Sea of Thieves and ‘Storytelling Through Service’

Sea of Thieves season 6 launches in March, and it’ll be bringing with it new features that’ll help make 2022 the biggest year yet for the live-service action-adventure game. Rare pulled back the curtain on many of these features in the recent Sea of Thieves 2022 Preview Event, which Game Rant was also able to discuss with creative director Mike Chapman and executive producer Joe Neate.

In this interview, we discussed everything from seasons to Adventures and Mysteries to A Pirate’s Life and more. What stood out the most, perhaps, is how Chapman discussed Sea of Thieves‘ new approach to “storytelling through service” by taking the elements of a live-service game, using them to bring the world to life, and make sure that Sea of Thieves is a continual story, not a start-and-stop ride. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.


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GR: Maintaining the seasonal content that we have now and adding all of this new content seems pretty ambitious. So what was the rationale behind taking this and extending it so much?

JN: Well, if we want to make this year our biggest year, then we’ve obviously got to go all-in, haven’t we? Every year so far, Sea of Thieves has been bigger, and when we say bigger, we think in terms of overall player numbers that play each year. So, not like the total kind of 25 million or so we’ve had play in total over our lifetime. This is the kind of people that play each year, that turn up each year. We’ve been bigger every single year.

2021 was our biggest year yet. We were 25% bigger in the previous year, and we want to continue that growth. We’re always looking at how are the things we’ve done? Like what’s worked well? And then also, how do we want to improve? How do we want to do better, right? And always how do we make our game even more amazing for our players?

Some of that comes with the stuff that we would typically do with seasons where we introduce new mechanics, we evolve features, how the game plays, but we really wanted to kind of go on top of that kind of rhythm that we have and look at how do we make our world feel more alive, like it’s more dynamic and moving forward. How do we really lean in to the story and lore of our world that we’ve been working on building up over the last year.

In terms of our, just internally, our team structure to your point, we’ve still got that same structure for how we update seasons and how we add features. That’s still the same kind of team shape. But then, there’s an additional team that is now taking over the adventures and the mysteries within the studio.

sea of thieves season 5 logo

MC: As Joe said, seasons have been just a great way to update the game, like a great way to give people new content, new experiences, of which there’s been a huge diversity of experiences we’ve added in the last year since the inclusion of seasons. Alongside that, you know, the seeds were in there and giving you always rewards to strive for, and then the season, we’re in there and resetting every three months. I think, just to kind of link it back to your question, why not just take the seasons and split it between the three months, like take the existing value that really excites people at the start of the season.

But we know that worked well for us. We know it’s a real pull to get people into the game, to come in for those new experiences in those first couple of weeks. But we want to build on top of that. I think one thing that would be a fair criticism of our game is that in between those seasonal updates, our world is static. But we’ve got this rich pirate world that is perfectly suited to the idea of it always evolving, there always being new adventures to go upon.

So, Adventures are really there to get our players emotionally invested. Throughout the course of the year, there’s going to be an Adventure every month, typically lasts around two weeks, as you saw in the video. And these Adventures are stories. They’re like the story-driven live events, much more cinematic and much more immersive. The frequency of them allows us to really story-tell through the world itself.

As you saw in the video, you see that one of the outposts is taken over by this mysterious fog. We really want to cut to the core of what makes the world special and the fate of our characters and the fate of all these locations and put players at the heart of it. So again, there’s the idea that certain Adventures are a point in time in the story where the community gets to choose the outcome. Based on the side that you choose, that will then affect our storytelling from then on, driving excitement and getting people to theorycraft about what’s going to happen in the story next, where’s the story going to go, and being part of driving that story forward. Then alongside that, we’ve got the mysteries, and Sea of Thieves already feels like this fantastical pirate world where there are secrets around every corner.

There are literally hidden Easter eggs to find, but Mysteries really bring that into sharp focus. The difference here is that they are these secret quests that players are going to speculate about and try and piece together the clues in the community. Some of that clue finding is mechanical in the experience, and some of that clue finding is outside of the game with these ARG elements. The special thing about Mysteries is, compared to the Adventures which are much more frequent, Mysteries play out over a longer period of time. And the progression of that Mystery is really based on what our players are finding.

Based on players and the community piecing together the clues and discovering that next reveal in-game or that next secret that they discover, will then progress the mystery on. When we release the game, we’ll only be toggling these special kind of new phases. So again, really tapping into that idea of there are always secrets to discover. It’s a dynamic world that’s unfolding.

It really is about just building up the world and giving the world its users this fantastical place that you can get lost in, and you can get emotionally invested in the ongoing fate of the world. And lastly, certain Adventures will also have service finales.

