30 minutes north-east of Birmingham, UK, is the small English village of Twycross. Population: 850. 100km from the nearest sea.
Yet tucked away in the countryside behind bark, bricks and glass, lies Rare Studios. And as you pass by real life statues of British gaming history – Banjo, Conker, Joanna Dark – and into the lobby, Rare’s latest adventure emerges.
Here in Twycross, where the sea is nothing more than a romantic idea, lies a home for pirates, treasure hunters, merchants and seers.
Once you enter the lobby of the unassuming brick-and-glass building, it isn’t the studios past successes that are championed, but Sea of Thieves: Rare’s new multiplayer action-adventure game where you voyage around the world as a pirate, collecting treasures, hunting long-dead captains and tinkering with your ship.
Banners hang from the ceiling with pirate murals and a skeleton in traditional pirate garb reclines in a chair.
The centrepiece of the lobby is a large flatscreen TV, showing various livestreams of Sea of Thieves.
Above it, a mural in sea blue is printed, with a simple message:
“Players Creating Stories Together”
When you strip back Sea of Thieves to its absolute bare minimum – take away the ships, the pirates, the islands, the treasure, the art – that is what the game is all about.
When I arrive, Rare is in the midst of a Closed Beta, the first time that they’ve allowed Sea of Thieves to be streamed on platforms such as Twitch and Mixer.
The energy is infectious.
The development team’s enthusiasm is bubbling over, janky connection errors aside, with how well the game has been performing – how it has jumped to the top of Twitch and Mixer’s top 10, how people are playing it, the avalanche of content that has hit their social media platforms and how well it has been received.
Walking through the corridors, there’s a heady air of anticipation. It’s as if every Rare employee is glued to the closest screen. The team’s excitement borders on addiction, many of their conversations in passing are discussing a stream or a clip or a GIF they saw the night before.
They’re experiencing Sea of Thieves for the first time again. It’s written on their faces – every smile, laugh. Every excited “did you see the guy that…?” and “when she took the…” and “I couldn’t believe they…”
Throughout the day, I get a chance to play Sea of Thieves several times and in the late afternoon, I sit down with the creative team leading the way on the pirate adventure.
They’re overflowing with information about their title and, in due course, I learn a lot about Sea of Thieves, but I also learn a lot about them – a team so passionate about creating a new space to play in, about ensuring their audience’s fantasies are fulfilled and about curating the experience for their diverse player base.
The buzz is real. Every person you walk past in the hallway believes they’re about to uncover some buried treasure. Perhaps they’ll even strike gold.
When I sit down to speak to Rare employees, that’s the overwhelming feeling that I get.
Design Director, Mike Chapman
When he was a young boy, Mike Chapman wanted to be a Walt Disney Imagineer. More than anything in the world, Chapman wanted to play a role in crafting the experience you get when you walk through those giant gates that border Disneyland.
Geographically speaking, the odds were against him. Being born in the UK – not exactly fertile Imagineer grounds – meant that dream was always going to be more difficult to realise.
So, as dreams do, it evolved. It took on a new life.
That dream morphed into working in game design and the destination morphed from Disneyland to Rare Studios.
Chapman was in love with Rare’s work right back to Donkey Kong Country’s mine-cart levels and he set his sights on Rare from those formative years. That was the goal.
The new dream.
In the process, he realised it wasn’t necessarily Mickey Mouse ears and theme park rides that excited him the most. It was the idea of creating worlds.
It was the idea that he could have people experience the worlds he might create, be moved by those worlds and leave them having had their emotions tickled, doused or set alight by such places.
“I guess what appealed to me wasn’t universally part of theme park design. You think about the range of emotions that you feel on The Pirates of the Caribbean or Haunted Mansion – some of my favourite rides – it’s about manipulating emotions, it’s about making the audience feel different things, how you use lights, how you use line of sight… It almost feels like level design. That’s what inspired me.”
Chapman is Sea of Thieves Design Director, a role that he formally decrees is the title of ‘Vision Holder’ – a title he shares with Gregg Mayles, one of Rare Studios most celebrated members.
