What’s in a name? Sea of Thieves

This still isn’t my post about why I don’t like Sea of Thieves. Maybe that post will never get written. Heck I’ll just summarize:

I like how gorgeous the game is.
I like the sailing model…perfect balance of ‘game’ and ‘reality’ IMO

Everything else I don’t like.

OK with that out of the way… I’m not sure why I’m so obsessed with a game I don’t like. I think mostly it is because Microsoft has been ramming it down my throat for months (probably not down your throat unless you’re an Xbox gamer who follows Xbox folks in your social medias). I was really hyped for it because I’m a good little drone, and then it sucked ass and I can’t let it go.

For that reason I still hate-follow the game. A lot of conversation has been around the nature of the community. Is it toxic? Is it great? Depends on who you are and what you like. But one argument suggesting that the community is exactly what it should be keeps coming up: the name. In response to complaints about getting thrown into the brig as soon as you spawn into a game, or having the turn-in NPCs camped by bigger crews, or other disruptive behavior, I keep seeing some variation on “The game is called Sea of Thieves, this is exactly how it should be played.”

I find this kind of interesting. If the game had been “Fantasy Sailing Adventure” would the current behavior suddenly be not-OK? Did Rare deliberately market-research a name that would pull in the griefers? I don’t THINK so. One of my frustrations with Sea of Thieves is that in all their marketing interviews Rare paints a picture of a fun adventure game where you can go anywhere and do anything and all kinds of play are supported. They’ve also talked about their strategies for combating toxic behavior (spoiler: the brig is one of those and we can see how badly it has failed).

I still hope that some day Rare offers “private servers” or a PvE-only mode. Let me fire up a session that only my friends can join. I have no interest in being the ‘prey’ for a crew of players bored and looking for something to do. Of course without the PvP there’s not much to hold a player’s interest since there is no meaningful progression and the quests are fairly repetitive. Maybe what Rare really should do is sell the engine to a developer that knows how to make an actual game. And they can call it “Sea of Faux-Pirates Who Should Not Gank” or something like that.

Curious to see how Sea of Thieves does after launch

The recent Sea of Thieves beta seems to have been well-received by most. I least that’s the vibe I’m getting… I don’t have detailed analytics or anything. Now I’m curious to see how it does at launch. Why? Because I think at least some people approach beta tests differently than they approach launched games. Before I go too much further into that, let’s back up a little.

Sea of Thieves is a PvP game of piracy. You can play solo or with a crew but the devs warn that solo is for “experienced players.” The basic game loop is spend money to buy a treasure map, follow the clues in that map to go find a buried chest, and bring the chest back to port to earn a reward. Alternatively, the game loop is hunt for other players hauling chests, board them and steal the chest, bring the chest back to port to earn a reward.

The best analog I can think of in terms of other games is the Dark Zone in the Division. There too you can do quests to get stuff that you then have to get to safety and another player can kill you and take that stuff.

I may be remembering incorrectly (and someone will correct me if I am) but I think the Dark Zone was seen as kind of fun in the beta, but most of the people I know avoided it after launch.

Why? Because when you’re playing a beta you know your progress is going to get wiped so you’re not that invested in the development of your character. You found a great item and got ganked and it was stolen? Well it would’ve gone away at the end of beta anyway. But once you hit launch, you get more invested in things and now losing progression hurts more. At least, that’s my working theory.

In The Divsion, most people I know just avoided the Dark Zone and there was still plenty to do in the game. In Sea of Thieves, everything is the Dark Zone. This is why I’m curious about how people will feel about the gameplay after launch.

On the other hand, there’s a big difference between Sea of Thieves and The Division. The Division is an RPG and stats are everything, and the stuff you were losing to other players in the Dark Zone might have had a significant impact on the strength of your character had you managed to extract it. In Sea of Thieves, chests (at least in the beta) are just a token to be turned in for currency/reputation. That might be enough to keep players from rage quitting when they lose a chest to another player. There was nothing super unique about that chest, after all.

