Sea of Thieves is celebrating its one year anniversary with a major update releasing on April 30, fittingly called the Anniversary Update. In preparation for this major event, Shacknews was invited out to Rare’s studio in Birmingham in the United Kingdom to play parts of the update and to speak with the team.
Needless to say, I jumped at the chance of getting to peek behind the curtain of one of my favorite games from 2018, and quite possibly one of my favorite games ever. As part of the day-long event, I got to sit down with Senior Designer Shelley Preston and Executive Producer Joe “The Talent” Neate and pick their brains about the Anniversary Update, the future of Sea of Thieves, and everything in between.
I didn’t think it was possible, but I walked away from the interview, and the day, even more excited about the future of Sea of Thieves than I already was. The passion and dedication of the team at Rare is palpable and their commitment to Sea of Thieves and their community is unmatched.
Shacknews: So what have you been showing me today, what have I been able to play?
Joe Neate: We played Tall Tales to begin with, the first of nine quests that are coming in as part of the Tall Tale update for Adventure. As part of that we would have shown you cooking, fishing, hunting for the Hunter’s Call, the harpoon, the expanded ship damage, and then we played the Arena. Did you guys win that?
Shacknews: Yeah, we won both matches.
Joe: You just have to win the final one?
Shelley Preston: Just a Pirate Legend who’s won both matches.
Shacknews: [Laughing] You were putting on the pressure! My hands were shaking – and that’s really quite cool. With Arena, are you looking at it as a way for people who really want a competitive mode?
Shelley: It is a competitive mode – that is the heart of it. But it’s a Sea of Thieves version of a competitive mode. It takes the heart of everything that’s special about Sea of Thieves; its silly sense of humour and its unique focus on not just one set of skills for a player. It is competitive, but we’re hoping it’s a much more accessible competitive to a much broader audience. Kind of like how Adventure was a more accessible online multiplayer game – we saw it was a lot of people’s first multiplayer game and in some cases, players who thought they didn’t like multiplayer games found they enjoyed it in Sea of Thieves. We’re hoping that Arena can do that for the competitive side of Sea of Thieves.
Shacknews: There can be a division of players with those who just want to dig up treasure and those who want to do nothing but sink another player, even if it means they don’t get the treasure.
Shelley: We know there are players that love the ship combat who want a more on-demand version of that experience. So with Arena, not only do you know what type of experience you’re going into.
What we love about Adventure is that you don’t know, you don’t know how long your session is going to be because you don’t know what’s going to happen along the way. You might have a goal in mind but other things might happen. You might see a skelly fort and you might end up taking on that. You might end up allying with someone and something else happens.
Whereas with Arena, you might not know how this session will play out but you know you’re going to play that 24 minute match and you know you’re guaranteed rewards at the end, because you get rewards for where you’ve placed. So you get both: the on-demand version of the PVP, ship battle, and the competitive as well as the on-demand time-box experience. If you’ve only got half an hour, you can guarantee that you can play a match of Arena, come out with some rewards.
Shacknews: So even if you lose Arena, you still get rewards and gold?
Shelley: Yeah, you get gold and reputation for whatever your position is. So even if you come last you get something.
Joe: So there’s no reason to quit with 5 minutes remaining if you’re not in the first place. The rewards are basically from first to fifth. But for us, like Shelley said, this is competition that we think can hit a broader audience in competitive gaming, because most games are about your twitch reactions as a first-person player in pretty much everything that’s out there that’s a competitive first-person game. For us, that’s a part of the experience – like you and I battling on that ship at the end there – which, I killed him by the way, after a really good fight, it was ace it was great fun. We were literally, for like a minute on there, jumping around and swimming around, it was great – but that was just a part of it. Being great at reading maps is really good, or even just strategically being the person directing, being almost the captain, you don’t need to have good, almost “traditional” gaming skills, you have to have a different set of skills. We think this can appeal to a very different range of people as well as people that love those other kind of competitive games because it’s still got that excitement, buzz, and adrenaline – but there are different roles you can play and different skills.
