Why Sea of Thieves is More Relevant Than Ever
There's something magical about sailing beautiful waters, hunting your fortune, and being a part of knee-slapping shenanigans. When Sea of Thieves first launched, it offered each of these in spades, from its endless treasures to the crazy and chaotic ship vs. ship combat and spectacular, watery vistas.
How did we get here? What about the core concept kept enough people interested over the last year that the Anniversary Update could create such an enormous splash?
I think are three factors at play: the overall feel of playing Sea of Thieves, the dedication of its developers, and the commitment of its community.
Sea of Thieves Feels Great to Play
One of the crowning achievements of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag was its ability to make you feel like the captain of a pirate ship, sailing the Carribean in search of riches. It was a little arcadey, sure, and combat was fairly abstracted, but there was enough raw enjoyment baked in that the gameplay concessions did nothing to hamper the experience.
Sea of Thieves took in-game sailing in a new direction, paring everything down to its essentials, shrinking the boats, and putting the player in complete control of their ship's destiny. You decide the length of every sail, the terms of every engagement, the board over every hull breach. Your ship — and therefore your pirate career — lives entirely in your hands.
That kind of freedom is intoxicating. You can be as efficient, as cruel, as kind, as slow, or as speedy as you could ever want, and no one, except maybe your crewmates, will tell you that you're playing the game wrong.
People will complain if you ruin their day, of course, taking down their ship and banking all their treasure, but they're just as likely to do it to you. You are free not only to play how you'd like but to trust who you'd like as well, and nine times out of ten, you should trust no one.
Which is why the PvP is so enjoyable. In the same way The Division's Dark Zones force players to gauge the likelihood of hostilities against pleasantries, every encounter in Sea of Thieves that doesn't involve skeletons is a high-tension moment. Add in several thousand gold coins and that tension ratches up at a breakneck pace.
And like The Division, you're free to avoid conflict altogether or seek it out around every island. The difference in Sea of Thieves is in its simplicity. There are only six different loadouts any player can choose from, making execution, surprise, underhandedness, and overall intelligence the real difference makers. One player won't beat another because they're better equipped. They'll win because they out-thought, out-gunned, or out-waited their opponent.
In other words, winning is almost always a test of pure player skill with as few additional factors as the game can allow. The only other tool players had before the Anniversary Update was the explosive barrel, and that was always a gamble.
Even fighting games give you more tools, as you need to know match ups, combos, timings, and so many other little factors. Here, all you have is your gun, your sword (if you so choose), your ship's cannons, and your wits and sailing abilities. Everything else has been cast aside.
Thankfully, even if you lose a huge haul, even if you know you aren't going to win your next gunfight, even if you feel like you wasted several hours searching for that big score, there's one thing you will never lose: the beautiful world.
Sea of Thieves works as well as it does for many reasons, but going from island to island in search of adventure wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable — or even as bearable — if the world wasn't magnificent to look at and listen to. The crest of the sun over the waves and the splash of the water on the sides of the boat pair so well with the creaking of the mast and fluttering of the sails. You'll be spending more time sailing than doing anything else, so it's a fortunate thing that the world around you is so artfully crafted.
Sea of Thieves Has The Support It Deserves
Rare is a studio with a storied, and sometimes unflattering, past. They're the studio responsible for some of the greatest games of the '90s. We're talking Killer Instinct, Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie, and of course, Goldeneye 007. They broke ground time and time again, pushing our medium in new and exciting directions whenever they got the chance.
They had a rough 2000's, forced to create motion control games, launch titles, and other games players found disappointing.
When they came to E3 2015 with Sea of Thieves, people saw a return to glory. This was the stylized, lovingly built world players had been waiting for. It had to be, right?
Kinda. As discussed above, the game needed help at launch, because while there was charm here, and that Rare magic reared its head from time to time, on the whole everything felt rushed, incomplete.
Then, as with other live games, Rare buckled down to build the game everyone hoped for when they first laid eyes on their ocean's blue waters.
But game development is time-consuming, and updates seemed sporadic at first, patches on a leaky hull. Even the more substantial content drops only satisfied for a short while. When we finally saw what Rare could do with enough time and resources — the Skeleton Ships and The Devil's Roar — did it seem like they were putting everything together.
Sea of Thieves wasn't changing, of course, and Rare had no pretensions of reworking the game from the ground up. The core of the game was solid, its loop enjoyable, and its world wondrous.
They instead decided to follow where their community led: player-centric, player-driven content. The kind of content that engaged the game's founding elements in new ways and pushed players to reevaluate how they approached their fun.
Rare never wavered from this philosophy. From their smallest updates to their largest, how we engaged with the world was always at the front of their mind. More importantly, the devs were communicative, receptive to feedback, and relatively consistent with how and when new adventures made sailed into Sea of Thieves.
The Sea of Thieves Community Wants to See it Shine
Many, many games cultivate a dedicated community that sticks with the game through thick and thin. They'll defend it on social media and sing its praises whenever the opportunity presents itself. Even the unfortunate Anthem retains a small cadre of players who believe in the game's potential and wants only to see it succeed.
The difference for Sea of Thieves is in how fully the community embraced it, warts and all. For all its faults, those who stuck with this game knew, and could give a clear vision for, what the game could become.
More than that, they loved playing with their friends and sharing in adventures with them; they loved being a part of a grand adventure whose only goals were those you created for yourself.
These shared connections and shared stories also made great fodder for one of our hobby's most powerful forces: influencers — streamers and YouTubers. Here was (is) a game that served two seemingly disparate purposes all at once. On the one hand, they could interact with chat during the plentiful downtime. On the other, when action invariably begins, they can provide their viewers with an often hilarious viewing experience.
It would prove to be a perfect storm, and Sea of Thieves drew the eye of some of Twitch's biggest names. Sure, it wouldn't be their main game, but it might offer something even more valuable: solace. Solace in the knowledge that if they wanted, they could have a completely chill experience. Solace in the fact they could seek excitement however they liked, and shift from high stress to low at the drop of a hat.
Sea of Thieves is a Good Game
There's no other way to say it, and at GameSkinny, we thought that might be the case.
I don't think the game needs any awards, even if it might deserve a few. I don't think anyone who's left it needs to come back, but I think they should. And I don't think there's any reason to ignore it now.
The Anniversary update — and all the other updates — have transformed a rough diamond into something resembling a lustrous gem in the sea sand.