Feature Article

Sea Of Thieves' "Tools, Not Rules" Design Keeps It Unique Four Years Later

With Season 7 and the major new captaincy update, Rare further separates Sea of Thieves from being quite like anything else.

Sea of Thieves is raising anchor and dropping sails for its seventh season, which is now live. The free update is headlined by its new suite of captaincy features, which allows players to name their ship, customize the Captain's Cabin, and embark on all-new Captain's Voyages, among many other new tools. For both Rare and longtime players, this update feels a bit like a culmination of the past four years as much as it is a new chapter.

The features coming to the game in Season 7 have been long-in-development and long-requested, but they also look to reshape the game in some major ways for years to come. I recently caught up with Sea of Thieves creative director Mike Chapman and lead designer Shelly Preston to discuss the voyage so far, Season 7's major update, and what else might be on the horizon for the game. More than anything, I wanted to know why Sea of Thieves still has no close comparison in the video game world. Where are the Sea of Thieves-likes?

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Now Playing: Be More Captain: Official Sea of Thieves Season Seven Deep Dive

"I think if you'd asked us that question in 2018, I think we would have expected, by now, to maybe at least see the DNA or the inspiration," Chapman said, adding that the team would welcome more games where "the core of the gameplay is driven by player-to-player interaction." Still, the pair made it clear that though they may be lacking direct competition, they're not lacking in inspiration. The game itself still provides plenty.

"Sea of Thieves is built on this pirate fantasy that everybody's got an idea of, but it kind of means slightly different things to different people," Preston said. "To some people, it might be the more cutthroat, bloodthirsty battles, or to somebody else, it might mean the wonder of setting sail and not quite knowing what's over the horizon. And the fact that we can create different aspects that speak to all of those, but then it's inhabited by players who are all unique individuals, like you can't you can't engineer that, that people are people. And they're in this world together[...]I don't think it'll ever not be inspiring to us creatively."

Even expansive open worlds such as GTA Online, Fallout 76, and No Man's Sky, though they each feel like Sea of Thieves in different ways, never really capture the unique cadence of Rare's pirate game. The open-endedness of its goal is almost antithetical to most live-service games that can feel so relentless and reward-focused. Sea of Thieves has plenty of rewards for players, but more than other games, it feels like the journey is the destination.

The shared open-world setting gives players the paintbrushes, but doesn't tell them what to paint. To put it succinctly, consider the team's motto, which Chapman says he may just have to get tattooed on his back: "tools, not rules."

Thus, the Season 7 update is a bookend of sorts, the beginning of a new chapter in the game's history that serves veteran players with brand-new ways to experience the open world, while also giving brand-new players a more robust onboarding of tools.

Players seeking to be Captains can now purchase a ship of their own with in-game gold they earn from adventuring. They can then name it and customize their cabins with a new class of unlockable decor and cosmetic items meant to wordlessly tell each Captain's story. Stock your shelves with Tall Tales trinkets to fondly recall your first trek to the Shores of Gold, or fill the room with fiery statuettes if your grandest adventure unfolded in The Devil's Roar, Sea of Thieves' volcanic biome that serves as something like the game's hard mode.

A Captain's Cabin will reflect their lived experiences like never before.
A Captain's Cabin will reflect their lived experiences like never before.

Each Captain's ship will tell their tale however they see fit, much like Day-One eyepatches, Pirate Legend hooks, and Wild Rose jackets do for the swashbucklers themselves. Optional cosmetic loadouts mean your ship will retain its aesthetic, right down to the patched-up holes in the hull, if you so wish. The Sea of Thieves community is big on role-playing--seriously, check Twitter, where many of them tweet exclusively in-character. This attention to detail is for them, and is what Chapman called "little magical touches."

Another new wrinkle in the update is what Preston hesitated to label as quality-of-life features, including simplifying the early moments of a new session. "It's a balance," she told me. "We're adding new things and bringing in new features and continuing to grow, but the things that are there aren't going to get stale or left behind. They're going to come along for the journey."

Historically, players would awaken on an outpost and spend a few minutes stocking their ship full of fruits, wood planks, and cannonballs to better prepare for what may await them. But in the Captaincy update, Captains can shorten that process down to a simple transaction with the outpost's vendors: Give them a bit of gold, and your ship will be stocked instantly.

Such a feature doesn't just give future new players a different view on the game than that which long-timers had when they first arrived, it's there for seasoned players to move to as well. More than a quality-of-life fix, this system ties into allowing players to better role-play as a Captain of their own ship. The streamlining is almost like a bonus effect.

"I think as the game grows, it's worth thinking about all players, veteran players, new players, and also you feel it yourself," Preston said. "We can go back and we can say, 'There is a better way of doing this, we can improve this, we can bring something in that will make this more efficient for players.'"

Sovereign NPCs, dressed like the snooty powdered-wigs they like to think they are, now await at every outpost too, and they'll streamline your loot trade-ins by becoming a one-stop shop for selling chests, skulls, and more. But due to their exaggerated perception of themselves, they only deal with Captains--they haven't the time for a common buccaneer. Collectively, this and the other new systems--naming your ship, maintaining its image across sessions, and paying for a bit of extra service, is why Rare thinks of the Captaincy update as the VIP experience.

The Season 7 update scroll is longer than a Pirate Legend's to-do list.
The Season 7 update scroll is longer than a Pirate Legend's to-do list.

As a longtime fan of the game, it's clear to me that the breadth of new content in Season 7 makes it one of the biggest updates in the game's history, but with Captaincy finally being marked off the list, I wondered what remains on the players' wishlists.

"Something magical and unexpected, something that moves the story forward in big ways[...], all those little daydreams of 'I wish I could do this in Sea of Thieves.' I think we've got an example of features in production that tick all of those boxes," teased Chapman, stressing that it's too early to reveal exactly what he means.

"There are things that we've wanted to do for years, that perhaps the community don't know about that are kind of a more internal, we've-always-wanted-to-do-this type of release as well. So there's always a mix, there's community-requested stuff, the stuff that we've also wanted to do, and then there's stuff that's a bit more reactive[...]That's the beauty of a live-service."

"I think the game has become so much richer than what we first launched in 2018," Chapman said, "But it's never lost the heart."

Mark Delaney on Google+

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Mark Delaney

Mark is GameSpot's Guides Editor, meaning he tries to keep his backlog short. His favorite genres are battle royale, sports, and horror, but he'll play pretty much anything other than fighters or JRPGs. In his spare time, he likes biking around Portland, chasing Circa Survive across the country, and fighting for animal liberation.

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