So when you’re asking Joe about how does this sit on top of seasons…as you’d expect, like intuitively as a player of games, and we also see our data, people get really excited at the start of the season, and they come in for the new content. And then, as you’d expect, as they experience it and they get the rewards, we see a bit of a drop-off as people leave the game for a period of time. And then they come back at the end to finish off the season on progression or get excited for the next season, when we release these adventures is really about making the most of player engagement.

So just as traditionally you’d see ‘I’ve played the new content for the first three weeks,’ that’s when we release our first mystery. And then a mystery every month. And then in where we currently see kind of mid-season lull where maybe people are kind of waiting to see what the next season is, or they’re waiting to come back just to finish off that season, that’s when we’re going to release a finale that really kind of pulls the narrative and specifically what’s happening to a close before the story goes off in a different direction.

So appealing to the heart, as well as the head. Like, the seasons appeal to the head in playing the way you want to play, and having all the adventures in Sea of Thieves with the existing content and the sandbox, and you’re going to get rewards, you’re going to progress through the season. But this story’s about appealing to players’ hearts, getting people emotionally invested with these cinematic stories every month. And every one of these Adventures has one of those cinematic little trailers that you saw. There are high-quality trailers that introduce you to the story. There’s going to be one of those every month, getting our players excited to come back and have these new adventures.

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GR: What kind of like tools and other similar features should players really expect in season six?

MC: For season six, we’re adding these naval Sea Forts, and there are six of them around the world. If we think about what’s popular, people love our existing skeleton forts because it gives you that raid-like experience. There’s a bit of ship combat, and then when you get on land, you get to raid these skeleton forts. These new Sea Forts are designed to be much more accessible.

sea of thieves skull key art

They’re not world events where we pull everyone on the server together. There are going to be multiple of these active around the world. We’ve designed it to be a much more accessible experience where you can take on one of these haunted Spanish forts. You can find the phantoms of the Spanish Navy inside, you can get the key to the treasury and raid the treasury, and there are all kinds of cupboards and furniture and drawers around. You could pull the drawers open and rummage through all the drawers, and you really feel like you’re breaking into a place you shouldn’t be as a pirate, so I think that’s really going to excite people.

With Sea Forts specifically, there’s this kind of extra little Sea of Thieves magic–where you can sit down now because we added that in season five–you can sit down on the tables. There are four cooking pans, so you can cook food really fast. There’s a map of the Sea of Thieves world on the wall, so you can plan your next move. The Sea Fort is full of mechanisms, like you can lower the portcullis and get your rowboat inside to lower the treasure from the treasury on there.

As you’d expect, the fort itself is surrounded by these mounted cannons, so you could role-play with your crew, and you could use that as a little defensive position against passing crews. I think it’s gonna drive a lot of interesting stories, so I’m really excited about the addition of Sea Forts.

Alongside that later in the season, we’re adding exclusive content for our Pirate Legends. We’re going to be expanding the reputation and reputation cap, all new promotions, new rewards to strive for, and a replayable voyage experience. It’s a story, so it’s got voiced characters, it’s got brand-new music, there are new kinds of gameplay mechanics as part of it, and it’s fundamentally replayable as well. So next time you come back and play it, you’ll get different puzzles, you’ll be sent to different islands. It’s this epic story, but it’s designed to be replayable as part of that Pirate Legend play. I’m really looking forward to season six.

GR: Speaking of the Sea Forts, as they are mentioned once on the roadmap, are they going to be something that expands or changes throughout this year?

MC: Like with all of our features, Sea Forts are a new thing, it’ll go into the world. Anything we add to the world changes that sandbox, and it drives new stories and new interactions with players. So, we’ll always be keeping an eye on that. What that roadmap speaks to is just a huge diversity of content that we’re planning for 2022. Even separate from this new approach to the Adventures and Mysteries, the seasons are going to add new ways to role-play. There are new quest types there. There are new systems that drive interesting encounters between players. So, there’s just a whole range of new content that’s going to enrich the sandbox coming through seasons seven, eight, and nine for the rest of the year.

sea of thieves fortress

JN: Yeah, we’ve purposely been a bit tease-y with that as well. You know, there’s a bit of detail, there’s a bit of speculation, but we want to surprise and delight with each of those seasons.

GR: The first Community Day is soon and there’s more on the horizon as listed on the roadmap, and obviously involving the community is a major goal this year, what kind of role do you see the Community Days having in that?

JN: I think it’s about celebrating the community. It was Christina, and Christina is our Head of Community, she runs that team. It was that team that came up with that idea, and they were like, ‘look, we want to do this thing, we want to go celebrate it, we want to really have a day that celebrates what is amazing about our community.’ We already do that with the amazing screenshots that people capture and everything again, which is a community team activity, but it’s about that. It’s about celebrating the community, and creating a day that’s specifically for them, and then doing that on a regular basis.

