Everyone was assigned random pirates in the closed beta, and while that will be the case in the finished game, you'll be able to choose which random pirate you want to play. There's a fairly wide variety of avatars on display, and if you don't like the selection, the game can generate more random pirates with one press of a button.
The idea is to encourage players to try a character type they wouldn't normally pick, instead of crafting a digital potato based on your own head as with most character creators.
After Sea of Thieves' closed beta, I was left impressed by the emergent potential of its world but also wondering what I'd be doing in the game after a couple of weeks. Last Monday I visited Rare, and the developer explained its vision of how it will all come together at launch. With a clear endgame, difficult skeleton fort raids and the ever-present threat of a kraken that can attack multiple ships at once, I'm convinced that I'll be playing it for at least a couple of months.
Pirate legend status is your overarching goal in Sea of Thieves. Rare has alluded to this before in one of the game's countless community videos—it's unlocked by building your reputation with the game's three trading companies, as well as by proving yourself to other NPCs who will populate the game's world at launch.
The reward, besides the status itself, is a secret pirate hideout that only legends can access—and I'm seeing it for the first time. "When you become a pirate legend, you discover a secret and get access to a key, shall we say, that gives you access to this location," explains design director Mike Chapman. "It's seamlessly hidden in the world. It's not loading off a menu. It was already in our closed beta, but no one could become pirate legend and unlock it—but it was there." This cove, which reminds me of The Goonies, contains a ship that's been retrofitted into a pub—the Tavern of Legends, along with another, seemingly functional ship beside it. Pirate legends, who appear as ghosts, live in the tavern. They include the pirates from the game's E3 2016 trailer. It's nice to see promotional characters go to a good home.
Everything in Sea of Thieves is built not just to enhance the experience for one player, but for everyone, whether they sail with you or not. Skeleton forts are a good example of this—they're difficult, horde mode-like islands full of skeleton enemies to take out, by any means you can. The goal then is to take out the captain and grab a heap of treasure.
Everyone on your server will be able to see a skeleton fort marker, as above, so competition might be fierce. And there's so much desirable treasure that no one crew can carry it all by themselves. Do you form fragile alliances and divide it up? Or do you fight a tiring war of attrition until it gets so late that one crew logs off and goes to bed?
These NPCs will hint at future content coming to Sea of Thieves, which is enticing, but achieving legend status may not be easy. I ask Chapman how long it'll take to reach this point in the game. "Highly variable," he says. "You could be a day one player, you sneak aboard a ship and it's full of captain's chests—the most rewarding chests in the game. You steal them all and take them back to an outpost. And you're going to earn loads of gold and reputation." That's an efficient way of getting further on that path. Then again, diversions might slow your journey to becoming a legend. Everyone's progression there will be different.
"The time it takes to get there is highly variable—and that's going to be fascinating, because players who are truly incredible at this game are going to get there much faster, by playing like pirates. Taking down skeleton forts and being really good at it. They're going to get there before anyone else. I'm sure a couple of weeks after launch, that super invested player is going to get there. And they're going to become a celebrity in our community—they're the first pirate to find the pirate hideout. Our first pirate legend. Then our second pirate legend, third, fourth..."
Chapman shows me more of the Tavern of Legends. "Up here you see the pirate lord, who will give you legendary voyages, which are the most challenging and rewarding. They offer unique rewards in the game, that you can only access when you're a pirate legend. Because of that mechanic, you can choose to share your legendary voyages with others." Being a legend doesn't cut you off from other players—you can embark on legendary quests even if you're not a legend yourself, and a legendary pirate can take up to three pals down to the hideout.
"They can't get access to a legendary voyage unless they're with you, but that idea of, I want to make friends and play with pirate legends because it means something special, because I can get this level of reward I can't get with anyone else. And what's in those ancient chests, what's in these chests reserved for pirate legends, is a special set of clothing, weapons and ship cosmetics that are a step beyond. These are the things built out of kraken bones. You can dress like skeletons. This is the elite level of cosmetics that you can only get by completing those voyages. But the cool thing is that, they're physical just like everything else." Every item is cosmetic in Sea of Thieves—the meaning comes in what an item might represent, in terms of the voyages you've finished.
I wonder if it really will take two weeks for someone to reach the hideout, given how nothing seems to stay secret for more than about ten seconds in games these days. It's not just an achievement for the players who put the hours in, though—it'll change the way other players see you in the world. "You see a pirate legend in the world. You sneak aboard their ship, and they've got the ancient chest that you can't get access to and you steal it. What an amazing story that is. Or you sink a pirate legend ship. So that endgame is there for launch: this hidden pirate hideout, and the allure that comes with it."
