Now that Sea of Thieves has launched, I’m all aboard and it’s a pirate’s life for me! Despite my satisfaction sailing the seven seas in Rare’s new title, that pirate life isn’t always a charmed one. Sea of Thieves is assuredly a unique treasure of an experience, but if Rare’s charted course doesn’t exactly mark the sweet spot, that “X” isn’t far off. Here are some relatively simple changes, quality of pirate life adjustments, and potential updates that could turn the tides of Sea of Thieves and ensure the game goes down in the record books as the stuff of legend.
Plundering the Depths of Personal Progression
A constant criticism of Rare’s pirate title is the lack of substantial progression. As players progress, their rewards are purely cosmetic items: new hats, hooks, belts, and boots for their salty scallywag of an avatar and an assortment of figureheads, hull paints, and sails for their ships. If you land on a look that you like, some might argue, your purpose for progressing through the ranks amongst the pirate traders is lost at sea. Further, and this criticism is especially true in an era of loot box cosmetics (which luckily this booty bountiful game refrains from), these cosmetics have less to do with personal achievement and more to do with time sank in the game. Consequently, while a sail might look amazing, it never represents the arrival of a menacing marauder myth so much as the approach of someone who’s completed a lot of fetch quests. Not exactly the stuff of a fearsome freebooter legend. Further, this progression favors the game’s somewhat repetitive voyage system involving three similar pirate companies over the far more thrilling moments of emergent adventure: plundering loot from other pirates, assaulting a skeleton fort, or setting sail on a spontaneous quest found in a message in a bottle.
Cosmetics based on personal achievement, in addition to those already present in game, could resolve two of the game’s issues simultaneously by making progression far more personal while giving further purpose and variety to players’ privateering amidst their many voyages. The game currently tracks player reputation and commendations achieved for completing specific tasks amongst the three pirate merchants. What if a general player log was also kept, a captain’s log if you will, tracking player achievements and goals alongside but outside of those specific to the three pirate merchants, achievements incentivized by earned cosmetics? This could give players something more to do alongside their voyages while making the reward far more specific and personal.
Taking the Monster Hunter or Destiny approach, those cosmetics could be fashioned after specific goals. Kill a certain amount of snakes and you get some snakeskin cosmetics. Have a bone to pick with skeletons? Your grave, new appearance reflects that. In that way, players could help build their own legend. Imagine a sail reserved for those who had slain unfathomable counts of players and how much more menacing encountering that crew would be. Or imagine a player and their vessal with a sunken countenance (barnacles, seaweed and all!) that warned the world that loose lips aren’t the only things that sink ships! This kind of change would be fun and simply offer players more, more to strive for, more variety, more reward, and more reason to keep coming back.
These changes also wouldn’t have an impact on game balance, remaining purely cosmetic, though this is another area Rare could consider adjusting their game. As it stands (floats?), progression, as mentioned, is purely cosmetic, meaning new weapons and appearances are purely vanity items and in no way impact gameplay, presumably to maintain player versus player balance. However, this has the negative effect of making progression seem insubstantial in the absence of character growth. The gear purchasable at reputation fifty is no better than that at reputation ten. A new gun is no different from a player’s starting arsenal, everything is simply re-skinned, making the experience feel hollow. If Rare’s primary concern here is player balance, Rare could opt to simply balance PvE and PvP separately, where all new guns do more damage to skeletons exclusively. Better yet, Rare could learn from the surprisingly similar Dark Souls series.
You might scoff, but really compare Sea of Thieves to all of FromSoftware’s Dark Souls titles. Both are substantially comprised of PvE content with a sinister PvP element that could materialize at any moment. In PvP, numbers make a difference, but player creativity and preparation is an equally deciding factor. Perhaps that’s a shallow comparison, but not as shallow as Sea of Thieves progression. Where the titles differ in terms of the merging of PvE and PvP content is where Sea of Thieves could grow. In Dark Souls, players are continually growing, getting new, better gear, and strengthening their character. To account for that, rather than balancing all players and making PvP uninteresting, players are simply matched with players of a similar level. Player level is also far from everything, and, instead, the more clever and better prepared player typically walks away from a fight in Dark Souls, whereas their opponent…well, at least the game warned them to be prepared to die. In any case, the moral here is that Rare could do a lot to improve progression in Sea of Thieves. Whether that means a more personal progression route or working in systems of actual power progression is entirely up to Rare.
