interview

Rare On RPG Elements, Battle Royale Potential, And The Future Of Sea Of Thieves

by Kyle Hilliard on Jul 04, 2018 at 11:00 AM

During E3, we spoke with Sea of Thieves’ design director, Mike Chapman, and Rare’s studio head, Craig Duncan about its sea faring social adventure. We talked about the future of the game and its content roll-out plans, the struggle of mishearing the word “cannonballs,” and whether or not the game will ever incorporate RPG elements in its equipment and weapons.

Game Informer: Sea of Thieves first big expansion, The Hungering Deep, released May 29.

Craig Duncan

Duncan: We did our first content update, and it seems funny talking about it as the first content update was two weeks ago, which was literally on month two, but we’ve done eight patches since then and we’ve done a load of server-side optimization. Since we’ve launched we’ve been full on in terms of updating Sea of Thieves.

The Hungering Deep team – which was our first content update – that’s finished, so now that team is working on the thing beyond the Cursed Sails now.

How many teams do you have going simultaneously?

Duncan: We’ve got three teams working on separate content and we’re about to add a fourth. What we’re trying to do, and this might sound a bit nuts and bolts… obviously, when you run up to launch we had a team kind of working on A.I., gaining experience, and the quest system and that kind of thing. Now we’re live. The Hungering Deep team kind of worked on that for launch to when we shipped it.

We’ve got another team working on Cursed Sails, which is our July update. We’ve got another team working on Forsaken Shores, which is our September update. And The Hungering Deep team is working on the thing beyond that. When Cursed Sails ships in July, they will go and work on the thing beyond that. We’re actually going to bring a fourth team in.

Because of the way Sea of Thieves is – a lot of the content mechanics we’re trying to introduce are new – there is actually a lot of prototyping. We’re trying to give each team a longer lead time in order to keep the actual frequency of updates to players quite high. We want to have a new piece of content about every six weeks to two months. We’re trying to do that as quick as we can and give the team as long as we can so they can build it. We think it’s the right approach.

Is that the future of Sea of Thieves? As opposed to a Sea of Thieves 2, or a season two? It’s going to be expansion, expansion, expansion, etc.?

Duncan: Yeah, I think for us we always built Sea of Thieves as a game for players to come together. We like the regularity of giving players like, “Hey! I just saw the megalodon released. We should go play some Sea of Thieves!” Sea of Thieves is a game about bringing people together, so we love this idea of going, “Cursed Sails has taken over the Sea of Thieves and introduced these great skeleton ships!” Let’s bring people together to play it.

Mike Chapman

Chapman: Our approach is less "let’s add a bunch of things and a bunch of patch notes, and go, 'We’ve added mechanic X and mechanic Y.'” It’s about, "How do we celebrate that content?" What we’re doing is, it’s almost like a tour of the content. We’re bringing it in, in the right context, and then all that content is in the game forever more.

We’ve introduced the speaking trumpet, a way you can use your voice to work with another ship, and what we saw was players would hook up and summon the megalodon together and then go off and do a skeleton fort together because they have made that friendship.

You see these incredible stats, like 1.5 million Xbox Live friendships made. It’s an incredible kind of stat and you will see us do more things like that. But the way we’re approaching content as we’re spinning up our fourth team is everyone is at a different stage of their Sea of Thieves journey. You played it at launch. We have people who will come in for skeleton ships and Forsaken Shores, we will see more people coming in throughout the year, and everyone is at different stages of that journey.

The way we build content has to hit a number of areas. The way we break it down, let’s start with ways to play. That could be new quest types, like fundamentally different reasons to head out into the world and go to an island – the premise for being in the world. You’ve got ways you can enjoy the content with your crew. Another way to play is the brigantine ship. So, we’re bringing in a new ship with Cursed Sails that is built from the ground up to cater to three players. We got a lot of feedback from groups of three friends who want to play on a ship tailor-made for them. So, while the sloop is that one-to-two player ship, and when you’re on it you’re a little bit paranoid, always scanning the horizon.

The galleon’s perfectly made for four players. We let you play with three players now with public and private crews. That’s a quality-of-life update that we added, but players want that custom-built ship made for three players. The brigantine ships comes in with Cursed Sails. And then we’ve got new goals for everyone, and new goals for pirate legend. The goal for players now is to reach that pirate legend point, and there are things to do when you get there, but we want to enrich goals for everyone.

