April 22 marks a new Sea of Thieves expansion, Ships of Fortune, an update that focuses entirely on the player. Previous expansions have been all about big, external enemies: skeleton lords, treachery, exploding volcanos, or megalodons — but now, man is the real monster. Rare is opening up a new opt-in system that allows players to unlock new cosmetics and make more money. The catch? A new faction rewards players for putting on the ol’ skull and bones and hunting their peers down.
Back to basics
Ships of Fortune returns to the most simple building block of the Sea of Thieves gameplay: pick up a voyage from one of the NPC factions, go on quest, finish quest, sell loot. This is how nearly every voyage starts, and the fun comes when you see a new objective on the horizon, get attacked by a tough enemy, decide to rob another player, or otherwise start to stop and smell the roses. Ships of Fortune returns to that foundation and adds a reinforcing layer of rewards and incentives.
There’s a higher level cap with each faction, and Emissary missions are a great way to earn new levels and cosmetics. Players opt-in by raising the flag of their faction. This is very visible, and valuable intel. A Merchant Alliance ship is going to be less tempting to rob than a Gold Hoarders ship, as a Merchant Alliance’s cargo can be destroyed, but a treasure chest cannot. Two Order of Souls ships who meet on the sea have a strong incentive to ally. An Order of Souls ship will need to steal from island to island with a low-profile, lest an enemy roll up and start firing while everyone’s hip deep in skeletons.
The most dangerous game
Meanwhile, the Reaper’s Bones players will be globally visible on the map to everyone else. They are the cat, and everyone who wants to engage in some honest trade is the mouse. Since it’s an opt-in system, players who are still finding their sea legs can simply not participate, and are inherently at less risk for attack given that they offer so much less reward.
“The key thing is, we want players to feel like a pirate in this world,” says Sea of Thieves creative director Mike Chapman in an interview with Polygon. “But I still think a lot of players feel that pang of guilt when you attack a ship, where you can’t fully enjoy that moment, because you find out it’s a family roleplaying pirates out in the world. And you sink their ship and you feel bad about it.” The idea is to give these players legitimate targets.
Some of Sea of Thieves’ updates are purely about filling out the world and giving players something to enjoy with a few close friends, like the Tall Tales story campaign. Ships of Fortune is a grenade; it’s an attempt by Rare to deliberately stir the pot and give players big incentives to risk more and get better stories out of a session.
The Adventure/Arena relationship
Rare is also returning to The Arena, the game’s PVP mode. The Arena is getting a major rework in Ships of Fortune. Matches are down to 15 minutes from 24 minutes, and players now have one chest to compete over, instead of a whole bunch of them spread out across multiple islands. Players can win solely through inflicting damage to enemy ships.
Right now, the Arena is maintained by one team, and their experiments in balance and features have all added to the standard, open-world Adventure mode’s experience. Ships catching on fire, blunderbuss bombs, reviving downed crew mates, and other chaotic but important features were all initially developed for Arena mode. Sea of Thieves manages to keep competitive and casual players alike happy by doling out updates and incentives meant for both kinds of players.
All together, Ships of Fortune is a masterclass for games-as-a-service. Many games that update on a regular schedule struggle with keeping older sections relevant to experienced players and battling back power creep. Rare has elegantly dodged many of these problems by continually going back and figuring out a way to make old content new again.