In the role, he’s the person tasked with setting out the game’s principles, how you progress, how it sounds, how it plays, how it looks and feels – before pirates ever even enter the equation.
It was those early principles that laid the foundation for what Sea of Thieves is today.
“Sea of Thieves is a mix between directed goals and having these surprising encounters out there in the world” explains Chapman.
As Sea of Thieves has slowly attracted more eyeballs, one of the big questions that’s been forming in the more mainstream audience is how the game will tackle progression going forward and what that will look like.
Chapman speaks to those directed goals, which in the game are known as ‘voyages’. Players are able to pick up voyages from traders that are stationed across the game’s various island outposts, exchanging gold for quests that can involve anything from digging up treasure to killing an ancient Pirate Legend, to ferrying pigs across the vast seas in a tiny little cage.
The game, at launch, will feature three specific trading groups: The Gold Hoarders, The Merchant Alliance and The Order Of Souls. Each of the groups offer different voyages and as you progress up their ranks, you unlock specific items for your inventory that more outwardly show your reputation.
As your reputation increases, the voyages you have access to become even more rewarding, more challenging and – hopefully – more exciting.
Finding a balance between giving players an empty world to create their own stories in and directing them towards certain goals and objectives might seem like it could potentially lead to imbalance across the game’s player base. Some people will level quicker than others, some will be able to sink hours into the game, some will play sporadically, socially, for a couple of hours at a time.
That’s not something Chapman is concerned about. He thinks Rare has nailed the perfect balance, regardless of your reputation.
“We want you to feel, if you work together right, if you strategise correctly – you’ve always got a chance. That’s what is so fascinating about our game. But at the same time we want to reward the time that you put into the game – we want you to have this awesome journey to being a Pirate Legend.”
The experience – the very core experience at the heart of Sea of Thieves – is intangible. It can’t be described or placed on a vision board or rattled off, point-by-point, in a presentation. It can’t be seen in throwing a voyage on a table in-game or customising your pirates eye-patch, or giving yourself a wooden leg.
Sea of Thieves is a happy accident machine. A theme park where the gates have been thrown open.
“It goes much deeper than mechanics. It’s very often with multiplayer games we talk about mechanical depth, we talk about mechanical interactions. I think in a game like ours, where it is that blank canvas, it is that happy accident machine – you’re pushing on fundamental human psychology.”
At the end of the interview, Mike asks if I want my mind to be blown, one more time.
Who could say no?
He leads me out of the room and into one of Rare’s development barns where he reveals the coup-de-grace, an end-game location specifically for those that obtain the highest ranking.
The Pirate Legends.
His character is standing at the opening of a huge cave, stalactites hanging, wooden planks curling like fingers reaching out into the empty space. Tucked into the side of the cave, a huge wooden deck is built, filled with other Pirate Legends swilling grog and sharing stories.
At the far end of the cave stands a ship.
Once you reach this tier, an endgame (of sorts) opens up to you, where even more challenging voyages become available to you and your very own location to dock your ship. Mike doesn’t show me where the Pirate Legend cave is – that remains a secret for now – but he does let me know that only the greatest Pirates will have access to the subterranean shanty town.
“This is the type of game, if you told me when I was 10, when I wanted to be a Walt Disney Imagineer and touch people on a much deeper level… We’re doing it. That personally is why this game means so much to me.”
Ted Timmins, PC Design Lead
The first time I talk to Ted, we’re in a corridor at Rare Studios and he points me to a picture on the wall, an elegant gold-framed photograph hanging alongside various works of Sea of Thieves art.
The picture he points out has nothing to do with Sea of Thieves.
It’s hit cat, Yoshi, in stunned repose. Yoshi’s eyes bulge as if he’s terrified to see me standing there looking at him through space and time.
Ted is like a proud father, pretty chuffed that his furbaby sits alongside such prestigious company.
That pride resonates with me even more when I sat down with Ted to discuss how Sea of Thieves was being built for PC, the challenges he’s encountered and how his role, should he do it well, would essentially make him redundant sooner rather than later.
