Sea of Thieves has rebooted a great gaming debate that’s been around for ages, but has grown increasingly intense after the release of games like No Man’s Sky. How much content does a game need to be successful?
I’ve been playing Sea of Thieves every opportunity I can find since the game’s launch. Sometimes I sail alone, but I also sometimes team up with friends and we guide a galleon across the dangerous seas. After about 50 hours in the game, I’m eager to see what Rare gives players next. Will we see sirens? Giant crabs? Maybe ghost ships?!
That being said, the fundamental design philosophy of Sea of Thieves is golden, and I’m scared to see the experience get bogged down under a wave of unrelenting content.
In order to understand the joy many of us are getting out of Sea of Thieves, let’s revisit my time in another large-scale game heavy with player interaction: Grand Theft Auto Online.
I have only had one organic GTA Online experience that felt like I was playing a game in the most classic sense. Two players, riding tricked out bikes, chased me down in my sports car and dragged me out of the driver’s seat to beat me with pipes. I’d punch them away, get back into my car, and speed off. They didn’t open fire until I shot at them; we spent an hour just playing cat and mouse.
This was an experience I chose to have. I was fully aware that at any time I could drop off the radar, call in my armored car and be immune to their fire. Or I could get into my Avenger and turn their mini bike gang into a smear on the San Andreas pavement. Or I could call in an orbital strike.
I only had a fun, dynamic experience with my new biker friends because we agreed to equal terms, ignoring the wide selection of tools the game itself had to offer us.
Sea of Thieves is, by contrast, a completely equal experience. Everything is based off skill, or at least ingenuity. Galleons and sloops both have distinct strengths and weaknesses that allow them to go toe-to-toe. Pirates lurk around giant rock outcroppings, next to carefully planted barrels of gunpowder, waiting for unaware ships to roll by. The Kraken’s grasping tentacles, emerging from inky black seas, can snare your enemies (and even be weaponized). Fortresses, marked with their flaming skull clouds, are a hotbed of pirate activity and PVP.
There are fewer toys in the sandbox, so it’s up to us to put them to creative use.
Players often suggest new content for Sea of Thieves, which makes sense: The world invites imagination. The mistake that players make thinking that Sea of Thieves would benefit from more systems.
What if there was a crafting system? What if there were new ships, each with a series of stats that would encourage more player choice? What if there were enemies with MMO boss style mechanics? What if ...
Sea of Thieves, despite the lack of content, manages to get plenty of mileage out of its simple, accessible systems. Once you get past the lack of tutorial and understand how the game works, playing it feels natural and organic. Adding more UI elements, complex systems, stats and controls is the wrong way to go. Complexity for its own sake completely works against the goals of the game.
The last dozen voyages I’ve sailed on have all been different. One trip had two of our crew members running around a fortress island, trading off the key, while two people on the galleon worked overtime to sink an enemy crew. Another had us gather up gunpowder and ram a foe out of spite for sinking us and crowing about it in open voice chat. We danced on our deck as they sank and played a pirate song on our accordions. It mingled nicely with their screams and curses over open voice chat. Still another voyage ended with an alliance between three ships, and six pirates gathering at Sanctuary Outpost to trade loot, dance and play music together.
Meanwhile, I would be presented with a cornucopia of choices if I were to log into World of Warcraft. I could do daily quests, run old raid content, sign up for looking for raid adventures or level up an alt. I could even play Pokémon or Plants vs. Zombies with a World of Warcraft skin!
But how many of those experiences would be meaningful? Sea of Thieves doesn’t offer a wide ocean of content and curated experiences carefully crafted by developers, but it does offer a deep well that leads to amazing experiences that feel ripped right out of a pirate novel.
Creating more systems would give the player more to do without having to work as hard, but it would erase the sense of interaction and fun that the game currently provides. Think of it this way: Sea of Thieves is a game that should always offer more toys, but should ideally rarely offer more rules.
Part of the problem with Sea of Thieves is similar to the No Man’s Sky launch fiasco: expectations versus reality. Could Sea of Thieves use more content? Absolutely; the fan base is right to hope for updates from Rare soon.
Are concerns about the $60 price tag compared to the game’s content at launch reasonable? Of course, but value is a pretty subjective thing for games. Does Sea of Thieves need to offer hundreds of hours of content at launch? No, and I don’t think we’ve seen everything the game has to offer yet.
It’s reasonable to avoid Sea of Thieves if you’re not happy with the current amount of PvE content, but getting to that point without ruining what the game does well is going to be a tricky job. Games like Grand Theft Auto Online and World of Warcraft already offer players the chance to do everything. What Sea of Thieves currently offers is the chance to spend time with other players, and that’s more rare than you’d think.