Hands on with Sea of Thieves

Setting Sail

In late May, 2016 I had the honor of flying to the United Kingdom and visiting the Rare studios in Twycross to play their latest game, Sea of Thieves. Along with five other contest winners from Rare’s Sea of Thieves: Play it First Contest and six Rare super-fans (not to mention my wife!), I got to experience what Rare is calling a Shared World Adventure Game – S.W.A.G. for short.


This concept art is not too different than the in-game graphics

To say that I enjoyed playing Sea of Thieves would be a huge understatement. It is in fact
the most fun I’ve had with a multiplayer experience in all my years of gaming (and I’ve got nearly three decades of experience with that!). The game’s controls are superb, its audio spot-on, and its graphics some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, and this was a pre-beta build!

The manner in which we were first shown the game was a spectacle in and of itself. We were taken to an area of the studio in which they had set up 12 soundproof booths, each with a TV, a controller, a chat headset, a video camera, and a graphic on the wall with the basic controls. We were each assigned a booth and told to go sit down. As we sat there, we waited in anticipation for the next step. The TVs were off and the team adjusted each of us to fit into frame of our respective video cameras. We put our headsets on. In the headset, the sound of ocean surf could be heard in the distance, along with various sounds of insects and other possible wildlife. The minutes ticked by slowly as we waited for what was to come next. We were not told anything else – we were given no instructions or explanation of what the game was about or what they wanted us to do; simply that we were to “go” when the screens turned on. We were able to chat with one another with our headsets and quickly discovered that we were in a team of four.

After what felt like a lifetime (and what was likely just a couple of minutes), our screens turned on.

Before me was a tavern, and in it I could see my three teammates. The view was in first person, as it was in last year’s E3 trailer. We all cheered and giggled with excitement and quickly discovered that we had grog in our possession. Without even glancing at the control sheet on the wall, I quickly figured out the control scheme and consumed the grog. It could be done in sips or as a long gulp – it was up to me and how long I held down the action button. My vision was soon a bit wonky and my character walked like a drunken sailor.

My teammates had already left the tavern as I went around and admired its interior. I soon realized this and stepped out onto the lush jungle island we were on. It was not the same as the one from last year’s E3 trailer, but certainly looked similar. As I came out, I made my way towards the ocean before me, hoping that there was a pirate ship nearby.

It wasn’t long before I found our ship docked just down the beach a ways. I quickly made my way towards it. Within a few moments I was aboard and excitedly exploring it. On the top deck there was a capstan (the device with which you can weigh or drop the ship’s anchor), a helm (the ship’s steering wheel), three masts, ropes to raise and lower the sails, as well as ropes to rotate the sails, several cannons along each side, and a ladder up to the crow’s nest. I quickly scaled the crow’s nest and got a good view of our surroundings. I called out to my shipmates that I had found the ship and to come join me aboard.

SOT Trailer Screenshot
This shot is taken from the 2015 E3 trailer. Our experience looked very similar

They soon made their way over. We all examined the various interactive elements of the ship (which are indicated by approaching and displaying the X button on-screen with a brief description of the action). We also found stairs down to the lower decks. There were two – a mid-level and lower-level quarters. There wasn’t too much down there, so we resurfaced and decided we would set sail.

I grabbed the helm and the crew each took another task – one weighed the anchor, another lowered the sails, and the last took to the crow’s nest. We discovered that with the sails down the helmsman could not see, and so the crew member in the crow’s nest became my eyes. Such collaborative interactions were commonplace in this play session.

As a team, we decided to set sail towards a rock formation we saw in the distance peaking above the unbelievably beautiful ocean waves. It looked like two crossing swords rising from the horizon. We set our course and ventured off to the open sea.

As we sailed, we were all discussing things we were seeing: the beauty of the water, the visual wisps in the air that implied the wind’s speed and direction, and the various islands in the surrounding area. As we were discussing things, someone spotted another ship off in the distance.

We decided almost immediately to change course and head straight for it. This was our sea, after all, and we were armed with a ship full of cannons. As we sailed towards the other ship we quickly worked out a plan on how to approach and attack. I would bring us up along the side of it and the other three crewmates would man the cannons.

sot screenshot 2
Another shot from the 2015 E3 trailer

As we got there, we opened fire. Cannons blasted from both ships in what can only be described as a battle for the ages. I steered us as best I could to give my team the best shots whilst trying to avoid enemy fire. We rose and fell with the waves, as did the enemy ship. We circled around one another, cannons continually blasting, for several minutes before it appeared that the enemy ship was going down. We had survived!

Or so we thought.

One of my crewmates went below deck to check and see if there was any signs of damage. We didn’t know what to expect. However they called out to us to let us know that there were several holes from cannonballs and that the ship was taking on water!

We figured out that we had wood planks in our inventory and that those could be used to patch the holes from the inside. I continued to steer as my crew worked to patch up the holes. We searched for ways to get rid of the water that we’d already taken on, but could find nothing at that point. So I decided to direct us towards the nearest island.

