The Sea of Thieves closed beta dropped last week, attracting a surge of interest on social media and triggering a wave of nostalgia amount 90’s kids with fond memories of developer Rare’s golden age at Nintendo. Its been 16 years since Rare headed to Xbox and it feels, for the first time since that changeover, like Rare is back in form.
But first, some history
I think at this point it’s fair to say that the decision to buy Rare never paid off quite the way Microsoft hoped it would. Rare’s catalogue of titles from its days as a second-party Nintendo developer remains the stuff of legend in the games industry. Every game they released in that era was a huge home run and pushed the boundaries of what was possible on a home console. It was only natural that Microsoft would want talent like that for their fledgling Xbox console. Imagine the exclusives. Cut the damn cheque already. Whatever they want, give it to them.
I still remember the day the news broke that Microsoft had purchased Rare — September 24, 2002. I was in my final year of high school. It was IT class that morning. My friend Josh and I stared at the brutal three-word headline on IGN, aghast and upset. Our reactions were an echo of ride-or-die Nintendo fans around the world. At the time, Rare’s acquisition felt like a profound betrayal from a dear friend. Microsoft was the enemy. Their stupid console marketed for jocks and filthy casuals was never going to work and Rare would sink with them. Good riddance. We didn’t need them anyway.
In hindsight, its easy to see that Rare’s acquisition wasn’t personal, it was just business. We didn’t know Nintendo, in the last years of the conservative Yamauchi era, had been starving Rare of development funds despite the rising cost of production. We didn’t know they had dismissed the offer to up their stake in Rare from a minority to a majority share. We didn’t know that, but for Microsoft’s itchy trigger finger, Rare might have accepted a buy-out offer from Activision that would have seen their future titles turn up not just on the Xbox but on the PlayStation as well. At $375 million USD, Microsoft had become the proud owner of one of the most revered developers in the history of the medium.
Rare then embarked on the most underwhelming chapter in their history. They released their first title on the Xbox, the forgettable Grabbed by the Ghoulies, in 2003. They followed this up with a remaster of their N64 swan song Conker’s Bad Fur Day called Conker: Live & Reloaded that failed to gather much sales momentum.
They dug deep for the launch of the Xbox 360 in 2005, releasing not one but two launch titles for the system — Perfect Dark Zero and Kameo: Elements of Power, neither of which were especially beloved by fans or critics. PDZ couldn’t quite recapture the magic of the N64 original and Kameo bore all the hallmarks of a game that had suffered significant cuts and a rushed development cycle in order to hit its launch date.
In 2006, Rare tried again with the genuinely great Viva Pinata, a farm building strategy game designed to tie in with a TV show. The game never took off, and some at Rare believed it was undermarketed due to the groundswell of interest surrounding Epic Games’ Gears of War releasing the same year.
The less said about 2008’s Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts the better for all of us.
After that, beyond helping with Xbox Live’s flashy new avatars, Rare didn’t get up to much. They found some success in Kinect Sports, Microsoft’s attempt to capitalise on the popularity of Nintendo’s Wii Sports and they collaborated with other Xbox studios on a number of projects, but there wasn’t much else going on at the studio.
And then, at E3 2015, after several years out of the limelight, Rare finally had something new to talk about.
Drink up, me hearties, go home
I’ve played Sea of Thieves three times now. Once at E3 2017, once at PAX Aus 2017 and last week during the game’s most recent closed beta.
From the first two hands-on sessions I’d been in, I understood the dopey multiplayer thrust of the game but I’d experienced it in tightly controlled media environments. I was playing with people I either didn’t know or only knew a little. Add to this that my personal taste in games is not for titles of the objectiveless make-em-ups variety and I was finding it hard to get too amped up about Sea of Thieves.