Shacknews: How do you deal with the matchmaking side of it, such as, with very skilled crews? Had your team quit out after my team won twice in a row, would you have joined a new server?
Shelley: We’ve approached it in exactly the same way as we approached Sea of Thieves Adventure in that we never want to split players based on any kind of skill so that players can have no barriers to play together or who they want to play with. Because skill is such an adaptable thing. In Sea of Thieves it’s not the amount of kills you’ve got necessarily, it’s about other things. For us, not having power progression in Sea of Thieves is the same kind of thing in Arena. There’s no kind of skill matchmaking.
Joe: Had my crew quit, at that point it would have been a random pick of a server that we would go into. If you stay in a session, so you keep going in and out of the tavern, you’ll stay with those crews unless a crew or you decide to leave. If you want to stay in there and keep competing and get revenge on that crew that keeps beating you or if you want to keep lording it over people – great – but it’s your choice. If you quit out you’ll just be put into a new pool.
Arena is just the start though. How we start with this is that it’s a trading company: you can progress with it and there are cool rewards. As we look to the future of Arena, we ask: how can we build up tournaments around it? How can we build up a more competitive structure that allows for tournaments as well as people becoming more skilled or people playing in permanent crews? How do we support that in-game and how do you turn that into tournament play?
A year ago we started with Adventure and we learnt and grew loads, Arena’s starting at that now. It’s got a bit of a head start because it’s got a lot of mechanics we already tested and they work and it’s cool and we know what people like. It’s coming out the gate and we have plans on how we want to build on it, but we have to listen to feedback and look at how people are playing. But it will be game mode iteration. It will be more competitive structure around it, growing it as its own platform. Arena is a competitive platform, Adventure is the game that people have always loved but with more lore, more crafted narrative, more regular engagement activities, all of that kind of stuff that we want to do in Adventure.
Shelley: We always want to support the people who are just playing Arena casually as well as that super competitive side. We’re really excited about supporting that competitive side and it will be more structured and we’ll be looking at how we can do that. Like what Joe said: What do tournaments look like in Arena? But the people who just fire it up once a week and play with their family or their friends, Arena is still for those people as well.
Shacknews: Sea of Thieves has changed a lot in just one year. Do you foresee it changing on a similar scale from now to 2020?
Joe: It’s an interesting one. We’re going to keep growing and evolving it, and adding things, and we’ve got all sorts of plans and ideas. The question is, how does Adventure grow and how does Arena grow and how do they both grow and evolve?
There’s obviously crossover between the two, and players will crossover, some might just play one and some might just play the other. I imagine a lot will play both. There will be features that crossover between them, things like ship damage and harpoons. But how do we keep growing and evolving both of these? I think, for Sea of Thieves, Adventure is probably more about how the lore and the story and the crafted stuff grows over the next year. If someone was to come to Sea of Thieves in a year’s time, completely fresh to the game, they’re going to have the Tall Tales that have been put in now but also any Tall Tales that are put in, any new mechanics, anything we put in from this point on would enrich the game for everybody. The time-limited campaigns we did in the past, if we’re doing stories and campaigns like that, then that stuff should stay around for people to play and repeat play. Have time-limited rewards, sure, but don’t rip out cool fucking content.
Shacknews: Are all the teams now focused on the Anniversary Update?
Joe: Yep. Basically, yep. Apart from the team that’s working on pets – and they were in Anniversary, but then we took them out because they weren’t good enough.
Shacknews: Was that because pets are microtransactions and you wanted them in a good position?
Shelley: Honestly, that’s not the reason why. When we look at a feature, we always make sure that a feature is to the highest quality. You can see it in the features that we put in, the love that we put in to the features. Regardless of whether pets were microtranscation or not, we didn’t feel they’d met our level of quality.
Shacknews: At E3 you mentioned leap-frogging production, is that still the case or is it kind of “let’s get the Anniversary Update out and then we’ll go back to leap-frogging”?
