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Sea of Thieves

Cursed Sails: Rare on alliances and betrayal on the Sea of Thieves

We parleyed with Rare ahead of the launch of Cursed Sails, the next major content update for Sea of Thieves.

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Sea of Thieves set sail earlier this year and while it launched with what some considered a skeleton crew in terms of content, the pirate-themed online adventure has attracted more than five million players since release, proving that the game's early success is but a drop in the proverbial ocean.

In the wake of the game's release in March, players have been taking down quests and skeleton forts, digging up chests aplenty, and transporting seemingly infinite numbers of animals between outposts. There has also been a major content update in the form of The Hungering Deep, which introduced a handful of new gameplay mechanics and a monstrous ship-chewing megalodon.

Now, however, it's take for more new content to set sail on the game's public serverse, with the Cursed Sails update landing today (July 31) on Xbox One and Windows 10 PC. It brings with it features such as AI-controlled skeleton ships and new mechanics designed to instigate more cooperative adventures. Ahead of the appearance of this new update we were lucky enough to catch up with two of the key developers behind the game, Joe Neate and Mike Chapman. We opened our interview by asking about player retention and the growth of the community.

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Joe Neate: It's been fascinating, this journey. We're like four months in now and, I won't go into numbers around all of our players ... obviously we had a fantastic launch in terms of amount of players, of awareness and everything else ... We beat all of the targets we set ourselves for that launch period and so since then that gave us the confidence and the right, I guess, to double down on what we'd built and to go and see how far we could take this and see how much we could make of the opportunity. So we have an incredibly healthy player base in terms of numbers, in terms of ... we look at weekly actives as our most relevant stat because of the way that people play a game like Sea of Thieves. Maybe some will play it once a week, or they'll come at it at the weekend, they'll all group up as friends. Obviously some are much more active than that but that's kind of the number we look at. And we look at how many people come and play the Bilge Rat adventures ... what does our weekly actives look like when we do a big time-limited campaign and introduce new features like this.

But, yeah, we have an incredibly healthy player base from a numbers perspective, but also from a kind of culture perspective, and what our community is and that they understand the game that we've made. The different types of stories that we're really starting to see come out of Sea of Thieves ... My favourite at the moment is this Loot and Lore quiz show that's being run regularly by a Twitch streamer in the community who just regularly goes into games, finds people, and then sets them challenges and rewards them with gold and treasure that they've earned in that session and stuff, and it's endlessly creative and it's endlessly fun - it's just one example of all the amazing things we're really starting to see people do with our game.

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So not only is our game getting richer by the new features that we're bringing into it with our updates like The Hungering Deep and The Cursed Sails and The Hidden Shores and beyond, it's getting richer in terms of the players and what they're doing, and the breadth of players from pirate legends who are going out there and adventuring and taking new people on legend quests and giving them that amazing experience and giving back to players, to the people who are coming up with all these crazy kind of things. There's someone who started a series David Attenborough soundalike videos where he's narrating from the Sea of Thieves, and it's genuinely amazing - I think he's going to be doing one with shark week this week.

By every metric, but also by the... I think culture is the word, of our community, of our player base, all of the signs are amazingly positive. So as developers myself, Mike and the rest of the team, we're just so excited about: where can we take this? How far can we take it? How big can we make it? Whilst still maintaining the core of our game, the core vision of this new fun, welcoming type of multiplayer game that does things very differently, that can be multiplayer for maybe people who don't dip into other multiplayers, who don't like overly competitive stuff. There's something for everyone I think in Sea of Thieves.

Mike Chapman: Experientially, everyone in the community is at different stages of their journey in Sea of Thieves. Some players are coming in through Game Pass, some people are purchasing the game right now, some players are pirate legends, some players are still on that journey to becoming pirate legends. It's critical for us that all areas of the game get richer at the same time. Our approach, that you can see in Cursed Sails, is about ... for some players we want to offer new ways to play. Players who play with two other friends in the Brigantine, the three-player ship that comes with Cursed Sails is going to bring value for them. We want to add new goals for players. So new goals not only for players on the journey to legend, but for pirate legends themselves. Offering new things to enrich the journey like new tools like the cursed cannonballs, these things in the world that will enrich your encounters between the AI but also real players' ships and real players in the world, and these new threats in the world through the skeleton ships. So our approach with Cursed Sails and with releases beyond it is that all areas of the game need to get richer at the same time because everyone is at different stages of that journey.