My experience at PAX AUS 2017 with the game’s producer Joe Neate was an enjoyable one (complete with Neate digging up half an island looking for treasure and cursing “It’s my fucking game and I can’t find it, where is it?!”) but ultimately a bit directionless — none of us, a collection of journos and Twitch streamers there for a 10am appointment, really knew each other or how we liked to play.
What I wanted was to play Sea of Thieves the way it was designed– with my friends, in the comfort of my own home — and the moment that wish was granted was when it finally came together for me.
Sea of Thieves is perhaps best described as a multiplayer pirate simulator. The closed beta allowed teams of up to four players to band together to manage a ship, take to the high seas, scour various islands for loot and blow the shit out of each other’s ships in the event that they crossed paths with another crew.
There’s something rather beautiful about the way Sea of Thieves approaches its ship designs from a mechanical standpoint. Every part of the ship boasts an activity that contributes to its smooth operation. My friend Chris and I spent a lot of time on a two-person sloop, one of us at the helm while the other positioned the sails and kept an eye on our heading. This team work creates camaraderie, everyone pulling their weight and having a good time doing it. You win together and you lose together in a way that feels more meaningful than simply completing an objective. And when you aren’t doing that, you get to enjoy watching the game’s gorgeous seascapes, packed with cruel rock formations and sunsets that take HDR colour and do dazzling things with them.
There were a few objectives in the beta too, mostly treasure hunting quests picked up from gold traders on hub islands. Initially I found this fetch quest game loop of Get On The Boat, Sail To An Island, Find Treasure, Return It To The Gold Man rather simplistic. Is that it or is there more game than that that I haven’t found yet? I wondered.
Part of this urge to look for something deeper stemmed from the fact that Sea of Thieves told me almost nothing about itself. The game explains almost nothing about its mechanics, its goals, how to pick up a quest or that you can pick up quests at all. Its possible the beta did have more game in it than just these island-hopping runs but if it was there, I didn’t manage to find it. If you want to be a pirate, the game expects you to make your own way.
The most impressive part of these little fetch quests was the entirely incidental adventures and stories that would leap out of them, fully formed. Chris and I spent a good thirty minutes digging up one island looking for treasure that clearly wasn’t there before realising we’d fundamentally misunderstood the clue to its location and that it was actually at the opposite end of the island.
One trip between islands saw me swept overboard in stormy seas, doomed to watch the boat tear away at full sail, buffeted by the waves and eaten by a shark about three- seconds later — my actual nightmare.
We were set upon by skeletons, we accidentally ran our boat aground in the dark and wound up stranded, we were raided by other pirates and did a bit of raiding ourselves.
We had our boat abruptly sink for no readily apparent reason until we realised the chest we had on board was cursed and would sink any boat it was on unless we played music at it. We spent minutes frantically and futilely bailing water out of our doomed vessel and cursing Posiedon before realizing our mistake.
We spent 40 minutes trying to walk the 20 metres back to our boat after unearthing a chest that made the person holding it falling-down drunk. Because I was falling down drunk, my pirate spewed on Chris, causing him to sympathy-puke, which caused me to puke again and directly into the tankard he was holding. Chris, not realising he now had a cup of puke, tried to drink from the tankard and spewed all over my pirate which set mine off all over again. Our boat was a mess.
I tell you all of these stories because they’re the reason that Sea of Thieves is all I want to play right now. The game loop doesn’t have to be particularly complicated because there are enough random complications to keep you entertained. Going through these ridiculous experiences with friends makes the whole experience sing.
I loved it. I can’t wait for more. And that’s why I’m putting this piece together and why I wrote that history lesson earlier in the piece — it’s so nice to feel that way about a Rare game again. As someone who lived through Rare’s golden age, it feels like a similar creative go-out-on-a-limb energy that infused those older titles is being deployed here.
Sorry for what I said when I was 17, Rare. It’s good to have you back.
Sea of Thieves launches March 20 on Xbox One and Windows PC. If you missed out on the closed beta, don’t worry — we’re sure there’ll be an open beta in the future.