“The success of my role was always that I’d essentially become redundant because once you’ve made that cultural shift internally of ‘we build PC games’ just like we build ‘Xbox games’, [to] we just build ‘games’, then that’s a tick and you move onto other things in the studio.”
The first challenge with Sea of Thieves?
“Day one would have been ‘joining a company that’s never released a PC game’ and then sitting with [Executive Producer] Joe [Neate] and giving ourselves the goal of ‘deliver a PC game that PC players expect’” he explains.
Ted (and Stephanie) Timmins’ cat Yoshi, hanging on a corridor wall in Rare Studios
It’s hard to escape the pirate-based puns when talking through the team’s experiences with designing the game for PC. For the Rare team, this truly was uncharted territory, forcing the team to rethink how they would deliver the game for a completely different audience.
“When you start to boil down PC player expectations – they are pretty high!” laughs Ted.
“When we sat down and said ‘what do PC players expect?’ I read an absolute ton of reviews. I used a lot of reviews where a publication did a review for both a PC and Xbox version.”
Those comparisons helped inform Ted about the constant gripes PC players had with the games that were multi-platform.
“Releasing later, bad performance, doesn’t work on low end devices and just generally not given the respect it deserves.”
So he took that to Joe and wanted to work on making sure all those things were ticked off. Some were easy – the team noticed their third biggest PC user group was in Russia, so they localised the game for that region quickly. Performance was a much longer process, but it was one highly driven by the players.
“Going back to [the PC] community and saying ‘can you send us your DXDiags for when we start inviting people to play?’”
The team set up a survey to benchmark what kind of specifications PC players were running with. Ted explains how a little internal betting ring formed around the amount of responses they’d get. Ted guessed 500. Joe guessed 1000.
In totally, 18,000 people responded.
That suddenly ballooned the workload – they were seeing specifications right down at the low end and insane specifications such as 128GB RAM that Ted jokes “no one needs.”
It reminded me of a moment early on in the tour when the team spoke of how they wanted Sea of Thieves to be able to run on a potato.
When Ted notices I am operating on a Surface Laptop, he’s super interested to hear if the game will run on my machine and how well it will do so.
When I get a spare moment in my hotel room that night, I download the Closed Beta and begin to play. It runs – at a lower frame rate and resolution – but it runs and it’s more than playable. A day later, I take on a voyage as I sit in a small coffee shop in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.
The café patrons sip and slurp and chomp around me – none the wiser that, as I sit there sipping and slurping and chomping, I also sail on dangerous seas.
The PC minimum specifications may not get the game running on a potato, but integrated graphics cards provide no trouble. A lowered frame rate and resolution slightly dulls the overall look, but the design – that angular roundness – lends itself well to speccing up or down.
That’s a real triumph.
The Sea of Thieves PC team has ensured that even low-end machines with integrated graphics are still capable of running the game
The fact I can play in a café on average wireless on a machine designed for work is a triumph – and it will open up this world to a huge range of players who may not have considered it beforehand.
I never thought to ask Ted if he was more proud of his cat, Yoshi, sitting shocked in that Rare corridor or the effort that the team has put in to optimise Sea of Thieves for PC.
I suspect, though the cat is adorable, the latter might win out.
Executive Producer, Joe Neate
The first thing I ask Sea of Thieves executive producer, Joe Neate, is “Are you scared?”
He looks at me, pauses for the briefest moment and answers emphatically.
I wasn’t taken aback.
In fact, I expected as much.
I first met Joe at PAX Australia, in October last year. At the time, I was a little more courageous than usual and was more than happy to lay out, in plain terms, that I didn’t think Sea of Thieves was a very good game.
To the Executive Producer.
But hey, I didn’t understand it, I didn’t understand what it was trying to achieve and I certainly didn’t enjoy the demo I played, aboard the Polly Woodside, influencers and content creators screaming demands at each other like they’re trying to order a round of drinks at a club.
To Joe’s credit, instead of dismissing me offhand, he sat down with me the next day and ran me through the vision, the aims and the lofty goals that the Sea of Thieves team were working toward. Some were yet to be realised, some he promised me he would reveal soon and some are still waiting to be revealed.