Joe: Pretty much. We worked on the different updates and it was like “No, let’s bring all of this stuff together as one update”. We wanted to create a kind of moment in time where, similar to launch, we have press visiting the studio, we’re doing a series of streams, we’re going to TwitchCon, we’ve got all these bits coming together. Not only for our most engaged people playing Sea of Thieves – like yourself – there’s also an audience out there some of whom played it for a bit and have stopped and have decided “it’s not for me at that time”, and then there are some people out there who have not played Sea of Thieves.
So we want to create a moment where everyone looks at it and goes “Oh Sea of Thieves, I know Sea of Thieves, that’s the pirate game” or “I’ve played that and they’ve added all this stuff” or “I want to come back and give that a shot”. So we want to create that moment where we have the best chance of bringing in as many either old players back or new players to Sea of Thieves with the really rich experience that we have.
Then, how do we do a really good job of keeping them engaged beyond this? For the last year, our approach was all about “let’s just keep adding content, let’s answer that question”. Ultimately, that was the thing, let’s stop that being the conversation and let’s turn it from “they need to add more things” to “what’s coming next?” Those are very different. As part of the community, you know that conversation stopped happening a while ago and now it’s about “Oh cool, when are they going to add, what’s the next thing, what’s the next…” So that’s cool.
We’re in a great position but we want almost the entire conversation to be: “Sea of Thieves is an incredible game with great story, with great competition, with this great emergent world.” And now the next year is about how do we keep people engaged in that and how do we keep people playing whilst keep acquiring new players?
But, how do we keep as many people playing this game because the number one thing we care about is players. How do we keep as many people playing this game as possible? That drives success for us across every area. Obviously sales, but Xbox Live usage, Game Pass usage – the more people you have playing the more people you’ve got playing on those services that you’re getting revenue from. That’s how we’re going to think about the next year.
Shelley: And this is why everything’s been Adventure-focused the last year because we haven’t had Arena so the leap-frogging thing kind of made sense in that everything is coming for Adventure. Whereas now, we’re kind of thinking of it as two halves – we have Adventure and we have Arena – and I guess they’ll each just have a release schedule that’s right for those modes. So it won’t necessarily be an Adventure update and an Arena update, it will just be what’s right for each one.
Shacknews: We’re moving into the second year of Sea of Thieves now and some games, typically every three years, they get a sequel – do you have a similar plan with Sea of Thieves, support it for as long as possible?
Joe: We keep rolling. Keep rolling. Basically, as long as people are playing and loving the game we’re going to keep playing and loving the game too. That’s the weirdest thing here, I think someone else, Chris Field, one of our web builders, hit Pirate Legend yesterday I saw him tweet it. And so we must have like ten devs that are Pirate Legends, that’s a time investment right? They’re making the game too.
Shelley: I’m a bit ashamed that I’m not a Pirate Legend. If you took all my hours played in the studio into account, I’d be a Pirate Legend about twice over.
Joe: Yeah I know! But it’s an odd one, I think as developers, normally you ship a game and then you’re like “Right, I want to get back to the start of a project, figuring out something new” that whole “creative juices flowing”. But it doesn’t feel like we’re anywhere near done yet on this. There’s no shortage of ideas and creativity that we can just go nuts with.
Shelley: It was always, from its inception, it was a service, a platform game we’re going to grow and we’re going to grow with the community. It’s kind of always had that approach right from the start. So we just keep going – as long as players are playing.
Joe: Ultimately, a sequel is kind of a revenue play as much as anything else. Whereas we have lots of different measures of success for this, and ultimately, people playing the game is the number one thing for us. We’re in this new world of subscription services with Xbox Game Pass, with streaming success and with Xbox Live usage. All these things are important to Microsoft. As a strategy for Xbox and a strategy for us, people playing our game and loving our game, sharing stories and all that stuff is the most important thing, above anything else. Revenue matters, but it’s only a piece of the puzzle. I don’t think it makes sense for us to go and do a sequel or do a new thing.
