One of the more leftfield surprises to come out of this year's E3 (although in hindsight, it's such a natural fit, it shouldn't have been much of a surprise at all), was the announcement that Captain Jack Sparrow would be soon making his way to the Sea of Thieves as part of a mammoth new Pirates of the Caribbean crossover story arc for the swashbuckling multiplayer adventure. And ahead of its arrival this Tuesday, 22nd June, we had chance to chat with Rare to find out more about its impressively ambitious free update.
A Pirate's Life, as Rare's new five-episode Tall Tales story arc is officially titled, plunges players into a fight for the future of the Sea of Thieves after Captain Jack (here played by Jared Butler, an actor with a long history of voicing the character in video games) successfully navigates the perilous fog known as the Devil's Shroud surrounding the Sea of Thieves with Davy Jones in tow.
The ensuing adventure dips liberally into the worlds of both crossover franchises, most notably for Sea of Thieves fans, giving players their first opportunity to some visit some key locations in the game's expansive lore - including the underwater Sunken Kingdom, home of the malevolent sirens, and the Sea of the Damned, a realm between life and death where the dreams and nightmares of pirates take on a physical reality.
It also introduces a number of other fun firsts for Sea of Thieves, including its first proper AI companion in Captain Jack - who'll wander around on deck, man the ship's cannons, and call out when supplies are low throughout the adventure - as well as the Cursed Captain, an enthusiastically animated skull (bringing the Monkey Island series' Murray to mind) who makes for the game's first portable NPC. He'll comment on players' actions and surroundings as he's carried about, sharing lore and hints to undiscovered secrets along the way.
A Pirate's Life's scope is perhaps surprising in a world where most live-service crossovers start and end at premium skins, and it's a project that's been in the works for quite some time, beginning with a conversation during 2019's E3. As Sea of Thieves executive producer Joe Neate explains, "Disney came to us and kind of said 'Hey, so Sea of Thieves is an awesome pirate game, and we've got some awesome pirate worlds. And rather than spend five years making a game that's basically the same as yours we'd love to see if there's a way that potentially we could work together'".
It was a conversation that lit an immediate spark at the studio, in part because so many of the team - Sea of Thieves' creative director Mike among them - are massive Disney fans but, crucially, because Pirates of the Caribbean just seemed like such as natural fit for Sea of Thieves' evolving world. After all, explains Neate, "Our original pitch document was Pirates of the Caribbean crossed with WindWaker cross with The Goonies, right?".
With everyone onboard and plans finalised, work on A Pirate's Life began in earnest in March last year, just as the world was adjusting to life with the coronavirus pandemic. "We kind of kicked off right around the same time as everything happened," says Sea of Thieves lead designer Shelley Preston, "and we needed to start finding this way of working from home. I've really been in awe of how quickly the team has adapted... [everyone] has been so excited, and we've kind of moved mountains to be able to make it happen."
And the end result of that enthusiasm is a Pirates of the Caribbean crossover that isn't just ambitious - its core storyline is said to last around 8-12 hours, with Commendations and "in-depth" side quests supposedly boosting that considerably - it's one that, conceptually, feels like a supremely comfortable fit for Sea of Thieves. That's at least in part, says Rare, because both franchises have a number of naturally complementary elements that enable them to co-exist in the same world without one ever overwhelming the other.
There's Sea of Thieves' ferryman, for instance, whose ceaseless quest to shepherd dead pirates' souls back to the Sea of Thieves would inevitably bristle with Pirates of the Caribbean's counterpart in Davy Jones should they ever meet, given the latter's preference to ensnare the souls of dead pirates in Davy Jones' Locker for his own bidding. Then there's Captain Jack, a character desperately clinging a life of unfettered freedom on the waves despite the onward march of civilisation. Where else would he ultimately want to be than on the Sea of Thieves - a realm outside of time, where swashbuckling adventure is eternal?
As Preston explains, ensuring the project remained respectful to the identity of both properties was key throughout development, with the team striving to find "an authentic way to tell a story that would make sense for the motivations of characters" from each world. It's a welcome attitude in industry where many live-service games have now embraced crossovers so thoroughly and so haphazardly, they barely have much of an identity left to call their own. But where does that line of acceptability start and end for Rare? Presumably Sea of Thieves: Fast and Furious would, for instance, be a step too far?
"With Pirates of the Caribbean," says Neate, "it's a very, very natural thing, it just works... so, if we were to ever do anything like this again, we would have to approach it in exactly the same way. You've just got to ask 'Does this fit?' and, to your Fast and Furious analogy, I think it would be a struggle, as creative as we are... But if we were to ever do anything again, it's about that, it's about how does it move our world forward? How does it benefit our world, how does it treat our world... it's just got to make sense".
"To anybody who may have that concern over how the crossover is going to affect the Sea of Thieves they know and love," adds Shelley, "I genuinely think once players get their hands on this and play it, they'll really see the care and attention that's gone into the integrity of the design and authenticity to both worlds, and will feel that it's truly a [strong] addition to Sea of Thieves. It's moved the world on in meaningful ways for all players."