I love that we have that kind of passion, even just within our team, for someone to come up with an idea and go ‘look, we want to go do this thing.’ I remember Christina pitching it to me on a call, and I was just like, ‘Great, let’s just do it. This sounds brilliant.’

And, you know, so rather than Mike and I going, ‘Hey, here’s a plan. Here’s a roadmap,’ like some do around these kinds of big plans and visions, this was totally from within the community. We just want to do this thing that celebrates our community and creates a really fun day for all of them. So I love that it’s come about like that, and that is its purpose. That is its goal.

sea of thieves community day

GR: Changing gears here. What should players expect for the Adventures and how they differ from Tall Tales?

MC: The key thing with Adventures is that frequency, so there’s one per month, and they’re available for two weeks at a time. It’s got all of that immersive storytelling quality that you’d expect from a Tall Tale. But it’s something that, alongside the storytelling, comes with world changes. It’s not just you having this private, Tall Tale experience, it’s taking place in the world where everyone can see these world changes, and everyone’s experiencing that stage of the story together, because it’s this moment in time as part of the Sea of Thieves‘ world.

In terms of making them accessible as well, they’re not something that we want players to grind and grind. It’s an experience that lasts around you know, 45 minutes to an hour, that gives you this next chapter in an ongoing narrative. Particularly compared to Tall Tales, there are new character animations, completely new voiceover, new voiced cutscenes. There’s new music in there as part of these Adventures, so it’s still going to have that feeling of being an immersive story that you’re part of.

GR: Just to make sure I understood you, the Adventures are going to last two weeks, but in terms of content and how long it takes a player to complete this content, it’s about 45-minutes to an hour?

MC: Yeah, it’s going to vary obviously, with what players come across in the world. But that’s their rough goal. We’re giving you a little roller coaster ride that reveals the next chapter of our story. And then until the one comes a month later, you speculate about where the story’s going to go next.

GR: When you say the community impacts the Adventures, how drastically could like one community decision versus another impact its direction?

MC: Drastic, deliberately so. Everything we talked about with tapping into the emotions of our players and appealing to the heart, and it really meaning something in the world. A big part of the idea of this was you as a player feeling like you can be part of Sea of Thieves history. Your actions and the outcome is going to have a big impact on the story. And even after that event, seeing the scars of what happened and seeing the changes in the world will remind you about what happened. Whether that’s the fate of certain characters, the fate of certain locations in the world, we’re really like tapping into what makes Sea of Thieves, Sea of Thieves.

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GR: So, we’re talking like real choice and not the illusion of choice in terms of how the community impacts this?

MC: Real choice. So the way it works is, imagine choosing to do a bunch of objectives for a certain character or a certain selection of characters, and then an opposing choice. And through your gameplay, you’re driving that action, the cumulative actions of the community. Where the weight of the community goes is what determines that outcome. Really interesting creatively in terms of the feedback that we give along the way, and almost getting people to switch sides, almost like one side is winning in the game. The other groups are going to play a little bit harder to try and determine the outcome. So it’s going to be fascinating to see play out.

JN: Yeah, it’s interesting for us, right? Because we don’t know where or how that’s going to go. We don’t know which way it’s going to go, and then we have to kind of follow that path. It’s really cool as a team to be handing that control over and finding out a lot about our community.

MC: There’s a lot of almost like, playfully so, tense conversations when we look at the story, this grand story that we want to tell for the rest of this year and beyond. It’s like, ‘well, that could play a different way’. And ‘that’ could play a different way. And ‘those would be really interesting conundrums’ for the community to then call that ‘Hello, people can choose that.’ That’s going to be really interesting, but we’re deliberately choosing the things that are going to have the biggest emotional impact on players

sea of thieves adventure

GR: Changing over to the mysteries. In the 2022 preview event, the mysteries were described as ‘runes taken to the next level.’ Could you expand on that?

MC: Yeah, so the way we think about the Duke’s runes is it was awesome to see that play out. We were planning Mysteries, and that was almost like an experiment in that area. But in terms of the Mystery themselves, we want to tap into really exciting themes that really drive people in terms of broad appeal. So, our first one is a murder mystery. You’re going to be investigating, piecing together, all of these clues across the Sea of Thieves‘ world. I need to be careful what I say here, but this character in Sea of Thieves who sadly loses their life, who are the suspects, who are your first bunch of suspects that you think it might be?