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How has the changes you've made impacted on the original activities that were in the game on day one?

Mike: In a massively positive way. Everything that Joe referred to originally is true in the sense that what we found initially after release is that PvP encounters, scenarios between ships that ended in PvP, were significantly more common ... It's really fascinating when you see a lot of big streamers played the game and continue to play games like Fortnite for example, and they bring in their huge audiences and it's like the gameplay they gravitate towards is gameplay between ships, that kind of combat gameplay. What we added in Hungering Deep are incentives for players to work together, and again building on that with the Bilge Rat adventures, we've seen in data, not only anecdotally but hard data, that during that week of Hungering Deep, the seas were twice as friendly, that encounters between players' ships were half as likely to lead to a combat scenario because players had tangible reasons to work together.

I think that's the thing that's so fascinating about Sea of Thieves, because it is shared-world, every little mechanic that you add, every little goal that you add, impacts on player behaviour ... it's more than just the mechanics, it's the psychology of how players approach it, that changes the balance of behaviour in that shared world. And as we're seeing there, as players settle down into those Sea of Thieves activities, we're seeing a much broader mix of activities across our player base, where players are playing it and they're working together, sometimes they're double-crossing, sometimes they're getting into combat, but it's a much more balanced way to play.

And we'll hopefully build on that further in Cursed Sails with the addition of alliances where players can now not only make these emergent alliances, they can formalise it by raising their flags in their crow's nest so they can share rewards in the game. So more incentive to have these different types of encounters between players. So it's been incredibly positive the kind of direction we're going in, and then seeing that impact on player behaviour in the world.

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Joe: And I think the thing is with each and every one of these things that we do, we can test mechanically: does this thing work in the studio? But you have to test with a player base of so many players out there in the real world to see how they play with the social mechanics and the direction we put in, because you learn each time how you can influence player behaviours. One of the most interesting things for The Hungering Deep was that the location where Merrick was in The Hungering Deep became this social hub for players to meet that were either at the start of their quest, at the middle, or looking for someone to go and take a megalodon down with. We hadn't really predicted that. We predicted that people would crew up and work together, but we hadn't predicted that this would become this point where everyone met.

Then we did the skeleton thrones, the first Bilge Rat adventure a couple of weeks later. We put in some of the thrones you have to do on your own, some of them you have to do with others, so you have at least one other person from another crew. But what we didn't put in for that that in hindsight would have actually made it better, we could have directed players to the first one, or one where we wanted people to meet that was a dual one, so almost have the Bilge Rat guy tell people "hey, these skeleton thrones are in the world and everyone seems to be meeting up around this one to begin their adventure" because it would have helped drive people together. But we only really found that out in hindsight when we got something back from people about how some where struggling to find players to do the dual ones with because not everyone was doing it. And we've put the Bilge Rat flag in now as well, so you can fly that flag and let people know that you're on the Bilge Rat adventure when they're looking through the spyglass.

So each time we do one we learn more and we know that we want a mix of things you can do as a solo player, some you can do just as a crew, and some you can do with multiple crews, and about having that balance. But, yeah, each time we learn and with Cursed Sails we've built in a load more replayability. There's loads of reasons to go and take down and do the campaign events multiple times, taking down ships in different ways, working together with other crews in different ways - because players were really clamouring for replayability. Because, again, with The Hungering Deep players were like: "yeah, this is awesome, but I want reasons to do it again, I want reasons to take down the mega again because it's a great experience, but give me goals, give me rewards around it." And so it's just a constant learning experience and it's absolutely fascinating because it's all around player behaviour and players in our world and how they're getting along together, and what little leavers and tweaks we can make to bring them together in interesting ways.

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What about solo players and making sure they still have a positive experience?

Mike: From an experiential perspective there's multiple facets to that. As you can imagine any feature or tool that we add to the world, we always think about it from a solo player's perspective. I mean a great example of that is something coming in a future update, for example, things like the rowboat that has got value for a crew, but for a single-player they can now load up all their treasure into a rowboat and now make one journey back to trade it all in. But the key thing is that anything we do around bringing players together and broadening the interactions between players has a massive impact on solo players. More reasons for solo sloops to meet each other in the world and have a sense of a shared enemy, to be able to formalise the alliance with alliances in Cursed Sails, more reasons that they've got to work together for a shared reward. And that may be the start of a new friendship in Sea of Thieves, that players meet someone through one of their Bilge Rat adventures and through one of our campaigns like Cursed Sails, and then that becomes someone that they can play with.

