Why ‘Sea of Thieves’ Might be the Antidote to Toxic Online Gaming

Dom Peppiatt
Games Xbox
Games Xbox PC Gaming

You might not have noticed it, but there’s a renaissance of the ‘wholesome’ going on right now: from the meme pages on Facebook, reddit and Tumblr that are gaining massive followings on their respective platforms, to feel-good TV shows surging back into popularity around the world, for many, virtual toxicity has gone too far.

Nowhere else is this more pertinent than in gaming. Whether its players routinely getting banned on Overwatch for being abusive, countless users getting banished from  PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds for griefing – or even popular Twitch streamers  being jettisoned from the platform for their abusive in-game behaviour, sadly, it’s a problem that many gamers have come to accept.

For many developers, the outlook is ‘If you’ve got an online game, you’re going to have toxicity’. Luckily though, one studio is determined to change that. Rare has always been a family-friendly, ostensibly positive developer, creating brands and games designed to bring a smile to your face. Catching the turning tide and keen to champion this new age of wholesomeness, Rare is working to make its newest project – the Windows exclusive Sea of Thieves – a safe haven for online players.

A RARE Sense of Community

Rare wants Sea Of Thieves to be about more than just combat.

“I genuinely think we’ve created a pleasant online world,” explains the game’s executive producer, Joe Neate, when we ask him what Rare has done to try and make this a nicer place for players to socialise. “We want to make Sea of Thieves a welcoming social multiplayer experience. We want it to be a game for everyone. Think about anything you know about pirate culture — from TV to books to films. We wanted to recreate that. Looking like the pirate you want to look like, where you battle against other ships, you explore looking for treasure. We wanted all that but with a fantastical element, and we wanted to do it in a way that could include everyone.”

To that end, the developers have made some very intentional choices in how your character is generated. When you first get to choosing your in-game avatar – the pirate you could well be playing as for the next 100+ hours — you don’t get a say in their ethnicity, their gender or their body type. Instead, you’re given a wheel of characters to choose from. If you don’t like the choices, you can refresh the wheel – take a look at the next set.

All the cosmetics and decorations you could want to make your pirate a reflection of yourself are rewarded in-game, via quest rewards and vendors. You can choose to show off your personality through incremental, horizontal progression — not through PvP or through having to prestige or anything like that. This means when you start the game, sure, you can regenerate the pool of seadogs enough and get that skinny white guy with a lil’ soulpatch if you want… but that’s not the intention.

Treachery for everyone

While Diversity may not actually be a wooden ship, it turns out you'll be able to find it on one.

“We want you to see a pirate, take a good look at them and think ‘I want to tell stories with this character’”, continues Neate. “Pirates have always been known for being this eclectic bunch of misfits, and we love the idea of all these different crews running around, all with their different personalities.”

We noticed in our time with the game that this even played into how different players would act once their character was assigned: you’d see the burly pirates take on the role of cannoneers or diggers, hoisting loot out of the ground. Meanwhile, the weedier pirates would stand on the mast, sniping potshots at skeletons threatening the crew. The pirate with a hook for a hand – a commanding woman with a strong chin and billowing red hair – became the captain. It all just fit, and there was such a variety –- which was refreshing to see in an online game.

“We took out friendly fire very early on,” explains Craig Duncan, Rare studio head. “We found that teammates were killing each other to get better drops… that’s everything we DIDN’T want to come out of Sea of Thieves.

Flintlocks and Friendship

Grog, a staple of every pirate's diet.

In fact, this philosophy of pleasantness is present in the very DNA of the game. In Sea Of Thieves, one of the first functions you’re taught in the game is that you can select the ‘Make Friends’ emote and if someone does that back to you, you’re taken to the Xbox’s Add Friends tab.

“We’ve even gone as far as to ensure that other player’s names in the game aren’t displayed in red,” Duncan continues, “because even that feels aggressive, you know? Everything has been created to play into this accessible multiplayer experience. Even how the rewards are shared”

When Rare was developing Sea of Thieves, the studio looked at other titles and realised that a lot of the toxicity stemmed from the way the game rewarded player behaviour. In PUBG and DayZ, for example, the team noted it was simply every man for themselves – that the reward and the core gameplay loop was simply getting one over on other people.

The Pirate Code

While you can betray those around you, only players who work together will be able to haul back the larger bounties.

“In Sea of Thieves, we’ve designed the rewards in such a way that you have to work together if you want to succeed,” Duncan says. “Take the Strongholds, for example – we’ve intentionally filled those with more treasure than anyone ship can carry – does that mean that a few crews will work together to take down a stronghold, split the booty and go their separate ways? Or does it mean one crew is going to risk everything and make two trips? It gives you some really interesting situations.”

The Strongholds in question are like Nightfalls, if you want to make a Destiny comparison: harder, more brutal locations that are filled with more difficult enemies, but that are brimming with better rewards. So, whilst a single crew  COULD take one of these on, the odds are very much stacked against them. The idea is that multiple crews — strangers and friends — will attempt to tackle these harder tasks together, working in unison to pilfer the AI’s hoarded loot.

Even down to the more emergent elements in the game – like the enigmatic kraken – players will have to occasionally rely on each other if they don’t all want to be brought down in a torrent of broken ship. We couldn’t get Rare to tell us exactly what the conditions are for making a Kraken appear, but the studio seems to suggest it’ll only appear when more than one ship is in an area… if you want to have the bragging rights to say you defeated this awesome creature, you can’t just lone wolf the game. You have to trust in your fellow pirates.

Sailing On Safer Seas

Sea Of Thieves is all about the excitement that comes from sharing an unpredictable world with other players.

“I love that we are the first game to really bring this [wholesome attitude] to a shared world adventure game,” says Neate, smiling. “Since day one we’ve been aiming to build a community around a new IP, and I think even now – as of the beta – you’re getting these wonderful stories of people meeting and having a great time in-game start to come out.

“You know, mitigating toxicity has been the goal for us, really, since day one. We looked at games like DayZ and EVE and thought ‘we want to bring those games to a more casual audience’. And if we wanted to do that, it was only right we made the space a nicer place to be in. So we’ve done everything we can to accommodate that… that’s why the game isn’t massively competitive – because when you make anything massively competitive people are gonna start being dicks to each other”.

The game has even poked fun at itself and its take on wholesomeness. There’s a Pirate Code in the game (which, in essence, just equates to Neate’s ever-so-aptly put ‘don’t be a dick’) and if someone is being a dick, then you can select the code from your inventory, whip it out, and show it to the offending player.

“That’s the Rare spirit,” laughs Duncan, reflecting on this mechanic, “that’s the sort of thing we hope players will be talking about in 10 years – the same way older players talk about Rare games now. That’s the sense of humour, the sense of fun, we want everyone to experience in Sea of Thieves.”

Who knew a game about thieving and treachery could be so welcoming?

Sea Of Thieves sails onto PC and Xbox on March 20th.

Dom Peppiatt
After cutting his teeth on magazines at games™, Dom has written for everyone from Xbox Achievements to The Daily Star. Terrible puns. Obsessed with dogs. Somewhere between Squall and Ignis.