Shacknews: Is that a new sense or impression that you get from Microsoft?
Joe: We’re very much in our own decision-making bubble. We get to choose what we do. Obviously, we have to go and put forward a case for how we operate our business, but we’re very much in control of it. I’ve been saying for the last year, the measures of success for us, one of them, is people playing on Xbox Game Pass. We’ve been super high in the most engaged player games on Xbox Game Pass, on Mixer. Xbox Live usage, again, people being an Xbox Live member is super important. Obviously revenue matters too but it’s a piece of it. For us it’s just, let’s keep people playing our game in the places that matter – and we’re winning. It’s good, it’s great, we’re lucky to be a year in and have a really positive player base and I love that we managed to build that.
Shacknews: Speaking to that as well, you’ve always been quite open with the community about what’s happening in development at what point did you decide that that is what you wanted to do?
Shelley: Probably even before we had a community. We talked about that being the approach before we even had a community, before we’d announced the game, before anything. It was like “This is what we’re going to try and do with Sea of Thieves”.
Joe: We thought, “We’re doing something new. We’re doing something multiplayer. We’re doing something shared-world, something that’s all about giving players tools and seeing what happens. We have to get it out early.” It’s a new IP as well, so we have to get it out to test it and see is it behaving as we expect.
Because we’re all sitting here role playing as pirates and going “Ooh look, I’m being sick on you, isn’t it funny?” But are players going to find that funny? It’s a new IP, you have to build a community around it because the hardest thing to do is launch a new IP. So many games can stumble out the blocks if they don’t build up that awareness and hype and excitement and knowledge.
Building a core engaged community that understood the game, that could help educate new people outside of just us doing a weekly dev update that only hits so many people. You need a community that’s in every Mixer or Twitch chat or in YouTube comments or on forums or on Reddit answering questions, telling people what it is, explaining it, kind of telling people “You can trust the devs, we been working with them, we’ve been listening to them for a year, we know what their plans are,” all of those things.
So by the time we actually launched the game, we had over a hundred thousand subscribers on Reddit and we were looking at other games going “that’s a pretty good number, right?” If you build a Reddit community, you’re kind of proving you’ve got a core community, as well as with our forum users.
We kind of came out the gate with a community and awareness of Sea of Thieves as an existing IP. It was almost like we were launching the sequel to Sea of Thieves, do you know what I mean? Because we’d been playing the game for a year and a half with our community by that stage.
Shelley: I think people have faith in us as well because pre-launch was all fairly positive, people were talking about the game we were building. Then when we launched we had some issues with scale and straight away you had the video of Joe and Craig in front of the whiteboard looking really sad and tired.
In a way, it’s like a testing point. Like for the community it’s like, “You’ve been really transparent, but now there’s an issue, how are you going to handle that?” and we were straight out there face-to-face with the community explaining why we had the issues. I think people learned to trust us from that.
No matter what’s happening, we’re going to talk to the community, we’re going to tell them what’s going on. They put their faith in us and we put our faith in them. Putting Tall Tales and Arena out into the Insider Program, which is really open, but we’ve had no leaks and things like that. Sort of tempting fate now.
Joe: It’s trust right? We’ve made multiple mistakes. We had issues at launch, which I wouldn’t say were mistakes they were just, “Oh shit, we’ve got so many players, what’s going on? Aah! We’ve never seen this!”
Shacknews: There’s only so much you can do in production anyway.
Joe: Yeah. The scale we hit on launch day was four times what we hit in our scale tests, our open free scale tests. It was crazy. But we make mistakes along the way. We miscommunicated things like around the inventory change that we made back in the day – you were probably there for that, the barrels.
Shacknews: Ah, I didn’t mind, but I was like “This is going to take me a little bit to get used to” because I’d already gotten used to running up and pressing Y,Y,Y, X,X,X to quickly get things out, but now if you change it again, I’m going to need to remap my muscle memory.
