One of the standout moments from Microsoft's XO19 event was the reveal of Everwild. Led by 20-year Rare veteran Louise O'Connor and a growing team within the legendary barn-filled Twycross developer, Everwild is a third-person adventure game set "in a natural and magical world".
That's not all Rare has on its plate at the moment, of course. While Everwild caught the eye at XO19, Sea of Thieves nears its second Christmas and development on the pirate adventure continues. Alongside these two games, Rare is working with the Essex-based studio Dlala on a new Battletoads. And, within Rare's famous barns, other things are afoot.
It's an exciting time for Rare, then, in 2019, the year before the launch of the next Xbox and with two cool games on its books. But it has not always been this way. Before Sea of Thieves met with success, and not long after Microsoft shut down fellow beloved UK studio Lionhead, there were serious questions being asked of Rare's future. And the studio's Kinect Sports saga had only fuelled the perception that the magic of old was lost. Things change quickly in the video game industry. Is Rare now back? Did it ever go away?
It was with these questions in mind that I sat down with studio head Craig Duncan, a Rare veteran of nearly nine years and passionate Liverpool fan, to find out more about how Rare got to this point, where it's going, and how Sea of Thieves and Everwild fit into the masterplan.
Exciting times at Rare! I know you can't talk about your new IP even though you've announced it and named it. But can you talk about how it fits into the current structure of Rare, barns wise?
Craig Duncan: It is a fantastic time for the studio. To be in a position where we're announcing a brand new IP that we feel very passionate about, it's very very special. And alongside that we still have a super successful ongoing service-based IP in Sea of Thieves that still has millions of people playing it. We love the community. We love the feedback we get. We've had great coverage from you and the team at Eurogamer...
Craig Duncan: We've had monkeys throw up live on camera! But I think for a modern day studio, to have something that is an ongoing project... Joe [Neate] and his leadership team run Sea of Thieves, Louise [O'Connor] and her team run Everwild. And we have a number of central teams that support. Our outsourcing team will support both. Some of our core engine team will support both. There's obviously things we've learned from Sea of Thieves that is tech we can migrate. There's just a huge amount of benefits of having multiple things go on in the studio. And then we've also got the Battletoads project with Dlala. There's a couple of people working on that as well. We did the Banjo and Smash thing. We've got a merchandising and branding team. So I think just as a modern gaming studio, we've got lots going on across lots of aspects of the business, which is great.
Can you talk about how Everwild came to be?
Craig Duncan: We will talk about the origin story later. Rare is a very special studio. And for us it's about finding the heart of what our special games are. I think Rare makes the kind of games the world doesn't have. Sea of Thieves was a very unique type of game, and I think Everwild is a very unique type of game.
We always incubate ideas and we always incubate things we think have potential and are special and very unlike other games. And when we find something that gets us excited and passionate, then that forms into a real thing.
Why do another new IP and not go to something you've got in the bank? A new Banjo Kazooie, for example?
Craig Duncan: If that was our logic we'd have been making Jetpac for the last 35 years. The great thing about making games is putting a set of passionate people together making something they truly love and believe in. That's the goal of making anything. That's why Sea of Thieves is the game it is. That's why Everwild will be the game it will be, because we have a team of people who are truly passionate about the thing they're creating. Then my job as the studio head is to create an environment where they can go do that, and they can do their best work, and we can create something amazing. It's not about me picking the game I want made, or I want people to go do. It's about the team building the thing that is in their burning desire and heart to go make the most amazing experience.
On Sea of Thieves, how will you manage its ongoing development now you're making Everwild?
Craig Duncan: We've been trying a lot of different things. We had our first year. We then did quarterly quite big, almost DLC-style updates, with a lot of little fixes and events and things. We then launched Sea of Thieves Anniversary. Since then we've switched to monthly updates. Part of what we announced at XO is the November monthly update, which is a brand new Tall Tale, with the origin story of the shipwreck you can find in the game. And then we're introducing fire bombs, which are, without using my bringing the heat puns, is the hot new tool we're adding to Sea of Thieves.
You know we like puns.
Craig Duncan: There's many in fire. I'll let you guys pick better ones than I will.
