Sea of Thieves team: "We changed everything to keep the Pirates of the Caribbean expansion a secret"
Rare on helping new players and the relationship with Disney
I remember running across the Rare team near E3 back in 2019.
They were in particularly high spirits. I just assumed they were enjoying a successful show, which had featured Sea of Thieves, Battletoads and Banjo-Kazooie. But it now transpires there may have been another reason for their jubilant mood.
"We had our first meeting with Disney at E3 two years ago, in a hotel [near the show]," reveals Sea of Thieves executive producer Joe Neate.
"They came to us and were very complimentary about Sea of Thieves. They wanted to see if we were interested in doing something with... well, Pirates of the Caribbean was the obvious one, but they have other stuff too. And they left it in our court to go away and have a think about it."
As anyone that has played Sea of Thieves will tell you, Pirates of the Caribbean is a natural fit for the game. The comedy, style, representation of pirates, the types of adventures, skeleton enemies... it already felt like an unofficial tie-in even before Disney came knocking.
"It was in our original Sea of Thieves pitch document," Neate admits. "Our pitch was Pirates of the Caribbean crossed with [The Legend of Zelda] The Wind Waker. The freedom of the pirate life, being the pirate you want to be... that's Pirates of the Caribbean. And then the open world where there's something always over the horizon, that's Wind Waker. And then the humour of The Goonies. Those were the three things in our pitch. So it's always been there. And everyone has always asked for it. When anybody streams the games, you'll have someone stick on the [Captain Jack Sparrow] costume or play the music.
"After E3, we asked ourselves: what would we do? We've got the Tall Tales [a series of in-game stories], we could do something with that. When Mike [Chapman, creative director] went away to think about what story we could tell, it became: what would happen if they discovered this world of Sea of Thieves? So we went all in and tried to figure out how fold it into our ongoing processes. How does it fit with the game, how does it fit with our releases... and now here we are."
A Pirate's Life, which is the name of this Sea of Thieves expansion, was a real surprise during Microsoft's E3 press conference. It wasn't leaked or speculated about ahead of the show. This is a remarkable feat for the Rare team, which has a habit of teasing new features at almost every given opportunity -- not always deliberately. What's more impressive is that the expansion arrives today (Tuesday, June 22nd).
"We changed everything in terms of how we worked and shared information internally," Neate reveals. "We send a team update each week. It's just a PDF about what all the different teams are working on. We codenamed everything, and we didn't include any imagery that was related to the IP in those. We also ran a separate process around the testing of the game, as opposed to going through our Insiders programme. We only went through Insiders for things that weren't IP related.
"We did very restrictive reviews leading up to E3, so we weren't part of the wider review group. And just even how we localise stuff... anywhere where we could reduce exposure, we did. We wanted to blow people away. We've watched so many of those react videos and seeing how the trailer played out for people. It played out exactly as we wanted. I'm so glad we managed to keep it secret."
Lead designer Shelley Preston adds: "It still feels slightly strange to talk about it now. It's been so engrained in us for over a year and a half, even more than normal. No teases, no hints, just completely locked down."
Neate again: "It's been funny, as well. Because [Disney and Rare] have built really good professional relationships. We all followed each other on Twitter and LinkedIn and things. But because we're trying to keep it secret, it's been awkward as we haven't been able to like each other's posts. John Drake at Disney, he and his wife just had a kid, and I just thought 'I'll email him'. We can't like the posts on Facebook or Twitter."
"Our very original pitch for Sea of Thieves was Pirates of the Caribbean crossed with [The Legend of Zelda] The Wind Waker."Joe Neate, Rare
John Drake is a well know industry name, so I think Neate may have got away with liking his post about a new baby.
"No," Neate insists. "I replied to one of his tweets in February, I think it was about Star Wars. I replied just saying 'oh wow'. And then a Sea of Thieves fan replied with just the eyes. You can't do anything. You can't get away with it. Everything is cause for speculation."
This isn't the first time Rare has partnered with Disney, although its last collaboration came at the turn of the century on Mickey Mouse racing games for the N64 and Game Boy Color. Things have changed a lot since then.
"The Disney relationship went from an initial meeting, then we had one meeting at Rare in August 2019 where we showed them some images to spark conversations. And then in January 2020 we went across and made the creative pitch," Neate tells us. "And that creative pitch is what you see now. Nothing has changed whatsoever. They just felt 'we need to do this'. That was all the feedback we got. It took three meetings to align around what we were going to do.
