Scanning the Horizon: What Next for Sea of Thieves?
We speculate on what the future could hold for Rare's pirate-themed online sandbox.
Update: Since we published this article Rare has gone into a lot more detail about their plans for the game moving forward. To find out more about those plans simply follow this link.
Sea of Thieves is a great game, but since it set sail a couple of weeks ago Rare's nautically-inclined online adventure has drawn fair criticism over the lack of content available to players at launch. While there's plenty to do, not all of the activities are particularly unique or memorable (we're looking at you, Merchant Alliance). There's also a distinct lack of story to go with all the plundering and naval engagements, which also proved a stumbling block for certain sections of the game's fledgling community. That said, the foundations that Rare has built for this ongoing concern are rock solid, and given the right support in the coming weeks and months (maybe even years), we envisage Sea of Thieves enjoying a long and fruitful voyage aboard the good ship Xbox. But what form might this support take? We've been contemplating that very matter during the last few evenings of swashbuckling adventure, and here in no particular order are the fruits of our mental labours.
A story in a bottle: We were actually a little surprised that Sea of Thieves didn't launch with a short introductory solo campaign. It would have made for a great way to introduce players to the mechanics and features they'll be using throughout their various adventures. A short single-player story encompassing the three mission types and lasting just a handful of hours would have also given a bit of context to the game in general, further grounding you in the world. The NPC characters you meet in the outposts are rather underused too, so this would have been a nice way of giving them a bit more screen time. Still, there's still plenty of time for Rare to come up with something that would do this job for newcomers, and seasoned seafarers would no doubt like a new activity to keep them busy for an evening or two.
Wildlife: We know that Rare is planning on adding pets to the game in the near-ish future, and we heartily approve of that (after all the office cat here is called Nelson, after the admiral). Cats, parrots, and monkeys all make perfect sense given the setting, but we've captured so many pigs by now that we can't help but wish that we had the option to keep one around and save it from whatever fate has in store for it once we've dropped it off with the Merchant Alliance. There's room for even more animals - both above and below the water line - and we'd love to see rats leave our sinking ships, dolphins cresting the waves as we move between islands, and whales appearing alongside the ship during quieter moments. Hell, maybe even shoals of jellyfish could show up every now and then to make swimming to shore a bit of a challenge. The world of Sea of Thieves already feels alive, but that doesn't mean that Rare can't take it further.
New things to stab: Fighting other players and skeletons (and slashing away at the odd giant tentacle) is all well and good, but we're also looking forward to battling new enemies out in the wider world. We've seen hints that there might be more to the merpeople than simple fast travel for stranded players. Could we start fighting with them in order to access underwater areas containing new loot? That'd certainly make sense and offer a new challenge, expanding on the danger offered by the sharks currently patrolling the waters around islands. We've also heard mention of giant crabs, but there are plenty of other enemy types Rare could look to as time goes on and they want to freshen things up. We could even see larger creatures make an appearance in the future, giving the Kraken a break and helping preserve its mystery. Give us the odd killer whale to contend with and we'll gladly rise to the challenge, ain't that right Ahab?!
Competitive treasure hunting: We love the blend of PvP and PvE that you find in the fort raids, where crews have to work together to take down high-level enemies before fighting it out between themselves for the grandest of prizes, and this is something we'd love to see explored in other ways. Imagine a mode where a specific branch of the Merchant Alliance was calling for a certain type of chicken to be delivered within a relatively small window of time, bringing players together to battle over speckled hens or pink piglets, with boats all arriving carrying their precious clucking cargoes while sneaks and thieves too lazy to source their own livestock lay in wait on the outpost in question. Or what about treasure hunts that involve crews searching for different clues on the same islands, crisscrossing each other while trying to problem solve their way through a race to the finish and some exclusive or rare loot. Some of Sea of Thieves' best moments are when players come together, either in bouts of friendly rivalry or audacious acts of skulduggery, and we'd love a few new activities that engineered these encounters with a touch more frequency.
Solo piracy: Sea of Thieves is built to accommodate between one and four players (more if you band together for a raid), but the emphasis is very much on teams of three or four venturing off together in search of booty. Two players can grab a smaller sloop, and that's still a great way to play the game, but all of our solo experiences have paled in comparison to our team-based efforts. You're simply too vulnerable against the bigger ships, and one small mistake during an encounter with a fully-manned galleon will almost certainly spell disaster for the solo player. That said, we'd still like to play more solo Sea of Thieves, particularly if it was a little less punishing, and we can think of a couple of ways Rare could achieve this, either via sloop-only servers or even some kind of last pirate standing mode. The latter could see players start at the periphery of the map and sail to a designated island to fight over the treasure waiting there. With a slowly shrinking play area and a few environmental dangers thrown in for good measure, we can see a mode like this working brilliantly. Everybody's taking a bite out of the Battle Royale apple, but we think Sea of Thieves is perfectly positioned to deliver an incredible variant of this super popular game mode. To be fair, Rare wouldn't have to restrict a game type like this to solo players, and alternative options for two and four-player teams would also be warmly received, but for lone sea dogs, it would certainly be a great way to play that leveled the proverbial playing field.
