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Sea of Thieves and the Rare revival

All hands on deck.

Six years ago, we asked "Who Killed Rare?" Fast forward to 2018, and Sea of Thieves is about to set sail on a journey its creators hope will secure the future of the legendary video game developer for years to come.

There's more to Sea of Thieves than keeping the lights on at Rare's beautiful Leicestershire countryside offices. Keeping the lights on is of course very important indeed, which is why the game has a post-launch premium shop that sells virtual pets for real world cash. But for the people who work at Rare, there's an additional hope that Sea of Thieves will finally answer the studio's critics.

Sea of Thieves banners adorn Rare's lobby.

Sea of Thieves, after all, is a brand new game for Rare, the studio that in its glory days introduced to the world the likes of Banjo-Kazooie, Conker, Perfect Dark, Killer Instinct and Battletoads. The studio's veteran fans will hope Sea of Thieves drags Rare kicking and screaming back into the big time after a few years making Kinect Sports games and another couple of years putting together a compilation of its back catalogue (sans GoldenEye, of course).

And yes, I'm sure there's a hope Sea of Thieves will push back against that question we asked in 2012: who killed Rare?

"How can we make Sea of Thieves a successful new IP that for Rare is a game people play years from now, and talk about in the same way they talk about Rare games of old?" Rare studio head Craig Duncan says of the masterplan.

"And for Xbox it's the same. Forza's great. Gears is great. Halo's great. Minecraft is great. If you think, what's the next new IP from Rare? If you even say those words, it's a big deal. We've put a tonne of time and effort and thinking into it over the last three years."

Three years might even be underselling it. Gregg Mayles, who has worked at Rare since 1989, says Sea of Thieves began life nearly four years ago, when "a clumsily titled concept envisaged a different type of multiplayer game where players would create 'experiences that are entertaining to watch'". It wasn't even pirates in the beginning, when the project was codenamed Athena. But it is very much pirates now, and for Rare, it's all hands on deck.

You can see Sea of Thieves everywhere in Rare's airy, multi-barn offices. The place is a pirate wonderland. There are pirate skeleton statues in the main lobby. Sea of Thieves banners hang from upstairs walkways. There's a custom-built pirate tavern (based upon the in-game pub, The Drowned Rat), in which developers film promotional videos. Signs on office doors give staff names a pirate pun twist. Outside is a ship's wheel. Most impressive of all: built into one of the outside walls is a row of cannons designed to look like they're peeking out the side of one of the many ships that populate Sea of Thieves' shared-world.

Rare is made up of some 200 staff, and pretty much all of them are working on Sea of Thieves right now. In one open-plan room sits a gigantic screen that shows Sea of Thieves' network data. Smaller screens show pre-release builds of the game in action. In the corner of the room the PC build is being stretched and squashed until it can be run on a potato. It's not long before I realise I've been in this Bond villain-style control room before. Back in 2014 it was home to a Kinect Sports Rivals hands-on preview event, and was packed with pods for all the various mini-games. I can't see any trace of Kinect Sports Rivals in the room now.

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In another room, gameplay capture devices are slotted into a custom-built wall fixture, with screens on the opposite wall showing live feeds of Sea of Thieves played in nearby booths. There are a lot of capture kits here (each booth has a camera pointed at the player as well as a capture device funnelled into the hardware) and a lot of screens, but one press of a button and everything synchronises for easy multi-feed recording - a bespoke piece of tech Rare needed to support Sea of Thieves' streaming shenanigans.

Sea of Thieves is a Rare game, but it is also a first-party game, and as a first-party game, it's an Xbox showcase. So, the game holds hands with Mixer, Microsoft's answer to Twitch. The hook here is the viewer sees the action from multiple players' perspectives at the same time. Sea of Thieves, which is built around the idea of four-player crews getting up to no good on a pirate ship, is the perfect Mixer game. It might even be the perfect streamer game full stop.

"As a first party studio for Xbox and Microsoft, we have a role to play, which is we go and make awesome game experiences that attract people into our platforms and services," Duncan says. "That's our job. That's why Microsoft has studios, why Sony has studios."

This directive is etched onto the walls at Rare. One room, which has been turned into a place for the design team to test and discuss new features, has a company motto printed onto the wall, one that mentions making great games for Xbox. The point is, Rare's betting big on Sea of Thieves, and there's a lot riding on its success. But success means different things to different people.

