I’m sailing on a brigantine with two of Rare’s developers, Executive Producer Joe Neate and Senior Designer Shelley Preston. We’re discussing an upcoming internal showcase Microsoft is holding, where studios under the first party banner show off the community responses to their game and highlights that have been shared across social media. Neate and Preston know one of the clips they’re intending to share, and they can’t help but giggle a little as they discuss it. The video has some incredibly salty language, but it manages to capture the essence of Sea of Thieves in such a delightful way. If it wasn’t for the constant f-bombs, you could almost picture it as a television spot.
Sea of Thieves has largely lived off those cinematic moments. The first two DLC packs, The Hungering Deep and Cursed Sails, delivered short campaigns that led up to epic moments packed into a short period of time. In The Hungering Deep, you eventually faced off against the massive megalodon, and a small patch of ocean churned with blood and chaos as player ships desperately allied against the massive, toothy threat. In Cursed Sails, player ships and skeleton crews carefully maneuvered around each other as the cannons bellowed and boarding parties clambered aboard the derelict vessels in a vain attempt to sink them.
While The Hungering Deep and Cursed Sails felt like levels that added onto the great game, Forsaken Shores feels more like a standard expansion pack: more content, and the base gameplay extended into a new area, with new mechanics. The catch is that Forsaken Shores feels more lateral; it has pros and cons you have to weigh, as opposed to being the immediate choice, even for long-time players. Forsaken Shores opens up a new area of the map: the Devil’s Roar, which comes with flashy volcano explosions and earthquakes and loot that has twice as much value.
Devil’s Roar content is more rewarding, but it’s also more difficult and different enough that I’m having just as much fun and profit sailing around in the base map as I am exploring the new region. It’s worth noting that Forsaken Shores did bring new content to the entire game, regardless of where you choose to play, including the rowboat, a new set of achievements, and a new mission type.
At first, the extra loot suggests you need to go to the Devil’s Roar, but you never spawn there. It seems to be a design flaw at first; you need to spend a few minutes sailing across the map to get to the new content. Why can’t I just start there? The answer is that Devil’s Roar’s constant environmental hazards and more difficult terrain make it something that is opt-in, and furthermore, it’s not always the right choice to suit your gameplay wants. The breadth of experience is wider, with base game cargo runs being some of the calmest and most serene gameplay yet, while a Devil’s Roar mission literally rains fire down on you liberally while you fight harder enemies and try to keep your ship afloat.
There’s a lot about Sea of Thieves that is picked up through multiple play sessions or hanging out with the community, and Preston and Neate both acknowledge that this is a strength of the game ... but right now, largely a weakness. In future updates, the team will be creating more tutorial and on-boarding content. For now, players often use out of game guides or rely on other players to show them the ropes.
“Everything we do,” Neate says, “is trying to build upon that base experience, layer it and layer it and make it richer.” Devil’s Roar feels the most like a traditional expansion pack in that it literally expands the map and creates a new section of the world, but there are plenty of achievements that bring you back to the base map.
“We listen a lot to the community,” Preston says. Sometimes that means sharing a YouTube video like the one shared above around the office, but Preston notes that the team checks basically every community hub. “There are so many experiences and stories that we never could have predicted.” While some of the community ideas are a bit out of scope — Preston laughingly shares a story of a convention fan who eagerly asked if airships might be coming to the game after a developer lovingly spoke at length about the time and effort the Rare team put into navigating water on a ship — others are folded into the future plans.
Still other parts of the game return to the forefront after being left behind. Seaports and trading hubs, the new small-scale stores that offer discounted items, were originally meant to be part of the base game. Now, the sea is littered with smaller shops outside the outposts, and the Merchant Alliance Cargo Runs means that each island has an NPC on it to pick up or distribute goods to cargo runners. The world feels substantially more alive as a result, and the Rare devs take pride in the fact that fans find the characters as charming as they do.
At one point, they ask me to pull over and chat to a particularly popular seaport host whose conversation options are littered with puns. (Neate and Preston are both clearly very proud of how bad the puns are.) There’s one option where I can ask her what a pirate’s favorite letter is. My one regret is that after she cuts me off with a hearty “ARRRRRR”, I can’t tell her that nay, it be the sea. It’s not exactly a massive world, teeming with life, but it’s a big improvement over the relatively quiet Sea of Thieves we had to explore at launch. Even better, it suggests that there’s more to come.
While Devil’s Roar is a fantastic, fiery (and an occasionally frustrating, due to the frequency of those volcanoes) addition to the game that feels like a legitimate expansion, it puts Sea of Thieves into an interesting spot. In some ways, the game feels the least complete it has yet — not because of technical issues, or lack of content, but because there are systems that are clearly there in anticipation of more to come. For instance, the inventory system is a little less elegant and a little larger to accommodate Cursed Cannonballs ... but we also know more tools are coming, including new kinds of foods. Cargo Runs fulfill a pirate experience I’ve wanted since launch, with bringing valuable supplies through dangerous waters to places like the smugglers den of Thieves’ Haven ... and not only are they a whole new gameplay loop, but they allow players to pick up multiple kind of missions from one faction.
The base game of Sea of Thieves had far less content, but it was elegant; it was less obvious where the new content would coming from. Indeed, the first two expansion packs felt like chapters more than massive changes to the base world. Forsaken Shores cements Sea of Thieves as a must-play sandbox, but it’s also intriguing because it makes me wonder where the game will be in six months to a year. I’ve loved Sea of Thieves since its launch, but for the first time, I’m aware of how much potential the game has to grow and change. Devil’s Roar isn’t perfect, but it’s a fantastic first step towards expanding the game’s boundaries, and I’m strapped in to see where Rare takes us next.