While the Sea of Thieves closed beta answered many questions about Rare's big new shared-world pirate game, it left many questions unanswered. Chief among them, perhaps, was, is this it?
I recently sailed over to Rare's offices in the Leicestershire countryside to find out what the famed UK developer held back for launch - and it turns out there's a lot to the game we didn't get to see in the closed beta.
The most enticing mechanic for me has to do with the endgame. Sea of Thieves has progression, but unlike some, well, a lot of games, it does not have experience points nor does it have stat-based loot. Progression revolves around increasing reputation with the three trading companies: the Order of Souls, the Gold Hoarders and the Merchant Alliance. Complete quests for these factions and you'll increase your reputation with each. As you level up your reputation you unlock the opportunity to buy a promotion with that trading company (you can display this promotion title under your gamertag). Each promotion gives you access to a new set of voyages and cosmetic items that reflect your new job title. And when you hit a certain level of reputation, the endgame kicks in.
Your ultimate goal in Sea of Thieves is to become a pirate legend. As you play you'll bump into a mysterious group of NPCs who, if you prove yourself to them, will reveal more secrets about the world. At the end of this progression, you'll discover a secret which gives you a quest to do a certain thing in a certain place (Rare won't say what it is). The upshot is you become a pirate legend and gain a key that opens the door to a hidden area of the world (this hidden area, by the way, was in the closed beta, but no-one discovered it). This area is not loaded in from a menu. It is a place that exists in the virtual world, and, once discovered, can be accessed seamlessly - as long as you have the key. For now, its location is a secret - and Rare's happy to keep it that way.
Inside is a secret pirate hideout, a place exclusively reserved for players who have obtained the pirate legend rank. There you'll find the Tavern of Legends, which is built into the remains of an ancient shipwreck. In the distance is a ship and a waterfall that leads out into the game world. It's all very Goonies. During a demo of the area, I saw ghostly pirate legends sat on chairs drinking grog. These are real players' pirates, lifted from Sea of Thieves' appearance at E3 2016, now immortalised in the game. By talking to these characters you learn hints of what's coming next to the game; whispers of a new trading company, perhaps. The secret pirate hideout looks like this:
Inside the Captain's Cabin is the Pirate Lord, an NPC who sells legendary voyages. These are the most challenging and rewarding quests in the entire game. Design director Mike Chapman calls them Sea of Thieves' take on public events, or "if Sea of Thieves did raid content".
What's cool about these legendary voyages is only one person in a crew needs to have one for all players to take it on and earn the rewards. A pirate legend could slam their legendary voyage on the captain's table in their ship in front of three brand new players, then, if the legendary voyage wins the vote, take the entire crew out to tackle it. This extends to the secret pirate hideout, too. A pirate legend can take their crew into the hideout and show them around. "The idea with this place is it's the velvet rope in a nightclub," Chapman continues. "It's that secret place I want to get to, and there's something aspirational about that.
"A couple of weeks after launch, the first person will make it here. No doubt they will become a mini celebrity in the Sea of Thieves community. Then the second person, the third person, the fourth person. Then you'll get that proliferation of legendary voyages throughout the world and this understanding of what legend means."
A pirate legend also gains access to more elaborate outfits (think the Barbossa character from Pirates of the Caribbean), as well as the pirate legend title that shows up under your gamertag. But you can choose not to wear pirate legend clothes or display the pirate legend title, if you fancy fooling your crew and other pirates into thinking you're not as experienced at the game as you are.
Progression doesn't stop at pirate legend. One of the first major updates Rare plans to add to Sea of Thieves after it comes out in March is the goal of becoming a legendary captain. When you achieve this rank, the secret pirate hideout becomes your hideout. You'll start the game there, not in a tavern. And that ship you saw docked in the hideout? That becomes your own customisable ship.
"At launch, we're trying to create this idea of, I'm going to become this Black Beard or Jack Sparrow of the Sea of Thieves world," Chapman explains. "And when I get there, I've got something that means something tangible in the Sea of Thieves world. But then beyond launch, when we add that update, now you're going to create your Black Pearl, your legendary ship. You would start in this hideout, you would board your ship and you actually sail through that waterfall and you explode out into the world like The Flying Dutchman, like Batman leaves the Batcave. And when people see your ship in the world, they know that's a ship of a pirate legend. Should I fear it? Should I try and work with it? Should I try and crew up with it and build a relationship with that legendary captain?"
There are no safe zones in Sea of Thieves, and you will always play in a world populated by other players. There is no fast travel, either. Rare wants you to have the opportunity to encounter other players while you play (currently around every 25-30 minutes). This is where the skeleton forts come in, Sea of Thieves' version of raids or public quests.
Forts are sprinkled throughout the world, and they can be occupied or unoccupied. As a player or a crew, you could occupy a fort and fire at passing ships. But if a fort is occupied by skeletons, a huge skull cloud appears above it, signalling there is a vault packed with treasure inside somewhere.
Inside the fort is a tough challenge that involves fighting waves of skeletons before going up against a skeleton captain. Defeat the captain and you'll get a key that unlocks the vault. (Be warned: just like the chests and skulls and other physical objects in the game, this fort key can change hands.) Inside the vault are quest rewards - more than any one crew can carry (a devilish design decision by Rare). You'll have to make a return trip to grab it all, but when you emerge from the fort, perhaps you'll find yourself facing a handful of other player ships, who have all watched your good work with the skeletons with great interest. Remember, the skull cloud works like a beacon, and is designed to attract players like moths to a flame.
