Sea of Thieves is a game that currently finds itself in an odd place. It’s a fairly easy game to play as one of the flagship launch titles for the Xbox Game Pass, a service with a free trial. It was a game that showed well to audiences during E3. It had every advantage it needed for a big opening week.
When the game landed, however, many fans found that the game didn’t stand up after that initial honeymoon. Polygon’s very own Russ Frushtick gave the game a 6.5, criticizing the repetitive PVE content. After a brief flurry of controversy, including a few comparisons to No Man’s Sky, the hype has died down and Sea of Thieves is left with what feels like a smaller, but dedicated community ... which is the best thing that could ever happen to this pirate title, even if Microsoft may have hoped for something bigger.
How it began
Sea of Thieves’s early days weren’t too far off from a non-stop Battle Royale. You would spawn into the world, start your voyage, find some loot and then immediately have a galleon bear down on you. Sloops swarmed each other, and the interaction with other players was limited to swift, violent scuffles with no negotiation.
Opening voice chat to call for parley was universally ignored or mocked and attempting to trade loot or team up for a fortress was a proposal with a near zero percent success rate.
But the hype has since died down, the Game Pass trials have expired and people have moved onto newer titles. What’s left are people who enjoy Sea of Thieves for what it is, not what they wish it would be.
Finding the fans
The game’s community is now made up of diehard fans who largely play by the same rules and buy into the pirate fantasy instead of focusing on the empty challenge of sinking every ship they find. Are there still jerks? Yes, that’s inevitable, and the game allows pirates to either avoid them, report them or get revenge in a spectacular fashion. But by and large, every night, my regular crew is running into tons of randos who are more than happy to play with each other in a manner that makes even vengeance seem wholesome.
In an earlier piece, I noted that Sea of Thieves absolutely nails the core feeling of being a pirate, or at least how pop culture views classical pirates. The stripped down systems and simple gameplay actually work in the game’s favor. The world can feel very much like a toy, and there’s an innocent childhood joy to the feeling of cresting a massive wave on your ship, clashing cutlasses against a foe or catching the wind and barreling down on a sloop that you know is full of treasure. These are pleasures too great for your average player. The sea calls to a smaller number of souls.
The other night, my buddy called me and asked me to hurry online. He was part of a four-ship armada, with a dozen pirates from different crews working together to farm skulls, trade chests and grind rep together. I watched in awe as our four collective ships pulled up to port. Galleons who witnessed the sight immediately scuttled, refusing to risk clashing with such a powerful ally. We owned the sea, and the only thing it took was the decision to work together and do so. There were no immediate in-game rewards for taking this power, nor where there any systems that kept us from it. And that’s the joy of it.
Even small scale encounters are loaded with charm. Online randos who pipe up over open voice comms often have put on a (usually terrible) pirate accent. Multiple crews of strangers bond together over taking forts. After all, it’s far more of a pain in the ass to contest a fort against a determined galleon than it is to just split the loot.
There is always plenty of revenge, backstabbing, high seas chases and more when you log on. That’s because the players who are left want to turn the game into something special, not just operate as individual agents of chaos. Even the most evil pirates will get further if they plan ahead and make friends with others.
Memories of the sea
One night, me and my crew chased down a sloop laden with treasure.
“I don’t know why you’re chasing an innocent little sloop like us,” the captain crooned over the back of her ship.
“Oh, you know!” Our captain called back. “You know, and to hell’s heart, we’ll chase ye!”
After a long chase in which the sloop’s crew managed to smuggle most of their treasure off board and sell it, with lots of cannon fire and saber clashing to punctuate their small victories, we did indeed chase them to our deaths.
We all found ourselves off the border of the map, so focused on tracking the wind and moving our sails. The blood tides set in; we had gone too far and triggered the off-the-map mechanic. As the skies turned red and the winds tore holes in our ships, we admitted the chase had granted zero profit for anyone outside of the story we were all a part of. But that story was the entire point.
Sea of Thieves has always been a game about creating stories in a sandbox and making awesome memories while playing pirate. As players often note, it’s still Sea of Thieves; there’s still stories of ships waiting for a crew to unlock a fort and then sinking the other sloop, or triple-crossing their “friends.” The people engaged in these tales, however, are all in on the fun. People usually don’t even mind being the victim as long as the means of their own destrction are creative, and in the spirit of the agreed-upon game we’re all playing.
Everyone is playing their role in a pirate drama, and even though you’ll rarely (if ever) encounter the same player twice, I’m racking up countless happy memories. Sea of Thieves may not be the hottest game on the market right now, but it’s my favorite, and it’s largely because of the experience Rare have developed and the people who buy wholeheartedly into the fantasy of just being a pirate and doing pirate stuff.
The fair-weather fans have all left the game, and it’s the best thing that could have happened.