It was only after that meeting that I began to see the potential, but more than that I first got an inkling about Joe’s passion for the game, for Rare and for the community that Sea of Thieves was building.
At one point, a fan came up to us at the wooden restaurant table we were sitting at to talk to Joe about Sea of Thieves. He asked how they felt about the game and, after they let their nerves get them better of them, directed them to where the demo was being staged and the directions to get there.
But this interview with Joe – the one where I get to ask questions like “are you scared?” – is taking place in a small meeting room as the last minutes of sunlight stream through the window at Rare Studios in Twycross, UK.
I’m Joe’s last interview for the day, so you can imagine how much he’s already discussed about his game.
Yet, his enthusiasm doesn’t waver.
Of course he’s not scared.
“To see the reaction that we got – the crazy number of videos and views and YouTube and Twitch – it definitely exceeded… and met my highest expectations.”
How could he be scared?
“I felt so excited, I think just the fact we were going to let people stream, create content and do videos and it was out of our control… We felt so good about our promise.”
With all the hype surrounding the Closed Beta, it seems that the launch is on track to deliver pretty big numbers for Sea of Thieves.
But what of the future? How far ahead do the dev team need to be looking?
“We’re going to be growing and updating and adding stuff to the game through to launch and then, launch is just another release for us” Joe explains.
However, the development of Sea of Thieves remains fluid – a chimera of sorts, made up of equal parts ‘Rare’s visions for a multiplayer pirate fantasy game’ and ‘what the community responds to and enjoys most.’
Joe speaks to that fluidity with optimism, rather than fear.
“We’ve got a roadmap – that’s quite detailed – until the end of this calendar year. But I think the only thing I am 100% sure of is what the first update will be. As we grow and evolve [we’ll ask], ‘where is the top feedback points?’, ‘what do we need to reprioritise and move?’. Because almost every three months in this project we’ve reprioritised by going ‘what are our players doing?’”
That’s part of the process, especially when designing a game that exists beyond its launch and any bespoke DLC. Yet, due to the nature of the world Rare is creating, Sea of Thieves has been, tarred by the dreaded ‘Games As A Service’ brush.
It feels dirty, a stuffy suit-speak term that clings to video game worlds like this to explain how they operate from a business point-of-view: To continue to print money. But Sea of Thieves won’t follow a subscription service and Joe assures me that it will definitely not include loot boxes – though the team is looking at introducing ways to optionally spend money.
“It will always be fun, social things that add to the Sea of Thieves experience – like a pet. If I want to buy a pet that can follow me around and be a bit silly and you can grab it and run off with it and carry it. Just playing around and messing around like that, that’s cool and social and fun – but optional.”
“It’s never going to impact power or progression or separate players. It’s always going to be something that adds to the social nature.”
“Can I grab a couple of pancakes please?”
The waiter’s Cheshire smile crescents on his face. Too happy, too awake for 6am.
“And any coffee sir?” he asks.
I don’t respond with the immediacy such a request deserves. The past two days I’ve drank the hotel’s filter coffee with a dash of milk, bringing the bitter grounds to my mouth, pretending everything is okay. Each sip is a fresh, warm hell.
The pause allows him to jump in again.
“Caffe latte, flat white, espresso?”
I had no idea those coffees were on offer.
I order a latte and within ten minutes, my single pancake topped with blueberries, strawberries and raspberries appears at my table. Thin plumes of steam swirl off of its golden face. The latte is clattered next to it.
“There you go, sir.”
I push all the contents to one side of the table, clunk my laptop at my left hand side, plug in a mouse and click on the black-and-white pirate skull icon that will transport me to an open sea.
I should be writing a story. I should be writing about the time I visited Rare Studios and the people I met.
Instead, I board my ship, charge along the surface of the water, ready to create another story in Rare’s new world.
Jackson travelled to Rare Studios, Twycross, UK, as a guest of Microsoft. This story was originally published in February 2018, and has been retimed following this week’s release of its latest Pirates of the Caribbean expansion, A Pirate’s Life.