Tales from the development of Sea of Thieves

Mermaids and emotion and post-it notes.

Just before the New Year, in what I can only imagine was a fairly obvious attempt to avoid family at the holidays, Rare game designer Gregg Mayles started looking through a collection of images and documents from the early days of Sea of Thieves development.

…I’ve been looking back through the huge haul of documents and images I have got from the development of Sea Of Thieves. I’ll share a few and see if anyone is interested!

His first tweet was an absolute cracker!

Sea Of Thieves started off life as a chat with @SimonSorcerer about ‘deep emotional player engagement’ combined with playing a board game called Werewolves at lunch. This was turned into a series of design challenges that in turn became a concept called ‘Group Shaped Narrative’

Here we see core ideas that have very obviously informed the design and development of the game. Concepts like ‘deep emotional player engagement’ and ‘Group Shaped Narrative’ (later reworded to ‘Players Creating Stories Together’, soft skills vs hard skills, conversation and communication, evoking a broad range of emotions – these are clear and present in the game today. It’s a huge testament to the dedication of the team and Rare leadership that Sea of Thieves today holds so true to these original ideas.

Sea of Thieves may never have had pirates in it. Take a look at some of the never-been-seen-before alternatives that we had on the shortlist of how to bring the ‘players creating stories together’ concept to life [link]

Sea of Thieves as Starship Troopers would have been quite something! But as Design Director, Mike Chapman, says

Who wouldn’t choose pirates? Being in a pirate crew, working together to sail a ship, going on adventures, all while sharing the world with other crews was the perfect way to express the vision for the game

Next up was prototyping. The team added tons of features to “establish the fun”.

We created an extensive Sea Of Thieves prototype with hundreds of features to show what the game would be, prove out tricky bits and establish the fun. Many features made it into the game, others will in 2019 but some will never be seen. Had to blank a few spoilers! [link]

It’s interesting to see how many blacked out post-its there are, especially around abilities and player-loss!

We used Dr. Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Human Emotions to ensure Sea Of Thieves achieved its aim of invoking a broad range of emotions. After each playtest, we asked players to share their stories. Here’s a few, including when and played [link]

Continual focus on a players experiencing a range of emotions here. We all feel a few of these when a kraken, skelly ship and meg all spawn at once.

We wanted Sea of Thieves to appeal to a broad audience, so we created some ‘beard’ personas using team members and aligned different parts of the game against them. You might recognise , and under their elaborate disguises. [link]

Personas are often used in proving out user experiences. Here (along with the early game name, Athena) we see a cross section of gamers who might have different focusses like combat, manipulation, risk, expression, exploring.

Making Sea of Thieves a first person viewed adventure game wasn’t the obvious choice, so we created a document to educate everyone why it was right for the game. [link]

It’s interesting that the team put work into proving first-person as an important concept. First-person is largely understood to be more immersive, but it’s interesting to see the mockups above and think about how tactility, intimacy and feeling fit into the experience of playing the game. Comparing the experience of the live game to the third-person examples in the mockups is particularly jarring. Mike nails it with the shark example here. We all know the feeling of swimming back to the ship and hearing a crew mate yell “there’s a shark behind you!”

It was vital that we set the tone of Sea of Thieves right. We wanted it to have the fun and charm of classic Rare games, but it also needed be relevant to a modern audience. We also wanted players to be able to influence the tone of how they played [link]

These theme documents are astounding. They succinctly describe so much of the Sea of Thieves experience with remarkable clarity. Mike Chapman adds:

Rather than just delivering humour to players, the focus was on giving them the tools to make their own humour. This approach, plus the ‘believable, but not realistic’ approach to the mechanics and world aimed to give the experience a unique feel.

A topical one here as some new players (who focus on a very particular play style: sneaking aboard ships or camping outposts) have requested the ability to manually call for a mermaid, essentially removing the possibility for an opposing crew to spot them.

Some features caused us sleepless nights trying to get them right. Not having a ship or not being on the ship was one. We tried giving players rowboats to row to outposts and rescue ships that popped up from the sea, but finally came up with the idea of Mermaids [link]

That “tic tac” mermaid is the stuff of nightmares. Mike Chapman adds:

Principally, we didn’t want the mechanic to be triggerable by players. This would have led to a convoluted set of rules around when and where it could be used. Representing the mechanic as mermaids means it’s a force within the world, rather than under direct player control.

Andrew Preston and Joe Neate expanded on Mermaids in a recent game stream.

How players started Sea Of Thieves could have been unnecessarily complex. A disgruntled-looking  (pictured) is the example-player here faced with choices that were eventually removed or made redundant, all in the aim of getting people to play together with as few barriers as possible [link]

Mike adds:

The addition of voting on a voyage and the simplicity of lobbies per ship type allowed us to strip back to a far simpler main menu. Ultimately, this was consistent with our minimal UI approach across the game. Our goal was to get players immersed in the world as fast as possible.

With this in mind, it’ll certainly be interesting to see how the lobbies (and hot tubs) work in The Arena when it eventually launches.

Getting the balance of loss right in Sea Of Thieves took many many revisions and discussions. Prototype treasure chests had items inside that were safe from loss, but it felt too safe in a pirate game…

An interesting change here. The fact that your loot is up for grabs until you sell it has become a core motivator in the game. Mike adds:

By being able to pick up and carry treasure chests, therefore deferring the reward inside, they became a powerful catalyst in creating player stories. An example of a small iteration that radically changed adventures.

