Sea of Thieves Anniversary Hero Art

Miracle on the Sea of Thieves: How a Single Idea Powered a 10-Year Journey

Summary

  • On the fifth anniversary of Sea of Thieves, we spoke to key members of the team to learn about the very first ideas that sparked this project.
  • This retrospective includes never-before-told stories about the game’s creation.
  • Stay to the end to learn about everything Rare has on offer for the game’s fifth anniversary.

If you listen to enough developers talk about how they made their games, you’ll hear a phrase pop up repeatedly. It will sound something like this: every game that reaches release is a minor miracle. The act of creating a game, particularly a modern AAA game, is a turbulent process – the industry is full of stories about an early idea that undergoes huge transformations: genres change, settings shift, mechanics are invented and dropped. Many projects stop here, unable to fulfil their promise. Of those that make it through, many games – possibly most – will be released as something fundamentally different to how they were imagined in the first place.

Sea of Thieves does not share that story. Go back and read early interviews with the team at Rare, and you’ll realize this very quickly. Its developers were openly discussing features that would come to the game, years before they were playable, or sometimes even in development – not all of them even made it to the launch version, but almost every single one would eventually reach its pristine waters.

Celebrating its fifth anniversary today, Sea of Thieves is a very different and (excuse the pun) rarer kind of miracle. It’s a project that set up its core vision from the very beginning and – through a wild prototyping phase, a full shift in game engine, the choppy waters of launch, and its enormous growth since – never lost sight of the unique game it wanted to be. I had the chance to visit Rare ahead of the anniversary, and spoke to six people who were a part of the project from the very beginning, talking through how they made this miracle happen, the challenges they faced, and how, despite almost 10 years of development, Sea of Thieves only continues to grow.

The original talk wasn’t about an open-world adventure game about pirates. It was a very different game about spies.

Spies vs. Pirates

In 2013, in a meeting room set at the heart of Rare’s leafy, countryside campus, a small group of minds set out to decide what was next for the studio. After three Kinect Sports games, there was a desire to try something new, something radical. The fruits of that conversation are playable right now in the form of Sea of Thieves, a success story for Rare that changed how the studio makes games, how it thinks about new ones, and even the company motto.  But on that day, the talk wasn’t about an open-world adventure game about pirates. It was a very different game about spies.

“The earliest germ of an idea came out of us playing a party game called Werewolf, which is all about subterfuge,” says Creative Director Mike Chapman. “It’s about a game that showcases soft skills: verbal communication, social dynamics, player psychology. We were thinking: Is there a game that could showcase things like that?

“And we actually started with, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if it was about secret agents?’ Wouldn’t it be cool if I’m there completing my mission with you, but then you get a voice over the intercom saying, ‘Drop him.’ And you’ve got players tearing each other apart.”

The key idea here was about freedom, the ability to not just complete missions the game sets you, but set your own personal missions in a world with other players. The team came up with a mantra to encapsulate this: “Players Creating Stories Together.”

A month into the process, the team decided that the theme of spies wasn’t quite right, and didn’t offer the range of experiences Rare were looking for – but that Players Creating Stories Together very much did. So they went back to the literal drawing board. They toyed with various settings: games about dinosaurs, vampires, and more. But one idea stuck fast:

“What we liked about pirates is that the roles are defined,” explains Studio Head Craig Duncan. “The term ‘crew’ is already a small group of people going on adventure together. You could almost take the principles of the game we were thinking about and go, ‘Well, yeah, there’s no roles and goals – pirates play by their own rules, governed by their own sense of adventure.’ That can be motivated by wealth, or the spirit of the sea. So once we locked pirates in it was like, ‘That’s it. That works.’ And then you start all the hard work.”

It’s at this point, in early 2014, that Sea of Thieves was truly born. Four years ahead of launch, the team already had the driving force that makes up the entire game we know today – a game that offered a sea-blue slate to write your own stories on, and one that would evolve with the players over time, feeding new ideas into the mix as it grew. Now they just needed to find some designers to make it.

Thankfully, a solution was about to literally walk through their door. Around the same time, Rare had organized a game jam, and now-husband and wife design team Andy and Shelley Preston had assembled a group to work on a prototype they called Dead By Dawn.

Andy explains the concept: “It was a multiplayer experience where you had two teams within a map, and it was basically ‘build in the day, survive at night. But it had Sea of Thieves’ physicality, players running around together cooperating, using physical props to work together.”

A three-day jam saw Andy and Shelley’s little team get so wrapped up in their idea that they broke the rules and dedicated a month to the project, turning a tiny idea into a fully playable demo through relentless prototyping. Eventually, they decided to pitch it to Rare’s higher-ups – who happened be the people behind those early Sea of Thieves talks.

Andy grins as he recalls how well it went over: “[Producer Joe Neate] instantly said to [Creative Director Gregg Mayles], ‘See, this is what we should be doing, we should be building something. We shouldn’t be theorizing over paper one-sheets, we should actually be trying to build an experience together.”

