This Sea of Thieves interview was conducted by Xbox: The Official Magazine
You don’t often get a chance to sit down with someone from legendary development studio Rare, let alone visit their Twycross offices and get to hang out in the pirate tavern that the company has literally built inside. This month we got to do all of those things, and took full advantage by chatting to Joe Neate, Executive Producer on Sea Of Thieves, and drinking all the grog we could get our hands on.
While the game has sadly been delayed until early 2018, we wanted to know more about how the Insider Program was helping to shape development of the pirate-’em-up, talk about the community that is already dedicated to the game, and see what Joe made of the reaction at E3.
OXM: We saw a lot more of Sea Of Thieves at E3 this year. That must be exciting for you guys, right?
Joe Neate: Absolutely, yeah. If you think of last year’s E3 we showed off kind of the core experience of sailing a ship [with friends] and the ship battles. That was kind of it. People were blown away by it but they kept asking, ‘Okay, what do I do in this game? What are my goals? What am I going to go out to achieve?’ And so we really tried to answer that with the E3 trailer, with the walkthrough of a crew going on an adventure. We’re going full pirate. The game is all about that full pirate fantasy of being a part of every film, every TV show, every book. You know, Treasure Island, The Goonies, whatever. We’re not afraid of embracing the clichés or the tropes! This is the pirate fantasy that people have always wanted. And so we wanted to show that off, to show the riddles, to show the sharks in the sea, to show storms in the world, firing the crew out of cannons – which isn’t in any films or TV shows I’ve seen but is still the best feature – and show the skeletons as a threat on the islands. The skeletons can fire cannons, which is super cool.
That is the typical adventure you could go on in Sea Of Thieves, and it really shows a different purpose for the island-based gameplay. The riddles make such a difference when you’re on an island. You’re looking at the island in a different way, because you’re starting to look for clues. It’s designed to help you appreciate some of the history and the lore of the world, and it’s just a different cerebral challenge from things like ship battling, or even ‘X marks the spot’ kind of maps. That was a real step forward for us.
At E3 we also streamed properly for the first time. We had a Mixer booth – as soon as the briefing finished we actually did a live four-way co-stream on Mixer, which was myself and a few creators, and that was amazing. The reception to that has been so cool. When we show a really cool, carefully crafted trailer like that, I think it gives you a great idea of what the game is, but actually seeing people playing the game, or playing the game yourself, you suddenly realise it’s so much more. I think our game is actually better than our trailer – a lot of the time it’s almost the other way round. You could hear the players in the E3 booth, too – the chaos and the laughter and the shouting.
This game is such a huge opportunity for us; I’ve been in the industry for something like 18 years now, and this is the biggest opportunity that I’ve ever had. And I think we believe so strongly in the vision for this, and so strongly in how we can grow and evolve this over time. You know, we want to be working on this for years and years, and just growing, and evolving, and getting more players in, and having more stories and more amazing moments. I’ve just got so much confidence and so much excitement about it, it’s kind of hard to put it into words, I think.
OXM: You’ve made a lot of use of the Insider Program. Why did you decide to do that?
JN: There are a lot of tactical reasons that we launched the Insider Program. First, there’s the boring stuff, like making sure that we can scale up our servers, and get all of that working, because you don’t want shit falling over when you bring everyone in, right? We’ve gone from, like, 1,000 players at the start to 75,000 players who are now invited into our technical alpha, with a ton more still scratching at the door. Concurrency in the first alpha was probably, like, 500-600 people, and now up to 15,000 at a time are playing. And it’s all working, and that’s cool!
But we’ve also learned tons about the game experience. Because it’s multiplayer in a shared world, players can use the tools in so many different ways, like the ability to steal a chest off someone else, which is effectively stealing progress, right? Like, you could see that as an hour’s worth of progress for people. We’ve been putting that in, and testing it, and seeing how players are reacting. How many people are doing this to each other? And our telemetry was saying that about 5% of chests that get cashed-in are stolen. That’s really interesting! And our players aren’t reacting badly to it. We’re kind of scratching that itch, I think, of those who want to go and do it, those that want to just mess with other people and do that, but it’s not happening loads. Plus, it’s not like players are like, ‘Oh god, that’s happened to me again,’ because it’s infrequent enough that it’s mostly a pretty cool moment in a cool story – but we couldn’t know that until we tested it.
It’s the same thing with how often players want to encounter other ships, too. That’s probably the biggest thing that we’ve learned, using a mixture of data from telemetry, surveys, player feedback and stuff. We also understand a lot more about what our players want in the future, so we’ve looked at our roadmap and made adjustments. This type of game needs a positive, engaged, welcoming community, that are knowledgeable. They’re gonna help new players. They’re gonna be making tutorial videos. They’re going to bring people into their crew. And so we’ve built this massive, positive, engaged community, and it blows my mind. The game’s not out yet, and we’ve already got so many super fans, we could have a Sea Of Thieves festival! It’s the most fun and welcoming multiplayer game ever. That’s our ambition.
We’ve always been really keen to maintain the bond between your crew – that’s sacred – and then the encounters with other crews is where you get that real pirate-y action, the skullduggery. Our community on the forums, they have their own set of rules, kind of like a pirate’s code. And one of those is that you’re not allowed to swear on the forums, which is kind of funny because I’ve been modded twice by our community!