Then, there’s counter information in the community and different clues from different kinds of secret entities in the world. That’s going to be a game in-game. But even in-game, it’s going to be quite mechanical in terms of finding hidden things scratched into tree trunks or scratched into rocks and using the tools in the game to piece together the clues rather than just observing. You’ll be using physical tools in the game.

sea of thieves mysteries

GR: What can you say about how these ARG elements are going to work?

MC: Yeah, so what’s really important to us is that we don’t use a bunch of abstract mechanics that almost feel counter to the spirit of the mystery. So with the ARG, we love the idea of the Sea of Thieves’ world feeling like it exists off the screen, but you still feel like you can get immersed in it even when you’re not playing the game because I think, like I say we want to capture people’s emotions, capture their imagination, and get people to kind of theorize what the next step is. So everything we do with the ARG will be completely in tone and tap into the unique theme of that specific mystery.

GR: So, recently the ship count per server was raised to 6 and almost immediately brought back down to 5. For 2022, what are the current plans regarding ship counts and servers?

MC: It’s intended to have six ships in there, and that was critical in terms of the number of outposts, the distance between the islands, and the average encounter rate that we see with ships out there on the seas. Like you said at the start, as a result of how ambitious we are each year, we add a whole range of new content to the game. And in a game with a shared world, we have an inside testing program, we get a lot of data from that we get feedback around performance, but you only really see how it performs when you go to a broad audience that scale.

Then, we get data back based on the memory on the servers and how things are performing and frame rate and all of that. So, it’s something we’re always keeping close tabs on. What you saw recently was that desire to get it back to six ships, but then seeing knock-on effects and going, ‘It works, but it’s a degraded experience that we’re not comfortable with,’ which is why we’ve gone down to five again, but the absolute commitment is to get back to six. And there’s always ongoing work and optimizations to ensure that we can keep that optimal experience going.

GR: Can players expect any more Pirates of the Caribbean-level crossover crossovers this year?

MC: That was the chance of a lifetime, honestly, as a huge fan of Disney and a fan of Pirates of the Caribbean specifically, and just the parallels between our world as a fantastical pirate world and the morality of our world and what it stands for…the meaning of the Sea of Thieves and how we could draw that contrast between the two worlds and do it in a really authentic way…and have players leave the experience and just love Sea of Thieves even more because it puts our world on a pedestal. It was an amazing experience to partner with Disney, and work on all of that.

sea of thieves captain jack sparrow

At the same time, as we pitched A Pirate’s Life to our partners at Disney, we had other ideas for where we could take the story and other ways we could bring those worlds to Sea of Thieves, but nothing to confirm at the moment other than A Pirate’s Life was an incredibly inspiring experience.

The reception was amazing and an awesome moment in terms of the performance of Sea of Thieves and how many people it drove back, how many people were excited and talking about it. It’s one of those magic moments that we won’t soon forget. But yeah, so it is a possibility, but nothing to confirm at the moment.

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GR: Anything else you’d like to say about Sea of Thieves’ plans for 2022?

JN: So far, everyone we’ve spoken to about it seems really excited, which is great. You know, there’s always that kind of moment of truth, right? When you kind of go out and you start revealing it and the fact we’re going to be showing it to the broadest audience. That’s great for us, right, because the fact that we get to continue growing Sea of Thieves and growing what we’re doing with the game, it leads to the growth of the community, the player base, and the franchise.

It’s just such a great place to be in that we get to run a successful game and business and franchise, but we get to do it in a way that’s always about what’s the coolest, most exciting thing we can do for our players. It’s a real privilege, but I also think it’s just like how it should be, right? That’s how making games should be. It’s always about thinking about your players and the best stuff you can do. It’s so cool to see the reaction and to see your questions and everyone else we’ve spoken to.

We are just so excited about now rolling out this new approach and seeing how it lands, seeing what we learn, and seeing what we do. Then, when we get to next year, we get to do Sea of Thieves in 2023, we can sit here and talk about what we’ve learned, what we’ve improved, and what we’re doing differently. That, that was our biggest year yet, so that’s hopefully the case.

MC: Yeah, we’ve learned so much since 2018. In terms of not only what does it take to run a compelling live service, but a live service in terms of what’s a Sea of Thieves version of a live service. How do we do that in a way that’s immersive, and it captures that spirit of adventure that everybody feels who adores Sea of Thieves.

Of course, adding content and new experiences as part of a service is, that’s kind of expected, right? You keep enriching the experience. The idea of storytelling through a service that really takes the best of that delivery in terms of, if I was playing the game growing up and thinking the story’s going to continue, there’s going to be twists, there’s going to be turns, or the story’s not over when I get to Pirate Legend or when I complete the Tall Tales. We’re going to be storytelling through our live service. I think it’s a wonderful thing, almost making the live service work best for Sea of Thieves.


Sea of Thieves is available now on PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.

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