Since its rather divisive launch last year, Sea of Thieves has grown substantially. A total of five major updates have introduced the likes of a new explorable region, new ship types, roving skeleton fleets, perilous fog, giant sharks, fishing, cooking, a standalone competitive mode, and more. However, anyone that's played the game on a regular basis will know that Rare has consistently struggled to find a sustainable rhythm for the regular delivery of new content since launch, making its live service game often feel less than alive.
Last month, however, Rare unveiled a new plan of attack for Sea of Thieves, pledging that its multiplayer pirate adventure would adopt a new monthly content release schedule. And now, as the game receives the second of those updates, Dark Relics, executive producer Joe Neate and creative director Mike Chapman have explained, in conversation with Eurogamer, the whys behind the decision, and what this should mean for the future of Sea of Thieves.
Dark Relics, much like last month's Black Powder Stashes update (and, indeed, the Mercenary Voyages from earlier this year), introduces a number of new limited-time voyages intended to add a unique spin on the core experience. This time around, plucky pirates will be cast toward the horizon at the behest of the Order of Souls, searching down Skeleton Captains who hold ancient treasure maps leading to the mysterious Dark Relics that lend the update its name.
As Neate explains it, such voyages, and the "social twist" they bring to encourage player engagement - in the case of Dark Relics, there's a gotta catch 'em all component designed to nudge pirates toward theft - will always form the "baseline" for future monthly updates, along with game balancing, quality of life improvements, and fixes.
"There's a team that's focussed around that part of the game," he says, "making sure that we can do these really cool, unique social spins on voyages, and things that are going create reasons to come back and play and engage with the game and get these cool rewards."
That's only part of the picture, however. With more teams working away on updates for Sea of Thieves' competitive Arena mode, new additions to Adventure mode, and new Tall Tales, among other things, each monthly update will also provide an avenue to introduce new features as and when they're ready to go.
So, while last month's update managed to roll in everything from new Tall Tales puzzles to window flaps on ships, this month also brings a new "emergent tool" in the form of the harpoon-equipped rowboat (useful for everything from stealthy enemy encounters to ludicrous daredevil stunts, including, yes, the option to attach it to a megalodon), as well as a small but potentially significant twist to floating barrel spawns. Now, not only is there a chance that treasure will appear among the debris, exploding barrels might too, meaning there's real scope for mid-voyage disaster if crews don't keep their eyes on the seas.
The Dark Relics addition with real game-changing potential, however, is the new Reaper's Chest. This will (initially at least) spawn in shipwrecks, sending a beacon of light into the sky, serving as a siren's call to players around the map. Once secured and turned in at an outpost, a crew will receive a stash of Sea of Thieves' valuable Doubloon currency. The twist, though, is that enemy crews can see exactly where the chest is on the map once it's onboard a ship, creating all sorts of impromptu PvP hotspots.
As Chapman points out, Rare's new monthly release cadence also finally gives the team the opportunity to do something it's wanted to do for a while: introduce a more coherent, ongoing narrative to the world, both through overt story beats - like last month's ocean-wide frenzy to stock up on explosive barrels, or this month's quest for mysterious relics - through to more subtle environmental storytelling cues. Eagle-eyed explorers will, says Chapman, find a few more changes in this month's update that offer some "little clues" about future content.
All of which adds up to a surprisingly rich update; but, explains Neate, "Last month and this month, I would consider to be our 'small' updates". Although Rare is clear that it wants to move away from the mega-sized, expansion-style updates it produced in Sea of Thieves' first year, that doesn't mean the end of new large-scale features. "Currently, our plan is not to do another Anniversary Update where we bring in all of these features together," Neate explains, "but there will definitely be moments that align in our monthly cadence when a number of features and a Tall Tale might come in together, and it's a sizeable update in terms of new content and features. You're going to get a much more regular delivery of meaningful sized updates alongside smaller ones, without going to those colossal ones."
The overall goal, says Neate, is to "grow and evolve the game on a more regular, predictable basis". As he puts it, "Last year was awesome in terms of what we added, but for our players, they really didn't have an idea of what was coming and when there was a new thing to look forward to". As such, the new schedule should mean an end to the lengthy waits between content drops that plagued Sea of Thieves' first year, and ensure there's always something new on the horizon for players to be excited about, and coming soon. In fact, Rare's serious enough about introducing regularity and predictability for players, that it's not just pledging a monthly update, but one that will arrive on the second Wednesday of every month from now on.
But while the benefits for players are fairly self-explanatory, there's just as much to gain for the studio too. "What we're trying to do is build a little bit of flexibility into our plans," explains Neate, "The newer something is, or when you work on a completely new or difficult feature, there's some unknown about when that's going to land, so if we can build a bit of flexibility for these bigger, riskier, unknown things, we can move it from X month to this month because we know we're always going to be delivering this core awesome stuff."
Significantly, there are very real positives in terms of sustainability for the studio too. "When we go and do a massive update like Anniversary," says Neate, "we love doing that but it makes it very hard to predict when it comes to what's in it, and a lot of that falls on the team to help push and support that and it doesn't lead to a sustainable working environment".
Right now, a month ahead of release, the studio is locking down its feature complete, "big and complex" September update (the most substantial monthly update yet, says Neate), and with that more predictable development routine comes the opportunity to discuss plans earlier, without fear that things will change.
As such, Rare's happy to share a few details on its September release, teasingly referred to as Reaper's Bones; it'll introduce the first wave of Sea of Thieves' long-awaited pets (one part of the game' imminent cosmetics-based Pirate Emporium micro-transaction store), alongside the usual new voyages, rewards, and features. Long-time players may also be amused to hear that the update will finally see the mysterious shop above the Order of Souls opening its doors.
Additionally, while Rare is keeping the specifics of future updates close to its chest for now, it's at least prepared to talk in broader terms about some of its current areas of focus.
For starters, Rare says it's heard community feedback and is looking at ways to keep more of its limited-time content around permanently, so that players with busier schedules don't constantly find themselves missing out. "Even though voyages and some of the Commendations are time-limited, we're looking at solutions where those will stay in the game," explains Chapman, "At the moment, the tools we've got at our disposal for keeping voyages around are a little bit limited, but the goal for us is that every time we do one of these monthly updates, that list of things that players can do is always growing." And that might even extend to the return of previous limited-time events, albeit in a slightly different form.
"In terms of how we reward players for doing voyages, we always want one focus for that month," says Neate, "because we gain a lot from the social twist in gameplay, from encouraging people to do these voyages at the same time. But if you want to opt-in and do these voyages in the future, we want to have a way for them to stick around... We're working on tooling and systems that allows us to do a better job of that right now."
Also on the cards are some much-needed enhancements to Sea of Thieves' competitive-focussed Arena mode. "Arena has landed well," Neate tells me, "and when it plays in best conditions, with full crews, balanced crews, it's awesome. At times, in the live world, it plays like that, but all of the fixes and improvements we're making is to ensure it play like that on a consistent basis."
And for those hankering for additional story-based Tall Tales missions following their stellar debut in Sea of Thieves' Anniversary Update, the good news is that more are definitely on the way. "We tried a lot of stuff with that first set of stories; different mechanics, different types of gameplay," explains Chapman, "so it's been really fulfilling to kind of pick through the detailed feedback...and that's obviously feeding directly into what we want to do next with Tall Tales. We're trying to do something new and interesting, and desperately want to surprise players who played Shores of Gold".
So with plans now in place, and beginning to bear fruit, we can only hope that there's a new golden age of piracy on Sea of Thieves' horizon.