On the other-other hand, if chests aren’t rewarding enough, will everyone just be attacking each other since that’s more fun/rewarding than actually going through the bother of finding and digging up a chest? If everyone is pirating and no one is treasure hunting…well that just becomes a treadmill too. Someone needs to be digging up those chests!

So I think they need to balance things REALLY carefully. Make chests rewarding enough that players bother going after then, but not so rewarding that the average player gets genuinely upset if they get stolen.

It’s still not clear to me what progression in Sea of Thieves looks like. Clearly there are plenty of PvP-only games that are super popular (COD, Overwatch, League of Legends) but I’m just not sure if any of them have the direct exchange of “You work for something, then I kill you and take that thing away from you.” I mean, that sounds really fun for the pirates, and of course plenty of pirates will mix up treasure hunting and pirating, and that might be enough audience to sustain them. I just don’t see a place for people who strictly enjoy the puzzle aspects of figuring out the clues that lead you to the buried treasure, but not every game has to be for everyone.

Sea of Thieves is a free-for-all world and that’s a bold move for Rare. I hope it works out for them. The good news is since the game will be in Game Pass at launch, a $10 1-month subscription will let us all give it a go. Or if you’ve never been in Game Pass you can get a 14-day trial and play it for free. If I had to plunk down $60 for Sea of Thieves I don’t think I’d do it; I’m not social enough and I’m the kind of gamer who’ll get annoyed when the same crew kills me for the 3rd time in an evening. But for $10 I’ll probably at least TRY it. Maybe they’ve thought about all this and have a system built that allows for different kinds of play styles, or maybe they really don’t care of it isn’t fun for people who don’t want to join a full crew.

I’m writing this post because right now Sea of Thieves is the current ‘darling’ of the game journalists and their followers and no one is saying a thing bad about it. I just wonder how big the audience for this type of experience is. The first time you join a crew it’s going to be fun, but what happens if you’re the guy who is always in the chart room shouting directions to the pilot? How long will that be fun for? Or how about being in the crow’s nest keeping a lookout? That’s going to get tedious after a while, I think. But again, maybe they’ve thought about this and we just haven’t seen it yet. I hope so.

Sea of Thieves: My first lone wolf adventure

The Sea of Thieves beta started last night and I decided to give it a go. Sea of Thieves is really designed for multiplayer but you can play solo, though the game tells you solo play is for advanced players. Never one to pay attention to warnings, I jumped in alone. Here’s the gameplay loop.

You spawn in on an island with a kind of town. I was alone here so I’m not sure if PvP is enabled or not. I talked to an NPC and bought a treasure map…essentially I got a quest from him. Since I had no gold, the only map I could get was his freebie map. Other (better, I assume) maps cost money.

With map in hand I head to my ship. It’s set up to be sailed solo but doing so is still a bit challenging. First, while still docked, I go below to the chart room. First I examine the treasure map and study the contours of the island. Then I search the charts looking for an island with the same shape. There are no magic indicators in Sea of Thieves.

This being a newbie quest, the island I need is very distinctive looking and close by. I see I need to sail NorthWest to get to it, so I head topside.

To get underway, I first raise the anchor by grabbing the capstan and walking around it to turn it. The ship immediately starts to drift a bit. Then I run to the gunwale where there are two sheets. I use one of them to unfurl the sails. The other sheet is used to trim but the game seems to be pretty forgiving in that just having the sails open gives you some forward momentum; trimming them properly enhances your speed (you can see the direction of the wind by looking up at the sky and spotting contrails). Next I run to the wheel and start steering. There’s a compass mounted on the wheel.

Yo-ho, ah the open sea! I’m thinking this is pretty easy, though I’m not sure I’m going in exactly the right direction. Letting go of the wheel, I pull out my spyglass and have a look around but I’m still not certain, so I dash below decks to consult the chart. The game does at least show you where you are on the chart. I’m going in about the right direction but need to navigate around a smaller island.

