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How Rare Studios made gamers part of its crew for Sea of Thieves

Sitting in his office in the middle of the Leicestershire countryside, Craig Duncan is busy leading his crew on a journey into uncharted waters. Four years ago, the head of Rare Studios and his team of developers embarked on a quest to create a game unlike any other that had gone before. The way it has been made, how the storyline develops, the graphics, the humour – they are all unique.

The creation of Sea of Thieves, a highly-anticipated shared-world adventure game featuring pirates, ships and buried treasure, has taken longer than Sir Francis Drake’s voyage around the world, but that time has been well spent, and the wait is now almost over. However, when the game sets sail on March 20, there will be no smashing of Champagne bottles against the developers’ desks at Rare. Their work is just beginning.

“In all my years of making games, this is the first one where I’ve had to relearn everything about making games,” says Duncan, who has spent more than 15 years creating and releasing videogames, almost half of that as head of Microsoft-owned Rare Studios. Despite his extensive experience, the pressure to make great games is always there; add in the fact he is head of Rare – one of the world’s best and most iconic studios – and the upcoming release of Sea of Thieves might cause anyone else to run, screaming, into the woods that surround the company’s offices near Twycross.

But that’s not Duncan’s style. Sat on a sofa in his office and dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a hoodie, he’s relaxed, even though a group of journalists is visiting the office to play the latest version of Sea of Thieves. Rare memorabilia from the past decade hangs on the walls; history is important here. In keeping with tradition, Duncan casually reveals that the company has created a master disc. “It’s like a gold master,” he says, comparing it to the first disc made by record companies from which all other replicas are made. “There’s a disc, it does exist, it has a version of Sea of Thieves on that you can play, but it’s probably out of date already.”

Events are suddenly moving fast for Rare’s 200-plus staff. The latest closed beta for Sea of Thieves has just ended, giving the company crucial feedback on how the game functions as people play it.

“The closed beta has gone really well,” Duncan says. “We’ve seen a load of people playing and a load of people streaming – around 14 million hours of streamed Sea of Thieves. About 65% have logged on using Xbox and about 35% on PC, so it’s a really good mix. Then there was this awesome moment in the office when we noticed we were in the top 10 on (streaming websites) Mixer and Twitch, then we were second, and then we were the number one watched game in the world. It was a hugely successful beta by every measure.

“Now we are seeing people telling their stories of what they saw in the beta and the adventures they had – finding other crews and making friends, or putting an explosive barrel in the bottom of someone’s ship, shooting it and running off, or watching another crew and stealing their treasure. All these unique stories are just awesome to see.”

There’s that word: “unique”. It perfectly sums up Rare, its office, its staff and even the creation of Sea of Thieves. Most studios will work on a game until its almost finished, release a playable demo or set up a testing event where gamers can have a go, tweak the product based on the feedback they get, and then launch it online and in shops.

Rare isn’t like most studios – it decided to take the public along with it on the journey. The team would share snippets of the game, videos and images with the public and release playable parts, even though it was nowhere near finished. Rare listened to all the feedback they got from gamers and moulded Sea of Thieves accordingly. As a result, Rare has a game that most people want because they have asked for it. It’s an unprecedented approach to making a major game.

“We have been making Sea of Thieves in this very public way; people have been playing the game as we’ve been making it,” Duncan states. “We’ve spent the past year in what we would class as a very open development. Every time we add stuff we test it at scale with thousands of players. Part of that is because of the way we have built Sea of Thieves, which is a shared-world adventure, so you can’t really test some of our design ideas unless you’ve got lots of players. Because the game is fundamentally about how players are going to react and act, it’s hard to simulate that. So, we’ve got to put it live, have players play it, tweak and change.”

Despite having thousands of people playing the game at the same time, Rare believes the map is so large that you are unlikely to meet a player more than once. One gamer has made a video of his character swimming across the entire Sea of Thieves world – it took him two-and-a-half hours.

That’s a lot of space in which to swim, sail, fight and explore. The initial aim of the game is to become a pirate legend by joining trading companies and completing missions that earn players reputation points, gold, titles and ranks, as well as items that can be used to show off their new status to friends and enemies.

“You start in rags and you’ve got to build your reputation with three trading companies,” says Mike Chapman, Rare’s Design Director. “The gold hoarders are about puzzle-solving, finding the Xs and solving riddles; then you’ve got the merchants, where you have to deliver items within a set time (this is why your character carries a pocketwatch); and then there’s the combat-focused Order of Souls. On top of all that there are artefacts to find, messages in bottles that take you on other journeys, shipwrecks, krakens and skeleton forts. By building your reputation, you become a pirate legend.”

