Sea Of Thieves post-mortem interview – the future of online piracy
GameCentral talks to the creators of the Xbox One’s most unusual unique, about its new DLC updates Cursed Sails and Forsaken Shores.
Speaking to Rare’s Joe Neate and Mike Chapman about Sea Of Thieves has been one of our highlights of Gamescom and E3 for several years now. We’ve spoke to them at one or both events since the game’s inception, and even visited Rare HQ just before launch. It’s been fascinating to see the game as it’s been slowly revealed to the public, and they’ve talked about the various ideas and theories behind its unique approach to online multiplayer and games as a service.
And yet we were not looking forward to meeting them at E3 this year. And we’re sure, subconsciously, that’s why this has ended up being our last article from the event (that and it took ages to transcribe). Despite what you might imagine we always feel guilty about giving games a low review score, and we felt particularly bad about Sea Of Thieves.
But as we argued in our review, we felt we didn’t have any choice given the relative lack of content and other launch problems. We do still find it a fascinating and highly entertaining game though and we’re as interested as ever to see what new content and changes will be added in the future. Which are just some of the topics we discussed in our interview. After we got Neate and Champman to promise they wouldn’t hit us…
Formats: Xbox One and PC
Price: £49.99 (free on Game Pass)
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: 20th March 2018
Age Rating: 12
GC: For once I’m not sure I was looking forward to this interview, after the review we gave Sea Of Thieves.
JN: Don’t worry! That’s your job.
GC: Were you surprised by the reviews or were they about what you were expecting?
JN: It’s an interesting one. I think… we know our game’s unique. And it’s had a very successful launch. We’re here, two and a bit months later, and over 4 million players. And we’re now investing more post-launch than even pre-launch, in terms of the actual amount of people on the team and stuff. So, ultimately, it exceeded every single target that we set ourselves… apart from the Metacritic one.
GC: Did you really have a target for Metacritic? You don’t have your bonuses tied to it or something?
JN: No, no.
GC: That’s how it used to work.
JN: I know, I know. I think games as a service must be an interesting challenge to review. I’m interested to get your perspective on it, actually.
GC: I do genuinely feel bad about your review in particular, because we can only review what’s put in front of us at that moment in time. We can go back in six months or a year’s time and re-review the game but I don’t think Metacritic and other aggregators account for that.
JN: No, I think you’re right. But really, by every measure our game exceeded its targets. In terms of whether that was the watchable side, whether it was the amount of players we had in… launch week was crazy. Watching the numbers go up and the amount of people playing and stuff – we exceeded by miles what would ever hit in any scale test during an alpha or beta.
The way we measure ourselves is the amount of players, obviously. It’s a mixture of sales, revenue coming in; it’s Game Pass, it’s how many people are using it on Game Pass. And are we driving conversion to Game Pass, as a strategy for Xbox…
GC: Can you share that percentage?
JN: I can’t share numbers, but we had a really high conversion rate. People who came in as a free trial and then subscribed was so high we got a round of applause [from Microsoft]. But genuinely, a lot of people came in and tried it and then went and subscribed to that service, and that’s a great barometer of health and everything for Xbox. They think it’s a real good strategic thing.
And obviously our watchable numbers, which are all over here [as in previous meetings a wall of the room is plastered with stats and figures from the game – GC], went crazy. My favourite stat on broadcast is that one in 20 players that play Sea Of Thieves streamed the game, which is amazing!
GC: That is impressive.
JN: Definitely you can factor Mixer into that, because it’s mainstream and far more accessible to a console audience. Because you literally just click ‘broadcast’ and you’re doing it. And so by all of those measures, whether it’s monthly active users or whatever, all of those are kind of off the scale.
So we’ve basically had a really successful launch that has allowed to us to go and invest more in the world of Sea Of Thieves. We hear loud and clear that, broadly, people like the Sea Of Thieves experience. And they want more things in that world, they want more goals to go after, they want different threats…
GC: They want more of everything.
