Rare were once renowned for their innovative and unique approach to game design as exemplified by perhaps their most popular title, Goldeneye 007, still considered one of the greatest games ever made. After the N64 era and eventual 2002 Microsoft buyout, the company’s production output has been less than stellar. Now, Rare seems to be placing all its doubloons in one crow’s nest with the newly released Sea of Thieves.
Feel free to check out our very own Brent Middleton’s first impressions for an overview of the game, but, suffice to say, Sea of Thieves has been fairly well received. There are some storm clouds on the horizon as some misgivings have been expressed regarding its potential lack of longevity due to its bare (skull and cross) bones approach to content. Having spent the better part of this week with the game, I thought I’d weight in with my own piece of eight on the matter, not so much to comment on the lack of content, but rather to take a look at what I think is the real reason this game is what it is: streaming.
No one can deny the impact that streamers have had on gaming. The most popular Twitch streamers and YouTube content creators almost function as a freelance marketing machine for the industry. These days games live or die in the public sphere as a result of their popularity, or lack thereof, with broadcasters. I’ve lost count of the number of streams I’ve seen featuring dismissive comments about titles that launched only a month or so prior, usually along the lines of “Who even plays that any more?” What one week might be the new hotness and hailed as the best game of all time (a very common thing to hear from enamored broadcasters riding a sub-train high) is often instantly forgotten when a new flavor-of-the-month title drops. From a certain point of view, that makes perfect sense. Streaming’s a big money industry with those at the top end of the scale pulling in six or even seven-figure annual incomes from subscriptions, donations, and sponsorships. To put that into perspective, it would take someone like me roughly three centuries without any expenditure whatsoever to earn the same amount as someone like Tyler Blevins earns in a year for playing Fortnite.
Whilst we’re on the subject, can any of us honestly say that games like PUBG and Fortnite would be even remotely relevant or successful without streamers? I know I can’t. It’s rare for a game these days not to have any hype build-up prior to launch, but both of those games just appeared out of nowhere with almost instant streamer uptake. Call it lightning in a bottle. Call it serendipity. Call it whatever, but to me it seems extraordinarily convenient. They’re mechanically sound but incredibly simple games, for the most part only given any entertainment value by how much streamers are willing to ham up their reactions for their viewers.
American schools are currently in the midst of a battle with their students after the release of the mobile versions of PUBG and Fortnite. Students are reportedly spending more time playing the game than they are studying, with some schools having to severely limit Wi-Fi access in order to stop students playing in the classroom. Are these titles being played so much because they’re actually good or because of the experiential association players can make between themselves and their favorite streamers? Something tells me it’s more of the latter than the former. These are games designed from the ground-up to be streamed. That’s why there isn’t really that much to them. Most of the content isn’t actually part of the games, it’s provided by the people playing them for money. If that is indeed the case, what does that mean for Sea of Thieves?
To answer that, I’ll just give you a quick rundown of what content is available in the game at launch. PVE content consists of missions offered by representatives of three NPC factions or Trading Companies. First up are The Gold Hoarders who task players with finding and returning treasures chests hidden around the game world with nothing to help them other than crude maps and cryptic clues. The Merchant Alliance offers players the chance to try their hand at hauling cargo, with their missions sending able mariners from port to port with precious hauls of chickens, pigs, or gunpowder. Finally, there’s The Order of Souls who have mysterious agents that promise you gold in exchange for the enchanted skulls of ghostly pirates. By completing such quests or “voyages,” players earn reputation which gradually unlocks access to more dangerous and lucrative missions as well as thematically appropriate cosmetic items. There are also public events in the form of skeleton fortresses crammed with all manner of deadly enemies that need to be dispatched before the loot contained within can be claimed. Gigantic skulls with flashing green eyes form in the clouds above their locations to draw players in, reeling them from one side of the map to the other, all hoping to grab a share of the booty.
This is where the PVP component really kicks in as players are forced to duke it out in order to keep what they’ve earned from the fortress or to protect what they’ve stolen from others. This can result in some incredibly tense and dramatic moments as players repeatedly repel assaults from all sides before making a hasty getaway across the sea in order to cash-in their loot. Elsewhere on the map, player versus player combat is less meaningful, most of it happening around outposts where people are just wandering around minding their own business or standing AFK on their ships. There are no tangible rewards for besting other players other than potentially making off with their loot, if they even had any to begin with that is. As far as content goes, that’s it.
