Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Pirate Love? : Sea of Thieves

I tend not to write about MMOs I'm not playing. Nor about those I've never played and most likely never will. Time was, there weren't many.  I used to try just about every MMO I heard about. Now, not so much.

When I posted a while back about not needing any new MMOs, about being quite happy with the ones I already have, there was a subtext. They aren't making the kind of MMOs that interest me any more. Whoever "they" are.

It's not the controls, not really. I make a fuss about not liking action gaming but I like it well enough when it's in a game I enjoy - DCUO for example. I probably won't ever have an Action MMO as my long-term go to game but I'd certainly not let the mechanics prevent me taking a good long look at something if it piqued my curiosity.

It has more to do with the "gameplay loops" as we now seem to be calling what we used just to call gameplay. The set of things you do, then do again, then keep doing, until you uninstall and take to the forums, or these days Reddit or your Twitch channel, to rant about what a terrible game you just wasted a thousand hours playing.

When I fell in love with MMOs they were almost all MMORPGs. Some of them had pretentions to being virtual worlds. Everyone, developer and player alike, was making it up together as they went along but the general gameplay loop seemed to be that you played a character (or several) and that character experienced growth. When growth stopped there was an expansion or an update that reset everything and off you'd go again.

It was an open-ended but largely vertical experience. There was often a huge amount of breadth, a wealth of options, but the underlying narrative was the story of you as expressed through your character. And the stories of your friends and guildmates and the celebrities on your server or in the game expressed through theirs.

As the genre grew and developed those personal experiences became sidelined and eventually shut down altogether. The new narrative was just that - an actual Story with a capital "S", written by writers, performed by actors, experienced by players only, at best, as bit-parts and walk-ons, sometimes merely as extras or the audience.

Tick off a few more years and even Story becomes old hat. The new MMO modes take their cue from other genres entirely; FPS, Survival and, most recently, Battle Royale. The gameplay loops that used to move beneath the surface are now exposed, out in the open.

Yesterday Syp, spurred by Wolfyseyes, expressed his concern over one of this year's hottest MMO tickets, Sea of Thieves. Scopique followed on with a sharp observation on that game's predicted and predictable loop.

Sea of Thieves may be one of 2018's few major, AAA MMO releases but I haven't been paying it much attention. It falls squarely into the category I outlined at the start. I have no plans on playing it at all, much less paying $60 just to be sure it's not for me. I don't have a thing for pirates. I hate sailing ships (other than my sloop in Vanguard, which handled like a mount). This was never going to be my game.

Nevertheless, I have been aware of it for a long time. I've seen news squibs. I've read a number of blog posts by people in the various alphas and betas. My impression was a somewhat unfinished quasi-mmo in which gangs of pirates chase, kill and rob each other. Nothing about the game has ever caught my attention sufficiently strongly even for me visit the website. Until yesterday.

When Scopique observed that "SoT was never intended to be anything other than a sea-based esport" my initial reaction was "did anyone ever suggest it was anything else?". If so, I seemed to have missed a memo. So I went to see how developers Rare described their own game on the official portal. Turns out they describe it like this:

What kind of game is Sea of Thieves?

Sea of Thieves is a shared world adventure game (or SWAG) with crew co-operation at its core, designed to let you be the kind of pirate you want to be. Want to follow maps and solve riddles to find legendary treasure? Assemble the mightiest, most fearsome crew to sail the seas? Set a course for the horizon and just explore? Our ambition is to build a game that lets you pursue whatever adventure your salty heart desires.


Venture out onto a vast, open ocean, uncovering new regions scattered with unspoiled islands and the sunken ships of less agile sailors. You're free to approach this world and its wealth of challenges however you choose. Sail for the sheer joy of discovery or undertake dramatic voyages, following maps and untangling riddles, learning to expect the unexpected...

Fragments of the Past

The Sea of Thieves' vast expanse is steeped in myth and legend, filled with curious ruins and outlandish encounters spoken of wherever crews meet to swap their stories. Whether you find yourself witnessing mouldering wrecks in the world's wildest regions or plundering painted shrines beneath sun-dappled jungles, there's a rich history here waiting to be awakened – and within that history, riches waiting to be taken!

There's plenty more like that, with the focus very squarely on the exploration and discovery of a vast, open world which exists just for you to roam to your heart's content. The lush illustrations and overripe prose paint an enticing picture of an explorer's paradise. How could I have missed this gem? No wonder explorers like Syp had been feeling the hype for months.