JN: We’ve grown our team so that it’s bigger, in terms of investment, than pre-launch because now we’ve made that bridgehead. And I want to come back in a year’s time and I wanna have a wall like this again and I wanna see where all those numbers have got to by then. ‘Cause the average hours played is over 22 hours, which is incredible – it really is. You don’t get that much mileage out of some games in total, and that’s just an average. One person has put 1,400 hours into Sea Of Thieves, which is basically the entire time it’s been out. [laughs]
MC: There’s a lot of players that have put in a thousand hours, a lot.
JN: And The Hungering Deep that we released was a smaller content update that we only had seven weeks to work on. But it landed so well with our players, and they played it in the right way and in the right spirit, and it drove positive cooperation. We just got some data through today that the player encounters ended in ship battles 50% less during the week of The Hungering Deep.
So we basically made our game twice as friendly with the introduction of a quest to go and kill a giant shark. And to drive that kind of interest in social areas is fascinating. Our game is like nothing else. And The Hungering Deep gave us great confidence that we can do something different, we can drive social interaction. And now we’re heading towards Cursed Sails and Forsaken Shores.
GC: But The Hungering Deep was not the original plan for the first DLC?
JN: That’s correct! We changed our entire roadmap based on feedback. [laughs] We sat in a room for about a week…
GC: Why was that? Was that because of the bad review scores or specific player feedback?
JN: I think it was a mixture of things. One was that we had a really successful launch and our players wanted more. But also, we had an expectation for what we thought would be important, but when we sifted through all of the feedback, actually there was a different set of things that players wanted.
Like, an AI ship is something we never wanted to do but actually now, we know that some people don’t always wanna engage in ship combat and so giving people an AI ship that they can go and either team up against or just go and have that ship come on demand… it improves that experience for everybody.
And so making those kind of changes based on a reality of what’s happening in our game is exactly what we should be doing. And it’s why I’m reluctant to ever commit to a roadmap publicly, because it can all change.
MC: It is a unique experience and it is something different and I think it would be foolish to think that elements of it weren’t always gonna be divisive to a certain extent, because it is a new IP and it is different. But I think now we’ve seen the landscape after launch it’s very clear the areas of the game that need attention. And I think that’s informed how we’ve set up the teams, The Hungering Deep to Cursed Sails to Forsaken Shores and the three updates that are going to come after that this year; it’s very much around absolutely hitting the feedback in a really focused way.
So all of that will be a mix of things that players are asking for, that we’re going to implement into the game with that Sea Of Thieves spin, in addition to things that we know are going to surprise people. So we want more variety of quest types, we want new ways to enjoy the game. Which is why we’re bringing in the brigantine ship, the new ship that’s designed from the ground up for three players.
That’s something that players are asking for, that’s something that’s coming in Cursed Sails with the skeleton ships. Our focus right now is expanding the goals for everyone; new things to do, new things to aspire to. And we can’t, for too long, forget our Pirate Legends – that’s the end saga people are heading towards. More people are going to want more things to do when they get to Pirate Legends, so that’s something we’re going to do as well.
And then there’s all the fun stuff that happens in-between – so threats in the world, we’ve done that with the megalodon and skeleton ships. In Forsaken Shores the world itself is a geologically unstable, volcanic region that we call Devil’s Roar. The world itself is a threat and that’s gonna change the adventures that you have.
And then new tools like the row boat. The row boat makes sense in Forsaken Shores, because volcanoes can erupt and rain debris down on your ship and you might need to take cover on an island. But having a row boat in the game is gonna change how you approach the existing world regions, because now a solo player can load up their row boat full of chests and run back…
GC: Will you please stop saying the word row boat. With your Brummie accent it sounds like ‘robot’ which suggests a game that’s almost too good to imagine.
