Sea of Thieves is fantastic. I’m just going to go ahead and start this off by saying that, with a full understanding of all of the caveats being put forward by people around the Internet related to the amount of content contained within. In fact, this article hopes to deal with some of those alleged issues. Having been out for just over two weeks, the landmark game — I am perfectly comfortable calling it that — by Rare Ltd. has made much more than a splash, redefining how we look at online multiplayer games. Or at least it should be.
Many in gaming communities from Twitch and YouTube to Reddit and Twitter have been admonishing Rare for releasing such a “shallow” game, devoid of substantial content. In just over a week, I’ve already heard from numerous gamers that they are already getting bored with Sea of Thieves, and leaving it for deeper waters. Others have criticized the game for its lack of a traditional RPG advancement structure; utilizing levels, skills, and ultimately some sort of character progression which is often what keeps players coming back to these types of games. While the game does contain advancement in the form of your three Factions, for some this does not appear to be enough to keep them from jumping ship.
I’m here to say that the problem isn’t Sea of Thieves; it’s people’s perspectives and expectations of Sea of Thieves.
There has never been — or at least shouldn’t have been — any confusion or misinformation surround what Sea of Thieves was going to be leading up to its release. We all had our speculations surrounding the title when it was initially announced, but Rare Ltd. has been more than transparent with their development, to the point they held an entire year of Technical Alpha tests before running several Scale Tests, and the final Open Beta. Suffice it to say, players had ample opportunity to sample what Sea of Thieves was going to look like at release.
Yet when the game released to the public on March 20, it didn’t take long for people to start criticizing Rare for the lack of content which they perceived. Instead of looking at all of the things that Sea of Thieves has — first and foremost a genre mold-breaking system based on player-centric adventuring — people latched onto all of the things they wanted the game to include. At the center of the criticism lays the claim that because of the lack of character progression and variety of gameplay, Sea of Thieves has minimal replay value and a lack of the “endgame” that people are used to seeing in these types of open and expansive projects.
Aside from the sheer fact that we can’t know everything that Rare has planned for the future of Sea of Thieves — we already know that we can expect Hideouts, Pets, Legendary Voyages and more from previous announcements — the concept that the game has minimal replay is largely based off people’s expectancy from other games which are jammed with missions and side-quests and countless ways to advance, customize, and grind your way towards and through the ‘end-game.’ Speaking frankly that just isn’t Sea of Thieves. You will assuredly be “grinding” your way through trying to rank up your reputation with each of the three factions, but it never actually feels like a grind. Since a large part of the enjoyment of the game is the fun that you make along the way, collecting chests and chickens almost feels like the side-quests to the core purpose: Pirate shenanigans. That, and recreating scenes from Titanic.
What Rare has done with their open-world pirate adventure is they’ve invited us to take a journey unlike anything we’ve really seen in the world of gaming before. They’ve asked us (implicitly) to shirk our previous conceptions about what constitutes an MMO or open-world cooperative game, and provided us with a new formula to digest. It’s a formula that is very unlike other multiplayer games; there may not be hundreds of people playing in the same server at once, but there are thousands of crews and individuals who are constantly interacting with the world and crafting their own adventures around the ones you are undertaking.
The reason that Sea of Thieves is comprised of largely “fetch quests” — one could argue that even the Mystic skeleton-fighting quests are really all about fetching skulls — is because implementing an actual narrative would have taken away from the absolute freedom of the game. Maps always point to an island to explore, but the real adventures are the moments that happen in between picking up a quest at an Outpost and returning days later with your hold swelling from captured booty.
In what other game can you be on a peaceful Merchant voyage to capture chickens and pigs, only to have it suddenly derailed by the appearance of an enemy ship. Only to have it further derailed by the appearance of another enemy vessel while passing by a Fortress lobbing cannon balls at you. Only to have it further derailed — should I be saying de-slooped? — by the appearance of the mystical and wholly terrifying Kraken, threatening to drag your crew and all of your chickens to the depths of Davey Jones’ locker.
I would hesitantly compare this to the release of No Man’s Sky, acknowledging immediately that there were other issues plaguing the game’s release stemming from how it was marketed by Hello Games. That being said, what No Man’s Sky was meant to offer the player was a passive space exploration game that was broken up with small sections of space and planetary combat, with a heavy focus on resource gathering and — dare I say it — self discovery. Much in the same way that Sea of Thieves is a game about exploring the Seven Seas with your friends, broken up by pirate raids and countless shenanigans. Because many people got held up on what they wanted No Man’s Sky to be (just as people are fixating now on what Sea of Thieves lacks) a lot of people missed out on experiencing an amazing game for what it was.
Sea of Thieves is absolutely jam-packed with countless hours of gameplay, if you are willing to free yourself from the shackles of confined gameplay and open your imagination up to a world that challenges you to make your own adventures, instead of just handing them to you.
As gamers we’ve always been fairly open as a community to accepting the evolution of genres, and entirely new genres that emerge when a developer decides to break the mold and present a new type of project. In some cases — like with Telltale Games’ breakthrough narrative gameplay in 2012 or PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS IN 2016 — these are immediately picked up on and become instant successes, driving forward new innovation and experimentation in-game development. In other instances however, it can take longer to truly appreciate the direction that a developer chose to take a project. Many artists and authors are not fully appreciated until long after their works have been premiered or published, and it stands that game developers could be thought about in a similar way.
As game development continues to evolve and innovate over the coming years, I would not be surprised if we looked back upon Rare Ltd. and Sea of Thieves in a decade as the beginning of a new unbridled form of adventuring in video games; one which drops us into a truly open sandbox and put the story squarely in the hands of the player. When we criticize games we need to be careful to criticize the actual shortcomings that games have, and not just criticize games for not being what we wanted them to be. For many of us, Sea of Thieves is exactly the open-world free flowing pirate adventure game that we’d been looking forward to, and we wouldn’t change a single thing about the core design for fear of taking away from that ultimate openness.