What Cursed Sails features are you most looking forward to seeing the community interact with?

Mike: The stuff that you've seen in the trailer are the big things, so I won't waffle for ages, I'll leave some of that for Joe... One thing that we're incredibly passionate about is the idea of the introduction of alliances ... it's a physical mechanic, two ships within a certain region raise the alliance flag, that alliance is then formalised. Which means they can see each other on the map and they share rewards. So there's a tangible way in the game that players can formalise that relationship. And the fact that it's there and players can see the benefits makes that behaviour more likely. Thematically it makes sense in Cursed Sails because there's this shared threat of these skeleton ships that have been added to the world. So ships crewed by skeletons, and as part of the campaign there's these battles that take place in the world where it's essentially players versus the skeletons, where there are these battles in each of the world regions that with the alliances the players have this functionality, this capability to then crew up and take on this shared threat. So it's going to be fascinating to see players using alliances to solve this campaign together, but it will feel really natural because players can form and break alliances really easily, and this sense of these uneasy alliances where you can still hurt each other but there's a sense of a shared reward. I think alliances will not only have a massive impact on Cursed Sails, because it's thematically appropriate for the campaign, but the fact that players can then form alliances to go do skeleton forts or form alliances and then go do quests together and sail together in these fleets; I think it's going to have a massive impact on Cursed Sails, and the core experience afterwards.

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Joe: Yeah, I was going to pick the same one to be honest. It's one of those features that mechanically is quite simple, when you look at the nuts and bolts it: it's raise flag, another crew raise flag, you can choose the go and work together. But then the depth of stories that will lead to, especially over time as people start using it more interesting ways and start betraying each other and things; you're just going to see lots of interesting stories come out of it. And I think whenever we put something into the game that introduces the potential for interesting stories, that's what excites us the most.

Of course you've got these great big spectacles of skeleton ships, and they're going to be like the megas now, where for the campaign it's a targeted thing to go out and battle them. But then now in the world, you're just out sailing and you see a meg circling and maybe she's going to attack, maybe she's not. And so the skeleton ships are going to add that to the world too in terms of there's just going to be things that you can encounter. They're all very different things but they all add to the experience in their own different ways, and I think that's what I love about these updates. We're bringing a selection of stuff in, it's going to be great fun during that time in the campaign because you've these clear goals to go after and clear rewards to get, but from that point on the experience is just richer. I love this approach that we're taking to the way that we're updating Sea of Thieves, because we had to think long and hard about what is the right way to update a game like this, and doing it in this way with introducing some story and some lore wrapped around features, and then it just enriches the broader game from that point onwards. I think it works really nicely.

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Before release you talked about the addition of paid-DLC and pets. What's the status of that.

Joe: It's on the back-burner for the time being. We've just been looking to enrich the experience a lot and kind of maintain that really healthy active player base, and keep growing that experience and keep looking at giving new players new reasons to either come back if they've played in the first month and then disappeared or whatever, or people who haven't yet played it and want to come in. So that's our focus now. But we do ultimately want to put pets in, and it's funny ... we get lots of requests for us to add them from our community knowing full well that they're going to be part of the post-sales monetisation business, but people are really keen on pets and stuff and it's kind of odd where I'm like "thanks for the question but we're not quite ready to add them yet, we're not quite ready to find ways for you to spend money."

Ultimately, for Sea of Thieves to succeed, there's lots of different ways that we look at success and obviously weekly actives and monthly active users is one, the success of streaming and on Mixer, and how many people are playing via Game Pass - all of these things that are Xbox strategy stuff. So there's loads of different ways that we measure success but obviously revenue is another one, and so we do plan on bringing in pets still as part of our post-sale monetisation, and we're just figuring out exactly where that fits on our roadmap at the moment. So obviously we've talked about, obviously The Hungering Deep's released, Cursed Sails is coming up, then there's Forsaken Shores. Having talked about what's beyond that, and we're kind of figuring out where it lands in that time frame of the updates beyond the ones we've announced so far. So we'll have more to share on that in a little while, we've always been very open about the fact that this is what we want to do, but we just want to add it when it feels like the time is right.

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