Stories about Sea of Thieves' kraken have been doing the rounds since we first caught a glimpse of it in a 2016 trailer (see above). During my trip, Rare revealed more about what it is (if the datamine didn't already give some bits away)—they don't think of the kraken as a boss, but more of a force of nature, like the storms in the game. "It's something that can strike mercilessly at any time," Chapman says. "Players will have a limited amount of warning. There's an inky mass in the water, which is your clue that there is a kraken there, but when it strikes, what it does and how it prioritises is different each time. You could have three ships attacked simultaneously by those eight tentacles. It can wrap the ship, it can rock the ship and put damage in it. You could slash a tentacle and get ink in your face—you're stumbling around the deck with this ink in your face."
"The tentacle can pick you up and throw you, it can dunk you into the water and drown you. It can slam you against the water's surface with these tentacles that can wrap multiple ships at the same time. What it does is a reflection of what type of ship it is, how many ships are around at that time. This thing is designed to be replayable. You could be the one that saves a bunch of ships from the kraken by getting it to flee, or you could be the one who comes along afterwards, and pick up the chests from the wreckage after it's sunk two ships. Point is, it's going to play differently each time."
Rare only teased the kraken with some dramatic footage instead of letting us fight it, so I have no idea if battling it will actually be fun or not. I hope it is. The spectacle of an encounter like this is extremely appealing, and I can definitely see these different opportunistic scenarios playing out in its wake.
The Merchant Alliance, one of the game's three trading companies, will reward you for finding rare breeds of animal across the world. At launch, expect pigs, snakes and chickens. Pigs need feeding to stay alive, snakes can poison you (but can be charmed with music) and chickens will make loud noises, which might alert other crews to their presence. It'd also be a hell of a battle cry, having a chicken go off before you start firing the cannons against an enemy ship.
The animals can also drown, get hit by lightning and be blown up with gunpowder, so it could be a heartbreaking line of work. Rare mentions that snakes can be used as makeshift traps for boarding crews, too, so they'll give you another thing to consider on your journey. This addresses our wish for more stuff to do while you're sailing, in Sea of Thieves—I just wish I could name the chickens to maximise my emotional investment. I'd call one Clive.
Executive producer Joe Neate tells me what he sees as the step beyond pirate legend status post-launch, building on the idea of the hideout and bespoke voyages. "The first update we want to deliver to pirate legends, the most engaged of our player base, is the ability to be able to captain ships. Become a pirate legend, and you'll get the ability to captain and own ships from that hideout. So when you're out in the world, people will see you and know that you are a pirate legend. Players will start becoming the Blackbeards and Black Pearls of our pirate world. We always want to have new things our pirate legends can aspire to, but also new things for everyone to have and do." Instead of beginning the game in taverns, legends will start the game in the hideout, and take charge of the legendary ship there.
"You sail out through the waterfall, and you explode out into the world like Davy Jones or how Batman leaves the Batcave," explains Chapman. "And when people see your legendary ship, they know that's the ship of a pirate legend, and they know what that means. You've got that whole grey area of, should I take down the pirate legend? What an amazing story it would be: we took down a pirate legend ship. We stole an ancient chest from a pirate legend, what a great story. So [we'll have] new ways to progress for pirate legends [for post-launch], but new ways to enrich the journey for people who aren't yet legends."
There's a lot of talk of limited time events, too. Rare might just tweak the rules of the world and change the direction of the wind, or send all voyages to the same location for the day or change the numbers behind the water. Rare has prototyped alliances, too, and it's already happening organically in the game—they might just officially support it as well.
The types of quest will change as trading companies come and go. You've got three at launch, which lean towards finding chests, combat challenges and delivering animals from across the world, but Chapman also alludes to a fourth. Whether that journey to becoming a pirate legend is compelling enough depends on if each set of voyages can continue to amuse players—it can't feel like a grind, or players won't carry on. I'm convinced by Rare's vision, though, and it sounds like plans are afoot to add major features on a quarterly basis. I'd love to see this colourful world evolve, and for it to keep presenting new reasons for me and my friends to come back.
Deciding what counted as enough content for a full launch, then, was tough for Rare. "That's been a real challenge, because everything is additive," Chapman says. "Everything complements each other. You want enough directed goals, but also enough emergent potential. You want enough things like skeleton forts, messages in bottles and lost artefacts in caves that take you off the beaten track. So narrowing it down to, what will make people fall in love with it at launch, what's going to make people understand the core vision—that's tough. But beyond that? There's loads of potential to keep going."