Shelley: But we didn’t communicate why we were making the change. We made the change but we didn’t at that point have things like maps in barrels and cursed cannonballs and extra things going into the barrels. On the surface it seemed like we just made things more complicated. But when we gave people that information, and when we started introducing those features, people came along the journey with us.
Shacknews: I think Mike did a big write-up on the forums
Joe: He did. But that’s us learning how to communicate better. But I think our community trusts us. If we mess something up now they’re like, they’ll put a video out or someone will write a post –
Shacknews: Death tax. [laughs]
Joe: Yeah! But we learn it in Insiders, even like the stuff we did over the weekend with a particular feature that was in, the vengeance stuff. Basically when you die you come back with some invulnerability, that hasn’t gone down well. It was in today’s build, but we’re looking at tuning that and tweaking that based on feedback. At the moment, when you come back after dying, you’re invulnerable for a time period to try and counter the spawn-camping. But we got some pretty passionate feedback about that.
Shelley: The Insider Program is a testing ground. It gives us the opportunity to test features out, not only the balance but like whether the features themselves are right for the experience. Sometimes we do obviously get it very far out. But it’s great because we get the feedback so quickly, literally by Friday evening we had like thirty-five pages on it.
Shacknews: With Insider Program you’re going to have exponentially more people able to test it.
Joe: It was funny, I was playing Sunday night and I went into a random Arena match and I was just playing and we were in the tavern and someone was like “This vengeance thing is the stupidest thing anyone’s ever done,” and I was just like “thanks mate”. But that’s part of us learning. The fact is we get our features earlier into Insiders than we ever did. The barrel changes went out into Insiders three days before we pushed it live. Whereas now we get stuff in literally months before release.
Shelley: As early as we can basically. It’s a balance between how finished things are and how much feedback time we’re going to get on things. If we push things out earlier we can get better feedback.
Joe: But it means vengeance will be better for launch. It means the pets aren’t coming for Anniversary because our community told us they weren’t good enough and that they expected more, basically, to summarize the feedback.
Shacknews: What kind of pets do you have planned, is there a dog?
Joe: Ah, TBD. We’re not quite ready to talk about it.
Shacknews: Okay. Can you pet the animals?
Joe: See, that was missing and that’s was one of the bits of feedback from Insiders, “You can’t pet a pet,” and we were just like, “Really? How’d we miss that?” We focused so much on their behaviour in the world that we forgot to focus on the interaction between you and pets. I want to be able to hold a pet and show it to you like “Look at my pet!” and then you feed it a banana.
Shacknews: Yeah, because that’s what Asif wanted to know, “Am I going to be able to buy a dog and can I pet it?”
Joe: Well, it’s like that Twitter account, “Can you pet the dog in this game” and like we need to be on the right side!
Shacknews: You’ve got to pass that check. So can you talk a bit more about how the Tall Tales works? At the moment it’s one campaign made up of nine stories, and obviously that’s a good foundation.
Joe: We basically wanted to launch with a bang. It’s an all-encompassing story with the new mechanics that come in, the traps, the bosses, the pirate lords, all this kind of stuff. Some of that story and lore fits into the expanded universe of the comics and books, all of it links together.
It now gives us a platform to deliver lore and story on an ongoing basis to Sea of Thieves. Our goal at the moment, and what we’re figuring out, is what the right rhythm looks like beyond the launch of Tall Tales. I think it’s more staggered. We want to introduce new features with new story. Maybe not on the size of Shores of Gold, maybe smaller, more regular stories. But the goal is to continue to feed that and drip that into the world of Sea of Thieves. New stories, new mechanics, new challenges, activities, and commendations. But Tall Tales gives us a platform. We’ve now got the tools to do it.
When we were doing those time-limited campaigns back in the day, that was literally fudging stuff together from what we had available to us.
Shelley: It wasn’t really a system we could take and then apply. Each of the earlier campaigns, like The Hungering Deep, was its own fudged-together story whereas Tall Tales is a tooling set that designers and artists – everybody – can use to create content. We’ve got that tool set now, now it’s just what we do with it.