All: [considerable laughter]
MC: [laughs] Pirates and robots?! There you go. [laughs] But to Joe’s point, what we heard loud and clear was the foundation – what Sea Of Thieves was and the fact that it was this different experience – really landed with a lot of people. And that’s why the numbers are the way they are. People want more. The really hard bit, of how do you make a unique game that innovates and feels different, it feels like we’ve done that. Now it’s about enriching all those areas of the game. And that’s what we’re absolutely focused on.
GC: I think the problem with the game at launch is it seemed like the world’s most interesting fish pool, because there’s no depth and you saw everything that was in it almost instantly. I played the review with a number of people and no-one had any fundamental problems with the game, they just wanted more. And yet it sounds like that was a surprise to you, to some degree.
JN: I think we doubled down on the fact that every adventure would be different because of your encounters with other players. That’s where our passion is and the value is.
GC: It’s partly a psychological problem because even though you know that’s true you also know that mechanically you’re doing the same thing again and again.
JN: It’s a challenge, but that doesn’t apply to everyone. Like, that’s not everybody’s experience and everyone’s expectation. Different players have different needs and desires, and there’s a huge player base continually playing Sea Of Thieves and getting everything they need out of this pirate fantasy that we’ve given them.
And when we add new features like the speaking trumpet they then go into the game and they use it in the way that we intended. I don’t know if you’ve seen the videos? The guy that pretended he was the airline captain, and then the people that were Rickrolling others.
GC: My favourite is the ones that say they’re not going to kill you… and then do.
JN: It’s a game that’s gonna keep getting richer, and to begin with maybe that’s not for everyone – the experience that’s there. And some people are gonna need more stuff before they come back or before they dip in. What’s important is that it landed with a lot of players and it resonated and they loved it and they still love it. And I don’t believe you can create something fundamentally new, fundamentally unique that is going to please everybody.
GC: And yet I’ve never spoken to anyone that actively dislikes it. They’re not complaining that the combat isn’t more like Call Of Duty they’re complaining that the skeletons are the only enemies.
JN: I think you have to draw a line in the sand with a game as a service, because you have to put it out at some point. We wouldn’t have made the changes to our roadmap without first releasing the game. And we now have a better plan in terms of knowing exactly what our players want and how they feel. And for us, we knew our plan was always to evolve and update like this way. We’ve always had that confidence and the belief that that’s what we’re gonna do.
GC: I think I said this in the review, but in my ideal world you would’ve got to where you were at at launch and just spent six months adding content. Nothing mechanical necessarily, just more map, more enemies, more quests, etc.
JN: But launch is not the only moment in a game’s lifetime, especially not a game as a service. It’s interesting though, as game creators we read reviews and we read Metacritic, and it was an odd moment in time at the studio. Because you had all this data telling you amazing stuff…
MC: That was a very strange day… we knew there were an incredible number of people coming to play Sea Of Thieves and we saw on one had the data saying, ‘Your game is a massive success!’ and then on the other hand you had the reviews that were telling you something else. And your mind’s going, ‘Well, players seem to be happy and they’re coming back and they’re playing, but critically it’s being received this other way’. And you don’t know how to think about it. I think there was a period of time, of about a week or so, and then once we got past that it was just, ‘Right, let’s go!’
JN: It’s true. Everyone on the team is a human being, and subject to the same emotions…
GC: I’ve already said bad reviews give me no pleasure!
GC: The comparison I keep thinking of is Destiny, even though the only real connection is being games as a service. That started, what, four years ago? And they still haven’t added any new races to it, or substantial new planets or any of the other stuff people actually ask for. It’s just relatively trivial stuff, and I wonder who they’re listening to in order to make those decisions. Are they just hearing what they want to hear from a certain subset of fans? And are you in danger of doing the same thing?
JN: No. [laughs] We are not going to try and tell people what they want. It’s more like a crime scene and it’s our job to work out what people want from the evidence and then make the right decisions. And the thing is we’ve had the clearest vision of this game since the day we started, and it hasn’t wavered.