The last bit is what we call the journey. So that’s new threats in the world. You’ve seen us do that with the megalodon, we’ll do that with skeleton ships, and there’s also what we call big tools and small tools. An example of a big tool would be the rowboat, which we’re bringing in for Forsaken Shores. It’s a new tool that you can use in the world, but you can imagine how that’s relevant everywhere in the world. Just the value of being able to fill it full of chests and row back to the ship. Even for a solo player, you can do one trip to the ship rather than swinging back and forth. It has value in the world. And then the small tools would be things like the speaking trumpet – ways to bring players together in interesting ways. So, it’s important that we expand the game in a variety of those areas.

The next one after Hungering Deep is Cursed Sails, which is I mentioned brings in the brigantine ship, it brings in the skeleton ships, and it also brings in cursed cannonballs.

Cannibals?

Chapman: Cannonballs [laughs] I know, it’s hard. It’s funny, actually. When we mentioned it on the podcast, a lot of people said, “Did he say 'cannibals?'” [Laughs]

Duncan: There is no human eating in Sea of Thieves.

Chapman: In terms of lore, the cursed cannonballs kind of come in with the skeleton ships and it’s a thing players can find in the world. These are essentially magical cannonballs that you can find that have cool effects on players and ships. They can make your ship heavier so all the holes on deck take on more water. There is a silence ball that prevents players from communicating together and there are ones that can jam the rudder or prevent the sails from being lowered. It adds an extra strategic layer to ship encounters and we hope players will come together using the speaking trumpet to take down skeleton ships with cursed cannonballs. That’s going to be a really cool thing.

Duncan: The cursed cannonballs are something the skeleton ships and skeleton captains have brought into the world. And then players get a hold of them and they become a resource commodity that, again, makes you think about the emergent world. We like to think about leaving a legacy of the content we bring in. The Hungering Deep is a time-limited campaign where you can do the quests related to the megalodon, but after that the megalodon and all the items you acquire stay in the game.

Each content update will bring those types of things into the emergent aspect of the world.

You’re talking about lots of interesting items that change the way you navigate the world, but the thing I ran into when I reviewed the game was frustration with the missions. I felt like I was just doing the same missions over and over. What are you doing to make those more diverse and more interesting?

Chapman: Well that’s kind of the ways to play area. That’s not just the brigantine ship, but new kind of quest types, and that’s something we’ve been looking at specifically for Forsaken Shores. Bringing in a new way to play. You will see us continue to do that not only just focusing on the items, like the journey stuff that enriches what you currently have in the game, but there will be new reasons to head out and there are new things to go do. You will see us enriching that area of the game, as well.

When we move onto Forsaken Shores… we’ve introduced the megalodon as a threat, you will see the skeleton ships with Cursed Sails, and Forsaken Shores is where we make the world a threat. Not only is it a cool-looking area where it is geologically unstable, you’ve got volcanoes…

Will it be new a separate area of the map?

Chapman: You imagine the three kind of palette changes we’ve got in the world right now: the classic Caribbean, the wild areas with the jagged rocks that are a little bit spooky, and you’ve got the ancient civilizations. Devil’s Roar is the new world area and it’s almost thematically off the edge of the uncharted waters.

Is it a new island that has been plopped on the map?

Chapman: You seamlessly sail there. You’ll start where you start now. It’s almost a decision, like, “Let’s head into Devil’s Roar.” You’ll stock up the ship to prepare for that epic journey and then point your ship in a direction and just sail seamlessly there.

Duncan: This is why we want to make sure everything we add to Sea of Thieves has an element of lore around it. It’s like, “Hey! You’ve heard about this forsaken land called the Devil’s Roar if you sail west!” And you’ll hear of fantastic reasons to go there and that’s the lore, whether it’s the megalodon or Cursed Sails, we can invoke that.

Chapman: That’s why we have the Devil’s Shroud, which is that area outside the boundary of the map where if you sail there, the ship kind of gets eaten up and takes damage.

Oh, I’ve been there.

Chapman: The idea is that you will see the Shroud recede and there will be a new area to explore in Devil’s Roar.

You’re talking about story and lore, but we don’t see a lot of that in-game. Are we ever going to see in-game cutscenes to direct you toward missions with voiced characters?