On the topic off ‘loss’…

For many months in Sea Of Thieves, items like shovels and compasses were temporarily owned things shared between players that created social gameplay. Eventually, an unpopular-at-the-time change was made to make items permanently owned by all players, but it was a necessary step [link]

Some observers may remember some early alpha videos where only one crew member could hold a map, and had to direct other players where to go on the larger islands. I can understand why some of the development team were so attached to the idea of temporary items, but the Item Recovery Chest seems mental when you think about it. Mike expands:

Temporary ownership of items strengthened the dynamic role changing nature of the game, with crewmates sharing the tools they needed to succeed. While a great feature with friends in isolation, ultimately a change needed to be made to support a wider variety of session types.

Related to temporary items: personal storage chests!

At the start of Sea Of Thieves, the team took a trip to some sailing ships. Sailors kept all their possessions in personal chests, which was a feature we had for a while when items were temporary. had her key stolen and thrown overboard, so she couldn’t use her items! [link]


Avoiding crew disharmony became a design principle, leading to important changes like persistent player items and shared rewards. Nothing symbolised crew disharmony better than when a crewmate raided your personal chest, before firing your favourite cutlass out of a cannon.

The player titles in Sea of Thieves were originally part of a much bigger reputation system, that allowed hilarious but ultimately shallow misrepresentation. Much was scrapped, although it was fun falsely reporting to the Pirate Lord as a coward repeatedly. [Link]

Progression is always a point of contention when discussing Sea of Thieves, especially with new players. It’s a ‘different’ type of multiplayer game in many ways, and a complete lack of power-progression is a big part of that.

Several times in Sea Of Thieves development we had permanent upgrades to power. It would have worked, but we felt ensuring everyone could play together was more important. I think more temporary power upgrades like the Cursed Cannonballs and Gunpowder Barrels are the right fit. [link]

Mike weighs in:

Decisions like this were made to enrich, rather than hinder the core vision of the game. It also allowed players to sail and adventure anywhere seamlessly. No concept of ‘starter areas’ and embarking on a new voyage could be as simple as putting a map on the captain’s table.

A single, persistent world, with islands that balance hand crafted charm with being able to host all quests was quite a challenge in Sea Of Thieves. Smugglers Bay was always a favourite, but I have a particular soft spot for the amazing Franco’s Hideout that sadly didn’t make it [link]

Hellfire Peak! Devil’s Nest! Blind Man’s Bluff!

Mike again:

Islands began with a design brief, before moving on to white box testing in the prototype, all while simultaneously being built in Unreal. At the start of development we briefly considered procedural generation, but quickly discounted this given the handcrafted feel we wanted.

Related: Mike talks about blocking.

Getting feedback to make the game better has been important to Sea Of Thieves since the start, whether by post-its during prototyping or social media after launch. We even tried to get an in-game feedback system working, but the Captain’s Log was never quite good enough [link]

Feedback from the community really has driven the game to the place it’s in today, culminating with Shrouded Spoils and with the Arena coming soon to the Pioneers testing group. It’s interesting to see that a tangible in-game feedback tool was prototyped. Mike mentions here how involving players in shaping the game was something new for Rare:

Creating a new IP set in a shared world and the ‘tools not rules’ design philosophy required a new approach to development at Rare. The inventiveness of players and how they use mechanics leads to constant surprise, with invaluable feedback continuing to help shape the game.

Here’s one of the very first ships to set sail for adventure in Sea Of Thieves, didn’t go that well! Despite it’s aesthetically-challenging appearance, you can see the basic layout of the Galleon changed little. If only and would show us their first version. [link]

I love seeing white-box mockups of the game. As Gregg mentions, the galleon layout is largely set at this point, flips aside.

We’re expecting cooking to come into the game soon, but what about crafting? Gregg treats us to a wide selection of post-it notes here detailing some crafting ideas along with a few redacted ones:

We considered a fun crafting system for Sea Of Thieves for a while. The Sniper Musket was implemented and it was great, but when items became permanent rather than temporary it regrettably ruled the system out. Still would love to swim after someone with the ‘Golden Oars’ though…

Death Cake! Wet Suit! Fireworks! If these are the kind of wacky ideas they had then I can’t wait to see the ones that actually make it in!

We’re all very familiar with digging up treasure. Here’s the very first iteration of it (complete with terrifying tic-tacs and a poking stick).

Digging up treasure chests was one of the first things we put into Sea Of Thieves. Here’s footage from a very early version, where chest contents were taken by individuals and the decision to share was optional. As time went on, we had to make this fairer to keep the crew bonded.

Before the Shroud (what players colloquially refer to as “the red”) there was the edge of the world…

Before Sea Of Thieves had the Devil’s Shroud surrounding its waters, we had the edge of the world as a giant waterfall that could be sailed over. While it looked and felt dramatic, it made the world feel like a giant suspended island – so reluctantly it had to go

Mike adds:

The edge of the world was a fantastical touch that we all loved, but with our plans to continually expand the game, the introduction of the Devil’s Shroud gave us an in world justification for expanding seas as well as the lore of finding safe passage to the Sea Of Thieves itself.

And it sounds like Andy Preston never quite let go of the romanticism of The Edge.

I loved the edge of the world waterfalls, it was so dramatic having a ship battle near the edge! We also planned to have a tavern on the edge of the waterfalls so players could share a grog or two and soak in the glorious views!

Darkness in Sea Of Thieves was originally VERY dark. If you had no lanterns on your ship you couldn’t see where you were going. Forget to take a lantern onto an island and you’d be lost when it got dark. Powerful emotions, but an experience we felt was too harsh [link]

Speaking of darkness, what about this for some nightmare fuel:

Before Sea Of Thieves had Skeletons, it had THE DWELLERS! Devoid of emotion, these pitiless horrors would chase you all the way back to your blocky ship in their massive gangs! [link]

This ends the round up so far. We’ll continue add updates for as long as Gregg continues to share from his glittering hoard of development materials.

We’ll start a new post collating Gregg’s SH*T IDEAS tweets soon.

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