It’s a pirate’s life for Rare as it prepares to launch the good ship Sea of Thieves. Being a pirate really boils down to just one thing: freedom. And Rare, with Microsoft, is embracing that ideal at every turn of the ship’s wheel.
For starters, while it’s not quite free, it is the first big exclusive coming to Xbox Game Pass since Microsoft announced all such titles would be joining the service day-and-date with launch. So console gamers don’t even have to buy the game outright in order to set sail with their friends.
Rare’s studio head Craig Duncan is upbeat about both Game Pass and the opportunity it provides the game as part of Microsoft’s increasingly aggressive services-based strategy.
“It’s awesome consumer value. If someone had told 16-year-old me, who used to save up to buy SNES cartridges, that you could pay £10 a month and get access to hundreds of games, and new games as well, that would have blown my mind,” he tells us. And we imagine it would have terrified games publishers back in the nineties too – as it still is now to some extent.
“Part of our job as a first-party studio is to drive people to services and platforms with our content, that’s what our job is as Rare and as a first-party studio,” Duncan says pragmatically. And he’s keen on the opportunity to put the game in front of many more potential players: “Whenever people have played Sea of Thieves, at E3 or Gamescom or during the closed beta, the sentiment has been great. The times we tend to get negative sentiment is when people haven’t actually played it.”
Something we can certainly testify to: we were uncertain about it until we played it, but it then hugely overdelivered on its pitch in the first few hours of play.
“I feel confident that people playing Sea of Thieves will enjoy it. And what I like about Game Pass is that there are more people who are going to come into Game Pass over time, and it makes it less of a Day One, sell as many copies as you can, launch.”
As a live game, Rare is obviously keen for it to have a long and bountiful life, and a steady stream of new players will serve the game well.
“I’d love to have a conversation with you in five years time and still be able to say ‘hey there’s hundreds of thousands of people still playing Sea of Thieves,” Duncan continues. “And with Game Pass I think it’s going to continue to grow. There’s going to be people who buy a console a year from now, maybe at Christmas, and then get Game Pass and for them Sea of Thieves will be brand new.
“We try and think about Sea of Thieves over multiple years and I think when you think about it that way, having Game Pass players is a great thing for the game.”
And that stream of incoming players will have someone to play with too, as Sea of Thieves has no hard gating between new and experienced players. In fact, it positively encourages salty old sea dogs to take young pups under their tutelage and lead them on testing voyages. So players won’t be discouraged by their friends being so far ahead, as with the likes of Destiny.
SKULL AND CROSSPLAY
Sea of Thieves is all about playing with friends and making new friends. It’s these social bonds that are key to engaging players in such a game in the longer-term. And Sea of Thieves is doing all it can to get friends playing together, as one of only a few live games to support crossplay – in this case between Xbox and PC players.
“We didn’t want a PC community and an Xbox community, we wanted a Sea of Thieves community,” says Duncan.
And it’s succeeded handsomely. In our time playing we completely forgot players were on different hardware until we asked for help with a feature and someone helpfully aid “press the E key.” We were holding an Xbox controller. Of course, this technical marvel wasn’t as easy to create as it is to use.
“It doesn’t happen on its own, we set out from the very start to achieve this,” Duncan says. Amazingly, “it’s actually Rare’s first PC game, ports aside,” he also reminds us. “We set out to make a game that stands up to the scrutiny of PC gamers but also delivers on the magic of crossplay.
“We wanted Xbox Live to be behind everything, it’s the same friends list, invite system, matchmaking, in-game chat. It allows us to make exactly the same game for everyone, take away all the barriers and make it seamless.”
“I can go and play with my friends, wherever they are, whether it’s on a PC or on a console, that’s cool. Fundamentally we believe in the magic of multiplayer, a lot of the game design mechanics are designed to be co-op. Everything is designed for a positive social experience.”
“I’d love it if Sea of Thieves is someone’s first multiplayer experience. I think we’ve tried to remove barriers to multiplayer and that’s something I feel good about.”
Further work has been done to open the game up to as many players as possible, even on low-powered hardware.
“Our team has done an amazing job at pushing the minimum specification down,” Duncan tells us, with a 540p 30fps option for laptops with integrated graphics. “It doesn’t look quite as good but we’d rather have more people playing the game, because if that means I can play with my son or a friend, and they have a low-end machine, then that’s awesome.
“I think the game design helps. Our game isn’t a pixel perfect test of sniping accuracy, it’s a co-operative adventure game with a bunch of pirates with old-fashioned weapons.”
No great advantages then for the high-end PC gamers. And all this clever technology is also letting people play the game in a remarkably retro manner, Duncan adds: “People are playing in-room co-op with one person on the console and one on a PC. Like you used to do with split-screen games, in the same room, talking to each other.”
LAUNCHING THE SHIP
With Sea of Thieves’ big launch fast approaching on March 20th, Duncan is impressively upbeat: “I love this time in the project. And I mean that with all sincerity. It’s awesome. Now we’ve got the press coming in, we did the betas, people streaming, making a million decisions a day on the game and features. It’s good.”
And he has good cause for optimism, as Twitch figures from the beta were very promising. It looks like Rare and Microsoft might have something truly special on their hands. Everything has lined up just right to create a game that’s genuinely different, and in many varied respects one of the most accessible online multiplayer adventures to date.
“I’d’ love it if it’s someone’s first multiplayer experience. I think we’ve tried to remove barriers to multiplayer and that’s something I feel good about.”