Sea of Thieves’ Past, Present and Future – An Interview with Rare

Sat out in the English midland countryside, Rare’s studio is a pirate-infested creative oasis buzzing with a sense of excitement. Walking through its halls, framed artwork plastering the walls, there is a palpable energy. Two separate wings, nicknamed the ‘barns’, are now unified in their focus. Rare, once a place of secrecy and seclusion in which your keycard would gain you access to your barn and not the other, has been transformed into a sun-soaked creative hub filled with animators, artists, programmers, musicians, writers, directors and online support staff that all seem to share an infectious excitement about their game. Almost everything is produced in-house, including the game’s score and foley sound effects. Even voice-actors were sourced from amongst the staff until recently.

Standing on the balcony overlooking the rolling green hills, Rare’s Studio Head and fellow Liverpool FC fan, Craig Duncan, tells me of the significance of the studios surrounds. Behind us, some of his co-workers take some time to exercise on some of the ground’s equipment, not far from a football pitch where they hold friendlies each week. A pair stroll past walking a dog, deep in conversation. He tells me they often do that, using the acreage around the studio buildings to grab some fresh air and get the creative juices flowing. It shouldn’t come to any surprise that Craig’s pinned tweet includes a picture of the studio buildings below a clear blue sky, with a link to their current job listings.

I can see how their space might have influenced their latest on-going game, Sea of Thieves; the same sense of freedom and tranquillity I have often experienced in-game is felt here. But Sea of Thieves has impacted their studios too. Cannons and a ships steering wheel sit by their water feature between the two barns, and merchandise sits amongst the BAFTAs on display on the way to the cafeteria. I can’t help but feel as though this a deliberate effort to remind everyone every day of Rare’s successful past and present, and ambitions for the future. Something similar can be said for the model ship taking pride of place on the front desk in the reception area. It’s a testament to the strength of the game’s passionate community who stuck with the game and championed it long after its rocky start with a lukewarm critical reception. Created and sent in by a Sea of Thieves superfan, it sits alongside a book and a card sharing the stories of community members, who all chipped in to mail it to the studio in celebration of the game’s first anniversary.

The Sea of Thieves Anniversary Update Might Make Me Finally Embrace The Pirate Life

It’s Sea of Thieves’ first birthday that brings myself and other press to the studio to experience first-hand the upcoming anniversary content coming to the game. After a considerable time spent with two of the update’s most major additions, Tall Tales – The Shores of Gold and The Arena (which you can read all about here), I sat down with Executive Producer, Joe Neate, and Senior Designer, Shelley Preston, to chat about the game’s future.


Ewan: So we’re here in part to celebrate the anniversary of Sea of Thieves a year on. How would you sum up the first year of the game?

Joe: An adventure.

[Everyone laughs]

Ewan: How do you think it compares now to how it did at launch? What’s that adventure been for the past year?

Joe: Been pretty intense. [Looking at Shelley] Like, it has, right? We’ve been working hard as a team and as a studio to — Like leading up to the launch and then straight into okay, we’ve got to just keep adding stuff, keep growing it, keep enriching the world. And then it was like okay, cool, now we’re gonna do this anniversary thing, we’re just gonna and — I think, as a team, its been intense it has but its been incredible as well.

Shelley: Yeah. It’s been just amazing, I mean, like we had obviously we believed so strongly in what we’ve got and what we’ve built with Sea of Thieves, but to see just how that has actually come into reality. Especially the strength of that community, they’ve been just there’s such positivity it’s such a great community that we’ve built around there.

And then, everything that we’ve learned along the way about everything that we’ve done, every piece of content that we’ve added to the game, every update that we’ve done we’ve learned things along the way. And that was always the intention. Obviously, you go into it knowing that that’s entirely unpredictable, you try new things, you go learn along the way. But kind of, as you look back a year of that is kind of overwhelming really.

How much we’ve learned and how far the game has come, and how much we now know about our community, and kind of what their expectations are and what, you know, what works and what doesn’t work in Sea of Thieves and what we can and can’t do. In terms of — we wanted to get authored story things in there and we tried little bits with Hungering Deep and we saw what worked and we’ve tried things along the way and we’ve learned oh, we can’t actually do that, we can do authored story in an online, shared multiplayer world. We can do authored quests still within that world. That’s been really awesome to learn we can make great additions like that to Sea of Thieves.