Duncan: That stuff is a little bit tricky because you have to think about the fact that it is always a shared world. What I love that we did with the megalodon was actually having Merrick. So, we created an NPC named Merrick who told the story of the megalodon.

In the trailers you have speaking characters like Merrick, but he doesn’t speak in the game, right?

Chapman: They have limited V.O. and they have text, as well. That kind of character showcase in the Hungering Deep trailer, where he was in Shark Bait Cove? That became the meeting spot for players and he would send you off on this quest to hunt down the megalodon.

Duncan: I think what we’ve got to be careful in doing though is… you have to think about Sea of Thieves being in a shared world. It’s not a single-player game. We can’t throw you in a cutscene for two minutes while people are walking around in your world. What we loved about the Merrick trailer is, it’s kind of telling you the story of why he’s got two peg-legs and how the megalodon took his legs, but him being on the beach in the game, his emotes, the things he does, the shanty whistles, is all reinforcing what’s in the lore of that trailer. Whether it’s a trailer, or in the lore books – anything that is enriching the world around Sea of Thieves – there is definitely that lore to go and absorb as a player, but really in the game we want to take as much U.I., breaks or prolonged periods, away from the player as we can. When you see Merrick, we want you to have a really quick interaction with him.

Chapman: We want to keep you immersed in the world.

Duncan: Not separate you by showing you a bespoke cutscene.

Will you ever consider giving items – sword, guns, or costumes, etc. – stat boosts of any kind?

Chapman: It’s really tricky. We made a very defined choice around ensuring that we had a level playing field, and I think we’ve already got an example of progression in a session in the form of the gunpowder keg. It’s something that you find in the world. You may or may not have it when you encounter another ship, so I think doing things in that space is kind of interesting, but the idea of coming across someone who has better stats than you, is a pretty divisive thing when we’re actually trying to bring players together in new and interesting ways, rather than segment them off from one another because you have that balancing concern.

I think what’s great about our experience is you can come in for our regular events that we’re going to be running and come on for these content releases and you haven’t got this sense of… "Well I can’t catch up now and I can’t play with my friends because they’re at a different stage than me." When you come across a ship, it’s critical how you work together and use your soft skills to beat that crew. Or you work with them in a cooperative way. Less about who has the best stats on weapons. That feels very alien to Sea of Thieves.

Would you consider something like a sword that is stronger against NPC skeleton enemies, but not against other human players?

Chapman: I think we want to ensure those rules are consistent between players. You get that kind of merging of, and especially if you consider the skeleton ships, as well, you’ve got these galleons crewed by skeletons effectively, and you can have that awesome pirate fantasy moment of invading their ship and real players aren’t always going to be on the receiving end.

So, me and you could team up against multiple galleons in the world, raising our white flags and using the speaking trumpet to take out skeleton ships together. You fight above I take a gunpowder keg below and blow it up – it will function like a player ship. Seeing a ship on the horizon and thinking, “Oh is that a player ship, or a skeleton ship?” and then, it being will be this cool thing that enriches the journey.

Forsaken Shores is the one you showed predominantly during E3, but Cursed Sails is actually coming first, right?

Duncan: The E3 briefing fell at a super interesting time in that we obviously just launched Hungering Deep and Cursed Sails and Forsaken Shores – we tried to combine those both into one for the trailer. It was The Order of Souls talking about the things that are coming to Sea of Thieves and we sort of, for the sake of the briefing asset, we didn’t want to split them up and go, “Hey! Here’s Cursed Sails! And here’s Forsaken Shores!” So, we tried to kind of put them bother together, so the trailer talked about both.

Chapman: You can see skeleton ships in the background and the brigantine. If you go back and freeze frame it, you will see the two ships firing at each other. Rowboats are in there, too.

Duncan: Our community that really loves Sea of Thieves picked up on that saying, “Oh! There’s a ship with two masts! That must mean there is a mid-size ship.” It’s one of those things where, even as we went into the briefing we did something a bit weird where we said, “Hey, we’re talking about two updates here.” And that’s why the slate and the end says Cursed Sails and Forsaken Shores.

If E3 didn’t exist, I think what we would have done was only talked about the Cursed Sails and then we would have got that done and then in August we would have talked about Forsaken Shores. We kind of want to be talking about the thing that is next and then one beyond that. That doesn’t mean we won’t change that if we come up with an awesome idea that’s better.

