PlayStation, ahoy! How Rare’s pirate adventure Sea of Thieves set sail for a new platform

<span>‘It’s another way to fall in love with the game’ … Sea of Thieves.</span><span>Photograph: Microsoft</span>
‘It’s another way to fall in love with the game’ … Sea of Thieves.Photograph: Microsoft

One evening many months ago, Mike Chapman, the creative director of the co-op pirate adventure game Sea of Thieves, sat down to play the game with producer Joe Neate. This wasn’t just a standard playtest – joining them online would be a crew of players they’d never taken to the ocean with before. It was a team from Sony Interactive Entertainment. The plan to bring the Xbox exclusive to PS5 had just been hatched; now it was time to get into the detail. “We were educating them about the game, talking through what was special about it,” says Neate. “It was so surreal,” chips in Chapman. “Trying to find treasure on an island with a group from a different platform holder …”

The PS5 launch is scheduled for 30 April, and pre-orders are now open, but it’s only the latest stage in the evolution of this fascinating game. Launched on 20 March 2018, it was the most ambitious project in the long history of veteran British studio Rare. Billed as a cooperative pirate adventure, Sea of Thieves gave players access to a vast multiplayer world of oceanic exploration, buried treasure and ship-to-ship battles. The design philosophy behind the game was simple, yet extremely risky: tools not rules. Players would be given everything they needed to set out on their own pirate adventures – even musical instruments and gallons of virtual grog – but there would be no overarching narrative, no skill trees, no complex character progression systems. The stories would come from the players themselves, as they built their crews and fought other buccaneers for fame and fortune.

After a shaky launch, hampered by technical glitches, Sea of Thieves found its audience and thrived. Since that day in 2018, there have been around 100 updates and expansions, including adventures based on Pirates of the Caribbean and Monkey Island. New mechanics such as commodities and captaincies have added fresh depths to the experience, but Chapman believes that the longevity of the game has come down to carefully ensuring player agency and supporting role play. “We empower players with really simple tools and they can bring their own creativity in,” he says. “We’ve tried our best to stay true to that.”

Supporting a varied community has also been vital. “I think that’s a part of the hidden work of making a shared world,” he says. “If you add a mechanic into the game, the mechanic itself can be really simple, but it has to respect the fact that it’s going into a shared world. It’s a bunch of motivations coming together in a shared space, and the mechanic will be used in different ways depending on if a player is traditionally a PvP [player versus player] or a PvE [player versus environment] style of player. So whenever we build any mechanic, we put a lot of thought into how it integrates into that world and how we could potentially create new metas that will lead to it thriving over many months and years, but also how we can design against metas emerging that we don’t want. It’s almost tapping into the player psychology of how they could use a new mechanic for good or for bad, and trying to design something that leads to, in the majority of cases, the stories that we want to see. More and more, that’s where our design team is focused.”

So what was it like to face the prospect of opening the game to a whole new community? “At a leadership level, when we first heard about this as a possibility, it was excitement first. Then: ‘OK, how are we gonna do this?’” says Neate. “The fact we’d already gone to a different platform with Steam helped us to face not only the technical challenge but, also, how to start engaging with a different community in different places and build that reputation.

“This is the first time in Rare’s 40-year history that we’re developing on a Sony platform, which is incredible. It was quite surreal for us, getting on a call and being presented with a set of slides about a platform that we never thought we would get an opportunity to go ship on. But honestly, for our tech team, it was like: ‘Let’s just get kits in and start experimenting and figuring this out.’ We had them hidden away in a secret part of the studio with frosted windows and no one could peek in. It was excitement as much as anything else.”

According to Neate, Rare is working with co-developers who have PlayStation experience, and Sony itself has been extremely helpful, holding regular catchup calls and making its own tech staff available whenever needed – even when the project was still top secret. “If we went and visited their studios, we had to do it not wearing Sea of Thieves T-shirts, as I’m sure you can imagine,” says Neate.

One huge benefit of preparing to welcome a new community is that it has given the team an excuse to stop and think about the game’s structure. Season 11 of the game, which launched in January, was developed with the knowledge that PS5 players would be joining soon, so the onboarding system has been revised. It now offers a much more cogent pirate journey, with content unlocking at a more manageable pace, and a quest board showing where to find new stuff that was once hidden in artefacts or map icons. Rare is also planning to introduce an offline solo mode with the March update. “You won’t need Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus,” says Neate. “If you just want to come and play on your own, you’ll get to play Safer Seas as a solo player so you can experience all of the Tall Tales content and all of the progression through the companies. It’s another way to fall in love with the game before thinking ‘maybe I wanna go get that subscription and start playing multiplayer’.”

Rare is keen to point out, however, that while its recent work has been focused on making a more approachable and intuitive experience, with one eye on the incoming PS5 community, there are more ambitious plans afoot. Longterm fans have been asking for new mechanics, new systems, new tools – and they’re coming.

“What we’ve done, throughout last year, is really expand the boundaries of what the Sea of Thieves experience is,” says Chapman. “You can own your own ship. You can be part of a pirate guild. You’ve got the quest table. You’ve got revised tutorials, you can come into the game and play Safer Seas and spend all your time there and, as Joe says, play all of the many hours of story content in that way. Now we’ve expanded the boundaries of what Sea of Thieves is, and we’ve got this new foundational experience, it’s about enriching that. Let’s build on captaincy, let’s build on guilds. The year ahead for us is all about the sandbox.”

It’s been a long journey since that launch six years ago and Chapman and Neate, who have been here since the beginning, seem as enthused as ever. “Going into this with the new platform as well is incredibly exciting,” confirms Chapman. “I think we’ve set ourselves up for many more years of an evolving game.”