Craig Duncan: There you go. Perfect. But, you can throw them, so it's the first throwable weapon in Sea of Thieves. Like all things in Sea of Thieves, it's a tool. So we're really interested to see how people use them. You can load them into cannons. Obviously if they ignite on a ship, the ship will set on fire. It's just another game changer for Sea of Thieves that will give you a new tool and a new set of things to play with. So, we feel really good about the monthly updates. We're actually having a stronger year two, than we did year one.
In terms of what?
Craig Duncan: We don't really talk about numbers too much. But I think our December this year will be stronger than our December last year. And we're well into year two of Sea of Thieves now. Our anniversary not only brought new people into Sea of Thieves, but a huge reengagement moment. Generally what we see is, when we introduce new events and content and monthly updates, we see people come into the game as new players, and we see people come into the game that have played - maybe they played at launch or anniversary and they've stopped playing for a few months - and they come back, and some of that's through Xbox Game Pass, some of that's through people recommending it to their friends, some of that's through people seeing the game being streamed, and then going and buying it. So we feel really healthy about Sea of Thieves. We haven't run out of creative ideas to put into it and the team is still really passionate about Sea of Thieves.
I remember going to the studio in the run-up to the launch of Sea of Thieves. There was so much talk about the impact Game Pass would have on it, and whether it would be successful. I remember speaking to you about it and you were confident. Two years later, you must be thrilled with how it all worked out, going from some of the uncertainty, and Game Pass wasn't anywhere close to what it is now.
Craig Duncan: That's the beauty of being part of Xbox Game Studios. The fact Sea of Thieves was the first Xbox Game Studios game to launch into Game Pass... Phil [Spencer] said it perfectly earlier, which is, what we see when people come in via Game Pass is they play different types of games they probably wouldn't play if they have to go buy a new game every single... how many games are coming out at the moment? So, if you come in to play Sea of Thieves and you then go on to play Forza, or you then go on to play Gears that's great. If you come in to play Gears and you'd never even thought about playing Sea of Thieves, you now have access to Sea of Thieves.
The interesting thing for us is we have our core community, which is incredible and amazing and we want to keep delivering things for them, but also we have lots of new players coming in to Sea of Thieves. So, we're working on things about, okay, how do we make that early voyage experience a bit better?
It's a little tricky to get to grips with the game.
Craig Duncan: Absolutely. And we recognise that. It's funny, because we don't get a lot of that feedback anymore, because most of the people that play know the game. But we know there's an opportunity that if we get that a bit better, if people are coming in new, they're going to stick around.
So, Sea of Thieves, it's funny, in some ways we've been working on it for a long time, and it seems really mature. But in other ways, it feels like we've only just scratched the surface. There's tonnes of opportunity to come. Even having Sea of Thieves in xCloud - we're in the preview program of xCloud - we're learning a load out of that as well. I was sitting in my hotel room playing Sea of Thieves on my mobile with a controller, and it's mind blowing. What does playing it on xCloud mean? Do we need to make any changes to the game because of xCloud? Maybe someone's playing it on a mobile and we need to change the screen layout or the font sizes. We're going to learn all that. And that's a whole new set of people.
So, Sea of Thieves is doing the business for Rare?
Craig Duncan: Yep.
Would you say it's secured the studio's future? Or was it never in doubt in your opinion?
Craig Duncan: The studio's future was never in doubt in my opinion, but I manage the studio so I probably have a somewhat vested, bullish interest in that!
There's no game like Sea of Thieves. We built a game to bring people together, with actually quite noble goals for what we set out to do with Sea of Thieves. I feel really proud we've achieved those things, but we now have a massive franchise we can go and do more with. I feel really good about Rare's future. I am incredibly excited about Everwild. And then there's more to come and more to talk about in the future.
Craig Duncan: I've moved on now!
Would you say you've put that perception to bed? Or is there still an element of that?
Craig Duncan: It's important as a studio we're clear about what we find passionate and what we want to go and do and the kind of games we want to build and why. And some people will love that, and some people will wait and see. When we launched Sea of Thieves, we said, we're going to support Sea of Thieves for years to come. A lot of people bought into that. Some people frowned and said, well, we'll see what happens. I think we've been true to our word, and we've supported it for years to come.
