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Sea of Thieves is under siege in new expansion Cursed Sails

Outposts are under attack, new enemies enter the world and pirates can form fleets

Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

Since Sea of Thieves launched in March, the developers have been adding to the core pirate experience with weekly events and larger expansion packs. The first expansion, The Hungering Deep, focused on adding to the natural threats of the ocean with the terrifying Megaladon. The second expansion pack, Cursed Sails, arrives today, and is free and available for all players.

Much like The Hungering Deep, Cursed Sails offers a limited-time campaign with tools and mechanics that will forever change the existing world of Sea of Thieves. Skeleton ships are on the rise, along with cursed ammunition that not only tears through hulls but dish out serious gameplay effects like dropping an anchor or intoxicating the crew. The brigantine is a new, three-crew ship, and ships can now join together in Alliances to formalize peace treaties and share loot.

Add in a hefty dose of cosmetics, more player customization, and a mysterious story unfolding about the merchants who run the outposts, and the bones for a great expansion are all there. As always, the success of Sea of Thieves relies not just on the content, but the players who take those tools and run with it.

A skeleton crew carries their supplies down a dock. Rare/Microsoft

An evolving experience

“If I was talking to someone who hasn’t played since the start [of Sea of Thieves], or played a bit and is looking for a reason to come back, I’d say we’ve been slowly enriching the experiences and smoothing down rough corners,” Joe Neate, Executive Producer on Sea of Thieves tells Polygon. “But also, our player base has become so much [...] richer and more experienced, and really understand what the vision of Sea of Thieves was and is. If you started on day one, there were so many new players with different goals and levels of understanding.”

Joe Neate admits that in the early days of Sea of Thieves, pirates tended towards hostilities, and the core interactive experiences of meeting and bargaining with other players hadn’t been figured out yet. As time goes on, and the players who don’t mesh with that vision move on, Sea of Thieves is forming an identity as a true pirate sandbox with a strong sense of, well, play. Neate shares a few stories that have delighted him from the Sea recently: pirate quiz shows and contests, players setting puzzles for each other in exchange for loot or alliances, and Pirate Legends mingling among the rest of the community.

Cursed Sails aims to shake up that foundation further. Mike Chapman, the design director on Sea of Thieves, explains: “A big moment is seeing sails on the horizon and coming across another crew. How you respond to that depends on what you have on board, who you’re with, what you’re trying to accomplish.” A dozen different stories can come from seeing another ship, ranging from turning the lights off and smuggling your loot through darkened passages and around islands to hitting the pedal and slamming into the other ship. Now, there will be player ships ... and skeleton crews, providing more moments of action and more decisions to make.

Skeleton ships will have booty to loot, and cursed cannonballs to greatly empower your ship, but you’ll have to contend with naval combat, designed to mirror player PvP as much as possible. “In terms of the behavior of them, they’re very similar to what the players can do,” Neate says. “You can board their ship. You can battle them on the deck. They’re on the cannons, the wheels, they’re fixing holes down below.” Foul play and active aggression will be required to end the threat.


A Sea under siege

Similar to The Hungering Deep, players will be introduced to the new mechanics and tools via a time-limited campaign. “The skeletons are coming and putting their standards into the ground, nailing a challenge. You’ll find that at the outpost, it’s a challenge you have to complete,” Neate explains. Each region of the map will be challenged, and each new crew will offer different cursed cannonballs.

Around the obvious threat of the ships on the horizon, players will have to investigate a character based mystery. “Merry” Merrick led us through The Hungering Deep, but he was a very simple character at the helm of a very simple story. Cursed Sails, thanks to a longer development cycle, digs a little deeper.

“Characters have gone missing, and characters are getting replaced,” says Chapman. The threat goes beyond just the sea and affects the closest thing the game has established as a safe zone. “The outposts are thematically under siege.”

With the challenge issued, players must not only solve that mystery but stop the skeleton crews from claiming the ocean. An active battle will be marked in the world, similar to the existing skeleton fort clouds, and players will have to team up to fight the threat. “It’s this huge spectacle,” says Chapman. “You’re not just getting into combat with skeleton ships, but players ships are there with you, fighting at your side.”

Sails and beyond

The three-week campaign is time-limited, but the new content will stay in the game forever. The ships will be emergent threats, with the team still deciding how their presence will be broadcast to the world. Cursed cannonballs will remain in the world for players to find and weaponize against each other. The brigantine will bridge the gap between three-crew teams and full galleons, allowing for a more balanced gameplay experience.

Rare keep their hand on the wheel, not just adding content, but working on maintaining the community they’ve built over the months. The game is still lacking tutorials, but the community is flourishing regardless and helping new players on board. When I ask Neate how the developers maintain an open, dangerous world based solely off player interaction like DayZ or Rust without giving into the darkness and hostility of that world, he speaks passionately.

“If we educate enough of our players to play in [an inclusive] way, and that’s the experience we try to create with our core community with the videos we put out and the explanations of what we’re doing...” Neate says. “Then whenever there’s a new update, or a Bilge Rat adventure, when we introduce [new content and tools], we expect the community to use the things in the spirit we explained.”

Pirate alliances, the new system centered around teaming up and creating a fleet with other players, is the perfect example. “It’s good if there’s the occasional bit of mistrust and an alliance breaks up, that’s part of the pirate fantasy. But largely, we believe we have the right player base, the right community, the right core. We can’t put in a tutorial on how to be in an alliance, and when to betray people or not [...] but you can educate players, and they educate the others they play with.”

The next Sea of Thieves expansion, Forsaken Shores, is expected to launch in September.

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