But of course, Sea of Thieves is just one half of A Pirates Life, and, with Disney fully onboard, Rare has also had the opportunity to delve deep into the beloved Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. And while the connections to the now five-strong movie series are obvious - including familiar characters, locations, and music (Neate enigmatically says he can neither "confirm or deny" whether any of those iconic Pirates themes will be getting the playable shanty treatment) - Pirates fans might be surprised to see just how much inspiration Chapman and the team have taken from the classic 1967 Disneyland ride that started it all.
One early sequence teased in Rare's behind-the-scenes showcase video above, for instance, features a spooky rowboat ride through gloomy, waterlogged caverns that should be immediately familiar to Disneyland fans. The chilling warning that "dead men tell no tales" uses audio taken straight from the attraction - and ride-goers might also recognise the sounds of thunder, wind, seagulls, even a number of original voice actors who've returned to record new lines using the same mics from the 1960s.
Given the sheer wealth of fan service, Rare is, reasonably enough, anticipating that it won't just be Sea of Thieves players jumping into A Pirate's Life on launch day, and it's made a number of adjustments to its usual Tall Tales formula to ensure the experience is as accessible to all as possible. For instance, not only can players hop straight into the new Tall Tales story arc directly from the main menu if they so choose, the ensuing adventure predominantly plays out in "protected" areas of the map, away from the danger of other players.
Cordoning off these new Tall Tales isn't just a concession to new players, however; it also gives Rare the opportunity to craft a series of adventures that move away from the more cerebral, sailing-focussed activities of earlier Tall Tales, toward a pacier story that brings huge spectacle to the fore in a way not usually possible in the shared open-world. "They're super cinematic," explains Preston. "You're right in the heart of the action...a very active part of the story."
"They're just so great to watch," elaborates Neate. "They're really, really cinematic in terms of the story they tell and the emotions they try and trigger within you... I would genuinely be surprised if there aren't tears from people who know our world really well, know the characters really well. Some of these stories tug on the heartstrings a bit around why Sea of Thieves is special, why the pirate's life is special, and why it should be saved."
And, of course, there's one particular character that makes an appearance in A Pirate's Life in a way Sea of Thieves fans have been waiting a very long time to see. "We've obviously always had the kraken's face in our artwork, in our concepts," says Shelly, "and it's always been something we wanted to add, but in a way that's really meaningful and impactful. And so getting to do that as part of the story of these tales - and it's woven so deeply into the narrative - is incredible, and something we really hope does stand out to fans. It's finally, finally the kraken."
In fact, Sea of Thieves' Season 3, of which A Pirate's Life is part, promises to be a bit of a fan-pleaser all-round. While certain elements, such as the Sea of the Damned and Sunken Kingdom, will only be accessible via the new Tall Tales, a number of key features will be venturing out to expand Sea of Thieves' shared-world sandbox on a permanent basis. There's a new long-range magical weapon known as the Trident of Dark Times, for instance, and, perhaps most excitingly, brand-new foes to engage with - the first non-skeletal enemies to be added since 2018. There are the crustacean-like Ocean Crawlers and ghastly pirate apparition known as Phantoms (both of which can be encountered while exploring on dry land), plus the elegant but nefarious Sirens, who can spawn and attack players - somewhat terrifyingly - anywhere in deep water.
There's a lot happening in Season 3 then - alongside usual staples like a refreshed progression and reward track - which, Neate admits, had a bit of an impact on Sea of Thieves' (brisk and somewhat low-key) Season Two. "Honestly, we had to kind of rally around this time," he says, "and had to make a few decisions and planning assumptions around it... it's purely because the scale of [A Pirate's Life], and the immovable date that is E3 - and we did want to announce and release this in quick succession, we just wanted to blow people's minds with the reveal."
Season Two's truncated, two-month run-time should be "an exception rather than the rule", according to Neate, who says the studio wants "it to be that rough three month window with a bit of flexibility in there". And it sounds like there's still plenty on the horizon for Rare's now-three-year-old pirate adventure as the studio settles into its new seasons model, with the developer being particularly keen to expand and improve on its seasonal events.
"I think we're very good at building things to headline and kick off the season," explains Neate, "but it's then like how do we keep people really interested and engaged throughout each season, aside from the progression system - so that's probably the biggest thing as a focus for the team. I think if we look at the second half of this year, we look into the next year, that's where I think you're going to see that big kind of step forward for the seasonal approach."
Before all that though, there's the not insignificant matter of A Pirate's Life, arriving this Tuesday, 22nd June - almost exactly a year and a half after that first E3 meeting between Disney and Rare. "It's slightly surreal to be able to talk about it," laughs Preston, "because it's been such a huge secret for so long. It's excitement that's been building for all this time and we finally get to unleash and talk about everything that we've been doing. It's great."