We’ve learned a load from Hungering Deep. We’ve heard players say, “It was awesome, it was great, it brought crews together, and it really did that social thing we wanted it to do, but hey, it would be great if there were more reasons to continue playing.” So, we will make sure that that’s there and there a lot of questions around, “What legacy will it leave behind?” because this is the first piece of content we’ve released for Sea of Thieves. We haven’t gotten it entirely in our head yet of, "What does a content release for Sea of Thieves mean? What happens? What do players get? What’s the legacy of it?" We know that’s a thing we’re just going to have to keep working with.

Are there secrets people have not yet found in the game?

Chapman: There are a few kinds of Easter eggs in there.

And what are those?

Duncan: [Laughs]

Chapman: There is one, it’s a very slight thing. A bit of fun that we had as a team. Someone actually worked it out last week and it hasn’t really picked up traction yet, but we played with this idea, in terms of the lore and everything, we always like that sort of aspirational garland.

If you only knew where the Sea of Thieves was, you would be able to get to it. The idea that pirates from the outside world are drawn to the Sea of Thieves to find their fortune. So, we have this kind of playful intro at the start of the game where you’re in the tavern and you’ve just got to the Sea of Thieves, and there is a map on the table that you follow to the Sea of Thieves. We seeded in some real place names, from the real world, and someone actually worked out longitude and latitude where the Sea of Thieves is in the real world. So, there it is. The Sea of Thieves is actually north of the British Virgin Islands.

So, Sea of Thieves takes place on Earth then?

Chapman: Well, there is an idea of a magical portal and you pass through a shroud and you get to the Sea of Thieves.

So, it’s an alternate dimension?

Chapman: …yeeeeeeeaah.

Duncan: It’s between the pages of the maps. [Laughs]

Chapman: We’ve got a lot of fun things, like the tales that certain characters talk about. There is an official novel coming out that explores more of those ideas.

Duncan: Sea of Thieves is the most successful new IP of this generation for Xbox and we’ve got four million players, our average playtime is like 22 hours, we have people who have already put in more than 1,000 hours, and five percent of all Sea of Thieves players have streamed the game, all of which we’ve talked about before.

Chapman: One in 20 players have streamed the game, which I think is an incredible stat.

Duncan: There is all this stuff that I can feel really good about, but it all comes back to how we think of Sea of Thieves as this franchise that we do put things in to grow the lore, but ultimately players take Sea of Thieves, and we see everything from full-on pirate roleplay in streams where people wear hats and put on accents and right through to, I literally well up every time I see a tweet that says, “Hey, this is a game that me and my wife and kids play. This is the game I use to catch up with my brother in Australia that I never speak to, and this is our thing.” That’s the thing for me. That’s the real magic that’s like no other game.

Chapman: The amount of times we’ve been working on an experience or feature that we’ve gone, “I wonder if the players will use it in this way?” They will probably use it this way and role-play with it, but almost straight away you’ve got things like people using the speaking trumpet to Rick-roll people. You’ve got people pretending to be airline hostesses saying, “Exits right here, left and right.” One of our designers was playing the game after Hungering Deep released, so the speaking trumpet is in the world, and he’s standing around and hears, “Hello, this is Wendy’s. Can I take your order please?” and he takes his speaking trumpet and says, “Yes, I will have two large fries and a Coke,” and they responded, “Sorry, we’ve only got bananas.”

Using the tools for this kind of emergent storytelling. Just having fun and bringing crews together in interesting ways. The order of souls lantern has a different colored glow in it, and you have the standard light that has the classic warm yellow glow, and we’re seeing people use it as police lights and they’re going around flashing the lights and using the speaking trumpet to pull people over. People using their own creativity and their own tools – that is so inspiring for the team.

Are you working on a Battle Royale mode?

Duncan: [laughs] You’re the second person to ask that.

Chapman: That’s quite interesting.

I bet I won’t be the last.

Chapman: I think last year we said every sail on the horizon will always be a real player ship. Players started asking for skeleton ships, and we said, “Let’s give it to them.”

Duncan: Players said, “Ship combat is awesome. We’d like to take on a galleon of skeletons,” so we changed that.

Chapman: People also said it would be cool if we expanded the world, so we’ve expanded the world, but we’ve done it, and we made the gameplay fundamentally different in Devil’s Roar for Forsaken Shores. What you’re going to see, as we do the content updates beyond Forsaken Shores – we’re going to do three more this year and beyond with the way we’ve set up our teams to create a steady flow of content. You’ll see a mix of us responding with laser focus to players’ feedback and things that are going to surprise people.

