How Sea of Thieves Attempts to Turn the Tables on Trolls

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

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.