Sea of Thieves is so close to being a great game. It just forgot one thing: the actual game. Sure, the sailing is excellent and regurgitating grog on your friends is funny the first dozen times, but when it comes to engaging the game’s objectives, Sea of Thieves is somewhat lacking. It’s almost as if Rare was so focused, so dedicated, to the core concept of creating a pirate experience that it neglected everything else.
I’m not going to say that Sea of Thieves is heartbreaking, mostly because I’m talking about a video game and that would be overly dramatic, but also because Sea of Thieves isn’t beyond saving. In fact, I believe that Rare is just a few minor changes away from making Sea of Thieves an engaging game that’s more than just a social experiment done up in pirate flair.
Avast, ye salty dogs!
The core risk-reward gameplay loop of sailing to an island, collecting a specific form of treasure, and returning said treasure to an outpost to claim your bounty is structurally satisfying and can lead to something resembling tension should another player’s ship appear on the horizon. But one of the main problems with Sea of Thieves is that there just isn’t enough standing between the player and the treasure besides a handful of skeletons and stationary poisonous snakes. The magic of cooperative play, which is Sea of Thieves‘ main promise, is lost when there’s barely anything to cooperate against.
One of the easiest things that Rare can do to make Sea of Thieves a more engaging experience is introduce more enemy types. The game is in a position to further capitalize on its somewhat mythical and fantastical setting, as established by the inclusion of a kraken and, you know, walking skeletons who somehow eat bananas.
A giant cyclops could hoard treasure, and you have to take him down (or at least keep him distracted long enough) to steal it. Sirens could cause your character to constantly be pulling your ship’s wheel in one direction, most likely towards an outcropping of rocks, in a more specific version of how Sea of Thieves‘ storms already function. A gorgon like Medusa could inhabit another island and temporarily freeze players who are spotted by its eye-beams (an adaptation to make it video game-friendly). Giant spiders living in caves could trap players in webs, and territorial seals could run down players when provoked.
Rare doesn’t even need to get supernatural with it (though it should). Cartoon versions of normal, everyday menaces like coconut-throwing monkeys could attack players on land, and flocks of razor-beaked seagulls could attack players on the water. A massive whale like Moby Dick or Monstro could attack players’ ships, leading to a scramble to board up the hull and escape before the ship is sunk.
The most important thing about introducing new enemies would be discovering the best ways to interact with them. One of my more satisfying discoveries while playing Sea of Thieves came from wondering if I could charm snakes with my hurdy-gurdy. I tried playing a shanty for a snake, and sure enough, the snake stopped hissing and began swaying from side to side.
New enemies in Sea of Thieves can hide similarly minded secrets. Giant spiders could be chased away by lanterns, while playing music while drunk can cause sensitive sirens to stop singing out of disgust. Better damage models can also be included: shooting a cyclops in the foot can cause it to hop up and down, while shooting it in the eye can temporarily blind it. Meanwhile, holding out a banana can cause the monkey to come up and swipe it, keeping it too busy to throw coconuts at you.
Having more enemy types randomly spawn on certain islands would breathe more life and intrigue into each journey from outpost to island and back again. Players would never know what danger they were about to encounter, and this would make every voyage feel new, even if they were completing the same tasks as before.
Besides playing music together and puking on each other, there are very few ways to actually interact with your friends’ characters (besides actively talking to them, of course). And after a while, there are only so many times you can hear the same shanties or get puke all over your screen before it gets old. Introducing new ways for players to interact while not on a voyage would go a long way to creating community and making Sea of Thieves more than just a series of fetch quests.
Yes, I’m talking about adding minigames to Sea of Thieves.
Of course, the obvious place to start would be the tavern. There, players could host card games and other tavern-related activities like arm wrestling and darts, all while betting their hard-earned gold to potentially win big or bust out, adding some stakes to the proceedings.
Minigames could also take advantage of Sea of Thieves‘ unique mechanics. You and your friends could play a concert for NPCs at different outposts with your instruments, which can trigger a basic version of a rhythm game that rewards you the better you play.
Or Rare can utilize one of the best things about Sea of Thieves and turn launching yourself or your friends from a cannon into minigames centered on accuracy. Randomly generated targets in the air (ring-shaped clouds, for example) or on the ground could make cannon travel a more integrated part of the experience and could give players another opportunity to pad their wallets, considering how darned expensive Sea of Thieves‘ cosmetics are at the moment.
Even if you can afford a cosmetic item, putting down gold for some of the less expensive items seems like a waste if you have your eye on a more expensive hook hand or peg leg. All you’re doing is setting yourself back a few thousand gold and getting next to nothing to show for it.
I respect Rare’s desire to keep Sea of Thieves a balanced gameplay experience by keeping more expensive items free of stat buffs. But there are other ways that cosmetic items can reward players who wear them without making them more powerful.
One way that cosmetic rewards can have more significance to Sea of Thieves‘ gameplay loop is by attaching reward buffs to specific items. For example, wearing a shirt that’s unlocked by hitting a certain rank with the Gold Hoarders can make payouts (in both money and experience) worth more when completing Gold Hoarders voyages.
Additionally, if Rare were to introduce some sort of rating system for items, it would make purchasing Sea of Thieves‘ less flashy, less expensive items more enticing. A level one Order of Souls eyepatch, for example, could give you a small buff to gold earned from completing that trading company’s voyages, whereas higher-level items would give you a much better boost. Buying the lower-level items would therefore be seen as an investment instead of a waste of money.
This system would also make sense of Sea of Thieves‘ prohibitively expensive cosmetic items. Earning enough gold to buy even one item sometimes requires several hours of gameplay, so spending gold on items would force players to make tough decisions. You could go all in on one trading company and deck out your character entirely in that company’s items for a huge buff, or mix and match your items and receive a smaller buff for all three trading companies. Given how expensive Sea of Thieves‘ items are, players would have to earn the ability to buy every company’s items and change outfits depending on the type of voyage they’re embarking upon.
Rare has already showed that its listening to criticisms when it announced it was fixing Sea of Thieves‘ terrible matchmaking system. But the developer has been fairly quiet so far about how it plans on making the game itself better.
Rare doesn’t need to radically overhaul Sea of Thieves to make it an engaging experience. The skeleton of a fun game is already there; it just needs to get filled out. Introducing new enemy types, creating more ways for players to interact, and giving cosmetic choices a bit more consequence could do a lot to keep players actively engaged in Sea of Thieves‘ existing gameplay loop.