Growing up, I remember the gaming community as a group around the lunch table at school, excitedly discussing the latest releases and sharing tips and secrets. In my experience, that’s a far cry from the modern gamer. In 2018, gamers are great at two things: outraged and being told what to be outraged over. The direction of the core fanbase is determined largely by YouTube and Twitch influencers who have figured out how to monetize anger. The gaming community, such as it is, is now about the perceived wrongs dealt by games rather than the games themselves.
I’m not bemoaning the passing of bygone days; I don’t know if I can kid myself into thinking that there was ever an “ideal” time for the gaming community. I think the pedantic consumerist nerd has always been kind of a problem with the community and perhaps he’s just a little more visible now than he used to be. I will say, though, that some games are taking the brunt of the modern turn toward directed outrage more than others. Metal Gear Survive was a pretty fantastic take on defense gameplay that didn’t get its fair due thanks to outrage, for instance, and we’re seeing that happen again with the pirate-’em-up Sea of Thieves.
To be fair, I don’t know that Sea of Thieves was presented in the right way. Looking at the trailers and promotional material, you’d expect this to be a cooperative game that’s all about exploring a faux-Carribean world and collecting loot. The game’s cartoon-styled graphics certainly suggest a friendly experience built around exploration and camaraderie. That’s certainly an option, but if you come into the game expecting this to be the primary gameplay focus you might be a little disappointed.
Running a ship with friends, following treasure maps and collecting goodies is fun for a while; your pirate ship needs to be controlled in a more manual fashion than most games, so players have to pay attention to sail length and angle, navigation and heading and even loosing and raising the anchor when necessary. If you only ever collect loot to sell to NPCs, though, you’re probably not going to get much out of Sea of Thieves. The game provides very little direction. You might be led to believe that this is what you’re supposed to be doing. If that’s the case, you’ll probably be disappointed.
I’d argue that this is because loot-gathering is more of a chore than anything and not really the point of the game. Sea of Thieves is actually a naval combat game; collecting loot is largely just a way of providing something to fight over and it’s telling that none of the equipment you can buy with loot has any gameplay effects. Any and all loot that’s collected can be stolen by anyone at any time. If you see another ship, you might as well consider them an enemy, because they might have goodies that are worth taking.
That’s where the fun lies. Ship-to-ship combat with eight or more players is a treat, a chaotic balancing act between steering ships, launching attacks, patching up holes from cannonballs and attempting to board enemy vessels. The experience I can best compare it to would be Guns of Icarus, an indie take on the concept using airships.
Ideally, then, Sea of Thieves is a game about doing pirate-themed chores to collect loot right up until the opportunity arises for a sea battle where the winner can accumulate a sizeable chunk of loot, then sell it all to buy more cosmetics. Other opportunities for emergent gameplay arise all over the place, such as hiding on an outpost to take out other pirates as they’re trying to sell their loot, then taking their goodies and selling them for yourself. It’s even possible to sneak on board enemy ships to steal loot or set off explosives below decks. It’s difficult to talk about Sea of Thieves in terms of content alone because the experience is all about the different ways in which that content can interact unpredictably when you get a bunch of people together.
Of course, that’s not the most common take on this game, so let’s talk about Sea of Thieves in more practical terms. The current gamer outrage is, at least in part, over the admittedly limited number of options presently available in the game. Let’s not dance around this: there are two types of ship to command, four weapons for your pirate of which two can be equipped at a time, three different kinds of mission to embark on and essentially one NPC enemy type that appears in several variations. If you’re expecting the game itself to provide variety then you’re probably going to be disappointed.
The fun here lies in interactions with other players and the ways in which those interactions can develop unexpectedly. It is a game that encourages and rewards cruelty, and that perhaps could have merited a little more prominent placement in marketing, but it is not a game completely devoid of opportunities to have a great time. Get the right group of friends together and Sea of Thieves becomes one of the most memorable co-op experiences of the last year or so, one that promises to improve over time.
Let’s also not dance around a second point: Sea of Thieves’ business model is unusual to say the least. This is one of the headlining games for the Xbox Game Pass service, a $10/month subscription with a 14-day free trial that allows unlimited access to a fairly impressive library of titles. It’s not necessary to pay $60 for Sea of Thieves; it’s available on both PC and Xbox One so long as the player is subscribed to this service. For 14 days you can play the latest AAA title from a top-tier developer and publisher for free without restrictions; for $10/month you can keep on going after that. If this were solely a $60 purchase that would be one thing and we’d be having a different discussion, but that’s just one option out of many.
To hear the hardcore set tell it, video games in 2018 are all about milking customers for everything they’re worth, yet you can play this one for essentially nothing…and that’s still not enough. The outrage machine lumbers along. Gamers on Reddit and Twitter howl for blood. We hear less about the best moments of Sea of Thieves and more about what a slap in the face it is. If you aren’t part of the mob, you’re going to be left behind.
It’s worth remembering that in 2018, the rise of crowdfunding, Patreon and the gig economy mean that outrage is often far more profitable for certain parties than level-headed discussion. I’d never say that this is why this one is getting something of a bad rap, but I’d certainly heavily imply it with eyebrows raised so high they reach the clouds. Rather than calling it the latest insult inflicted on the long-suffering gaming community by those greedy, evil publi$hers, I’d say Sea of Thieves is a solid PVP game with a lot of potential that’s available for a song. That’s probably not going to bring in a lot of donations or help me reach my funding goals, but I think it’s a little more reasonable than calling this “the No Man’s Sky of the sea.”