For those who've been with Sea of Thieves since its release back in 2018, the captaincy update is a thing of legend; originally intended to be the multiplayer pirate adventure's very first post-launch update, it would give players the opportunity to acquire their own persistent vessel on the seas, and - in a proposition that still excites the pirate in me to this day - start their sessions in a gloriously dramatic fashion, bursting through the Legendary Hideout's massive waterfall out into the world. But then Sea of Thieves' slightly wobbly launch happened, and Rare shifted its focus to fleshing out the game's sandbox following criticism of its limited core. With that, the captaincy update was set aside, but never quite forgotten by the player base, gradually becoming the stuff of legend with the passing of time.
But then, earlier this year, it returned. As announced during Microsoft's June showcase, captaincy and boat ownership were, after all this time, back on the cards. Now, the wait is finally over, with Sea of Thieves' near-five-years-in-the-making captaincy update launching later today. It promises to deliver an elaborate new framework for adventures to come - minus any waterfall-busting ship shenanigans, unfortunately - and ahead of its arrival Eurogamer had the opportunity to chat with Rare about what it hopes captaincy will bring to the Sea of Thieves.
"I think even before we released Sea of Thieves," explains creative director Mike Chapman on the update's genesis, "we all knew that the idea of being a ship captain in a game about delivering the ultimate pirate fantasy - the idea of a ship captain, and that ship captain's identity being personified through a ship - was just something that we always wanted to do."
Inevitably, Rare's original plans have evolved as Sea of Thieves has grown, and the captaincy update of today is, says Chapman, "much deeper than I think we originally envisaged" back in 2018. Indeed, it goes way beyond saveable cosmetics, introducing a confluence of systems intended to, as lead designer Shelley Preston puts it, create a "framework of deeper meaning and deeper emotional connection for the player to their ship and their adventures".
Captaincy in Sea of Thieves spans a breadth of new features, including a new progression system that's essentially - much like last year's seasonal progression model and, to a lesser degree, 2020's emissary system - a way of reframing the game's existing and future mechanics to give players a new incentive to engage with them. But before all that, it starts with a boat - more specifically, the ability to buy your own boat with in-game gold.
Initially, players can own and name one of each ship type (although once a ship reaches legendary status, further ships of that type can be purchased) and everything about these vessels will - unlike regular boats - persist between sessions. A boat's name is permanent and will be announced to other pirates through a spyglass from afar; its cosmetics will still be applied at the start of a new session, as will battle scars reflecting your previous adventures unless you opt for ship repairs. Customisation now goes deeper too, with the overhauled captain's cabins not only providing new opportunities for self-expression (you can reskin everything from the table to the drapes), but providing a home for new trinkets and trophies that are unlocked through play and represent your notable accomplishments in the world.
The idea, explains Preston, is to take Sea of Thieves' wealth of existing content and "[wrap] it in a way that gives that extra meaning to the captain and crew... It takes your ship from being something that's your home for a session - maybe you set fire to it at the end and that's it, you won't see it again - to that permanent representation of [your] journey."
And if you're wondering whether the ability to save a ship's state between sessions brings us one step closer to the very much-requested ability to save a pirate's on-person cosmetics, there's some extremely good news. "That's something a lot of us want to do," says Chapman. "And it's come up a lot recently, because we're really pushing on it with the ship. So that is very much on the future roadmap... We love the idea of people having the little roleplay outfits that they craft with saving different loadouts of various cosmetics. So it's on the roadmap. It's not earmarked for a specific season, but we're going to try and get it in as soon as possible."
Although Sea of Thieves' captaincy update introduces numerous captain-exclusive perks - the ability to restock barrels for gold at a shipwright, a new one-stop drop-off point at outposts run by the new Sovereign faction, and a broad selection of voyages available directly on-ship, giving players greater control over the type and length of an adventure - it's the new Milestone system that lies at the heart of it all. At their simplest, Milestones serve as a kind of ongoing record of your adventures - designed to appeal directly to those players that love their stats, according to Preston - but it goes beyond that, tying in a new progression system enabling captains to pursue particular playstyles, either deliberately or organically, known as Alignments.
By reaching certain Milestones, captains gain the ability to unlock displayable rewards and cosmetics reflective of their preferred playstyles and their achievements within those Alignments - some locked permanently to the ship they were earned on, and others, such as the Shrouded Ghost trophy, tied to individual pirates so crew members can continue their progression while serving under another captain.
