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How Sea of Thieves Attempts to Turn the Tables on Trolls

Is locking up trolls the key to a pleasant high seas gaming experience?

Feature by Hirun Cryer, .

Playing online isn’t a safe experience. Online anonymity breeds hatred and harassment, time and time again, no matter what game you’re playing. Rare, the development studio behind the upcoming multiplayer pirate adventure Sea of Thieves, knows this, and rather than turn a blind eye to the inevitable, has chosen to put a stop to this behaviour before it’s even begun.

Enter the Brig—the classic pirates prison, where prisoners of a ship would’ve been stowed away, or where crew would’ve been probably placed if they’d had too much grog. When I recently visited Rare, design director Mike Chapman explained to me that they’d attempted to approach the problem of online harassment and abuse with “a fresh set of eyes,” bringing new solutions for old problems.

“Mechanics you see in other traditional games are the vote to kick option, but what you find is that for some trolls, that’s actually what they want,” Chapman explains. “So the idea with the brig was not only to make it feel tonally appropriate, it’s the fact that we shift the balance of power to the people that have been griefed, not to the troll.”

Sea of Thieves is a game that requires a lot of online cooperation between players on the same ship: You need to vote as a group to decide which voyage to embark on; lower and angle the sails into the wind; and someone will need to shout bearings to the person at the wheel, given that the sole accessible map in Sea of Thieves is in the middle deck of the ship. This is a paradise for trolls. One dysfunctional member of the ship can wreak havoc—they could lower the anchor, temporarily barring all progress, or they could throw cargo overboard, rendering an entire voyage useless.

Normally, this behaviour would ruin a co-operative game like Sea of Thieves. You’d be forced to quit the game, attempting to be matched up against more like-minded players in your next game with three other crew members. But this is victory for the trolls. “We don’t kick them, so once you’re in the brig, everyone can gather around and be sick on you, play musical instruments around you, and taunt you,” explains Chapman. All it takes is for the rest of your crew to vote you into the brig, and you’re there for good. “The only way you can be let out is if they agree to let you out. So they can vote to open the door, but if you’re a really bad troll then they’re never going to let you out.”

This is an “interesting psychological shift,” as Chapman phrases it. “We don’t boot you out. The only way you can exit the game is by going to the menu and leaving the game— effectively killing yourself.”

Chapman stresses that this is meant to encourage people towards the “right way” to play Sea of Thieves, cooperating with each other to get their ship moving towards treasure, all with the end goal of having a memorable adventure for all the right reasons.

But it could backfire. After just a few minutes spent in the closed beta for Sea of Thieves, I was subjected to the Brig, for no discernable reason. Just as predicted by Chapman, the rest of the crew then proceeded to gather round my cell and play musical instruments to me before they got bored and, returned to the top deck of the ship to continue their voyage without me. It appears I wasn’t the only player forced into the Brig without reason in the closed beta for Sea of Thieves. In the Sea of Thieves beta people were clearly using the Brig system for amusement at the expense of others.

Sea of Thieves is now faced with a precarious balancing act. On one hand, the Brig acts as the ultimate psychological punishment for uncooperative trolls, but on the other, it can be turned on unsuspecting players if the trolls hold the majority vote on the ship. Multiplayer focused games like Sea of Thieves are often a little unwelcoming for new players at the best of times. If trolls in Rare's pirate adventure gain control of the Brig, some players might have the wind taken of their sails before they've raised their anchor.

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Comments 10

  • Avatar for MetManMas #1 MetManMas 4 months ago
    Trying to combat trolls is always a double-edged sword; won't surprise me when entire crews of like-minded assholes come along to jail people who didn't do shit for the LOLs.
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  • Avatar for Minkukel #2 Minkukel 4 months ago
    “Mechanics you see in other traditional games are the vote to kick option, but what you find is that for some trolls, that’s actually what they want.”

    Okay, but what's really the difference between a troll trying to make it their goal to get kicked, or a troll trying to make it their goal to get locked in the brig? Surely trolls won't be bothered by people playing instruments around them. Unless leaving the game/killing yourself is penalized, but I didn't read that in the article.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #3 VotesForCows 4 months ago
    Doesn't make sense - lock them up or kick them, they've still achieved their goal of disrupting your game.
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  • Avatar for Fourfoldroot #4 Fourfoldroot 4 months ago
    Doesn't this leave the team a man down? Or is someone else drafted in?
    Seems to be penalising the wrong side to be honest, plus it seems rife for abuse.
    If someone is trolling just have a system where they can be immediately kicked out and replaced quickly. Maybe have a record of accounts that have been kicked and push them down the matchmaking list / let players block those with a bad record from joining... Surely that's not beyond our technology.
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  • Avatar for Flipsider99 #5 Flipsider99 4 months ago
    Boy, this sounds like it doesn't solve anything, and just replaces one problem with another (now people are getting trolled by being thrown in the brig.)

    If you try to play cooperative games online with random people, OF COURSE you are going to have a bad time. Not only because of trolls but because some people are just not gonna be good at the game, or be bad at teamwork. There's only one solution to that, and it's the same solution it always was: play with people you know. That's it.
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  • Avatar for Fourfoldroot #6 Fourfoldroot 4 months ago
    @Flipsider99

    Twenty years ago I would have, but all my game playing mates don't play anymore and I'm too old and grumpy to make friends now! Sticking to single player and coop with the wife lol.
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  • Avatar for benjaminlu86 #7 benjaminlu86 4 months ago
    This is a solution that seems brilliant when you come up with it, but falls apart almost immediately in practice. Whenever you allow a vote for something, you need to consider the possibility that people will vote in bad faith. All it takes for this system to break down is for trolls to outnumber non-trolls.
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  • Avatar for Flipsider99 #8 Flipsider99 4 months ago
    @Fourfoldroot Well, yeah of course. The best solution is to just play single player games. That's what I do!
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  • Avatar for Bumadan #9 Bumadan 4 months ago
    This really sounds the wrong "solution" to the troll problem.

    The more I read about Sea of Thieves the happier I am that I cancelled my preorder after trying out the beta.
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  • Avatar for Suzusiiro #10 Suzusiiro 4 months ago
    Yeah, it's a pretty frequent problem that tools/systems created to combat abuse wind up being tools to enable abusers to be more abusive. Twitter's report system works in such a way that one asshole with a bunch of bot accounts can get completely innocent accounts auto-suspended, as an example.

    That said, at the very least this system works in such a way that you have to have a majority-asshole group to abuse it, which is probably the ideal balance. The only suggestion I'd make would be to make it so that your vote/vote initiation to brig someone gets less effective the more often you do it, effectively adhering to the old adage of "if everyone you meet is an asshole, *you're* the asshole"
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