On one of the walls In the Gamescom interview room for Sea of Thieves, a quote from a player called ‘Clumsy George’ is brought to my attention. It reads:
“But is this a game alone? I suspect them of making some kind of social project? We 4 or 5, almost perfect strangers were able to work together in 15 minutes like an oiled machine. We talked, we joked and dug up treasures like it was something we’d done for years…”
That quote, said Rare’s Shelley Preston (Senior Designer), Joe Neate (Executive Producer), and Craig Duncan (Studio Head), came from a larger community post George posted about his time in the Sea of Thieves Insider Program, and spoke volumes about the community Rare is trying to create.
“He told us he’d tried to get into multiplayer games before and he’s really struggled,” said Neate, “when he’s tried he’s like, the community hasn’t been positive, they want something, or they haven’t quite appreciated his skills and so he’s been kind of pushed out of any multiplayer games, and he’d given up. And then he played Sea of Thieves, and he wrote this amazingly eloquent post.”
Sea of Thieves wasn’t originally conceived as a pirate game, rather Rare’s ambitions were more simple: the team wanted to make a game where players could create their own shared stories. “We had this vision of bringing a small group of players together and putting them into a world where they’d being encouraged to cooperate,” said Neate. “But there was also a bit of competition, because we thought both of those would lead to really interesting stories. But we wanted the kind of group to be small so there was a really good social dynamic.”
In the interests of encouraging such a social community, Sea of Thieves hasn’t been immediately definable for the larger market. Rare want it to be a journey of discovery for every new player, so they have to work together to figure out how to make it tick. “It’s okay if the objective wasn’t immediate, because being through it together, that’s what helps bond you together,” said Duncan. “It’s, “Aha, I found this rope that does this thing, it pulls the sails down.” And someone else has found the anchor and it kind of bonds you together as a crew. You don’t want to have to know everything before you go in. Finding it together is part of what works you together as a crew.”
Rare has even encouraged socialising in Sea of Thieves as they would in the real world, going so far as to add booze and musical instruments on their individual ships. They’re a social lubricant, said Neate. “Because you drink, and then you play an instrument, and the music draws you together, you’re building a bond, and the amount of people that have become real world friends from playing Sea of Thieves in our alpha programmes is amazing.”
Rare’s ambitions to make the world’s friendliest multiplayer game is admirable, but trolls will be trolls. Although there will be more formal rules and reporting tools for trolling (“of course we have rules, and we’ll look at behaviour, and Xbox does a pretty good job with that too), the team tell me there will also be something of an honour system, which is very in step with the romantic vision of the pirate life.
“We run what we call ‘community hot topics’ on our forum,” said Neate, “and one of those was creating a positive online environment, and what are the behaviours that we expect from the players, and what does the community expect? What do they think is okay, what do they think is not? And they posted and we’ve now got that back in the HQ, and we’re going through and we’re going to retain that into our pirate’s cove. And we’re going to have that on your living room screen, like every player almost has to sign up to this. It’s like a pirate terms and conditions. A code.”
Of course, having a welcoming online community also means breaking down barriers, and the recently announced cross play feature for Sea of Thieves will hopefully do just that. “So we’ve got people in our community that know each other on the forums and are friends, but they haven’t played together yet because someone’s on Xbox and someone’s on PC, and so for the first time those people are going to be able to go and play together online,” said Neate. “And we’re going to be getting the telemetry all week, and seeing how many people are playing, and what the crew mixes are like and what the game is like, and test it and we’ll change anything if we need to.
“Bringing players together in a multiplayer game, creating new bonds, making new friends, that’s this game in a nutshell, that’s what we want to do.”
Lucy O’Brien is Games and Entertainment Editor at IGN’s Sydney office. Follow her on Twitter.