"There are different measures of success," executive producer Joe Neate says. "Obviously revenue is one thing that's a measure of success. But so is the amount of people playing our game via Game Pass. Are new people subscribing to Game Pass to play Sea of Thieves? How many people are playing on a monthly active basis? And also, how many people are sharing stuff, or watching Sea of Thieves?"

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I get the sense there's a cautious optimism about Sea of Thieves' unusual appeal, buoyed by the positive reception to the recent closed beta. Duncan mentions various impressive streaming-related statistics, such as Sea of Thieves being the number one game on Twitch for a week. The trick will be to turn those who enjoy watching Sea of Thieves into paying customers.

Again, a cautious optimism. "It's a very watchable and shareable game," Neate says. "We've seen from our beta that people watching other people play has driven them to come into the game. It's driven pre-orders during that time period. Watching people play and seeing their adventures and going, oh, what could I do, sparks your creativity and imagination and makes you want to come into this.

"And because it's a fun and welcoming game, you're not watching a super competitive game, which is great to watch but then going, I'm not going to be able to do that. Instead, you're watching it and going, oh that was really funny, or, I wouldn't have imagined using the explosive barrel in that way, or firing myself out of the cannon into someone crow's nest. You start going, oh, what can I do in that game? You see a real conversion of people who want to then come in and try stuff.

"There are so many reasons why I have such confidence in the appeal of Sea of Thieves. Strategically we've made some really good decisions around the type of game we're making and how we're bringing it to market. For me, it's about the scale of the opportunity and making the most of the opportunity. That's the pressure I feel. It's like making the most of the opportunity."

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Sea of Thieves and Game Pass are interesting bedfellows. Game Pass lets you pay a monthly subscription and in return you can download and play games from a library of titles. Microsoft recently announced all first-party games, that is, all Microsoft Studios-published games, will be available on Game Pass the same day as they come out in shops. And the first first-party game to hit Game Pass day and date with retail is Sea of Thieves.

Game Pass could be huge for Sea of Thieves. There's a 14-day free trial that I imagine many will activate so they can give Sea of Thieves a shot when it comes out in March. If they like it after the two-week trial expires, they can pay eight quid to play it for a month. Then if they still like it, another eight quid for another month. And so on. Sea of Thieves starts to sound a bit like a subscription MMO when Game Pass gets involved.

There's also the expectation that Sea of Thieves will see an influx of new players this Christmas, when many Xbox Ones are sold, many Game Pass free trials are activated and millions of people are looking for a cool game to download and play. By then, Rare will have had nine months of Sea of Thieves post-launch updates under its belt. It should be a cracking Christmas game.

Rare, clearly, is in this Sea of Thieves business for the long-term. But plans sometimes change, and if the game fails to set tills alight, Rare may have to think again. No-one's saying Microsoft will force Rare to walk the plank if Sea of Thieves sinks without a trace, but it's worth remembering who's in charge here, and what they're capable of. Just a couple of years ago Microsoft closed down Lionhead, a fellow fabled British developer. There's not much room for sentimentality in big business.

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The developers at Rare, for their part, say they hope to work on Sea of Thieves for years to come. "This is a major new IP for Rare and Xbox," Duncan declares at the start of a presentation. "I would love to be standing in front of you guys five years from now and talking about Sea of Thieves and people still be playing Sea of Thieves. We're in this for the long game."

Or, as one ex-Rare developer put it to me recently: if Sea of Thieves breaks even it'll be their last game. After that, it'll be Sea of Thieves forever!

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Just look at how far Blizzard has come since the release of World of Warcraft. And one thing I will say about the developers at Rare is they seem pretty pumped about Sea of Thieves' potential as a platform for ongoing development. And, as you'd expect, there's a lot of love for pirates. I'm not sure you could work at the place right now if you hated pirates.

In 2014, during my visit to Rare for the Kinect Sports Rivals event, I discussed our Who Killed Rare? article with Craig Duncan. He told me he took it as, "I'll show them, because that's what I do."

"I'm super excited about Kinect Sports Rivals and I'm really excited about that launching, but I'm also excited about what's next for Rare, because that'll be an important project in the same way," he added.

An important project, indeed.

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