"Whereas Milestones are stats," explains Chapman, "they're uncapped stats, and you almost cash out and reach thresholds where you gain access to these trophies which illustrate uniquely what that thing is that you've done. But there's also stats beyond that, that don't drive anything and they're purely there for bragging rights and they just go and go forever." And to complement the endless tracking of Milestone stats, some trophies will gradually evolve into fancier, more shiny variants as those numbers tick ever-higher - serving as a sort of ongoing background goal for those wanting some additional structure to sandbox play.
At its most reductive, Milestones don't sound too far removed from the kind of reward-based stat trackers common across any number of other live-service games, but it's all wrapped up in what Chapman calls "that classic Rare and Sea of Thieves style [of bringing] those little special touches to elevate it."
"So I see your ship in the world," he elaborates. "I look through the spyglass; I see the name of your ship, but the banners are themed to the playstyle that you've chosen to represent yourself. When I board your ship, the look of your logbook reflects [its crew's] play style - you see what they've been up to, you see the things that they've chosen to pin at the front, the achievements that they're most proud of. You can mix and match anything you'd like but the way your captain's cabin looks is a reflection of the things that you've done in the world... and so the system becomes deeply personal to the people that are playing on that ship. And that's really the magic of how we elevate the experience."
And it's a system Rare plans to evolve overtime. "We've landed that concept now," says Chapman, "we're going to land that framework for captaincy. So when we think about all our ambitious plans for the future, in terms of how we'll continue to expand that sandbox - adding more Alignments, more ways to roleplay with your ship - we're launching the start of something that's really a new way to think about your Sea of Thieves sessions."
Captaincy, of course, arrives as part of Sea of Thieves' long-awaited seventh season, which will hopefully restore the game's momentum after a Season 6 that was stretched to breaking point across five months while Rare grappled with the complexities of the captaincy update behind the scenes. That delay - although somewhat softened by a regular influx of monthly narrative Adventures - did rather take the edge off what had been an exciting start to the year as Sea of Thieves burst out the gate in January with the promise of a bold new focus on evolving narrative and a 2022 roadmap of tantalising new features across four planned seasons. Inevitably though, Chapman admits, those plans have now changed.
"You know, we're feeling really good that we've done [the captaincy update]," he says, "but we are kind of assessing what the knock-on effects of that are. I think one thing we want to prioritise is that we don't adversely affect the regularity of content. It's just trying to tread that line of getting regular content out to players and it still feels like an evolving world while still doing the big ambitious things that we want to do. So we don't really have anything to announced yet. But we are shuffling things around a little bit."
"But honestly," he says of the delay, "this is always unforeseen, as much as we're so diligent up front. Running a live service as a whole is such a complex endeavour. And you don't want to always go after the safe stuff; you want to go after the big ambitious updates that really move the Sea of Thieves forward. And with that, you take on a bit of risk. And you kind of don't realise that the complexity is going to hit you until you're quite late down the road. So all you can really do is try and minimise that delay and ensure that you're still delivering an adhesive experience to players. So it just factors into what we go after and when... I was going to say we probably wouldn't go after two ambitious, complex seasons back to back, but that's pretty much what we're doing with Season 7 and the next season."
Back in the present though, Rare is simply excited to see how players will respond to captaincy now that its years-long journey to release is finally at an end with the advent of Season 7. "We often do a little kind of watch party on TV when [an update is] released," says Preston, "so we'll jump on some streams and we'll see people go in, and just that moment of... when you name your ship and [the Pirate Lord engraves it]... I'm really looking forward to seeing people have that moment, where it's their name that they probably dreamed about and probably have been thinking about for a while, seeing it appear, and then setting sail on their adventures."
But as the conversation comes to an end, I can't help but address that one conspicuous absence in all of Rare's reveals so far. Will I finally have to abandon my fantasies of blasting through the Legendary Hideout's waterfall, out into the world, as was originally teased prior to launch? "The way I think about it," answers Chapman, "is the pirate fantasy of having a hideout that you sail off still sounds great to me. I'm not announcing anything, but I think we'd want to treat it with the same level of focus, we'd want to go deep on that in the same way we've gone deep on this." So that's not a yes, then, exactly, but it's not a no either. For now, I'm placated and my thoughts can return to the crucial question: what am I going to name my ship? The Ant on Deck? The Briefcase Anchor? There isn't long to decide.