And so we know what makes it special. But a lot of it is about driving interesting player behaviours, which The Hungering Deep did amazingly. And so now it’s about doing more things like that, that brings players together, in interesting ways, around new content coming into the game. We know players like more story, more lore, and The Hungering Deep scratches that itch. And we know that as we move forward that we need to add that into our quest system.
I can only speak to how we’re set up as a developer and we’ve changed our team structure completely after launch. We’re currently split into three teams, of which each is working on a different content update. And we’re setting up a fourth one that’s starting in July, so there’ll be four teams delivering. And they’re basically going to be leapfrogging each other, so we want to get to a cadence of every six to eight weeks.
So right now The Hungering Deep had seven weeks to deliver, and we brought in a new AI threat and a few small features and stuff. Cursed Sails has about an extra four or five weeks on top of that, because they started at the same time and so you’re gonna see that be a little bit richer in terms of content. And then Forsaken Shores again, and then The Hungering Deep team is already working on the fourth update.
And we plan to do the sixth this year and then just carry on straight into next year. Eventually we’re going to be up to four months of lead time on an update, and then five, and then ultimately six. And if every six weeks we are delivering six month’s worth of content from one of our teams our game is going get so fuckin’ rich! And that’s without even mentioning the smaller events we want to run on a regular basis in-between.
GC: I wonder about this for all games as a service titles, but from a creative’s perspective do you worry that you’ll get in a position where you’re just chasing feedback trends rather than creating something unique of your own?
MC: No, because I think there’s the stuff that people are going to ask for because it makes complete sense in the Sea of Thieves. More enemy variety beyond just skeletons – of course, it makes absolute sense why someone would say that. And we’ll balance that against what else is important for what our players are asking for, versus how we can build on that core vision and build on that core framework of bringing players together in interesting ways.
JN: And we’re always going to be trying new things and trying stuff that we’re passionate about. Because I think the heart of Rare, if there is such a thing, is doing new things; it’s evolving itself as a studio. And that’s what Rare’s done for 33 years.
And now we’ve made this because it’s the game we felt the games industry needed. It’s a different type of multiplayer game and we’re always gonna continue to do that. Whatever we do it’s going to be something new, something unique, something mischievous and fun. That’s what Rare has always done and what we’ll continue to do.
(We’re starting to overrun and the PR people are trying to throw us out)
GC: I should just ask a boring question, quickly: when are you going to add microtransactions?
JN: It’s a future date, TBD. At the moment we’re just focused on adding content.
(Doors are being opened, with the implication that we should be leaving through them)
GC: How long do you two personally see yourselves staying with Sea Of Thieves?
JN: That’s a fascinating question.
MC: It is.
JN: I haven’t even thought beyond this. Because I don’t think we’ve achieved all we set out to do yet. We had a fantastic launch, but have we established this as a service? Have we established this as the huge, next big franchise? I think we’ve given it a pretty good start, but now our goal is to make it a service that lives and breathes and delivers on the promise, and that brings loads and loads more players to this game. There’s a lot more to do for us.
MC: We’ve just created the start of a fantastical pirate world and honestly, the things we can do creatively in this space is limitless. So we’re absolutely as passionate now as we were before launch. More so, really.
JN: Honestly, more so. The Hungering Deep gave us such a spring in our step, as game creators and players. When we came in the next day I went to the meeting that that team was having and just kind of gave them a speech about how I came into work feeling so much more energised because of what they managed to deliver and the player reaction, and playing the night before with strangers.
And they gave themselves a round of applause! Because it was fantastic. So, yeah, I’m more energised now, because we’ve had such a great start. You know, give or take a few little bruises. [laughs]
GC: I’ve already told you I feel bad about the review.
GC: I better go, but it’s been great seeing you – as always.
JN: Definitely, you’re the only one where 30 minutes never seems like long enough.
GC: Thank you.
MC: I hope to see you again soon.