Sea of Thieves is, at its core, a game that encourages players to dive into the sea and experiment with its few defined rules. There’s very little PvE content in the game at the moment — although the content roadmap promises to address that — and so the meat and potatoes currently comes from interacting with other players.
The thing is, there aren’t many mechanical systems for playing with other pirates on the high seas. There are text and voice chat options, which are helpful. Your ship also comes equipped with cannons that allow you to sink another ship, and crews will use explosive barrels and boarding parties to ensure a successful attack. Yes, attacking each other is also an effective way to communicate with others.
The ship combat in the game can be enjoyable, but things really get interesting when pirates choose to deal with peaceful trading, alliances and interactions that don’t focus on firing a blunderbuss into some poor sap’s face.
Ship captains have the perfect word for opening negotiations: “Parley!” When a galleon is bearing down on an opponent, the captain of the weaker vessel will occasionally call for parley.
These cries would usually go unanswered in the early days of the game, as the stronger ship ruthlessly shelled and then looted the enemy vessel. But parley is becoming more sophisticated as the meta-game evolves and players look to find their own fun.
A sloop can outrun a galleon ... as long as the galleon’s three sails don’t catch the wind. The larger sails and potential top speed of a galleon means a sloop can run but they can rarely stop. These encounters used to always end with a long chase and a bloody battle, but sailors are figuring out that it’s easier to rob a willing target than it is to sink a running one. And why stretch out that kind of battle when both sides can get something out of cooperating, especially if everyone feels like the outcome is more or less certain?
Calling parley opens negotiations, as long as both sides are willing to honor the tradition and abide by the terms. “We’ll take half your loot if you drop anchor now, and then we’ll leave you alone,” for example. These social encounters often veer a little closer to DayZ than Pirates of the Caribbean, but straddling the line between super-nice and threatening is oftentimes necessary to convince another ship to drop anchor.
Parley is also an invaluable tool around strongholds. A single crew can’t possibly fight the waves of skeletons to get their loot and an enemy galleon. Two crews, however, can easily clean up the island and split the loot.
Now that Rare have confirmed crews will need to work together to fight bigger and more dangerous PvE threats very soon, parley is going to become the word that every pirate in Sea of Thieves needs to know.
Codemakers and codebreakers
Galleons are the lords of the sea, peacocking around with their eight cannons, three sails and multi-layered hulls.
Indeed, sloops have few options if a galleon decides to take it out. Which is why sloop captains around the sea have decided that enough is enough, and are teaming up.
If a sloop captain sees a sloop being chased by a galleon, it is their duty to join the fray. While this isn’t mandated, sloop captains are realizing that they’re at a serious deficit against galleons. Now that sloops around the sea are teaming up, galleons need to be more careful with planning an offense.
At first glance, this seems to be complicated by the fact that there is no long-range communication method in Sea of Thieves. Voice chat is directional, and text chat is only active within a certain radius around a player. That being said, players have learned to turn their lanterns on and off rapidly, or use the glint of a sniper scope or eyeglass ... as well as use morse code to communicate from afar. They didn’t have Discord back in the pirate era, so you gotta make due. A completely dark ship suggests “leave me alone,” but a flashing lantern is often a player reaching out to you from far away.
There’s also a recognized sign of non-aggression: pointing your cannons to the sky. A ship with its cannons raised is doing the equivalent of flying a white flag. While that’s a sign of weakness to a certain kind of pirate, other captains will acknowledge it and pass on by. After all, most galleons have their own holds full of loot and their own places to be; if a ship agrees to start none, some captains are perfectly happy for there to be none.
The obvious contrast to raised canons are ships decked out with red and black sails and hull. These players have marked themselves as openly hostile and looking to sink anyone. Fear can sometimes be a powerful weapon, but it can also act as a deterrent.
Forging your own pirate legend
One of the biggest emergent gameplay patterns showing up in Sea of Thieves comes from the desire for players to cement their reputations as legendary pirates. While the “pirate legend” unlock is an actual, material goal with gameplay advancement connected to it, many persistent players are less interested in the in-game title and more interested in proving themselves to other players.
One player I spoke to recounted, with great amounts of glee, the act of carefully collecting as much treasure as possible and strewing it across the back of his ship, making sure it was clearly visible. The challenge is clear: Come and take it.
Another pirate mentioned that he always finishes the day by finding a chest, putting it down in the bar and logging off. Treasure left on land has a fairly significant de-spawn timer, and can be claimed by other players. When another pirate logs into the session, they’ll start off with a free chest, left by a mystery. It’s the sort of thing with no in-game recognition and no real reputation impact, but it still brings the player a joy.
“I love knowing that I’ve impacted someone else’s session,” the player confided to me over direct messages. “The mystery just makes it better. It’s like being a benevolent pirate ghost.”
Players have critiqued Rare for creating an empty sandbox, but the community that’s fallen in love with Sea of Thieves has found its own ways to communicate. Many of these rules and challenges are much more interesting than anything Rare might have thought up themselves. Sometimes the best game design involves giving players the toys, and then stepping out of the way.