Ewan: Yeah, I wanna get back to that in a sec. Am I right in thinking that the content roadmap changed in the early stages post-launch?

Joe: Yep. Definitely as soon as it launched.

Ewan: Was there another turning point along the line? Or did you sort of suss it out then and it’s gone according to plan since?

Joe: Hm. Good question.

Shelley: Well that roadmap was quite far, it was quite a long roadmap. I think we just stop making long road maps?

[laughs]

Joe: Yeah, that’s true.

Shelley: Because you don’t just know.

Joe: Let’s go a couple ahead, yeah.

Shelley: Yeah, you could make a twelve-month roadmap, and then the first release after maybe three months — it changes everything on its head.

Ewan: So how long is it at the moment?

Joe: The roadmap? ‘Till about April 30th.

Ewan: You’re hoping that you’ve got more anniversaries to celebrate though I’m sure.

Joe: We will, we will, but I don’t think — I think for the second year post this anniversary update we’ll… we’ve got… the game has changed now so you’ve got Anniversary, you’ve got Arena — oh sorry, you’ve got Adventure, you’ve got Arena. So these two — all the As. Is that triple-A? Finally!

[We share a chuckle]

Joe: But um — What was I talking about? So you’ve got Adventure and Arena and they’re two platforms now to grow on. We’ve had Adventure for like, a year, but now we’ve Tall Tales within there. So that, now, is something we wanna grow so we launch for the series of them, but now we want… as we introduce new features to our world, and new activities, new engagements, new things in the next year, we wanna do that in a more lore-rich kind-of way, in a way that just engages a bit more, and Tall Tales gives us that.

That’s probably moving away from those bigger content updates, to a more steady delivery of things in content and stuff to players with more story delivering them, but then they’re there to enrich the world from then on.

And then with Arena…we’re kind-of with Arena like we were a year ago with Adventure. It’s a new platform, it’s a new thing, how’s it gonna land? How are people gonna react to it? How do we wanna iterate on that mode? What competitive structures do we wanna build around this? What tournament kind-of things do you wanna give players? How do we grow this? ‘Cause it’s different. It’s a different play-style, it’s a different thing.

So, we’re gonna have to learn and build and grow but we’re very much looking at those two things. Almost, it’s like, kind of set for roadmaps. There will be some overlap, like some features just work in both, like Ship Damage. You bring that in for Arena- great, it works in Adventure. You bring in the Harpoon, it’s the same. But, some things will be specifically for each mode. Yeah, you’ve kind of got this different place that we’re in now, but it feels like the launch of Anniversary, we have [an] incredibly rich experience that meets so many motivations. It meets the people that won’t go at the goals, it meets shorter play sessions with Arena, it meets competitive demand as well as the freeform adventure thing that loads of players love already.

So, it feels like for anyone coming to Sea of Thieves then, if you’re already engaged with it there’s loads of cool stuff for you — like if you stopped playing a while ago, if it wasn’t for you, there’s real reasons to come back. Now that Tall Tales trailer we showed you, I think, makes you look at Sea of Thieves in a completely different light. Like “Oh, okay that’s a different motivation, I can come and play that game.” Competition, same thing, and then get shorter sessions. You can play in the evening before dinner’s ready, like in a small fan session.

Yeah, I would just think it puts us in a really strong position now going into that Year Two. And we’ve learned so much in this year, right, about everything that we’ve added and that hopefully, all the stuff we have in the seasons remaining I think will be even better than the last year. ‘Cause we’ve learned so much about our players and about our game and what works.

Ewan: I feel like the two different modes that we’ve seen today are appealing — I mean they work quite — I expected to enjoy the single-player story-driven stuff much more than I anticipated enjoying the Arena, just ’cause that appeals to me. But I thoroughly enjoyed the Arena…

Joe: Multiple people have said that to me.

Ewan: Yeah, I can see how there’d be overlap between the one player wanting to experience both. But was that your intention, or are you hoping to reach two different gamers with that added content?

