Sea of Thieves players of a certain vintage may well recall Wanda.
Wanda was a weaponsmith on Golden Sands outpost back in year one, as unremarkable a background character as any of Sea of Thieves' NPC shopkeepers. One day, though, something strange occurred. Word began to spread among players that Wanda was behaving shiftily; she forgot her name, lost her voice, and started hiding her arm behind her back whenever anyone was in range. More inquisitive sorts thought to catch her unawares, scaling atop her shack to peer through a window unseen. And that's when the truth was revealed; Wanda was undergoing a horrific transformation, slowly turning skeletal as the weeks progressed. Things only got stranger from there; pungent plumes of smoke could be seen rising from her chimney, a mysterious companion was spotted lurking at the back of her store, and then she was gone.
Eventually, with the arrival of Sea of Thieves' Cursed Sails update, all was revealed; Wanda had uncovered a dark power she thought she could exploit, ultimately leaving her cursed and transformed into the bloodthirsty Captain Warsmith. Now terrorising the oceans with her fearsome fleet of skeletal ships, outposts across the map were in lockdown, NPC characters cowered in fear for their lives, and players were tasked with bringing down her rein once and for all. It was a wonderfully organic bit of storytelling, blending subtle background mysteries only the most observant players might spot with huge centrepiece moments, cleverly folding in map changes and new mechanics along the way.
Wanda's saga hinted at what I'd always hoped Sea of Thieves would be: an ever-changing world full of evolving stories, shifting allegiances, and more. And while it was neither the first or the last time Rare has subtly reshaped its piratical world in the run-up to a big new feature, it was certainly the most ambitious, and I've remained a little surprised that - for all the impressive additions brought to the game in the last four years - Rare hasn't really attempted such an all-encompassing approach to narrative design since then. But that's about to change.
Following a dazzling year of content updates that frequently flipped between cinematic grandeur and a pleasing sense of ad hoc experimentation - one that saw Sea of Thieves' audience continue its upward trajectory, growing another 25% compared to 2020 - Rare is sailing into 2022 with huge ambitions. This will be a year where story is king as the studio finally makes good on that initial narrative promise glimpsed in Wanda's saga all those years ago.
"I love the way you call that out," says Sea of Thieves creative director Mike Chapman when I broach the topic of Wanda, "because I think the spirit of that, and also the next level of that, where players really feel like they're part of the world and it's always changing, always unfolding, is very much what [our plans for 2022] talk to.
"The world is bigger than it first appears, it's a rich, dynamic place filled with all these ongoing narrative threads, little clues and secrets to discover [and] I think with Sea of Thieves being the size that it is now and the thriving community that we have, it feels like that storytelling approach is better suited to where we're at with evolving a live service."
To make all this work, 2022 will bring yet another structural shake-up to the way Sea of Thieves' content is delivered. Quarterly seasons will remain, each bringing new gameplay features and a refreshed progression track, but where there was once an extensive void after the initial thrills of a season had faded, Rare is returning to the monthly content delivery cycle it adopted in earlier years. Starting on 17th January in the run-up to Season 6's 10th March arrival, Rare will begin releasing significant new story chapters, known as Adventures, on a monthly basis - each forming part of a vast, overarching narrative for the Sea of Thieves.
From a purely practical perspective, it's a structural change designed to address some of the shortcomings Rare has identified with its seasonal model after a year of updates. As executive producer Joe Neate explains, "We learned the seasons work well, they can have a nice moment at the start when everyone comes in expecting new mechanics and new progression, but then it kind of tails off a bit in the middle, and the Live Events weren't really doing what we hoped." As Neate sees it though, Rare's return to a monthly release schedule isn't just about engagement, it also opens up a whole heap of possibilities for how it approaches story in-game, enabling it to "add more emotion and more connection to the world and make it feel more alive."
Characters will come and go, and the seas will shift far more regularly and significantly than anything players have seen before. Each new Adventure will be proceeded by a cinematic trailer, serving as both a primer for new players not up to speed with current narrative events, and as a scene-setter for things to come. In-game, meanwhile, players will be presented with a new quest line each month, serving up a new chapter in the ongoing saga, told with all the presentational bells and whistles - fully voiced and animated, with new mechanics - you'd expect from Sea of Thieves' Tall Tales. Unlike Tall Tales, however, Adventures will only stick around for two weeks or so before making way for a brand-new chapter one month on.
This is perhaps the part of Rare's reveal I'm less sold on, especially following the studio's deliberate shift away from the limited-time quests and adventures of year one. With Sea of Thieves catering to such a broad audience, with a multitude of life commitments outside of the game, doesn't the shift risk alienating players? Chapman says it's a concern Rare has discussed at length, but always returning to fact its new episodic storytelling approach will ultimately enable the studio to "be much more ambitious with how we change the world." To accommodate players that can't always be around for a new chapter, however, Rare's solution is two-fold: those cinematic lore trailer, giving players the chance to catch up on the story whenever they return, and a conscious decision to limit rewards from Adventures to small mementos - think Merrick's drum from year one's Hungering Deep update - while more sizeable commendations and rewards remain tied to Sea of Thieves' permanent seasonal additions.
