Sea of Thieves’ Mike Chapman on making multiplayer truly cooperative
Multiplayer swashbuckler Sea of Thieves is coming to Xbox One and Windows on 20 March, promising a vast world for its players to act out their dreams of following treasure maps, looting ships and getting blind drunk on grog. Made by British studio Rare, it looks to inject a sizeable portion of levity to proceedings, with players able to sit around playing accordions and firing shipmates out of cannons, as much as embarking on quests for gold.
Making a shared world seem alive is no easy task, especially when you have to wrangle pirates into jolly cooperation. We spoke to Mike Chapman, design director at Rare, about how his team took on the task of creating an ocean of multiplayer piracy in Sea of Thieves.
How did you go about researching the subject matter for the game?
One of the guidelines we set ourselves was that mechanics and features in Sea of Thieves should be believable, but not necessarily realistic. While we actually visited Sir Francis Drake’s galleon, ‘The Golden Hind’ very early in the project, our focus was on getting a general sense of what it feels like to be aboard an old wooden galleon, rather than the actual technicalities of sailing. While we have the theme of pirates, the game is fantastical in nature, meaning that it features a lot of the fantasy pirate tropes that may be familiar if you’ve read classic pirate stories like Treasure Island, watched the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, or even played older games like the Monkey Island series.
I passionately believe that it’s been advantageous to approach the design of the game with fresh eyes as its allowed us to build an experience that lives up to the fantasy of being of a pirate that so many of us already have in our heads or perhaps even daydreamed about while growing up. Sea of Thieves is an experience that allows you to truly play and have adventures as a pirate, while also possessing its own charm and sense of humour. Beyond the theme, our primary focus has been creating mechanics and an overall experience where players truly feel like they are working together.
I’m interested in the brig system, in how players can vote to lock-up disruptive shipmates. How did this idea come about?
With any of the mechanics in Sea of Thieves, we’ve always tried to approach them differently, considering not only how they can serve the social and cooperative heart of the gameplay, but also how they can seamlessly fit into the pirate world and provide the same opportunities for humour as our other mechanics. On one hand, the brig makes a great deal of sense as a place where players go to be punished. On the other hand, it also allows us to challenge one of the accepted conventions of similar mechanics from other games, that being the ‘vote to kick’ option.
“It allows the crew the choice to ignore that player, even drink grog, play instruments near the brig while refusing to let that player out”
The difference in Sea of Thieves is that disruptive players get voted to the brig and they can only be let out if the crew decides so. The only other way a disruptive player can escape is if they themselves manually quit. This not only allows time for the disruptive player to convince the crew that they are sorry and that they’ll never do it again, it allows the crew the choice to ignore that player, even drink grog, play instruments near the brig while refusing to let that player out. We believed that this would shift power back to crew who had been affected by disruptive players, rather than just kicking that player out straight away.
What challenges did you face in striking the balance between procedural and scripted parts of the world? How do you make sure the world feels living?
We’ve strived to create an experience that not only features directed goals in the form of voyages, but one that also provides the chance to just explore, finding quests and opportunities out there in the world. Players have complete freedom to focus on either, or seamlessly move between them as they wish. Players can not only embark on a voyage to find buried treasure, complete merchant contracts or collect bounties on skeleton crews and captains, they can also discover shipwrecks in the world, encounter fearsome storms that threaten the ship, or even perform a daring raid on a skeleton fort.
One of the challenges of delivering this experience has been that we wanted all of this to play out in a shared world, ensuring that the game would play out differently each time – another crew might be exploring for treasure on the same island as your crew, or you might encounter a Kraken engaged in battle with another crew.
One of the core elements allowing of all of this to happen is the frequency that ships encounter each other in the world, especially since players have complete freedom to sail where they like, with no fast travel or shortcuts. This has touched on a lot of areas, such as the fundamental world design, where islands and outposts are, but also the visibility of ships over distance, including the distance that a ship’s lanterns can be seen at night.
It’s been an area where we’ve gotten invaluable feedback and data from real players playing the game in our Technical Alpha, Closed Beta and Scale Tests, but we’re now in a position where we believe we’ve reached the right balance for the release of the game. As with any other areas in the game though, we’ll be continuing to look at data and feedback beyond release as we continue to improve the experience.
To what degree is Sea of Thieves setting out to change the way we think about multiplayer games?
We wanted to build an experience that brought players together and removed the barriers that would ordinarily separate players. From our approach to how all rewards in the game get shared amongst the crew, to how our progression system allows players to share their Voyages with others so everyone can continue to play together, we’ve aimed to provide an experience where players see the natural and intuitive benefits of playing together. At the same time, we want to give players the freedom to play how they want and communicate how they want.
Players can choose to head out in a small crew or even alone in a smaller sloop, adventuring in the same shared world. Players also have the option to use our non-verbal communication system if they wish to communicate with others without using a mic.
“We always believed that if we could make you laugh together, you would be more likely to bond and work with others”
Most importantly though, the fundamental design of the game allows players to truly feel like they are working together, so even though some players may initially choose to play alone, there are many opportunities to make new friends in the world and potentially begin to play as part of a crew. We always believed that if we could make you laugh together, you would be more likely to bond and work with others, which is why the sense of fun and humour is also an important part of Sea of Thieves.
The fact that Sea of Thieves could be a player’s first multiplayer game, and that it could change perceptions around multiplayer, has always been incredibly inspiring to us.
What is it about the myth of pirates that chimes with our collective imagination?
I think pirates represent not only the feeling of freedom, but also the chance to challenge and bend the rules. It’s fascinating how pirates as a theme always resonates with younger people, but I think the feeling of freedom to do what you like and go anywhere the wind takes you on a vast open ocean is extremely appealing.
Being part of a crew, sharing adventures both on the sea and on islands, as well as that feeling of just being a bunch of friends against a world of dangers and opportunities is really what Sea of Thieves is all about.