Shelley: I think yes and no. For players who really, really only want that authored kind-of quest thing, we have that in Tall Tales and we know that that’s gonna appeal to that player and for players who only want competition or they only want those specific sessions that’s gonna appeal to that type of player.

But we’re well aware that there’s massive potential for crossover and I think Arena is not your typical competitive mode. It’s competition, and it’s highly competitive, but it’s Sea of Thieves‘ version of competition. So it’s not taking a template of any other competitive mode, it’s still about your soft skills, your social skills, your strategizing, how good you are at reading the maps, bating the water, steering the ship. It’s not just about hand-to-hand combat or PvP or twitch reactions, and I think because of that we believe it can bring competitive multiplayer to a more accessible, to a broader audience. And because of that, I think we are aware that there is that crossover that people who are playing Sea of Thieves for the Tall Tales or for the sandbox adventure might find themselves enjoying Arena more that they necessarily thought they would because it’s not your traditional competitive mode.

But then there’s players who do love traditional competitive — competition, sorry, they’ve got that in abundance with Arena.

Ewan: Is there a plan to develop as a kind of an esports platform and grow it that way?

Joe: TBD. I think we want to grow as a competitive platform and we think it will be very watchable. But esports means a lot of different things from a lot of different people. I think what we have the opportunity to do is, like Shelley says, it’s a competitive mode for potentially a broader, different audience than maybe if excluded by the super competitive first-person players and first-person games that are there now, and you have to be a certain level of skilled at first-person twitch kind of game-playing stuff.

There are different roles you can take in Arena, so we think there’s an opportunity to bring competitive gaming to a broader audience like we did with Sea of Thieves and just multiplayer as a whole. We brought a lot of people to multiplayer that perhaps didn’t want to do it.

Which, jumping back to your other question, I think — my belief for Tall Tales is one at least… not only does it meet that demand for story-to-tell for guided goals and things. But I think it can also do a really good job of bridging the gap between people who come into Sea of Thieves and are like “I don’t know what to do in this world. Where are my goals? What, like-” and it’s just overwhelming, almost, to try and figure out how to do a ship and then you get sunk by someone you don’t like- “I don’t know what the quests are, what am I doing?

Ewan: This all sounds feels very familiar.

[We all laugh]

Joe: Yeah, but with this guided sort of quest which takes you through and introduces you to kind of map-reading and solving puzzles and just saving the ship and all this kind of stuff. I think it introduces you to what is great about Sea of Thieves.

So once you’ve completed that first set of Tall Tales, I think as a player, you’re far more likely to be engaged in what Sea of Thieves is. You’re far more likely to fall in love with the experience, all that, and then invest the time in figuring out the other stuff. For a new player, for me, or someone that played for a bit and has gone away- if they come in and kind-of play through the Tall Tales and get that great story. But then it’s like, “oh now I’ve got the entire rest of this game open to me. There’s this competitive mode I could go and try, or I could just go and try these different training companies.”

I just think there’s — “oh, now I can go fishing, I can go do this.” There’s so much more for people. But I think the Tall Tales can do a great job at really, just, introducing people into what is great about this shared world and this multiverse.

Ewan: So upon release for Tall Tales, that’s available upon booting up the game for the first time? You can launch straight into that?

Joe: Yup. One-hundred percent. Yup. So basically your front-end is Adventure and Arena. So you’re going to Adventure, going to the Mysterious Stranger, right on the map, right on the book, and you start the first little tale. And then you’re led to the second one.

Shelley: And then some point it branches out as well as with these other people and it kind of comes back together at the culmination so you guys have a choice at some point out of, like, four tales. You get all nine title that you can go and start that journey on straight.

Ewan: So was that the strategy at the beginning of it then, as a means of attracting new players to the game?

Joe: I think it’s about meeting a wider range of motivations, which ultimately will bring new people in, it will satisfy our existing players. I think that’s the thing that’s been great, is for the last two months we’ve been testing with insiders and they — it blew their minds when we put the first Tall Tale in there because they were like “we never you’ll do this” in a good way — add narrative like this to Sea of Thieves. Even though we talked about it at high level, we want more lore-rich questions — they’ll be like “you’re doing it, you’re doing that!”

