Sea of Thieves | What Developers Can Learn From Rare

I remember when I said I’d try to write blogs on the regular. Turns out I’m not so great at keeping up with it, but I’m back again to talk about something I’ve been meaning to for awhile: Sea of Thieves! Having played rather often for well over a year, I have obtained Pirate Legend status, have sunk many fellow pirates’ ships, slew plenty of monsters and skeletons, and shot myself out of a cannon multiple times. Even having done all of this over and over, Sea of Thieves still surprises me. It’s gone through multiple literally game-changing updates and has seen substantial changes and additions to many of its mechanics. Now is the right time to play this game.

    Let’s go back to launch for Sea of Thieves however, which unfortunately was disappointing for many players. While many praised the game for its beautiful world and amazing sound design and ship physics, there was an extreme drought of things to do in the game. The gameplay loop of picking up a quest, sailing to an island, completing the quest, and then returning to an outpost wasn’t enjoyable. Progression was slow and earning money to buy cosmetics like clothes took even longer. Thus, many people jumped ship on Sea of Thieves shortly after launch but there were still pirates, including myself, that loved this game and wanted it to succeed.

This is a story we’ve all heard before though. A new hot game launches, it doesn’t quite hit the mark and disappoints many players, the player-base falls but is kept alive by the loyal fans, the developers aren’t great at communicating with the people that play their game, game eventually fades away. Rare didn’t do this. With the use of Reddit and Rare’s own Sea of Thieves forums, players could reach out and get their voice heard. Posts would range from helpful constructive feedback on gameplay systems, ideas about future content and changes, and even some stories and screenshots from their adventures. It was all oddly wholesome, and I believe Rare noticed this too and started to capitalize on it. This would go on to do Rare more good than harm, and here are the areas I think worked.

A Face and Voice For The Development Team

This can potentially extend into other industries outside the games industry, but an issue that I find troublesome with game studios is that there very rarely is a public figure that represents the team or company. For example, when people think of Xbox, they think of Phil Spencer, when people think of Nintendo, they think of Reggie Fils-Aime (Now Doug Bowser. Enjoy your retirement, Reggie!). These two men are how people humanize and connect with the corporations they’re attached to. When it’s the opposite, I feel it’s much more difficult to create that connection between the person playing your game or using your product. For Rare, they have someone for this: Executive Producer Joe Neate.

Alongside many other wonderful people like Senior Producer Drew Stevens and Jon McFarlane who hosts streams, Neate is up front-and-center for the weekly dev updates that are posted over on the Sea of Thieves YouTube channel. These videos are a way for Rare to respond to community feedback and concerns, update on upcoming features and fixes, and talk about the general state of the game. Side note, a word I will use a lot in this post is transparency because the team over at Rare have that down to a T. Anyway, since Neate keeps such a strong public appearance, players have someone they can connect to. These videos were something to be excited for, and players of course made plenty of wholesome memes about Neate, which would become sort of staple with each video. The production quality for the set showed how much Rare was committed to this, and it was enjoyable to watch people pick it apart and see how Rare was teasing potential content, or maybe just toying with us. These videos still happen every week, and while they don’t always have much to talk about, it’s wonderful to see Neate talk about something he’s truly happy with and to be a connection to the fans.

Admitting Mistakes

Admitting mistakes can be challenging for a lot of people especially in a creative field like this. In the first few months of Sea of Thieves’ launch, there were a lot of ideas thrown around from Rare about potential features and changes. For instance, there was the idea of players being taxed gold when they would die. When Rare announced this idea, players felt that this wasn’t a great addition and their criticism was constructive. Reading this, Rare took a step back to listen, and this feature was dismissed and they admitted that it wasn’t the right move. Rare could have stuck to their guns about this decision because after all it is their game; they’re the ones developing it. But instead of taking the bureaucratic approach, they took the time to listen to what their players were saying. They admitted that they were wrong in this decision and both parties were happy with that.

I will say though, there is a balance that I believe developers should find with this. There are some communities that I personally don’t believe know what they even want, which has caused those developers to be in this weird state of being unable to please their fans. Developers need to be firm in their design decisions but they also need to keep an ear open for what their players are saying. Find the constructive feedback in the crowd of people yelling and screaming that “this change is going to ruin the game” and “I refuse to play this game if this happens”. The negative voices are always louder, but we need to find the people who really want have something useful to say. The people who are upset will find some other game to take their time and you’ll only benefit from their presence being gone.

Developing With Your Community and For Your Community


    This section goes along with the above paragraph, but when you put the player first and consider their wants and needs for your game, you can only benefit from this.Shortly after launch, on the official Sea of Thieves Forums, Rare created a poll (shown to the right) of what players would want to see in future updates.  Of the 4 most highly-rated options these would go on to become the future expansions. Ship types, the introduction of the Brigantine. Quest types, Cargo Runs and eventually the Tall Tales and Hunters Guild. NPC enemies, the Cursed Sails expansion. Map size & exploration, the Forsaken Shores expansion. Eventually a good chunk of the other options would trickle in throughout the first year of Sea of Thieves.  It was a simple, low-risk, and enlightening way for Rare to understand exactly what the community wanted.

    Also, In December of 2018 Rare wanted to create an opportunity for players to test future content updates. They called it the Insider Program, which Rare used to test the early betas before launch. This was prompted by the previously mentioned expansions launching with bugs. Some were minor but others were much more frustrating and impacted gameplay. I can only assume that this decision was made because of a lack of manpower at Rare. Regardless, Rare working with people who have sunk hours into their game allows for their staff to focus more on creating a polished update, and the people testing have a wonderful opportunity to contribute to it.

Activity Outside The Workplace

Live-service games offer a unique opportunity for developers to play their games alongside their players. Understandably, if there are any developers that do this, you probably will never know. There’s a multitude of reasons for this that I won’t get into, but it could stem from a fear of harassment or a loss anonymity. If a developer does play their game outside of the studio, they probably just want to enjoy it like everyone else. I do think there is value though in seeing developers enjoy the game they work on. Rare does this with a weekly stream where they just play Sea of Thieves. Usually this is a way for them to take a deeper dive into upcoming content or changes, but the production is very casual, so I feel like they’re truly loving what they’re doing. Also, guests from the community and the development team will pop on to to play alongside or to answer questions from the stream chat. It’s refreshing to see this kind of content being produced from a big-name developer, it goes along with what I’ve been saying about this human connection Rare has with its players. It’s a shame that we don’t see this a lot, but I can imagine it’s because of what I said before, which is incredibly unfortunate.

I hope that we’ll see more of the kinds of things I’ve talked about in this post. Rare has been doing a stunning job at creating an amazingly transparent and friendly relationship with its players, and I fear that many developers won’t look at their example. As this industry continues to be this secretive closed-off thing that it is, it’s only going to foster the many bad examples of video game communities we’ve seen. We need to strive to communicate, admit where we were wrong, work together, and play together. It’s only going to do us good.