"And then it comes down to the team's understanding of the IP and the characters. So whether it is the script, how the characters would look in our world, the ships, the animation... everything. We had a very close relationship with them, where we sent that across early. But the team's understanding about what is important about that stuff has meant that every stage of the process has been as smooth as it can be.
"Mike made it even more of an undertaking by us not just going for stuff from the films, but also the parks. The film team is used to working with people like us, but the park team, less so. We had two different teams giving us feedback. But, honestly, it's been incredible."
Preston continues: "That collaboration with Disney, that back-and-forth of trying to get the characters look and sound and animated just right... has been great. Even down to giving us the original ride audio, so that when you're in the game, if you've been to the ride, it transports you right back there. That kind-of collaboration, on every level, it's just come from a place of us both wanting to achieve that authentic portrayal."
There is a lot in A Pirate's Life for existing players to look forward to. There are new enemies, weapons, and places to explore. But A Pirate's Life is an opportunity to bring in new players and coax back older ones. The announcement alone has caused a spike in concurrent and daily active users.
As a result, the team has worked hard on how to make this an onboarding experience for new and returning users. This story even features areas where you won't meet rival players, who might look to interfere in your adventure.
"When you load up Sea of Thieves, there will be an actual button that takes you straight into A Pirate's Life," Preston adds. "It gives you a little bit of guidance around what to do and how to start. Sea of Thieves has got really big. So these intricate things about how to get going, we knew that could be a barrier to some people. We have definitely had an eye on that aspect."
Neate adds: "We've also recently restructured a bit to have a live service team, which is focused around the challenges of bringing new players in, and returning players.
"It's been so engrained in us for over a year and a half, even more than normal: No teases, no hints, just completely locked down."Shelley Preston, Rare
"We have done really well at adding new content over the last few years, but where there are areas to improve, is how we can make it smoother for new and returning people. Sea of Thieves is sometimes a bit convoluted in that it sets its own rules, and it has its own way of doing things. We're a bit stubborn on that. But once you get over that, and you're into it, you fall in love with it. So we think we can do better."
It's a situation that's potentially more of a challenge because of the Game Pass subscription service, which Sea of Thieves is part of. As a player myself, I've occasionally found myself pulled away from the game because of an exciting new Game Pass release. And when I return to Sea of Thieves, I find it has changed and it can take me a while to get a grip on what's going on.
"We have been so focused on adding new content over the last few years," Neate says. "We still want to keep doing that. We have so many plans and dreams and every year has been bigger than the last in terms of player numbers, engagement, everything... we have no reason to doubt that will continue. But we have to have that balance between the new stuff, and just making sure you don't have to be super engaged to get the most out of it."
Beyond the games, Sea of Thieves is a multimedia IP, with books and comics, alongside a whole range of merchandise. There will be no shortage of fans interested in additional Pirates of the Caribbean/Sea of Thieves spin-offs.
"You're getting right into the intricacies of the contract between Microsoft and Disney over who owns what, and who gets to do what," Neate laughs.
"As you can imagine, we can't just go and do whatever we want on that front. But the relationship with Disney is great, and they are doing a lot to support this as well, in terms of what they're doing to promote it and stuff. They have a lot of parks and places and channels, and they're really leaning into this. They love this as a new chapter and story for Captain Jack Sparrow. There are lots of potential things we can do on that front. But it'll be done together."
Sea of Thieves has featured crossovers in the past, but typically with ship designs inspired by other Rare and Microsoft IP. A Pirate's Life is on another level. But now that the precedent has been set, what can we expect next in terms of IP cross-overs?
"This was special because of what it is," Neate concludes. "It's Disney and it's Pirates of the Caribbean. It's absolutely a natural fit. We had to question ourselves: If we want to do this, how do we bring it into our world? How does it become seamless? How does it treat our IP and the guest IP as equals? You've seen it already a bit, and you'll see it when you play it, the way that the characters interact... It just makes total sense. If we were to do anything like this in the future, you've got to apply the same levers to it.
"Someone in a different interview asked: 'Does this mean Fast & Furious is coming?' I assume they were joking, but no. Whatever we do, it will have the same questions and same lens put to it. It has to build on our game, our stories and our characters.
"But the relationship with Disney has been great, and there is plenty of stuff that we could go and do in the future. We are not going to rule it out, but it has to be authentic, it has to fit, it has to work and it has to take our game and world forward."