Shelley: Yeah, I think people expected it to be more like our campaigns that we’d done ’cause we kind of dipped a toe in the water with the campaigns, we were trying different things, and I think people just expected that we were doing, probably, just doing more of those or bigger versions. We’ve actually — they were just scratching the surface of what we could really do with authoured story. And these stories and the trailer — the depth of mechanics that are in Tall Tales as well, so after you play one Tale, but if you imagine that with the depth of mechanics across those nine Tales there’s so much in there.

Joe: And if you think about strategy in the core-est of terms, you want to engage your existing players but you’re always looking to bring new people in, that’s just —  it’s like, that’s good business, right? You want more people playing your game, more people coming in, and I think this update does all of that, and it brings what — it’s just — there’s so many different reasons for people to come in, right? If I’ve played it before but it didn’t click with me or whatever, but now there’s all these different reasons to try.

‘Cause if you played it before you clearly had an interest, right? You clearly were like, “I want to like that game. I want to like that game.” And for whatever reason, you didn’t know at the time. So now, you’ve got “Oh, there’s a narrative, maybe that’s the thing that does it for me” or maybe you love fishing. Maybe that’s your thing. That’s something loads of people do — I’m always, just, surprised about how many people love fishing.

Ewan: Well, I mean, that’s certainly where I’m getting from, not so much on the fishing, but what you were saying prior to that was that I hadn’t really played much of it until a week or so ago. And I certainly was overwhelmed at the start of the possibilities,  ran into a Kraken [laughs] exactly like you said, I was like “okay, I feel a little out of my depth here.” But I’m very much someone that gravitates towards something a bit more focused and narrative-driven. So to play that today really struck a chord with me. I was getting very excited, you’re ticking all the right boxes there.

One of the things I do admire about Sea of Thieves, though, and the work you guys do, is how much the community is involved with it. How much of it — I mean a percentage might be tough, but how much of it is driven by the community and what’s being requested, versus your own creative input?

Joe: It’s a real mix.

Shelley: Yeah, the community have a hand, I would say, in pretty much everything we do. It’s always — whether it’s the community are specifically vocal about a certain thing that’s missing like authored quests, or whether it’s like trying stuff in our insider program… where players can play content really early. We have Arena and that since February and taking feedback from that is always — so even if it’s not necessarily the features that we’re building on, certainly iterating on the stuff that’s in there. So they kind of have a hand in everything.

Joe: Yeah, it’s true. So there’s some things that we’re probably less likely to do, like Skeleton Ships was one. We’ve always said every sail on the horizon is another player, and now it’s every sail apart from the tall ones.

Shelley: It might be a deadly skeleton.

Joe: And the — fishing is a big one. Fishing — we did have early on in prototyping form, but that definitely got bumped up the list by just — it was almost at the top of most voting things that people would do on forums and stuff and you’re just like —

Ewan: And pets were somewhat similar?

Joe: Yeah people want pets now. Like, honestly, I’ve never been begged to add monetisation options.

[Everyone laughs]

Joe: But I have to apologise, it’s not coming yet so you can take them later.

I think we kind of take it from everywhere, whether it’s Twitter or it’s Reddit, it’s the forums, it’s any avenue. It’s videos, it’s however people communicate. We look at it, and we look at the sentiment and we try to figure that into the stuff going forward. Like even traps, that are coming as part of Tall Tales — the Fishing was feedback on more things to do on the ship, like in-between on those on the journeys. We were doing in-between the different Tall Tale quest points you were doing fishing.

For the attractions, like more things on islands, more of those common adventure islands that isn’t just run from point to point on things. And the same with the puzzles as part of the Tall Tales quests. Like, now you’re really looking around you on islands whereas you weren’t really before.

So again, you get that kind of feedback, there’s not enough to do on island. And we’re like, “okay, how do we go and make that? Enrich it and make things?” And we use our skill and common knowledge to do that.

Shelley: Yeah it’s quite a melding of understanding the sentiment and understanding what the community want, but then we have to take that and shape it into the right output forces.

