In a sense then, Sea of Thieves is an online RPG combining elements of DayZ-style survival games with shooters such as The Division and Destiny. There are quests, there is progression and customisation, there will probably be larger raids; there is a commitment to support the game with subsequent DLC, though the financial model has not been explained.
The beauty and individuality of the game, however, is in the crew dynamics. While other online multiplayer games, especially shooters, provide the structure for team-based play, most players ignore their teammates in favour of improving their own kill/death ratios and gathering personal XP. In Sea of Thieves, the system is completely different, and completely geared toward co-operation. In order to move the boat, you need someone on the wheel, someone operating the sails, someone navigating – everyone gets a job, and they’re all essential. It’s a truly team-based experience.
According to Chapman, the idea came out of Rare’s highly iterative approach to game design. Ever since the studio’s beginnings in the mid-80s, founders Chris and Tim Stamper encouraged an experimental working practice in which prototypes were developed and toyed with, just to see what happened. The result was highly individual and innovative titles like Banjo Kazooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day, games that explored, but ultimately transcended, familiar genres.
“Rare prototypes a lot of stuff,” says Chapman. “Very early on with Sea of Thieves, we knew we’d developed a great sandbox, and from there we wanted something very intuitive, something with these emergent narratives. We wanted to make a Rare version of a pirate fantasy. We were also trying to make the most immersive co-operative game ever devised …”
To many veterans of the glorious N64 era, the return of Rare as an explorative developer of luscious, offbeat adventures will be greeted with utter delight. For the last 10 years, the studio has been subsumed into Microsoft’s Kinect business, helping with the baseline technology and creating the Kinect Sports titles. But the motion-control technology has never been widely accepted, and when the Rare Replay compilation arrived in 2015, it reminded a lot of players about the company’s incredibly rich heritage. The few seconds of Sea of Thieves shown at E3 last year provided a tantilising promise that the Rare of Donkey Kong Country, Conker and Viva Pinata was back.
And it’s back in the truest sense. With its colourful, almost cartoonish visuals (devised by Viva Pinata art director Ryan Stevenson), Sea of Thieves looks like a somewhat traditional family-friendly adventure. But it isn’t. Like DayZ, like The Long Dark, like Rust, it’s more of a seamless, emergent survival experience, in which personal narratives are formed on the fly. “Our vision is of players creating these moments, these stories together,” says Chapman. “Your crew is your band. It’s almost like you against the world.”
An important part of this seems to be providing players with a lot of silly tools, just to experiment and have fun. Each ship is equipped with musical instruments, so any crew member can pick up an accordion or hurdy-gurdy and start playing a tune (via a simple interface – you don’t actually have to master the accordion). Each crew members starts out knowing only a handful of songs, but as you explore, you’ll unlock others to add to your repertoire. Brilliantly, if one crew member knows a particular song, others can pick up an instrument and join in, providing accompaniment. If you go on deck and play a song while another ship is nearby, that crew will be able to hear it.