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Sea of Thieves launches a new era in development with The Hungering Deep

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Sea of Thieves has launched, been polished, and has set a course for a rich future of content

An unaware ship floats over a mysterious sea beast Rare / Microsoft

The Hungering Deep is the first new major content addition to Sea of Thieves, and it’s a direct response to many of the criticisms and complaints the developers fielded from the base game. The new campaign, set of cosmetics and AI threat is more than just an event; the new mechanics represent Rare’s decision to hand the tools to the players and allow them to remain the main characters in a chaotic world of player choice.

Sea of Thieves’ first expansion pack is meant to build upon the successful elements of the game so far. The campaign, given to players by the hideously unlucky pirate “Merry” Merrick, will have players solving puzzles and working together to solve what, exactly, lies in the deep. The campaign, and its accompanying cosmetics, will be limited time, as its meant to reward players for being there at launch and give them a tour of the new content with style.

The cosmetics may be fleeting, but the game’s new tools will last forever, and Rare is looking forward to seeing how players react to having these new mechanics to antagonize (or ally with) other players.

EVE, DayZ, and... Sea of Thieves

The developers of Sea of Thieves didn’t start with the idea of eye-patches and peg legs. Instead, they looked to games like DayZ and EVE Online, games that put players in a world and generated endless stories based off their interactions. One video in particular stood out to the developers: DayZ’s Gentleman Bandit, a man who holds up fellow players ... and gently takes one or two items, then lets them go on their way. The Gentleman Bandit got no reward for his behavior, no in-game reputation change, but he did create an excellent story.

“We were so inspired by what we called shared world gaming,” Joe Neate, the Executive Producer on Sea of Thieves tells Polygon. “When players were given a world and a set of tools, and stories just came out of that theme. DayZ was a really harsh game. We thought there was an opportunity with that kind of spirit that encouraged those kind of encounters, with a lower barrier of entry.”

The game’s pitch deck had a graph. On the top was social, on the bottom was personal, and left to right was dark and light. The idea of a crew of pirates working together allowed them to explore that graph, giving every player a role in telling stories of both cooperation and competitiveness. Sea of Thieves has a reputation for largely being about the competitive, with sloops and galleons battling it out for loot on the high seas. There’s a community that loves the cooperation and camaraderie of the pirate life, however. The developers pore over Reddit, taking in stories, watching streams where players sing shanties together over their microphones.

“We looked at human psychology,” adds Mike Chapman, a Design Director on Sea of Thieves. The developers wanted to create an appealing, dynamic world, hand players a set of items and access to each other, and let the stories develop from there. “We had all these ideas for things that could happen. If you give people this sandbox and give them these tools, the only limit is their imagination.”

Launching a ship

Sea of Thieves’ launch was somewhat tumultuous, and tested Rare as a studio. “I don’t think anything prepares you for the launch of games as a service,” Neate says. “When we launched, it was suddenly like, whoa. They’re not stopping playing. They’re keeping playing! The numbers keep going up! They have feedback, and there’s no break!”

A high angle over Shark Bait Cove, an island in the Sea of Thieves Rare / Microsoft

The decision to launch at that moment was a tough one, but it was necessary in order to get the feedback. Limited beta weekends and internal tests weren’t showing how players would use the tools at hand. Releasing the game into the wild, with a “successful launch by any metric”, as Neate notes, put players’ imaginations and the game’s limit to the tests.

“We wanted Sea of Thieves to be a service because we wanted to get it into players’ hands. You can’t just design the tools and have the foresight on how it’s going to interact.” Players using the lanterns to spell out morse code — or, as Neate shares, flashing red and blue lanterns to mimic police sirens — showed the devs how players used the tools that existed in the game. “It’s a thrill to make a game in this world, because players are a part of the process, and they have to be.”

The feedback from the launch has informed The Hungering Deep, which gives players a host of new tools. These include a speaking trumpet, which projects a player’s voice (but does not alter it), drums (for more bass for your shanties), and flags. Neate shared a tale of using the speaking trumpet to project his voice onto an enemy’s ship, taunting them as they tear through the galleon searching for him. Little did they know, he was on the shore with his ill-gotten loot the whole time. The players with alternating lantern police sirens used the speaking trumpets to pull over other ships, enforcing law on the sea. As The Hungering Deep reaches more players, the trumpet will no doubt continue to evolve past its original purpose of hailing other ships from afar.

Flags also represent this design philosophy: players will have access to five flags which they can adorn their ship with. White and the jolly roger both have very clear messages, but there are three other flags that are value neutral. The shark bite flag might be used by a crew who are “going hunting” ... or the community might work out their own meanings for the three remaining flags, which also include a green skull on purple and gold and a black and red arrow. They could conceivably convey menace ... or simply setting out on a certain kind of mission.

The future of Sea of Thieves

“For the first couple of weeks, it was all hands on deck. We launched the game, let’s make sure it works,” Neate says. The developers resolved the server errors, added private crews, fixed the brig mechanic, and polished the game with other quality-of-life features.

The game’s successful launch allowed Rare to add a fourth team: The Hungering Deep’s team will move onto weekly events; one team will remain on the next expansion, Cursed Sails; one team will work on Forbidden Shores; and then the fourth team is developing what comes after that. Each expansion pack will be successively larger than the last, as they were each started at around the same time.

A limited time set of ship cosmetics in Sea of Thieves Rare / Microsoft

When it comes to new expansions, Rare isn’t concerned about running out of ideas. “We can go and go and go and go with new features for this world,” says Chapman. “It’s great to see players enjoying the world, but this is just the start of Sea of Thieves.”

Chapman says the team is “laser-focused” on new content ideas. “All areas of the game are going to be getting richer and richer. We look where we can see the gaps, the opportunities in game play, and go after them.” With the map not expanding past its current boundaries until Forbidden Shores, it’s intriguing to see how the existing Sea of Thieves is fleshed out.

The broad strokes of Sea of Thieves have always been solid, but Rare knows that it’s the finer details that need to be filled in. Instead of preparing a glut of content based around heavily story-based campaigns staffed with characters we just spectate, Rare wants to give players new tools to expand on the chaotic fun of naval combat. Or naval cooperation.