It goes on in similar PvE mode. There are sections on Action and Encounters and they all talk lyrically about...monsters and NPCs:

Trading Companies

Not everyone you'll encounter makes their living as a pirate. Alongside the shopkeepers and shipwrights who ply their trades at outposts, you'll find representatives of various Companies ranging from legitimate businesses to secret societies. These Companies have their own reasons for braving the Sea of Thieves, and will be only too happy to reward crews willing to undertake dangerous work on their behalf.

Keep Your Guard Up

Rival crews aren't the only foes you'll encounter on the Sea of Thieves. Many other threats can and will make themselves known on your journey, often when you least expect it. Should you find yourself nose-to-nose with a starving shark, fending off the skeletal mob that's overrun a tumbledown fort or facing down some other unforeseen menace, you'll need to make full use of your wits, weapons and environment to survive.
And so on. There are sharks and skeletons aplenty and although there's no attempt to conceal the PvP element - those "rival crews" - ("Every ship that comes coasting over the horizon in Sea of Thieves, large or small, is crewed by real players on their own voyages"; "Whether adventuring as a group or sailing solo, you'll encounter other crews... but will they be friends or foes, and how will you respond?") the emphasis throughout is firmly on Player vs Environment.

Is it any wonder some people think this is going to be World of Watercraft? Boy, are they in for a surprise.

Wolfyseyes says "there will always be a subset of players who get bored of what the game offers and will only find fun in making others miserable and right now it’s far too easy for that to happen without repercussions." He's mostly talking about how things are already in beta and in my experience betas are very forgiving and cosy environments compared to Live games. Launch could be a bloodbath!

I don't have a horse in this race. Or a ship. Even if the game really does turn out to be the explorer's dream the website promises it's still pirates and I'm still not very interested. I might one day summon up the enthusiasm to poke around on a free trial or promotional weekend but that would be about the size of it.

It's going to be fascinating to observe from the outside, though. Launch could be anything from a damp squib to a spectacular implosion. Or the game could find its audience and truck along merrily, serving the very demographic that's looking for the gameplay loop it provides, while a horde of excluded PvErs press their noses to the porthole and curse.

I wasn't looking forward to the launch but I am now!


  1. Based on the details you shared here the game probably should have been on my watch list; seems like the devs have masssively reduced their ambitions since whenever the marketing spiel was written. Not the slightest bit interested based on the likely reality...

    1. That's the (conspiracy) theory I've seen in various places - that Rare intended to make a content-rich, open world PvE game but during development decided for reasons unknown to drop most of the actual content and rely instead on PvP. I have no idea if that is true or not but if the game is a content-light as is being frequently reported from beta and they don't have one of those legendary launchday "miracle patches" up their sleeves, then I would expect a good deal of pushback. At the very least they need to re-write some of the effusive PvE blurb on the website and re-focus on what people can actually expect from the game they buy.

  2. When I hear ‘crew,’ I think, oh, another one of those games where you need to bring your own ready made team of friends in to play it at any level of parity to not get stepped on. Sounds like a perfect Twitch game to spectate other people’s fortunes and misfortunes, but not actually play.

    1. This one always puzzles me, too. I might do a post about my gaming history sometime but the short version is that in what's now forty years of gaming I have never, ever had a "crew" of friends who game. When I was a late teen/young adult, video gaming was absolutely not seen as cool by anyone at all. I was a major comics fan and even in that supposedly geeky world almost no-one played video games. It was something you kept to yourself if you did. That's been more or less the case ever since...until recently. The culture has now reached the stage where people I work with, even middle managers, do play video games and talk about doing it. They don't, by and large, play the same games I do, though.

      Anyway, not to put a whole blog post in a comment but yes, I find it an odd marketing strategy too. I guess they have a lobby with matchmaking so you can PUG a crew? If not it would seem to be very restrictive.

  3. Well, I had discounted this one as pure PvP, with griefers likely clustered around where ships dock to turn in their loot to snatch it away one last time.

    I do like the graphic style, and if there is indeed PvE and exploration that doesn't require having that "crew" of friends, I might actually be interested in giving it a look. I'll start paying more attention to discussions about it.

    1. Ah, now I recall why I wasn't following it, it's first-person perspective as well as PvP, both a poor match for me, I'm not their target demographic.


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