My time with Sea of Thieves's executive producer Joe Neate and Rare's studio head Craig Duncan starts with Craig asking what my experience of the game has been so far — what happened in the few minutes when I'd played?
I gave a quick explanation: my crew — three of us that knew each other a little, and one complete stranger — settled into the roles we'd chosen (for ourselves, but there was no arguing) very quickly. I took the ship's wheel and started telling everyone what to do, maybe my domineering personality coming out in the game.
We looked at the maps and riddles in our inventory, found an island with buried treasure on it, and set sail. All went well on our short journey, until we saw another ship moored nearby — and thought, we can take them. We went in, full speed ahead and guns blazing... and then I crashed our ship and we sank.
Duncan: "Well... everyone's experience is going to be different." But, he says, the Sea of Thieves team always wants it to be fun.
Sea of Thieves isn't brand new — it's been in the spotlight since last year's E3 — but it's changed and improved and iterated regularly, weekly, in the technical alpha it has open to 200,000-odd players. At E3, the team showed off weather, sharks, and firing yourself out of a cannon. Yep.
This is a very different Rare game to the Rare games we've played before. Commonly described as "secretive and seclusive" — thanks, Wikipedia — Rare has traditionally kept quiet about games it has in development until they're ready. A couple of impromptu E3 chats with Mike Chapman, the game's lead designer, make that much clear.
The new trailer was made in-game on a regular server — no god mode or photo mode, no floating camera or time or weather control. 86 tries, it took, to get some parts of the nine-and-a-half minute trailer right. The lightning that strikes the ship as it crests that wave? Entirely by chance. The team's reaction: "Don't f**k up the shot after this, because that won't happen again."
The fact that you're up against different crews in the world that you're in, "That's where the magic happens. That's what makes each game very very different." Did we find a chest, Neate chimes in. I say no, although we knew we were going to search for something buried — it could have been a chest, sure, why not.
We didn't even know what the other ship we saw was doing (they'd actually found a chest, it turns out). No, we just saw them, and thought, we'll have whatever they've got. In our minutes of sailing towards them, I was thinking let's just take their whole ship. It didn't turn out that way, but it could have. "It's a completely fine thing to do", says Neate.
"We've had — some of our islands have massive peaks — and we've had stories where two crews have both gone onto it. And then with proximity chat, they've heard an unfamiliar voice... and then you're trying to communicate with your crew that there's a stranger, but you don't want to talk, because you don't want to reveal yourselves."
Everyone I've talked to after playing Sea of Thieves has one of these stories.
They're usually — like my own — explained with sweeping gestures and florid language; the shark was *this* big. I know the story I've told has become more embellished each time I've repeated it. I don't care, I just want more people to play the game so I can talk to them about it. The game's insiders are writing their own stories, first-person and role-playing, on Rare's messaging boards.
Even just the way the Sea of Thieves team tells its own stories makes it clear that they're just as excited about each game as the punters walking the show floor at E3 and jumping onto the highly coveted demo consoles. Sea of Thieves is coming early next year to Windows 10 PCs through the Store and to Xbox One, and it's safe to call it highly anticipated.
Those small (and sometimes larger) iterations released weekly to players lets Rare get an idea of what's working and what isn't. "We're frequently balancing the game based on player feedback. There weren't enough ship encounters, the skeletons were too hard, then too easy... it's constantly trying to find that right balance and delivering new features."
Melee combat is new, sharks are new. Introducing weapons, Duncan says, meant introducing health, and ways to regain health. "I don't know if you've seen the banana meme... it was coconut for a while, so I'm not sure what that would have turned into. We just had islands, and fruit, and we put fruit in barrels, and that seemed piratey enough."
"Our game's not trying to take itself too seriously. We just want you to embrace it, and to do things as a pirate. We don't need to tell people what pirates do, they have their own version of that."
Opening it up to the masses — relatively, Neate says, sticking to Rare's traditional markets of the UK and US and Australia — gives it the scale to test things where a developer team on its own couldn't, over thousands of play sessions with thousands of people playing. That feedback changes the game as it's being built. But Rare has its own ideas too.
"It's a balance; we've got seven people working just on iterations. We've been transparent about what we're building. But then we've got the third thing, which we call surprise and delight — we've been immortalising some early players in our game. The first player to ever die, his gamertag's engraved in the ghost ship in the game."
The player that died from the most fall damage is commemorated at the bottom of a cliff, two skeleton feet poking up out of the ground. Iterating the game so regularly, with those player events happening all the time, means the lore of the world is the lore that the players have created themselves. It's Leroy Jenkins in WoW, but from the ground up.
Tiny iterative changes, Neate says, can enable the emergent gameplay that makes these things happen. Things like knockback from melee attacks might seem small, but if it's the difference between hitting your opponent and hitting your opponent into the water, Sea of Thieves goes from being a game to an adventure.
"I think the best thing you can ever do as a game designer is to put the ingredients in the game — which might be A, B, C, D, E, whatever they are — and the player takes ingredient A and does it with ingredient D, which creates this whole new thing that you'd never predicted."
Firing yourself out of a cannon is one of those things. "Great design ideas internally" was what made that happen, says Craig. "We've had cannons in the game, we've had players asking if they could put things other than cannonballs into the cannons... but I don't think we'd ever have got feedback saying 'hey, can I put myself in the cannon.'
"The moment they put it in the prototype, and the moment they played it for the first time..." That 86 tries to get some parts of the trailer right? That was the devs firing themselves out of cannons to board an enemy ship.
Everything in the world is dynamic. Neate: "I was listening in on a crew playing yesterday, I was watching the guy play next to me — and he took a cannonball to the head, died straight away. And he's like, 'wait, did a cannonball just hit me?' When you pull off these one in a million things, it's so shareable, and so watchable."
Pointing to a 'wheel of emotion' designed by a psychologist for the studio, Duncan explains that the game runs the gamut from contentment and love to sheer terror, many times during a voyage. But there's a baseline. "Most people have a ton of fun... and what's awesome about that is that it gives us such a great foundation to build upon."