And then some people will go, Sea of Thieves is not the game for me. I want to play a different type of game. And what's great for them is there's a million games out there, and there are plenty of games for everyone to play. For everything we're going to do, what I can assure everyone is, we will be really passionate about it. And what you will see from any Rare game is a passionate team, building the kind of game that doesn't exist, that will give players new gaming experiences, and we will be really passionate about doing the best job we can for that. If people buy into that and buy into what we are as a studio, they will come on that journey with us and we will give them gaming experiences that hopefully they will love.
Rare has always made unique games, historically.
Craig Duncan: That's the essence of Rare. Are we back, or did that go away? I don't know. Rare makes the kind of games the world doesn't have. That's what the essence of Rare is, and I feel proud. I think we're doing a good job there, and I think we'll continue to do a better job as the years go on.
Finally, you're putting some mad stuff on your Sea of Thieves ships. Sea of Thieves is like Etsy for other game studios.
Craig Duncan: It's a great push, actually. We have a huge amount of debate about this internally, about what's right and what's not right. You'll know, a lot of service based games, they go crazy.
Craig Duncan: And many others. We always want to do something in the tone of Sea of Thieves. Even our Omen ship, or our Halo ship we announced at E3, it's inspired by their IP but it still looks right in the Sea of Thieves world. So the Spartan on the front of the ship has got a carved look that looks like it could have been made by a shipwright in Sea of Thieves.
But we also know Sea of Thieves is a game about self-expression, and we always wanted it to be. So, if you're a huge Gears fan, you will go and get the Omen ship. And if you play Sea of Thieves this week, you get it free. We actually love how many people will go and do that. And then if you see an Omen ship on the seas, it's like oh, they're a Gears fan. And then maybe that's a connection you can make, and it might be someone you go and play with. I just think that's really cool, because it allows people to express the things they love.
The team won't let me put a Liverpool ship in Sea of Thieves.
There's no carved Jurgen Klopp in there?
Craig Duncan: I'm a big fan of Marvel and comic books, but we wouldn't do a Marvel ship in Sea of Thieves. That would be a stretch too far.
You wouldn't put a Forza car in Sea of Thieves?
Craig Duncan: [Silence...] Doing the Banjo ship livery, doing Killer Instinct, doing Battletoads, the Perfect Dark figurehead, Halo... we have done a lot actually, haven't we? Gears... they all have reasons and origin stories about why. It's all been whether it's come from a team, or the other way. There's a Sea of Thieves banner in Gears. There's a blood splat as well.
Craig Duncan: What's cool about that is having our game show up in each other's games - and that's something that's really easy between studios because we just put our creative teams together.
So who says, can we have a Gears of War ship in Sea of Thieves?
Craig Duncan: It happens both ways. We did some of the Rare IP first because obviously that's totally in our control. And then when we were brainstorming content we could bring into Sea of Thieves, it was, well, what if we did something with Halo? So then we reached out to the Halo team and we said, hey, we've got this idea. Here's what we've done with some of our stuff. So we showed them some of our examples. And then they really liked it. And then, when you're building games, and you're being creative, things either get momentum or they don't. And if you have a few discussions, and it just dies a death, hey, you don't do it. When you start to brainstorm ideas, and then it becomes a thing, and then you show it to the Halo team and they're like, that's amazing. That's really cool...
Then everyone wants to do it?
Craig Duncan: Yeah. And then, the funny thing is, you go and have a chat with the Gears team and it was like, well, here's what we did for Halo. And they're like, that's really cool. The momentum gathers.
But we always want to give players ways to express themselves in Sea of Thieves. The ship is kind of the hero, because that's the thing you see on the horizon. We're probably unlikely to do a COG Gears suit, because that's not pirates. But having the logo and the iconography and the figurehead is a really cool way to show the things you're a fan of in our world.
You can get away with it, basically.
Craig Duncan: Yeah. And it's fun. And it's our rules. It's our IP. It's our rules.