During E3 this year, I attended a roundtable with Gregg Mayles, design director of Rare's upcoming Xbox One pirate game, Sea of Thieves. He had some interesting insights into the game, and gave me the opportunity to ask lots of questions.
USG: How did you come up with the idea for the game?
GM: When we were thinking about what game Rare should be doing next, we found ourselves at one of these junction points that we've found ourselves at many times before. We'd like to do something new and different, but we're not quite sure what. We started looking at games people were playing, in particular the way people were playing them, and the emerging trends in gaming. Where might the future be, and can we look at a genre we'd like to try, and then apply the Rare charm, magic, and humor to it? We were particularly interested in games where players can come together in a shared world and are given a large amount of freedom to pretty much do what they want. So there's no linear story to follow, and players can choose their own rules, roles, and goals. We really felt that was an opportunity for us.
Then we wanted to look at the way we put players into the world. We felt if we could put players together as a group, it creates an interesting social dynamic. If you put a small group of players together in a room and get them doing something together, it's so much better than doing it on your own. So we wanted to riff on that social makeup. And finally, we needed a theme. What world shall we put these players into? We had all these different ideas up on the wall, but as soon as we put the pirate one up, that was the one. A crew of players on a ship sailing together as a small group in a shared world with other ships with other groups of players – it was such a natural fit for us.
Also, thanks to films and TV programs, you don't need to tell players too much about being a pirate – you just know what to do. You don't need to tell players how to steer a ship, or how to lower the sails, or how to use a telescope – you just know. That was really important to us, because we wanted to have no barriers to play. No long tutorials or a lengthy way of getting into the game. We just wanted to get a group of players together, put them in the world, and off you go.
What we brought to E3, and the trailer you've seen of the gameplay footage is a small sliver of what we see the full experience to be. We just needed to pick something from our game that suits the E3 environment that players can play for 15-20 minutes to get an idea of what's at the core of the game – and that's coming together as a crew and sailing on a ship together. The trailer we showed at the presentation with the characters frozen in time – that represents where the game is going to go, and the vision for the future. All the different things we're going to be introducing into the game, like players exploring islands, going on quests, diving down into the sea to find treasure, and fighting a kraken. That represents where we're going to go, and the different type of things we want to make possible in the world.
Ship-to-ship combat is a key part of the game, and that's what's being demoed at E3, but that's just one part of the game. We don't want to build a game that's all about ship-to-ship combat – we could, but we don't want to. We want the game to appeal to a broad range of motivations. Some players will just want to adventure in a glorious pirate world, sail around, and find things to do as they explore. Other players will have a more direct approach – give me a quest to do, I have 30 minutes to play, give me something to achieve, give me some kind of reward that I can use. Other players might just enjoy it for the social experience. Spend time with friends, drink some grog, and sail around having a great time. We want all those ways to play to be equally possible in the world, and for them to all happen together in the same space. We don't want to segregate players, we want it all to happen in one big melting pot.
USG: So Sea of Thieves is a single-world game?
GM: Yes. When you see another sail on the horizon, all you know is that it's another group of players on that ship. You wont know what they're doing, and you won’t know how they might react to you. And likewise, they won't know what you're doing. An option might be engage in combat – it's a pirate game after all – but we want there to be other options too. Perhaps team up and take on a harder challenge together, like fighting a kraken, which is too hard for a single crew to take on themselves. Or perhaps you might want to trade items with other players?
So when ships come together, you're never quite sure what's going to happen and what the outcome could be. I think that's the really interesting thing about an emergent world – if everyone knew what was going to happen, I think you'd only play that for so long before you'd lose interest. I think the beauty of Sea of Thieves and the thing we really want to bring is players together in a shared world, co-operating together.
USG: How do you group players together?
GM: We've got several ways to do that. The easiest way is if players know each other to start with. If you’re a group of friends, you can all join up and play together. If everyone could do that, it would be awesome, but that's not going to be the case. There are going to be lots of players out there whose friends aren't online, or they mightn't have online friends, or all sorts of different permutations of that. So it's really important that we can get groups of players who mightn't know one another together on a ship and actually achieve things together. The E3 build is a small example of this. The people playing mostly don't know each other, but when they get put into the world together, they're all co-operating, and sailing the ship together.