I think there are so many examples of content in the game where we’re like, we always talk about the death mechanics and we turned it into the ghost ship. We put a Sea of Thieves spin on a familiar mechanic with new and interesting takes. We see the battle royale thing, but I think there will be opportunities to do that kind of thing differently. It’s interesting where you can take PvP in the game, but we’d want to put a unique Sea of Thieves spin on it and do something completely surprising.

Duncan: It’s not about taking something that works super well in another game, and going, “Hey, let’s start everyone in a Sea of Thieves map from different points and have you all come together.”

Chapman: Our shared world is unique and the thing we’re most proud of is what you see, is a new I.P. and we wanted to do things differently – it has landed well with players and the feedback we’re getting is, “We love this foundation that you built. I just want to have more of it,” and that’s what we set up the team to do. The fact that we’ve kind of changed the perceptions of multiplayer, and the way we use mechanics in our world? We always want to surprise people. We want to keep doing these kinds of unexpected things that only we can do.

Is it weird that your expansion is called Forsaken Shores, and Destiny’s next expansion is called Forsaken?

Chapman: Is it?

Yeah, it’s a popular word right now.

Duncan: For us, it’s kind of easy to come up with names for our expansions. Cursed Sails we all kind of high-fived and felt good about that. It has nothing to do with reducing the price of the game, it’s a cursed sail as in S-A-I-L.

Chapman: Cursed cannonballs and the skeleton ships are obviously the headline of that.

Duncan: And we got misquoted off the podcast, people thinking it was cursed cannibals. No one’s getting eaten Sea of Thieves…

Well, unless the players really want it, and then you guys can implement it. You guys can give players the ability to eat each other if they really want it.

Duncan: I’m sure there are all kinds of disease reasons you shouldn’t do that. Pirates weren’t the cleanest.

Chapman: Forsaken Shores, it is the idea of an uncharted new area. It’s perilous, the idea of a perilous world region. You’re going to stock up and ask if you should even go into this region. The rewards are going to be greater there. We get a crew together we’re going to sail beyond what we currently have into this new world region to take on this epic voyage where there are volcanoes and geysers and tremors and other geological activity. You can hide under rock ledges as volcanic debris rains down. It’s really going to change the way you play.

Duncan: How close do you take your ship? Because if there are things coming from the island, you don’t want your ship to go down while you’re off adventuring. And that plays nicely into the rowboat, so it’s sort of introducing elements of the game with a reason and then leading players to the new content.

Chapman: Rowboats are a great example of that. It makes perfect sense in the Forsaken Shores, Devil’s Roar is what it’s called. You leave your galleon, rowing in with a rowboat, stocking up and just heading back to your ship.

Duncan: You will always have those what ifs? Like what if I see a player in the world in a rowboat filled with treasure? What if their ship had sunk? They could be in a weird place where they are looking for someone to help. We’ve seen players to trades, like they will give someone a chest, or passage, or all this sort of stuff. We then start to think of all those scenarios when we add these new items.

One thing I ran into while playing with other people was getting separated and not being able to find one another. Are you guys considering offering a more detailed map system to make it easier for players to connect when they get separated while exploring? Maybe shooting up a flare?

Chapman: Well, players are already kind of doing that. They will fire the blunderbuss into the air and you can see the traces go into the air.

Duncan: I had a session where we got lost. I fell down in Sunken Grove and I was trying to find the lady I was playing with and she goes, “Oh, I’ll play my music!” and she was up high, so I was looking around to hear the music, because it is all proximity-based. I think as Mike says, you get these really ingenious ways with creativity. And she explained it to me like it was the most obvious thing in the world that I hadn’t even considered, which makes me seem dumb as a studio head, but she said, “Oh whenever we lose each other, we play music because the sound carries, and we can find each other,” and I thought, “Oh, that’s genius.” But with everything, I don’t think we ever say anything is off the table.

Chapman: I think we’ve proven that with the skeleton ships.

Duncan: I think, as Mike says, we always want to do something in a Sea of Thieves way. We don’t want to go game X has this thing, we should put it in Sea of Thieves.

Sea of Thieves' next expansions, Cursed Sails and Forsaken Shores arrive in July and September respectively. For our review of Sea of Thieves, head here.