Run back topside and oh shit, we’re headed straight for the island I need to go around. I grab the wheel and spin it but too late. With a smash I run aground. Immediately the boat lists and I know we’re taking on water. I hit the capstan to drop anchor, grab the sheet and furl the sail, then I run below. There’s a hole in the hull in the chart room. I take out a board (glad I’d grabbed a few ahead of time) and nail it over the hole, patching it. Then I run down into the hold, which is nearly full of water. I locate a second hole and patch it. Then I grab my bucket. Scoop it full of water, run topside, empty it over the side, run back below, get another bucketful, then back topside. Happily this activity is abstracted a bit and it only takes me 3 buckets of water to empty the ship. Ready to sail again.

So once again, raise the anchor, unfurl the sail, grab the wheel. I clear the obstacle island and see my destination ahead. But I also see sails on the horizon. A bigger ship, headed my way. I do have a couple of cannons but I don’t think I’m up to the task of both steering/sailing and running to midships to fire them. It’d be nice if they gave us a chaser on the stern but nope.

I opt to keep heading to my target island. Get to it ahead of my pursuer, drop anchor, furl the sails and dive overboard and head to land. I’m hoping maybe I can ambush my enemy or something. I’m in the tree line peering back when something hits me. I turn around and a skeleton is attacking. In retrospect I’d heard its footsteps approaching but they didn’t really register. So now I’m trying to remember the button to pull out my cutlass while running from first 1, then 2, and eventually 4 skeletons.

Chaos ensues and eventually I swim for it. The skeletons don’t follow but I know there are sharks in the water. My ship is on the other side of the island. I need to get back to shore. I look up and… there’s one of the pirates from the ship that was chasing me, standing on the shore. He raises his flintlock, there’s a loud BANG and…

I’m dead. I’m on the Ferry of the Damned, which is a kind of ghost ship. After a few minutes a door opens and I pass through it and, a miracle! I’m back on my ship! But my enemy is right there as well. More chaos and soon I’m back on the Ferry of the Damned, dead again. I think this is going to really suck if I keep respawning right next to my pursuers, but when I spawn again, he is moving off.

Why? I guess there’s really no profit in killing a broke pirate. Whatever the reason, I go ashore again. Now I know where my cutlass is, I dispatch the skeletons without too much trouble. Then I pull up my treasure map and study it. There’s a red X by some distinctive rocks. Again, there’re no HUD indicators telling you where the treasure is, you have to consult the map, look at your surroundings, and deduce the location. I go there, pull out my shovel and am rewarded with a metallic clank as I shove it into the sand. A treasure chest! It takes me a few minutes to dig it up, then I grab it and run for my ship.

I am inexplicably able to swim while holding the chest. I get back aboard, stash the chest in the chart room and get underway again, sailing back to “Plunder Island” where the quest giver is. But alas, my harasser is back, though a ways off. I am able to to make it back to Plunder Island ahead of him and I don’t even worry about docking, I run below, grab the chest and jump overboard. Again, no one else around, so I deliver the chest and am rewarded with some experience with this particular faction and some gold.

I head back to the docks where I see my ship sailing itself in circles, hitting the rocks over and over again, until it finally sinks. Then a mermaid appears in the water. If I swim out to her she’ll give me a new ship but instead I just chill. The pirate crew that was chasing me is now in pursuit of another small craft who is fighting back. I take out my spyglass and watch the battle. It goes on for a while; neither seems able to get a solid hit on the other.

It was getting late so I called it a night. It was fun doing a solo run once, but without a crew the inherent silliness of the game doesn’t really come out, and you really are at the mercy of lady luck in terms of who you might stumble across.

I don’t know that I’d buy Sea of Thieves for $60 but I’ll definitely subscribe to Game Pass for $10/month in order to play it at launch. And as far as I know it is ‘cross-play’ with Windows 10 so maybe I can even join the crew of my PC gamer friends, if they decide to play.

PS Sorry for the lack of visuals. I had planned to pluck some of my video clips from Xbox DVR but they’re not showing up there, I guess because the game is in beta. 🙁