Shacknews: Mike mentioned enchanted compasses and telescopes. Are those permanent or once you finish the step they leave?
Shelley: They are part of the tale. They make sense in the context of the tale. They have a specific role to play within the story. So the enchanted compass might point you towards certain things on that tale, so that’s where they make sense. There are cosmetics and things you earn that are relevant to the tales as well.
Joe: For us though, those mechanics now become things we can potentially use for future tales or we could create other ways for you to use an enchanted compass in the world for different kinds of activities. We built functionality which gives us a wider set of tool to engage players with. But no, you don’t earn an enchanted compass.
Shelley: It kind of doesn’t make sense out of context, because it’s like, what is it enchanted to do, it needs contexts.
Joe: Traps for example. A trap will be part of the Tall Tale. You’ll go and encounter traps and things but now we’ve got traps and it’s like, “Okay, how can we go and enrich other parts of the world with this?” People were telling us there’s not enough stuff to do on islands, there’s not enough of that adventure feel – cool, let’s bring traps in as part of these Tall Tales and now we can use this suite of tools to enrich the world.
Shacknews: Do you see yourself further expanding the universe outside of the game, like what you’ve done with the novel and the Tales of the Sea of Thieves? What about a cartoon, you’ve kind of paved the way with Viva Piñata.
Joe: Definitely more comics. Maybe another novel. You’re the only person to ask that and I only found out this morning.
Shelley: I was going to say, I didn’t know that!
Shacknews: Will Chris Allcock be penning the second book?
Joe: I don’t know the answer to that but my assumption would be yes.
Shelley: He’s been involved in the writing for Tall Tales.
Joe: He’s also doing the Achievement names and the best one so far is Hot Tub Crime Machine which is for if you’re sick in the hot tub. Beyond that, we’re always looking at opportunities.
We go to New York Toy Fair and other places and we meet with all the different companies around board games, books, everything. We’ll continue to talk to people around any opportunity out there and if it makes sense for Sea of Thieves and if it’s something cool that we can do then we’re interested.
I would love nothing more than to see this world outside of the game keep enriching. I’ve got nothing specific on that, but lots of conversations going on. I’d love to see, like, anything you can imagine. I think you’re right, it’s a world, it’s super rich.
If you think about pirate franchise of anything, any kind of media, we’re right up there now in terms of awareness and excitement of pirate franchises. Alongside Pirates of the Caribbean, we’re right up there, that’s really cool. It leads to some interesting conversations – that’s all I can say.
Shacknews: I’ve got more than three friends who want to play, and we like to play together, have you thought about making it easier for groups to join together?
Joe: We have. We need to figure out – we know that for multiple reasons players will want to come together in the world. Whether that’s to have a competition together or to make up your own game modes and mess around or record your own machinima or whatever, there are reasons people would like access to a private world a private server or something. Definitely looking at that, definitely looking at how we can bring that in. But the number one thing we have to consider with that is like, PVE farming, gold stuff, and all that, that doesn’t quite sit right with us I don’t think.
Shacknews: So what do you think of those PVE servers?
Joe: Oh, here we go. [laughs] I don’t think we’d ever want to provide an almost kind of authorized specific way for that to happen but that’s me talking, that’s just my perspective. But we’re not going to crack down on people who are basically just playing the game in the way they want to play and finding the ways they want to do. You know, it’s not power progression. We’ve always said, “Play the game, be the pirate you want, play the game in the way you want to play,” and it feels a bit weird if we were to go, “Oh, not that way!” [laughs] In the future, allowing more friends to come together and play in the world in the kind of way that they want, we want to figure out a way to do that but we’ve got some thinking to do.
Shacknews: Whilst still kind of allowing those encounters with other players.
Joe: Yeah, there are lots of questions to answer there, but we understand the ask, basically.
Shacknews: Looks like we’re out of time – thank you Shelley and Joe!
Sam Chandler posted a new article, Sea of Thieves interview: Pets, private servers, and sequels
Great interview, Sam!