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Sea of Thieves is dodging the expansion problem

Making sure there’s an ocean of content

Sea of Thieves - four pirates wear the season one rewards, which are cold-weather themed with blue fabric and lots of fur, with blue crystals adorning the clothes for decoration. Image: Rare/Microsoft Game Studios

New content can, strangely enough, be a double-edged sword for online games. Everyone loves getting to log in and open their favorite game to find new character classes, dungeons, or worlds to explore. But new content often invalidates everything that came before. World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto Online are both hugely popular games that struggle with this problem: The newest content is always the best, and the rest can be forgotten. Rare’s pirate game, Sea of Thieves, has neatly dodged this problem, and the latest update ensures the entire sea is worth sailing.

Sea of Thieves’ initial strategy was to release occasional expansions, and then started running a monthly update schedule. Now Rare has entirely switched to a three-month seasonal model. The map is mostly unchanged, save for the new Devil’s Roar, a volcanic region that occasionally showers players with fiery meteors. This is an opt-in hard mode for plucky players, because you can not spawn there. Players have to intentionally sail across the map and enter the region. Everything else added in these seasons is built on the existing game world.

Rare aims to make all content viable with seasons, so players don’t have to repeat one valuable voyage or event repeatedly. In GTA Online, players can do older business content, but there’s no point if they can spam the Cayo Perico Heist for millions of dollars for less effort. In Sea of Thieves, though, players will progress their seasonal content by doing anything, and can earn all rewards by fishing, killing krakens, or completing the game’s Tall Tales — no PVP or dangerous events required.

Sea of Thieves - a player investigates a map from the Merchant Alliance, which shows the location of some lost treasure. Rare: Microsoft Game Studios

Seasons can also develop stories as Rare updates the game. Previously, new lore would arrive in expansions or monthly events. Players watched Stitcher Jim arrive as a new NPC, uncovered his villainy, and then watched him both join and then betray the Bilge Rats. The rise of Lord Flameheart was told through the game’s Tall Tales quest system. Players may remember the months-long process of the Reaper’s Bones taking over an island and eventually becoming their own, PVP-focused faction. Future enemies, like the Grand Maritime Union, will be built up through future seasons.

Mike Chapman, creative director at Rare, spoke to Polygon in a call. He estimated it will take about 40-50 hours for players to work through 100 levels of the season, but most seasonal items will be added to the in-game real money store once the season is done, giving people a chance to catch up. A few things, like tattoos or a ship flag, will remain locked to the season, as a way of saying “I was there.”

Joe Neate, executive producer of Sea of Thieves, also explained how Rare will build on seasons over time. “Seasons is the baseline for what Sea of Thieves will be moving forward,” He said. “Each season, we plan to launch with new things that change the sandbox with new adventures and things to do.” Sea of Thieves has three core teams, and each one is working on seasonal content.

While expanding the map and having a constant array of new areas would be more exciting on the surface, it would also cheapen the rest of the world that Rare has spent so long building. By layering new activities on top of familiar locations, players have a reason to return to Thieves’ Haven or Sanctuary Outpost on their adventures. The Seasons system reduces the incentive to just spam the most valuable possible voyages in the Devil’s Roar, and incentivizes the simple joys of catching a big fish and cooking it.

Whereas some games are expanding their map further and further to include new continents or cities, Sea of Thieves is remaining focused on the world we’ve been sailing through for the last three years. By making each region so dense and full of potential danger, Rare can avoid making things boring. Seasons seems to be a good way to continue the formula Sea of Thieves has developed so far, while bringing back old content like the Skeleton Thrones or regional ship battles. Rare says that the game is currently at its most popular yet, so 2021 seems to be a great time to be a pirate.

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