Distractions and pub games: Sometimes you're going to find yourself stranded on an island waiting for a lift with nothing but a few minutes to spare, and during moments like this we think Rare could give players a couple of distractions to keep them busy. Over the years there have been a number of games within games - Gwent from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt immediately springs to mind - that offer quality experiences while keeping you immersed in the world, and we think Sea of Thieves would benefit from something similar. Imagine sitting in the pub waiting for your friend to finish their dinner while you play a hand of solitaire with a tankard of grog by your side, or even two crews sat across the room, fingers on triggers while two captains gamble gold during a game of cards. Mini-games wouldn't need to be restricted to playing cards either, and we can envisage dice working well, and what's a trip to the beach without taking a ball with you?!
A bounty on their head: We've all had it done to us, and most of us have done it to someone else, but there aren't many things more frustrating than pulling into port with a big haul of chests to cash in, only for a bigger crew to overwhelm you and steal your loot. While we wouldn't change this dynamic for all the grog in paradise - after all, what's a pirate game without plenty of piracy - but what about a system whereby the crews who cash in the most chests/skulls/livestock that they didn't themselves earn, could over time get a bounty on their heads that only clean-nosed players can cash in? Not everyone wants to rob every player they meet, and for those who are that way inclined, it might be preferable to hunt down ne'er-do-wells rather than steal from other hard-working pirates. There are a bunch of ways that Rare could facilitate this, and we can't wait to see how the PvP part of the game evolves over time, with bounties potentially further incentivising player battles and creating a new dynamic for renegade players to contend with. It'd also give the meanest of pirates something to think about before they take out that lonely sloop as it rests anchored next to an island, as well offering wronged players the chance for a little payback.
Loot and customisation: We love our hard-earned gear, but that's not to say that there couldn't be more choice from the vendors. For starters, we'd like more options when creating a character at the very start of the game (and for existing players, maybe the chance to refine their avatars when new features come online). Beyond that, we'd like to see more cosmetic items unlock when certain criteria have been satisfied (it shouldn't all be about gold, after all), and maybe even some extremely rare loot hidden away in the game for a handful of lucky players to find organically. A more accessible way of personalising your pirate would be tattoos, and having someone on the outposts to ink players with enough credits could be fun. Beyond skull and bone tattoos, gold-encrusted peg legs, and luxurious eye patches, we'd also like to see more customisation options for galleons and sloops added further down the line. We're not sure how Rare can do it so the seas aren't awash with giant penis-emblazoned sails (some sort of approval system, mayhaps?) but it'd be excellent to create your own bespoke livery. They could even send us out in search of the materials via special missions. However they do it, we'd love the chance to really dive deeper into the customisation of our pirate and ship. Given how Rare has prioritised cosmetics over RPG-like progression, we imagine that the studio is cooking up lots of ideas about how they can facilitate greater player expression, but only as long as it's within the spirit of the game.
What we know for sure: While Rare has been understandably tight-lipped about its intentions for the game in terms of content, we do know a few things about the studio's upcoming plans. We know, for example, that cosmetic-only microtransactions are on the horizon (the aforementioned pets), and that there are some closed doors on the outposts that will most likely house new factions and/or vendors. Then there are some technical adjustments coming, such as much-needed private groups so teams can hold a place for a friend, and revisions to the brig system which are only going to improve the experience for people joining games with established crews (the stories of players imprisoning newcomers and then sinking the ship or throwing vom-bombs at their victims are rather disconcerting). Rare has built Sea of Thieves with constant iteration in mind, and the studio is planning on making regular tweaks and content updates moving forward. In a recent GDC talk it was outlined how the focus is going to be on small but regular updates as part of a "continuous delivery" of new content for players. That being the case, the future looks bright for Sea of Thieves and its players, with Rare committed to expanding the experience in new directions. There's work to be done to freshen up certain parts of the game, but the studio has also put down foundations that can be built on for years to come. One thing's for sure, we're going to be with them on their journey for the long haul; while it's not perfect, this sandbox of piracy offers a unique and immersive experience unlike anything else out there, and in a sea of clones and sequels, that's a rare thing indeed.