Ewan: Sure, yeah, that makes sense. And that dialogue is kind of indicative of a cultural change at Rare as well, a much more so transparent, and more of sort of speaking about what’s been worked on at any given time. How much of that has being a deliberate change and how has it influenced the creative process?

Joe: Absolutely deliberate.

Shelley: Absolutely.

Joe: We knew new IPs are hard to launch. A new IP that’s multiplayer and that’s completely different to anything you’ve played before is gonna be hard to launch. One that’s so reliant on player behaviour and how people interact in the shared world. We were like “we just have to get it out, start testing it, start taking feedback, start building a community that understand it and that help us and” —  So by the time we hit the launch for the game we had a massive community.

We had like a hundred thousand Reddit subscribers on the launch for the Sea of Thieves. And we were looking at kind of really engaged social games. And it was like a Reddit account, it was only good metrics. Like, are people interested, are they talking about it, are they sharing? ‘Cause having that community meant that when we launched and loads of people came in and were like “What’s this? What’s this bar again? What do I do?” Then loads of people could tell them and help them and then when people were going “We’re need more things, we need more stuff.” And that community are like “Yeah that’s cool, they’ll listen, they’ll like it, they’ll do it.” They’re there to help land the message and support you and give you the right feedback and let you know when you’ve made mistakes like our barrel inventory addition that we made sort of halfway through the year where we messed up on introducing — we didn’t message it correctly and everyone was like “what have you done?”

But that community’s always been with us and, so it was very purposeful. But, you’re totally right that being transparent and being open is something that’s hard and difficult and it’s new and it can be challenging. But we genuinely believe that by being an open and transparent, you inform your community about what your game is and you get — you build that relationship. And that’s the — putting human faces to a development team. There’s so many of us that are active. Even just our weekly stream that we do. We just play the game every week, and different members of the team are on it. And I think, you put that human face out there, people realize it’s not just a faceless development team, making stupid decisions, “why have they done that?” It’s people that know what they’re doing. I believe that that’s the same in any developer in the world, but —

Ewan: I know you’re quite vocal about this. Has that helped make the criticism more constructive? Are people more respectful?

Joe: Yep totally. They really are. And that core community kind of calls out people that aren’t.

Shelley: Yeah, it’s almost like — well it’s just the same as we put the private code in the tavern to say how we want players to play the game. In terms of treating everybody equally and those kinds of human values. And we have the same thing, asking for feedback to be given constructively. It’s like, I think —

Ewan: And the community self-manages —

Shelley: Yeah, and you’ve got to I guess communicate that that is what you believe in as a developer and as a human being and we’ve built that trust in our two-way relationship between the community and us as a developer. I think you earn the right to do that, I guess because you’ve given them so much information and so much transparency all the way through. That you kind of —

Ewan: It’s a two-way sort of street.

Shelley: Yeah, I guess, yeah.

Joe: But it builds up trust ’cause we will make mistakes, we will make the wrong decision sometimes —

Shelley: And we have.

Joe: Yeah. But that community trusts you and you talk about it and you’re open and you hold your hands up and it just works. I loved, even for our year one anniversary on our birthday, our community was celebrating more than we were. They sent us presents —

Shelley: We were just heads down.

Joe: ‘Cause literally Craig [Rare’s studio head] was like “are we doing anything for the anniversary?” I was like “why?” And he’s like “should we celebrate it?” We were like “shit.” So we had to send some people from the facilities team to the shop to buy some fucking champagne.

[Everyone laughs]

Joe: Honestly, that morning — And our community’s on social someone says, “oh it’s amazing, here are some presents!” And we’re just like “uh…”

Ewan: I was gonna leave that as a sort of feel-good question at the end, but I know you got a bunch of submissions. People sent you stuff. I mean, I don’t want to be asking to pick a favourite, but were there certain stand-outs?

Joe: I think the thing that was the most special for me for that anniversary for the 20th of March was @thechocmoojoo who is like — she’s a lady, that’s her username on Twitter. But she’s a lady, she runs a gaming tuition thing and teaches people about streaming and really forward-thinking gaming thing in Santa Barbara in the States. But she loves Sea of Thieves. She plays with her dad as well, Pappa Choc, and they like it. So she brought him in and they play together in Sea of Thieves.