Rare often refers to Sea of Thieves - or the the project as a whole - as a game as a service. As with so many games these days, Sea of Thieves is built to be updated on a frequent basis. Developers mentioned to me plans to add new legendary voyages and trading companies to keep endgame players interested. The success of this plan will be key to the success of the game, because Sea of Thieves has no grind. Well, there's no grind in the traditional sense, anyway.
For Rare, the ultimate appeal of the game is the journey. Sea of Thieves' big bet is it's fun enough at a fundamental level to keep players coming back for more; that the variety in play experience comes not from some Rare-crafted mission, but the interaction of players and the way the game attempts to pull you off the beaten track. One example of this is the message in a bottle.. No, not the sound of The Police, but the sound of a Sea of Thieves side quest. Bottles will glisten in the distance. Find it, read the message and you might end up on a quest that's better than the one you started off with. Voyages are described as "directed goals". The rest is up to you.
"Why should you play Sea of Thieves?" asks Rare studio director Craig Duncan. "You should play Sea of Thieves because the last time you played it you had this awesome adventure with your friends."
But is that enough, I wonder?
"Isn't it all right for a game to just be fun?" counters executive producer Joe Neate. "That's what we're having all the time, and that was before we put any of our progression stuff in. We're trying to give you just enough motivation, just enough reasons to go out. It's about fun, it's about having memorable stories and fun and smiling and laughing. That should be as much of a hook to come back as having a number go up. It's far more aspirational for me."
To that end, there's more to do in Sea of Thieves while on the road to becoming a pirate legend than the closed beta indicated. The closed beta featured just one trading company: the Gold Hoarders. But the game will have three at launch: the aforementioned Gold Hoarders, the Order of Souls and the Merchant Alliance. Each has a different vibe and lore.
While there are plenty of voyages that involve finding treasure chests or skulls, or ferrying resources such as wooden planks, bananas and cannonballs, the Merchant Alliance will task you with finding animals, and the animals can be... problematic. Not only do you need to find rare breeds out in the wild, but pirates need to work together to catch them, store them and transport them back for reputation and gold. "The interesting part is the crew is united in tending to their care on the return journey," Chapman says. "We believe that's not only an opportunity for great humour, it also suits the tone of Sea of Thieves."
Imagine you've just taken cannon fire and you've got water filling up the bottom deck of your ship. Well, you'll need to grab the chickens and move them to safe ground, because they will die if they drown. Chickens can be shot, and they will startle and run around like... headless chickens. It's probably a good idea to store gunpowder kegs where the animals aren't.
Chickens will also cock a doodle doo each dawn, which will alert nearby ships to your presence. Pigs get hungry and need to be fed. They'll die of starvation if you're not careful. Do you dip into your supply of bananas to keep them alive during the return voyage to an outpost, or keep them for yourself in-case you're attacked?
The snakes sound best, though (snakes often sound best in most things, don't they?). They're venomous, so you have to be careful while you're catching them. They can also bite you through the basket you carry them in. However, you can make the snakes docile by playing music, which makes them easier to catch and transport. Imagine the stress of one player carrying a snake in a basket while another player plays their concertina close behind. Why not place your snakes around your most valuable chest, so if you are boarded, enemy pirates will get a nice surprise? Instant snake trap. That's exactly the kind of recipe for disaster Rare wants to provoke.
It's clear there's more to Sea of Thieves than the closed beta indicated, and I'm now more hopeful of the game's longevity than I was before I visited the studio. But even so, there's one thing that's conspicuous by its absence from this game: a campaign.
Rare confirmed to me that Sea of Thieves does not have a campaign, nor a Rare-crafted story. There is no set of quests you have to complete in a certain order. There aren't really any cutscenes. Sea of Thieves is the canvas upon which players paint their own campaign. Some will say this means the game feels a little thin. For others, the fun is enough. Without a grind to speak of, it'll have to be.
"It's improv versus standup," Joe Neate says, and I like that analogy. It evokes the idea that Sea of Thieves is about going off-script. It also evokes the idea that the more you put into Sea of Thieves, the more you get out of it, which sparks a new concern. Without a story or a campaign, we're relying on players who are probably strangers to help us find the fun. Most of us won't have a ready-made crew of super excited friends on standby for instant streamable shenanigans, after all.
Craig Duncan dismisses this concern, insisting Sea of Thieves is designed to be the "friendliest" multiplayer game ever made, that is has been built to break down barriers. He also insists the Sea of Thieves canvass has to be "light" in order for players to create their own stories.
"The moment you push everyone through a path, what they're actually doing is playing the adventure we've created for them. Whereas, if we give you a light canvass of a world, we can then continue to shape that world and what that looks like based on player actions.
"I love the idea of things happening in the world that literally can shape the ongoing fabric and lore of Sea of Thieves. The Black Beard of Sea of Thieves being a real player in a real crew with a real name - that's really hard to do if you've already painted everyone down a path you want them to go through."
"You've got to come to Sea of Thieves with an open mind," Neate concludes. "You're not going to be handheld. We want you to discover how to sail a ship and make the decisions moment to moment - the quests you're going to take on, what you'll be diverted to and how you'll play with other players.
"What are the stories you're going to have in this world?"