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Breaking down the boatloads of new stuff in Sea of Thieves’ anniversary event

The Arena and Tall Tales are the game’s biggest additions yet

sea of thieves beta Rare/Microsoft Studios
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.

Sea of Thieves first year of content was centered around shoring up a launch that, for some players, fell short. Developer Rare has delivered four free expansion packs, each one adding chunks of content and new gameplay systems. The most recent expansion pack, Shrouded Spoils, updated open-world encounters, added achievements, and made the core gameplay loop more interesting and fulfilling.

Sea of Thieves’ anniversary update will be the game’s largest, building upon the foundation that the first year of updates built. Set to arrive on April 30, the update will include The Arena expansion, quest campaigns, modular ship damage, two new factions, harpoons, fishing, hunting, and cooking.

That’s a long list, but here’s how each individual system will work in the context of the existing game. The anniversary update is full of new content, but its meant to be accessible to “day one” players, and will add new ways to get to the best parts of the Sea of Thieves experience.

Sea of Thieves - a crew of pirates play music around a treasure chest they’ve just discovered Image: Rare/Microsoft Studios

Quests, campaigns, and Tall Tales

While the Arena was announced back in November, what came as a surprise in the anniversary announcement was the new quest system. Joe Neate, executive producer on Sea of Thieves, says that Tall Tales, the campaign system arriving at the end of April, is just the start of an expanded Sea of Thieves experience.

“We wanted to lower the barrier to entry for multiplayer,” says Neate. He notes that a large amount of fans for Sea of Thieves are families or multi-generational, and so they wanted to create a story that could bring fans in and give an immediate, structured goal. “The Hungering Deep and Cursed Sails were us testing out narrative in the shared world, and seeing how it played out. Now, when we bring the story into the game, it should be there for people to play forever, for new players in the future to come in and play.”

The Tall Tales stories will be accessible via a book in outposts near the Mysterious Stranger; players can activate the story there, much like they would a voyage on their ship.

There’s variants and random parts of the story, meaning that the Tall Tales are replayable; unlike previous campaigns, progress won’t be as set in stone.

“The main flow of the story remains the same throughout, but the puzzles and how things play out have real variety in there,” Neate says.

The constellations spotted in the anniversary trailer are one part of this campaign, and will be a way for players to advance the story. Other new mechanics include a new kind of treasure chest that can be opened and used to transport other valuables, puzzles boxes, and environments and challenges inspired by ’80s action movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Goonies. Neate compares the design to old-school adventure games, a return to many of the developers’ roots.

In future, Tall Tales will be a “platform” for more quest content and campaigns, Rare says. The Anniversary stories, Shores of Gold, will be the first attempts at the format. Neate notes that for some players, this Choose Your Own Adventure approach isn’t for everyone. For players who are more focused on the combat, sailing, and collecting gold, there’s the Arena.

Enter the Arena

Upon opening Sea of Thieves, players will get to choose between Adventure — the current game, and the mode which will support Tall Tales — and The Arena, a focused and contained competitive match. The Arena will have a trading company associated with it, where players can earn reputation for cosmetic unlocks, and progress toward Pirate Legend.

“These are our two platforms for growth,” says Neate. “We believe strongly and passionately in both of them.” Both Arena and Adventure will be supported in the future with ongoing updates and expansions, Rare says.

While players wait to enter The Arena, they are put into a new tavern with multiple floors, banners, and a hot tub. Players are also given a parchment with the results of their last match, which they can proudly show off to other pirates. Neate says its a satisfying way to humblebrag, especially since you’ll find yourself in the tavern with crews you may have just finished a game with.

Players are put on galleons in teams of four, but players can queue in smaller teams in either closed groups, or open groups that fill their party out with random players. Competitors are battling for silver, the temporary currency of individual Arena matches. There’s a series of different arenas, picked from locations already in the game of Sea of Thieves, from a route around the Shores of Plenty to a more dangerous journey in the Devil’s Roar. They’re circular, with five or eight islands placed in the area.

“The game can really ebb and flow between pulling crews towards one island, or spreading them out,” Neate says. Players get the most points for retrieving and turning in treasure, but they also can score big off sinking other ships. Killing enemy players gives a smaller reward, encouraging players to go for bigger objectives. “You always have to be look at what other ships are doing. It’s very, very strategic.”

Players can turn in their treasure at stations around the map, which make for tense moments of transport and vulnerability. The Arena will reward all kind of players; it’s not a battle royale or pure combat mode. Repairing, finding the X on a map, and steering through choppy waters are just as — if not more — valuable than someone who’s good with a sword or behind a cannon. “I think there’s an opportunity to bring competition to a wider range of people,” says Neate.

“I hesitate to use the word PvP,” Neate says about the game mode. “Because it is competitive but predominantly the focus is competing around treasure. There will be ship battles, but the best way to start an Arena mode is to steer clear of battle a little bit and amass treasure.”

While pirates will eventually interact, each crew will need to constantly think about how much treasure they have onboard, whether they can win a fight, and if the current conditions are in their favor.

Sea of Thieves Anniversary Edition art Rare/Microsoft Studios

Open-world adventures

Adventure mode will continue to be developed and changed over time. The plan is to keep incentives for players to betray, backstab, or brawl with each other in adventure. However, if a player is solely looking for a fast-paced ship battle, they now have an option to jump into, and that should make the role of combat in Adventure a little clearer. The team at Rare is interested in seeing social behavior and interaction unfold over treasure, opportunity, and danger.

Right now, Rare says it’s happy with the current pacing of events, monster spawns, and goals for players to pursue. They have a system called the “world events scheduler,” which allows the team to adjust individual spawns and events. In the future, Rare is looking toward changing these rates for solo sloop players to give them a bit more of a fighting chance.

A new company will be arriving in the anniversary update, along with a way to earn reputation with them. The Hunter’s Trading Company gives pirates the opportunity to fish, cook pigs and chickens, and hunt megalodons and krakens down. Players will only need to reach level 50 with three companies to make Pirate Legend, which means that they could stop playing Gold Hoarders or Merchant Alliance missions altogether in favor of pursuing Arena matches or fishing.

The ships themselves have been given upgrades and more detail. Ships can now attack each others’ masts and capstans. Hitting a perfect shot on the enemy ship can lower their anchor and snap off the handles, requiring an immediate repair. The ship’s mast can come down as well, requiring three wooden boards and time for pirates to repair. Skeleton ships will be able to hit these weak points on player ships, although they will not specifically target them.

In order to balance that weakness out, ships are getting harpoons. Harpoons will be located at the front of the ship, and can connect to nearly anything. Pirates will be able to aim at other players and pull them off their ships, hit treasure chests out of another person’s hands and pull them aboard, and use harpoons against megalodons and krakens.

The next level of puzzles.

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