There isn’t any overt story or lore to pay attention to, although there are journals randomly hidden throughout the world offering tidbits of story, but they are few and far between. Missions ask nothing more of the player than to go there, do this, and come back. Character progression doesn’t require charting a course around some insanely complicated skill grid, but is instead solely tied to faction reputation and cosmetic items. While this does allow the game to flourish in the true spirit of play, where you get as much out of the experience as you’re willing to put in, there’s little beyond that basic incentive to do any of the little content that’s offered.
If you’ve got a reliable crew to team up with, then Sea of Thieves is a great experience. You’ll regularly find yourself with a cargo hull full to bursting with treasure chests, goblets, arcane skulls, and all manner of sundry goods under haphazard cannon fire from rival pirates aiming to plunder your ill-gotten gains. If you’re out-manned and out-gunned then the only option is to run. What follows is a tense battle against your opponents and the elements themselves as you desperately chart a course to safety around and through cataclysmic storms and treacherous rock formations. When two or more players are concentrating on escaping with their filthy lucre then the game becomes surprisingly tense and action packed as moves and counter moves are made in a frenzied chase across the high seas. It’s thrilling on an instinctual and intellectual level as the game mechanics marry up seamlessly with the gameplay experience itself resulting in incidental interactions that are remarkably compelling. After all, who doesn’t like it when the little fish out-swims the big fish?
Whilst the emergent gameplay is something special, I don’t think the game can depend on that single aspect for its longevity. It’s not solely because the solo experience is a bit unwelcoming and underwhelming, but also because for all the high points that the multiplayer gameplay provides, there are an equal number of low points. Combat is rudimentary with some glaring imbalances, enemies armed with pistols being a particular example. There’s nothing wrong with the voyage system, and the locations you are sent to are never less than charmingly realized enclosures in a pirate playground, but the addition of NPC pirate crews and less criminally inclined encampments of naval officers would go a long way to making the various islands and archipelagos feel more lively. As it stands, there’s just enough basic content to keep people interested, but it seems that Rare’s focus for the true heart of the core gameplay experience is unscripted and unpredictable player interaction. That’s fine if you have a regular group of friends to play with or perhaps more specifically if you’re a streamer. No doubt this a game crying out to be streamed. Get a group of professional broadcasters together for some pirate-themed shenanigans and their vested interest in engineering viewer retention will pretty much guarantee some popcorn worthy antics.
I can’t say for sure that Rare went so far as to design the entire game with the idiosyncratic whims of streamers in mind, but I have a sneaking suspicion such considerations did have an impact when some key decisions had to be made. The long stretches spent trekking across the ocean between islands seem particularly keyed to such groups as there’s plenty of time for hilarious japes to be had using pirate accents of varying quality. Combat against enemy pirates of the undead or living player variety is just hectic and twitch-skill oriented enough that it creates the impression of difficulty whilst at the same time favoring the broadcasting styles of some of the more “physically enthusiastic” streamers. Even the synchronizing instruments seems keyed to catching the eyes and ears of viewers in a calculated “oh that’s cool” moment. Along with the aforementioned battle royale powerhouse duo (games designed for frenetic moment-to-moment action), Sea of Thieves fits neatly into a niche of games that will see a steep drop-off in popularity once the sheen has worn off. Hopefully, I’m wrong. But, given the jarringly rapid turnover of games these days as a direct result of their viability as platforms for streamers, and regardless of Rare’s intentions and plans for the game, Sea of Thieves could find itself as one of the first forgotten vanguard titles of Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass.
That is yet another problem for a game like this; being sold as a full AAA title but with a fraction of the content one might expect for such a hefty price tag. The apparent game limitations at launch might just be part of Rare’s approach to developing this game as a service rather than as a stand alone title. Its inclusion as one of the flagship titles on Microsoft’s recently launched Xbox Game Pass basically all but confirms that. The game is designed to be modular with the developers able to patch in content such as new factions, voyages and even entire islands as it becomes appropriate, meaning player retention becomes much simpler as new activities can be added to keep them coming back for more, just like that last chest in the hold of a sunken galleon. It’s a smart move on their part, but if Sea of Thieves is any indication, then 2018 might just be the year when we really start to see games being launched and maintained as services rather than as individual products. Seeing as Destiny 2 is floundering after Activision attempted to run it according to just such a model, I can’t help but feel a shiver in me timbers not just for Sea of Thieves, but for games on the whole.