The Sea of Griefs and Thieves
An even larger issue than progression is the issue with griefing. In a game called Sea of Thieves where players are encouraged to pilfer, pillage, rifle, and loot, “griefing” becomes trickier to define. According to Wikipedia, a griefer is “a player in a multiplayer video game who deliberately irritates and harasses other players within the game, using aspects of the game in unintended ways.” The problem with Sea of Thieves is that all elements appear to be working as intended and all piratical behavior is permissible. Perhaps Rare neglected to consider the imps on Twitch and the overwhelming immaturity of the multiplayer gaming public in general when developing their game, but some behavior in Sea of Thieves easily fits into the category of irritating and harassing. Ceaselessly hounding a smaller vessel without reason, boarding an enemy ship and killing its owners as they respawn until they’re forced to load back into the game on a different server if they haven’t already smashed their Xbox to bits, the griefs are vaster than the ocean. What’s to be done when one of the core gameplay conceits essentially enables bullies to team up in numbers and prey on the less social?
For starters, any sort of social feature eliminating total player anonymity could rapidly amend some of the most impish behavior, particularly if Rare made it clear that such behavior betrayed the intent of the game. Overwatch, Destiny, and countless other online, multiplayer titles offer a list of all players in a particular lobby, meaning there’s potential repercussions for immature actions and inexcusable conduct while playing. In Sea of Thieves, reporting a player isn’t even an option in game, and gamertags are only visible floating above enemy player’s heads, which is a little tricky to jot down as the player moves while simultaneously avoiding being shot.
A social menu would also allow players an actual opportunity to reach out to one another and at least suggest cooperation for an activity like raiding a skeleton fort. As it stands, connecting with other players in lobby is done solely through a proximity chat feature which most everyone ignores or can’t hear since they’re in party chat. Shy of programming a parlay or limited time truce system, allowing one ship to open a social menu and contact another ship would allow for players to connect with one another without risk of immediate death. Games like Destiny are truly remembered for their rare community-led moments, when the experienced helped newcomers with some challenging, unfamiliar content or where players made new friends to play with despite immense distance between them. Without a social feature, Sea of Thieves will only be remembered as a cold and cutthroat place, appropriate for pirates, but not for social and multiplayer gaming.
Sea of Thieves is best enjoyed aboard a galleon with three close shipmates. However, Rare needs to admit and acknowledge that not all players want to play this way. Sailing a sloop with just one other player means an immediate disadvantage at sea, and any benefits to a smaller vessel are negligible when it comes to encountering a galleon. But why make playing with fewer players more painful? Why not make sloops noticeably faster than galleons, offering smaller crews the same unfavorable outcome should they stay and fight but the potential for a much more favorable outcome should they turn tail and run? Sure, all disadvantages could have been avoided if the player had opted to matchmake, but as mentioned, Sea of Thieves is best enjoyed with a crew of close friends, but if that isn’t available to a player at the time or at all, why tarnish the experience for them? Or perhaps different servers are in order where players are separated by ship size. That’s a bit drastic, but it beats solo and duo players abandoning ship.
Even when playing on equal footing, the ever-present multiplayer can easily ruin the overall experience. Eliminating an attacking, unprovoked enemy vessel impeding an ongoing voyage can add to the sense of triumph as prevailing over skeletons turns to prevailing over other players. Any sense of accomplishment is immediately undercut when that same enemy ship, enabled by forgiving spawn times and placement, sails back into view to continue to harass you and your crew who were just trying to complete a voyage all along. Having to abandon an objective because of an unceasing assault from a multiplayer opponent is nothing but frustrating. The last thing Rare want are voyages, which can already feel like a grind, feeling like a painful waste of time. No sense in crying over lost gold, but player time, that’s far more valuable.
I Could’ve Been King
The most egregious omission of all, the one that makes Sea of Thieves borderline unplayable is the lack of a “King of the World” emote. What’s the point of playing if I can’t stand at the bow of the ship and recreate a scene from Titanic? This was a titanic oversight, and it’s threatening to capsize this game.
All jokes aside, Sea of Thieves is boatloads of fun with the right crew and absolutely overflowing with potential. While more substantial changes could keep players invested in the long term (with the implementations like, taking a page from Destiny, mythical quests into ominous pirate coves and raids into caverns hidden beneath the sea), it’s the small, more immediately implementable changes that’ll keep the game from sinking faster than a bound mutineer with a cannonball in his trousers. I’m enjoying the seas, but the waters are often rough. Hopefully Rare is up to the task of removing some of the salt from these briny, brackish, billowing waves.