Dead By Dawn was deemed a little too far outside of Rare’s normal output – but the way it had been made was exactly what the team behind the new pirate project had been looking for. Not long later, Andy and Shelley were called up to a boardroom, and told what they would work on next, with a familiar mantra at its heart:

“I can remember them standing in front of a whiteboard,” recalls Shelley. “It basically just said: ‘Players creating stories, sailing a pirate ship together.’ Everyone was really creatively open to what that could be like, and there was no real set remit. We just kind of jumped into a prototype and started creating.”

“Everyone was really creatively open to what that could be like, and there was no real set remit. We just kind of jumped into a prototype and started creating.”

Tools Not Rules

If you’ve watched Rare’s new documentary, you’ve seen the prototype. Created in the Unity engine, it was scrappy, ugly but, crucially, easy to work with. The team was able to come up with new ideas, and have them playable within the same day. It meant that Sea of Thieves emerged from the design depths incredibly quickly.

The game’s approach to ships – turning traditional gaming vehicles into something more like a level design players could move around through co-operation – came first. Then came the idea for a practically UI-less experience, asking players to interact with the world around them, not just follow a directional marker. Physical treasure, weather effects, and more emerged at high speed. The foundations of Sea of Thieves were set from the very beginning.

Andy and Shelley came up with a design principle for all of this: “Tools Not Rules”, the idea that everything presented to the player could be used more or less freely. You didn’t walk to a glowing marker on a mini-map to earn some coins – you consulted an actual map, rigged your ship, used a compass, scoured an island for clues, dug up the treasure, and returned it to an outpost. But along the way, you might accidentally head to the wrong island, find a different map, meet another set of players, and have an entirely different experience – an entirely different story.

The team was able to create a game so quickly that they became convinced they were onto something unique. In fact, they were so convinced by their ideas, they took another unusual step: they kept it a total secret, even from Xbox’s most senior leadership:

“The executives knew there was something,” Duncan explains. “But it was like, ‘Hey, we’ll let you know when we when we’re ready to let you know.’ And of course, when you do that, you create some veil of secrecy, which means people want to know more. And then it’s about how you play that to your advantage.”

Six months into prototyping, they finally revealed the game to their bosses, with Head of Xbox Phil Spencer and Creative Director Kudo Tsunoda asked to fly to Rare to finally find out what the team had been up to. But instead of simply watching a PowerPoint presentation, a controller was eventually put in their hands. Appropriately for the game in question, Rare didn’t want to just tell them a story – they wanted them to make their own inside the prototype.

You can watch a clip of that first ever playthrough below:

The executives played a version of Sea of Thieves that, visuals aside, was strikingly similar to the core of what you can play today. After that, they were shown an in-engine art diorama to see what it would look like – another facet of the game that stayed remarkably consistent from the earliest days of the project.

This isn’t the way games are normally revealed to executives – and it worked beautifully. Instead of talking about the business aspects of the game, the new players swapped stories about what had happened in their playtest. Spencer had played by the rules, and set out to find treasure with his crew. Tsunoda, on the other hand, betrayed his crew, stole their treasure and then jumped overboard to swim to another ship, and swung it round to start a battle. Rare hadn’t planned this out, but the tools they’d offered allowed it to happen organically.

The theory was proven out, and Sea of Thieves was formally greenlit.

The team was so convinced by the prototype, they took an unusual step: they kept it a total secret, even from Xbox’s most senior leadership.

Ripping Up the Roadmap

After this came the tough part. Sea of Thieves was intended to be made in the separate Unreal engine, so much of the work after this point became not about improving on what the team had, but recreating the Unity version in Unreal. It was a far slower process than they had been used to, forcing them to unite the mechanics, art, online elements, and more, rather than steam ahead on design alone.

In pure mechanical terms, the version of Sea of Thieves that emerged at launch was in some ways less advanced than the prototype it had come from. Some features had to be deprioritized in order to get the game out in time, leading to a version of Sea of Thieves that offered the spirit of what Rare was aiming for, but not at the scale it had planned for. The response was tough, but fair – players liked what they had, but didn’t feel like they were able to do enough with it. Rare changed approach:

“We ripped up our roadmap,” says producer Joe Neate. “As soon as we launched, we were like, ‘Okay, a whole new captaincy system, that’s not what people want right now.’ They want more of the ingredients in this world, right? They don’t want another system to just build on top of the ingredients you’ve got – and so, straightaway, we changed our plans then.”

The original concepts for Sea of Thieves’ pirates, and their final looks.

For a time, development became primarily about responding to players, not building back to the prototype vision. The Megalodon was added to allow for PvE interactions between players. AI ships were added to allow for more combat opportunities without griefing other players. The team began working on the narrative Tall Tales, to give players a goal, without compromising on the more organic story ideas the game world offered.

But, as time went on, the team began to find opportunities to build back what they’d been playing behind closed doors for so long. The prototype, and the clarity of that original idea, was so strong that it became a blueprint for what was to come.

Everyone I speak to on the team has a different answer for exactly when Sea of Thieves matched their original vision for the game, but it’s generally agreed that the one-year Anniversary Update was a watershed moment. A year after launch, the game wasn’t just matching the prototype for mechanics, it was introducing ideas the team never would have thought about in the same way without the influence of its players. This was truly the evolving experience the team had dreamed of, a game and a world that reacted to the people inside it, and a space where players really could create their own stories.