We want to ensure that we match like-minded players. So if you have a bunch of players who want to go on quests, we want to bring those together. We don't want to match players who just want to mess around in the world with people who are really focused on achieving something – that wouldn't work. The recently announced Looking for Group Xbox One functionality is perfectly in line with where we want to go. So when the platform guys came along and said that Looking for Group was being developed as a platform-level feature, we thought yeah – that's perfect for us. Players can decide what they want to do, get themselves together, and then come into the game.
USG: The game is an always-online world?
GM: Yes. It's a shared world, and there are always other ships in the world. You can't predict where other ships are going to be, or how often you'll bump into other ships. Every time you see another ship, we want it to be a real occasion. It won't be like a boating lake where there are loads of boats sailing around.
Right from the start, we built a very simple prototype. We're still operating that prototype, and it lets us experiment and find what's right for the game. What we found is that if there are too many ships in the world, it stops the experience from being emergent, because everyone's really conscious of all these other ships around them, and you're always on your guard. When we lessened the number of ships, it made it such a better game. Sometimes you can play for an hour and you don’t see a ship. And then the next time you play, you might come across one. The real beauty is that you never know what you're going to get.
USG: Are you dropped into a specific point in the world when you start a game?
GM: You're dropped in at different places. We did have a specific starting point, but it started to feel too linear, and of course you open it up to camping problems where if you know where other players are going to start, you'll end up with a row of ships waiting for you as soon as you set sail. It just feels a lot better to have different starting points, where players can pick a point that they might want to explore.
USG: What's the balance of land-based activities and seaborne stuff?
GM: What we're showing now is the co-operative aspect of the game – a bunch of players learning how to sail a ship together. We think that's the interesting bit of the game, and the real challenge. Can we make sailing a ship with a bunch of players fun? That's the first challenge we set ourselves – because if we couldn’t do that, then we might as well not bother with anything else. But we also have a lot of ideas about island-based gameplay, but we've chosen not to show that at E3.
When you're on a ship it feels almost claustrophobic, and that's done on purpose. When you land on an island, it's almost like you have a sense of freedom where you can go and dig for treasure and stuff like that. Then you get back to your ship again, and off you go to somewhere else. There are no cut scenes – the transition from sea to land is seamless.
USG: Is the world persistent?
GM: Yes. It's a persistent, authored world. Again, we experimented with that – should it be persistent, or procedurally generated? We felt that to get the Rare character into the world we had to design it ourselves. So we can have interesting-shaped islands, and also to allow players to learn about the world and where things are. But we also wanted to make sure players didn't get bored, so we have a bunch of emergent systems in the game that make it different every time you play it.
We also wanted everything in the game to have a social nature to it, so everything you see, from raising the capstan to lowering the sails, to working together as a team, we apply that to everything we put in the game. So when it came round to putting a map into the game, it's a physical map on a table down below decks. It encourages players to go downstairs and look at the map like you'd look at a map in real life, and pointing to it and saying stuff like, "we're here, shall we go over there?" and it's a really nice social thing. It's not a bunch of players individually looking at a HUD in the top left corner – it promotes players and the crew actually looking at an object and deciding what to do.
Everything we put into the game, we're always thinking about how would it promote social interaction between players? The more things players can do together, the better it is. That's why you can play musical instruments together. When one player starts up and another player joins in, we sync the music so it feels like you're playing together like a band.
USG: How do you develop your character?
GM: There'll be a bunch of expectations from players. They'll want quests, progression, they'll want to make their character better, and earn better equipment, they'll want a ship, and then be able to customize their ship.
We'll enable all of that. But the way we want to develop the game is to release it in stages. The next goal for us is a closed Beta. We haven't set a date for that yet, because normally when we set a date, we're usually wrong, so we don’t want to disappoint people by slipping. So we're going to wait until we've got enough of the core experience to put into players hands, and then get feedback.
Ultimately, we want players to be the stars of the game. We're not going to be putting legendary ships and characters into the game. We want players to become the legendary pirates and have legendary ships. So we're going to develop the game in stages and listen to what the community wants. If they're saying there's not enough customization, we'll consider putting that in. Or maybe there aren’t enough quests, so we'll put more in.
So rather than us as designers making a two or three-year plan and designing an entire game and hoping people like it, we want to get players involved and try to align to their needs as much as possible.