We’ve got a bunch of people we call the ‘deckhands’, who are people we’ve appointed to moderate the community, and they love catching me swearing, because I just get passionate about things. I love that they’re doing that. So I’m going to work with our community to create a pirate’s code for the game, because we want people to be respectful in this game. We want to set out our stand early, but work with our community to set the right sort of guidelines, the right sort of rules, and work with them to enforce it. I’d love it if this was someone’s first multiplayer game – you know, they’ve never really wanted to get into it before, they’ve just been put off by the fact it’s really competitive or it could be toxic. We could make something that’s far more welcoming but still amazing fun. The Insider Program is basically our way of building that positive community, and learning how to manage and communicate with a community. We send them weekly Insider emails, we give them early access to the videos we create, we engage a ton on the forums with them.
We’ve also been looking at what players are doing and what stories they’re telling. During the first ever play session we had of Sea Of Thieves with real players, we were sat there in our board room with loads of screens, and after about four minutes somebody died. We all just realised, ‘That was the first person to ever die in our game. That’s kind of cool!’ And we thought, ‘We should do something about that.’ So now, on the Ferry of the Damned (the ghost ship in the game that you go to when you die) his Gamertag is scratched into the wood by the door, and it will be there forever as part of the lore. We’ve been layering more and more things in like this. There’s a guy called Amir, and when we first put fall damage into the game and we were testing it out, he basically killed himself 39 times via fall damage to test it out. And so there’s a skeleton stuck in the sand upside down, with just his little legs poking out, with his name scratched on a rock next to him.
When we lift NDA there are going to be so many stories, and we can go to town. We can rename parts of the world. We can do anything – we want to build the lore of the world up around player activities. When Amir found out about this, he wrote us an email saying “In all my years of gaming, all the achievements I’ve ever earned, this is the biggest achievement I’ve ever had, to see my contribution and my impact rewarded like this.” This is all happening with a game that isn’t out yet! It means that when the time comes that we do allow everyone else in, there’s already gonna be tons of people playing it, and tons of positive people.
It means we’ve got this amazing level of awareness for a new IP that wouldn’t necessarily exist for another game. New IP is hard to launch, right? We’re working so that by the time we do actually get the broadest audience in, it’s smooth sailing – for want of a better pun.
I think that’s ultimately where players will go with this. They’ll want to become legends of the game, and we’ll be looking to support that. We’ve already got them! Everybody knows who @ClumsyGeorge is in our community, or @KattTruewalker, or, @IOnEI-Falcon. I can reel all of these names off because they’re amazingly positive supportive members of the community. So that’s why we used the Insider Program.
OXM: Another thing that we saw at the E3 briefing was the Xbox One X.
JN: Yes, yes we did. It was the first time I’ve seen it as well.
OXM: Will Sea Of Thieves be supporting that, enhanced for the One X?
JN: Of course it will! We only got the dev kits into Rare about a month before E3. Still, we got it up and running super quick, like, in half a day or something. We kind of said, ‘Oh right, this might be easier than we thought.’ That’s been the story across every developer, I think. They’re like, ‘Wow, this is powerful.’ We’re going to be really getting to grips now we’re back from E3, but because we’re on Windows 10 PC as well as Xbox One, we’re already set up to support 4K. We’ve got all the assets built, we’ve put all the work in, we’ve got HDR…
But I think one of the most special things for me about the look of the game is that across a wide range of devices, from a minimum-spec PC all the way up to a 4K monster our game looks great because we purposefully made this timeless art style. It’s not something that relied on the latest technological advancements to look great – and I say that in a positive way. We didn’t want it to suddenly look shit in a year’s time, right? We want this game to last for years, and we don’t want to have to be constantly updating it and chasing our tails. So it’s going to look great across all devices, and it’s obviously gonna look the best on Xbox One X, but we’re trying to push the min spec down as low as possible on PC because we want as many players to have the opportunity to play this.
OXM: How will the Xbox One X change gaming? Is there something you’re really excited to do with it? do you think 4K is going to be a huge deal?
JN: I think it is. It blew my mind seeing our game in 4K at E3, because we’ve only got about four 4K TVs in the studio at the moment. I hadn’t actually seen it yet in 4K. We’d been recording it in 4K but I’d been reviewing the 1080p version I guess. And so when I saw it at E3, it was like, ‘Ha, okay, well, that’s crisp.’ It’s amazing to see how good our game does look like that. Of course it’s a step forward, and of course our game is going to look better in 4K with HDR. But we don’t want to alienate any member of our audience, because it’s their choice what device they want to play on. We want to make a game that just sings on all of them, right? There also shouldn’t be an advantage on any of them. The draw distance needs to be the same [across every device] so you can’t see ships from further away on a more powerful machine. With Xbox Play Anywhere and Cross Play and all that kind of stuff, we can have everybody playing together, and we can take down the barriers.
I was blown away by a couple of the 4K games on Xbox One X at E3. Metro looks incredible, and obviously Forza does too. That’s super cool and super inspiring to see. It’s gonna be really fun for us to get to grips with the console more, and really figure out what we can do with it for Sea Of Thieves.
OXM: You mentioned that people are already playing the game. How can players get early access to Sea Of Thieves this year?
JN: If players want to get involved, they should go and sign up for the Insider Program, because we’re constantly growing the amount of people that are playing. You can help us shape the game into the game you want it to be! Don’t wait until down the line and then say, ‘Oh, this isn’t quite what I wanted or expected.’ We’re taking feedback all the time. You can be part of a really cool, positive community! I think we’re doing it differently, and we’re doing it for good reasons. Of course, if you just want to wait until early 2018, you’ll be able to get your hands on it then. But there’s opportunities to play it beforehand if you want.
This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.