And for all the concerns around limited-time content, it's hard not to get excited about the storytelling potential the shift brings. For instance, not only will Adventure chapters unfold on Rare's terms, Sea of Thieves' community will also have the opportunity to shape how its story plays out through their combined actions on the seas. As Chapman explains it, "Players will have a choice as part of those immersive adventures. And I don't just mean option A, option B; think about it from a character perspective, how aligning with certain characters will affect the outcome and the story, which then feeds into the unfolding narrative throughout the rest of the year. So it's about putting players at the heart of the story; you're not just making a binary choice, you're performing the action that makes it feel like an immersive part of the world."
And while these more structured story experiences play out, players will also have the opportunity to contend with a second type of narrative thread Rare is calling Mysteries. Part ARG, part puzzle, part treasure hunt, these longer-term stories will require the community to scour the seas for clues connected to a current Mystery then work together to push it forward into its next phase. "Think of it as, how do we capture players' imaginations? How do we get them to really care about the mystery," explains Chapman. "It's not something you opt into in the same way as an Adventure but it's in the world to be discovered - there's kind of layers of puzzle solving, layers of clues and tangible actions... So based on people discovering certain phases, the conversation, the community, that's when the mystery will move on."
As a sort of prelude for things to come, Rare's grand narrative gets underway on 17th February with a scene-setting two-week Adventure going by the name Shrouded Islands. With Captain Flameheart, Sea of Thieves' current big-bad, suddenly making an ominous retreat from the world, a strange mist begins creeping across the oceans, putting the islands it engulfs in significant peril. As the chapter gets underway, fan-favourite outpost Golden Sands will lie in ruin, the remnants of a terrible siege littering its shores. Outpost resident are missing and at least one major Sea of Thieves character lies dead - the focus of the game's first Mystery - and it's up to players, at the behest of Bilge Rats leader Larinna, to investigate.
This initial Adventure will take players from fog-shrouded island to island across the map as they follow the narrative threads, while that murder will require the community to work together as it searches for more esoteric clues. New characters will be introduced - notably Belle, a major figure in Sea of Thieves lore, here making her in-game debut - alongside first hints that the forces of evil are amassing in the background with devastating intent.
From here, as Season 6 gets underway, Rare's plan proper springs into action, continuing that story on a monthly basis, with each three-month season culminating in a major narrative crescendo to usher in the season to come. And, in another nod back to that Wanda moment, each season's mechanical additions will directly tie into the ongoing saga. Season 6, for instance, will launch with two new gameplay elements: a new kind of voyage exclusively for Pirate Legends, plus Sea Forts - seemingly spat out into the world from the Sea of the Damned - introducing a mini-raid-style challenge specifically tailored toward smaller crews.
Sea Forts bring a touch of that Spanish colonial flair, synonymous with the Golden Age of Piracy, to the Sea of Thieves, with six of these vast stone edifices joining the map (two in the Shores of Plenty, two in the Wilds, and two in the Ancient Isles) at the start of the season. When active, players can slip inside, winding their way through each fort's elaborate interior and running a gauntlet against themed phantoms on the way to its well-stocked treasury.
The goal, here, says Rare is to craft a challenge more easily handled by solo players or crews that don't wish to engage in the often fraught antics of Sea of Thieves' other world events. To that end, unlike skeleton forts and ship battles, there's no vast overhead signal denoting an active Sea Fort, meaning players will have a greater chance of tackling their challenges in peace - although that isn't to say alliances, even an entire server's worth of players, couldn't all pile in.
As for Season 6's new Pirate Legend-exclusive addition, this is a little harder to pin down, but Rare paints it as epic, multi-chapter story quest that's assembled anew with each play-through to create an endlessly repeatable voyage. A new play-through may remix chapter orders, add previously unseen ones in place of others, or subtly rejig the path through individual chapters for a different experience. And for an added bonus for Pirate Legends, Season 6 will bring a level cap increase for the Athena's Fortune trading company.
There's one notable casualty in all of this, however; in order to make Adventures "as magical as [they] can be", Rare is redirecting its development efforts in a move that will see Sea of Thieves' long-running competitive-focused Arena mode - which distils the core experience down to a succession of 15-minute ship battles - finally getting the chop. It's not a particular surprise - Rare announced it would cease additional development for the mode back in 2020 - but with only around 2% of total playtime spent in Arena these days, now's the time for it to go.
And that's pretty much how things will play out for the rest of the year; each new three-month season will bring a burst of new gameplay features - Rare is teasing new ways to play and progress in June's Season 7, expanded role play and quest types in September's Season 8, plus new social options for crews in December's Season 9 - alongside all the usual seasonal additions, including a new free and paid premium track, commendations related to new mechanics, and premium shop updates. From now on though, Rare is attempting to combat that mid-season slump with big new monthly story quests that will, hopefully, bring a sense of life and movement to Sea of Thieves' broader world.
In amongst all that, too, there's the not-insignificant milestone of the game's fourth anniversary this March, which officially marks the point where Sea of Thieves has been out in the wild for as long as it was in development prior to release.
I ask Neate how it feels to have been on this particular journey for so long, and he responds, "It's incredible, we talk about this a lot, about the fact that we're still energised and excited and buzzing and there's so many different things we can do."
"Even the characters say it themselves," adds Chapman. "There will always be new stories to tell. That cuts to the heart of Sea of Thieves, whether it's the stories that we tell or the stories that players tell, it's unbelievable. I can't believe four years have gone past since we launched the game. But the one thing I can say, I can't see us ever running out of ideas and opportunities. I think the world is so rich, and the shared world design brings so many opportunities, it's nothing but positive for how we can continue to grow this game and give players new experiences that, hopefully, they can only get in Sea of Thieves".
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