From there, the process of continuing to develop Sea of Thieves has been a mix of building on those original ideas, and adding ones the team never could have foreseen. Ship fires, captaincy, and burying treasure for other players to find came out of the game’s earliest plans. Meanwhile, game-wide votes on the future of the Golden Sands outpost, and the enormous, unexpected Pirate’s Life update – a crossover with Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean – emerged as new opportunities and technical advances popped up.

But key to every one of these additions is that you can categorize them all as new ways for Players to Create Stories Together. No matter how difficult the challenge, or how wild the idea, Sea of Thieves has lived by its own game development code, as steadfastly as its pirates stick to their own.

“I think 10 years of Sea of Thieves will feel like a long time – but also, we’ll blink and be there. And I still think we’ll have unfinished business when we get to that point.”

Sailing for the Horizon

That unique vision has led to another unusual situation: 5 years in, Sea of Thieves still doesn’t truly have imitators. While it sits within an increasingly busy world of game-as-service titles, there’s nothing quite like this game, from its mechanics, to how it releases new content, to its community.

“There was a time before the game came out when we were kind of looking over our shoulder going, ‘Someone is going to beat us to the punch,’” says Art Director Ryan Stevenson. “And even while we’ve been out, no one else seems to be doing it.”

“It’s not a template is it?”, adds Shelley Preston. “It’s not an easily copyable idea. It’s a reflection of a group of people in a certain time and their creative way of thinking around our take on a pirate game. That’s very unique to us.”

That ability to make a game that’s so unique to Rare that it doesn’t exist already, and continues to be unique, was such a lightbulb moment for the studio that Rare even changed its company motto in order to make more games like it. Head to the bottom of its website, and you’ll read: “We create the kind of games the world doesn’t have.” Sea of Thieves was the starting point for that ideal – and it’s one that’s helping to guide the still-mysterious Everwild, and whatever else the team might cook up in the future.

But Sea of Thieves’ tale is far from a closed book. At five years old, there’s much the team wants to add. In fact, they recently had a meeting to plan out the next five years. I hear about ideas for smuggling mechanics, the option for players to be rewarded for protecting other players from griefers, and even a mechanic for ‘painting’ screenshots that Chapman once told me about, two years before the game had even launched (and you can even see in the gallery of prototype screenshots above).

The beautiful thing about a vision as clear but as horizon-wide as Players Creating Stories Together is that the team feels like they’ll never truly run out of ideas – they’ll keep making new things as long as there are players to enjoy them. Chapman puts that drive to keep creating succinctly:

“I think 10 years of Sea of Thieves will feel like a long time – but also, we’ll blink and be there. And I still think we’ll have unfinished business when we get to that point.”


Anniversary Activations

The Sea of Thieves team are doing plenty more to celebrate the game’s fifth anniversary. Here’s what’s going on for the rest of the month:

  • The feature-length Voyage of a Lifetime documentary made to mark the fifth anniversary premieres today, March 20, on the Sea of Thieves YouTube channel: youtube.com/seaofthieves
  • There’s still time to pick up the Lustrous Legend Figurehead as a free anniversary login bonus – just take to the waves in Sea of Thieves before 10am UTC on March 22.
  • Set a course for New Golden Sands Outpost to find the time-limited fifth anniversary picture wall where pirates can pose and take selfie portraits for posterity!
  • The Pirate Emporium will run an extended Anniversary Sale until March 28, with up to 60% off cosmetics from classic sets, Rare heritage ranges and items themed around Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean.
  • A special Community Weekend runs from March 25-27 with free gifts and in-game multipliers in the community’s hands – find out more in the anniversary article at aka.ms/SoT5thAnn
Xbox Live

Sea of Thieves Deluxe Edition

Microsoft Studios

2684
Celebrate five years of Sea of Thieves with this special edition, which includes a copy of the game with all permanent content added since launch, plus a wide-ranging assortment of extra cosmetics and collector’s items. In addition to the 2023 Edition bonus content – Hunter Cutlass, Hunter Pistol, Hunter Compass, Hunter Hat, Hunter Jacket, Hunter Sails and 10,000 gold – this edition of the game comes with a further Deluxe Bundle containing the Black Phoenix Figurehead, Black Phoenix Sails, Crab Dab Emote, Deck Hide Emote and 550 Ancient Coins for use in the Pirate Emporium.
Xbox Live
Xbox Play Anywhere

Sea of Thieves: 2024 Edition

Microsoft Studios

2003
$39.99 $31.99
Xbox One X Enhanced
PC Game Pass
Xbox Game Pass
Sea of Thieves is a smash-hit pirate adventure game, offering the quintessential pirate experience of plundering lost treasures, intense battles, vanquishing sea monsters and more. Additional digital bonuses* include access to the Sea of Thieves Original Soundtrack – 2024 Edition, the Sea of Thieves: Athena's Fortune audiobook and The Rough Guide to Sea of Thieves eBook. * A Sea of Thieves website login is required to access the digital bonuses – visit www.seaofthieves.com/bonuses online and follow the instructions.