage of a secret pirate hideout (“players won’t know where it is,” says Chapman, “and when that word spreads around the community, that’s going to be an awesome moment”), where players will be able to take on legendary voyages – Sea of Thieves’ closest equivalent to other MMOs’ Raid content. The hideout also becomes your standard spawn point, including a waterfall that your ship explodes out of “like Batman leaving the Batcave.”
Speaking of transportation, becoming a Legend offers another major perk – you get a legendary ship, a different model to the standard galleons and sloops. Rare won’t tell us the specifics of what this entails, or exactly how it works with a mixed crew, but Chapman provides a hint that “owning” a ship is entirely different after you become a Legend. “This is a whole other game type,” says Chapman. “The ship starts building reputation, the ship has access to things other ships don’t.” The idea is that when players see a legendary ship “it’s like seeing the Black Pearl.”
Legend status can help other players, too – legendary voyages aren’t locked off from lower-level players, so a set crew won’t be fragmented if one player progresses further than the others. Even better, players can hide being a legend – Chapman excitedly discusses the idea of a player dressing in rags, removing any titles that would mark them out, matchmaking with strangers, then walking into the captain’s cabin presenting a legendary voyage scroll to be voted on.
“Everyone’s going to want to do your voyage,” he adds. “Everyone’s going to spam you with friends requests, everyone’s going to want to be you. You’re going to feel like a Legend, because you’ve got that status in the game, and something truly unique and different that you can bring to those [other] players. That leads to the best rewards in the game.”
Inevitably, of course, the world will become saturated with Pirate Legends, making the tag less valuable. This is presumably why every developer I talk to makes very clear that becoming a Legend is, essentially, Sea of Thieves’ first chapter. “We want this to become endgame for launch,” says Chapman, “but start-game for what happens beyond launch.”
“We want this to become endgame for launch, but start-game for what happens beyond launch.”
The studio’s currently aiming to add its first major free content update three months after launch, which will not only offer as-yet unspecified new voyages for Pirate Legends, but also begin to advance the wider story into the Golden Age of Piracy (as well as add the game’s first microtransactions).
Pre-launch, it’s pretty clear why Rare isn’t talking explicitly about what that will mean, but if you’ve been worried that Sea of Thieves will amount to a little more than a beautiful but procedural ship-and-drunkenness simulator, it’s heartening to know how structured a plan there appears to be behind the scenes.
That’s not say there won’t be updates for the first three months either – Rare’s live service approach means that event quests, new items and even mysterious new islands could be added to the world as and when they want them to be. The earliest could be a time-limited challenge, coming shortly after a release.
“We won’t just do these arbitrarily,” Chapman explains, “we’ll do it based on the lore of the game. We’ll make an event out of it. I think we might announce by saying ‘there’s a new Trading Company that’s come to the world’, but behind the scenes we’ve changed the islands in some way – then that news spreads around the community. That’s the potential we have with Sea of Thieves, that this world is dynamic and it’s always changing – and there’s always new things to discover and ways to progress.”
The studio’s consistently lovely approach to immortalising players for their stranger feats – I stumbled across a skeleton with a banana hanging out its mouth, commemorating Griffin, the player to eat the most fruit in the game’s alpha – will continue, too. Studio head Craig Duncan explains that, if it wanted to, the studio could make changes or fun additions overnight – the development seems as much reactive as it does planned.
Finally, there’s some indication of why we’d put a hundred hours into Sea of Thieves, alongside the how – and it’s sounding more than worthwhile. But players have had one more question since the very beginning: how does the Kraken work? I’m happy to say I can tell you.
The Kraken is a “force of nature”, rather than the endpoint of a specific quest.
After seeing a short teaser, in which we see eight galleon-sized tentacles erupt around a ship, we’re told that the Kraken will be an extremely rare event, acting almost like the game’s storms. It’s a “force of nature”, rather than the endpoint of a specific quest, according to Duncan. How it acts is more complex – it can envelop your ship and drag it underwater, smack sailors off deck and into the churning seas, or even pick them up, helpless, looking down on their vessel as it’s assaulted. Tentacles can be attacked to make them release you and, if the special outfit we saw on the art director’s office wall is anything to go by, there seem to be rewards for repelling the beast.
The fact that I know how it will work, but not exactly when I’ll see it or how I’ll be rewarded for fighting it seems like the sweet spot Rare is aiming for. Sea of Thieves is, ultimately, a game about discovery – from how to sail, to where the X on a treasure map is pointing you, to what that endgame ship will do. We knew how Sea of Thieves would play, and we now know why we’d play Sea of Thieves – and that’s left me extremely impatient to, well, play Sea of Thieves and find what else awaits me.
Joe Skrebels is IGN’s UK News Editor, and he intends to be the greatest Kraken coward the seas have ever seen. Follow him on Twitter.