So she built a ship, like a model ship over a period of weeks. But she had painted herself, she painted the Rare sails like the Rare sails that we have as developers. She put little explosive barrels in the crow’s nest and stuff, all modelled herself.

So she sent that in and actually — well, first of all, she built it and then she went to sent it and then she was given like $800 shipping charge because she wanted to package it all up and was just like “how far am I gonna follow this?” So she went onto — well she messaged me going “I’ve got a problem, I wanna send this to you but I can’t.” And let’s say half an hour later she was like “the online community sorted it.” And I was like “what?” And she was like “yeah I just posted it on this board and they all chipped in and we’ve now got this shipped!”

Ewan: That’s unbelievable.

Joe: But she also collected a ton of different messages, did you read the booklet that came with this?

Shelley: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Joe: So she literally put together a card that just had messages from so many members of the community, just celebrating and kind of congratulating. And there was telling their stories, and there was — literally by the end of it I had a little tear, because just how it affected so many people and people saying, “you know what, me and my brother, but he’s in the military on a different part of the world, but we get together and play this like once a week,” and things and the best bit was that there were all these heartfelt messages. And there was one from someone that was half a message and then it was this open bracket “add more cosmetics” closed bracket.

[Everyone laughs]

Shelley: I think for me as well — Have you seen the video as well of all the community singing the —

Joe: We Shall Sail Together?

Shelley: Yeah, the We Shall Sail Together, which is like the kind of anthem if you like, the theme of Sea of Thieves. And for me, I woke up on the morning of the anniversary and I watched that video with my husband who’s also a senior designer. And we both like shed a tear at that because I think that was so indicative of what we’ve built, because not only the words of that song as being “we shall sail together” and what we’ve tried to do with Sea of Thieves as a community but the video was different members of our Sea of Thieves community and you can see them and their pirate and they were actually singing. The people were singing the words and —

Joe: Some better than others.

[Everyone laughs]

Shelley: Some better than others. But all better than me. So I think — and there was a real, genuine touching beauty to that just seeing all these faces of all these people’s lives that we’ve touched positively with Sea of Thieves, and I think —

Ewan: I can only imagine how rewarding that must be, to not only make this game but this community —

Shelley: It genuinely is super humbling. It’s just like, we do what we do, we love what we do, and sometimes we can be very heads-down because we’re working so hard on what we’re doing, so to take that moment in time on the anniversary and receive those messages, that ship, and to see those videos and all the many of the things that got sent to us in messages and wishes that we got sent through that were just amazing. I think it’s just testament to the transparency that we’ve had with the community and the commitment that we’ve made to listen to the community and to truly build the game alongside them.

Ewan: Hmm. That would’ve been a really nice bit to end on, but I did have other questions I wanted to ask you.

[The PR representative indicates there’s time for just one more.]

Ewan: Time for one more, okay. I better ask this one then, ’cause otherwise, my editor will kill me. And that is that these days, Xbox and Nintendo have quite a close working relationship.

Joe: You’re the first person to ask this.

Ewan: Am I? Right, there you go. Do you think there’s a possibility that Rare may one day appear on a Nintendo platform again?

Joe: No idea. Honestly, no idea. I think for us it’s about — it’s all players playing in the same world, the same universe, the same player, like cross-play, all of that kind of stuff is what’s critical. We always want everyone to be in the same universe. Our goals right now are — the future for us at the moment is new content, it’s new adventures, it’s just new things like that. So, I have no idea, I couldn’t say one way or another.

But there’s a certain charm to it, isn’t there? But honestly we just want as many people as possible to play, there’s an adventure together and have great fun in the world of Sea of Thieves. That’s all, that’s the future of Sea of Thieves. We’ll see where that takes us.

Ewan: That doesn’t sound like it’s being ruled out so that’s gonna make him a happy man. Thank you very much.

Shelley: Thank you.


EWAN FLEW TO THE UNITED KINGDOM AS A GUEST OF XBOX FOR THE SEA OF THIEVES ANNIVERSARY EVENT.
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