Unfortunately before we were even within a good swimming distance, the ship began to go down. We realized at that point that it was a lost cause and decided to all abandon ship. Three of us made it off into the swirling waves, one of us was trapped down in the underbelly of the ship as it capsized. Those of us that made it overboard frantically swam towards the nearest shore. It ultimately proved to be in vain, as we all drowned after a short time.

It was almost a relief at that point. The preceding 15 minutes or so were full of excitement, adventure, and adrenaline-filled reactions. We were laughing, screaming, and yelling to one another – and having a blast doing so. We were finally able to breathe a collective sigh of relief and found that we respawned back at our first island with a fresh ship and a new lease on our new found pirate life. We quickly boarded our ship and set sail once more.

A Sea of Dreams

What I just described was our very first experience with the game; knowing nothing more than what we had seen in last year’s E3 conference, Captain Bones’ Twitter leaks, and a brief presentation from the game’s executive producer about their initial ideas for the project (in other words: not much more than any of you knew prior to the 2016 Microsoft E3 Press Briefing).

Over the course of that day and the next, we played the game for what I would guess to be about four hours in total (some sessions were just us fans, and some were us fans mixed with studio staff). It’s hard to say the exact amount of time spent because each session felt like it was over in the blink of an eye. We had so much fun each time, and essentially did different things with every voyage (completely of our own choosing).

One of the most recent concept art pieces shown by Captain Bones on Twitter

There were no missions or instructions; everything that transpired happened because of the tools that were provided to the player and the coming together of people with a simple yearning for adventure. If I could best compare it to any existing multiplayer experiences, I would say it was like a combination of Minecraft and GTA Online’s Freemode.

Each experience unfolded organically. The crew would discuss at the beginning of a session what it was we wanted to do right off the bat. Inevitably as we set off to do that, something would usually happen that would derail that first intention and get us going into a different direction. It could be another ship attacking, seeing something interesting in the distance, or just having an idea to try something new when the time seemed right.

One of the most entertaining occurrences was our final play session. The twelve of us had decided upon a truce prior the session starting and said that we’d all meet at a specific island (which we had all independently dubbed ‘Spiral Mountian’) to explore as a team. We decided that raising the glass of grog and drinking would be the indication that we were ready to go our separate ways and end the truce.

The plan went into motion smoothly – we all made it to the island, docked our three ships, and met in the island’s tavern. You could sense an uneasiness between the crews – we could still only hear the three in our own group. These were pirates, after all, and pirates can not be trusted. Rather than explore the area more as we had talked about beforehand, someone panicked and pulled out the grog early.

At that point all hell broke loose, and it was glorious.

As none of us quite realized what was happening, and we had no handheld weapons, we all darted for the nearest ship and aimed to get an upper hand against the others. However, none of us quite remembered which ship was which and we ultimately ended up spread apart.

The four members of each team could still talk to one another via the headset, but folks who had wound up on different people’s ships weren’t able to communicate via chat. They instead worked together simply by sight and we still managed to get the three ships to sail.

Somewhere along the lines it was discussed that we should all try and man a single ship as a group of 12 and see if it would be doable. So most of my crew abandoned ship and swam over to one of the other ones. I stayed aboard mine alone and decided that I wanted to see how far into the horizon I could sail. The other two ships decided to follow and we set off towards the sunset.

It was fun trying to man a ship by myself. It was completely doable, albeit tricky. I definitely would not have survived a cannon battle. However since I had my sails at full, and the following ships had theirs raised slightly to allow the helmsman to see (thus freeing up the navigator role we had created), I was able to continue to pull further and further ahead of the pursuing ships, all alone on the open seas. No island in sight and only a horizon ahead.

I found out later that one of the other ships had a majority of the other players, while the one trailing the pack had just a few aboard. It was a fun adventure with no further purpose than exploration and the question of “what if” that surrounded every aspect of the game.

There were many other memorable instances in the time we spent with the game that brought so many feelings of joy, excitement, and intrigue. We spent some time just exploring a few islands on foot. We spent some time testing out the ship’s capabilities.

We found out that dropping anchor while at full speed would allow for the equivalent of an e-brake turn in most racing games. After a few of those I was able to pull off consistent 180s with ease, which in turn allowed my crew better chances at winning cannon fights.

We worked well as a cohesive team and were never really at odds in decision-making. That’s not to say that won’t happen, but the amount of freedom and the fact that people were genuinely curious made it pretty easy for anyone to suggest something and the rest of the crew to just agree that it sounded like a fun plan.

Just a portion of the plunder we acquired during our visit

Bring Me that Horizon

As our visit to the studio came to an end, I think that we all realized just how special this game was. What we played only scratched the surface of the countless ideas that the game’s designers have planned for it – which is saying something because there was already so much packed into it (I’ve written over 2,000 words here and still not even mentioned a fraction of all the little details I noticed while playing). This project is shaping up to become a true game-changer in every sense of the expression; there is nothing else like it out there, and nothing else nearly as fun in my eyes. I can’t wait to see more of this game as development continues, and I am so excited to get to play the final product when it is released to the countless aspiring pirate gamers of the world.


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