Once you achieve this honour, the second part of the game begins.

“We wanted to create something that was more than just, ‘oh, I’ve got the pirate legend hat and I’m a pirate legend’. The idea was to create something that inspired the imagination and made people want to be a legend because it carried a real importance in the world,” Chapman adds.

“There’s a hidden location that no one knows about – a pirate hideout called the Tavern of Legends. If you go up into the captain’s cabin in the tavern, you can meet the Pirate Lord. He will give you legendary voyages, which are the best and most rewarding voyages in the game. This hideout becomes your hideout. You’ve started this journey to become a Barbosa, a Jack Sparrow, a Blackbeard of the Sea of Thieves world and now you’re going to build your Black Pearl. When people see your ship, they will know that it’s the ship of a pirate legend. When you embark on a pirate legend voyage it leads to ancient chests, which are the best chests in the game. They’ve got unique clothing and weapons inside; only the pirate legends can dig them up but when they’re on a ship, anyone can steal them.”

If the gamers who are about to buy Sea of Thieves are half as excited as Chapman is, Rare has a huge hit on its hands. His passion for Sea of Thieves rises another notch when I point out that the Tavern of Legends area looks like the pirate ship scene from classic Eighties film The Goonies.

“I’m so glad you noticed that,” he says, with a huge grin on his face. “The Goonies is about a bunch of friends working together, hunting for pirate treasure. They don’t know how they’re going to get there, they don’t know what dangers they are going to face along the way, it might not go the way they expect but when they find it they are going to walk away with memories that will last a lifetime. That’s why we referenced The Goonies, because the journey we were on as a development team was the journey we wanted players to take. There are a lot of people on the team who absolutely love that film.”

It may be the location or it may be the people, but we build different games in a different way

– Craig Duncan

The sense of playfulness that Chapman talks about is on display everywhere you look at Rare. Driving along the tree-lined road leading up to the office, you will see life-sized models of some of the company’s famous creations – Banjo and Kazooie from the hugely popular platformer Banjo-Kazooie, Fox from Star Fox Adventures and Conker from Conker’s Bad Fur Day. In the lobby you will usually find an eight-foot statue of a cloaked ghost from Sea of Thieves, along with the office dog – a young Siberian Husky – which sits by the reception desk, and the many awards the studio has won over the years cover the walls. Walk through a large set of sliding doors at the end of the room and you arrive on a decking area next to a small lake, which also features a few cannons bought from a company that makes props for films. Back inside, one of the halls boasts a working arcade machine, while the restaurant has an area devoted to classic gaming memorabilia. Upstairs you will find a statue of one of the Battletoads from the game of the same name and more large models of Sea of Thieves characters.

In short, it’s heaven on Earth for a gamer.

Microsoft bought Rare in 2002, and since then the studio has produced a string of classic games to add to its impressive back catalogue. Kameo: Elements of Power was a launch title for the Xbox 360 in 2005, while first-person shooter Perfect Dark Zero was also released the same year; the massively popular simulation game Viva Pinata followed a year later, with a sequel emerging in 2008. Rare Replay, a compilation of 30 video games from the 30-year history of Rare and its predecessor, Ultimate Play the Game, was launched in 2015 to rave reviews.

This month, Sea of Thieves will be added to that list, and it will be instantly obvious to everyone that it’s a game made by this famous studio.

Duncan says: “Before we started making Sea of Thieves, I sent the team off to think about what the next game from Rare would look like. Just put yourself in that position, with Rare’s history, that’s a big deal – what’s the next game that’s going to come from Rare.

One of the life-size Sea of Thieves models at Rare

“The team started by asking each other what a Rare game is, and we got: ‘Rare games are humorous, and they’re pantomime, and they’re fun, and worlds that you can lose yourself in and find a sense of relationship with other people’. Then, one of our software architects said: ‘Rare games are a reflection of the people who make them’. If you look at any Rare game, that’s true. It’s of a time.

“Part of my job as Rare studio head is to give my team the right environment to build something that’s incredible, new and different. Rare definitely makes games that are unique and different.

“What we’ve done with Sea of Thieves is we’ve taken the notion of players creating their own story in a world one stage further, but with the Rare charm. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. We want you to smile while you play it.”

Duncan puts Rare’s rich vein of creativity partly down to the fact that the studio is located in the Midlands countryside, more than 100 miles away from Microsoft’s UK headquarters in the South.

“We are part of the Xbox team, but that separation makes us a little more independent. We have an independent spirit and our own culture but what I love is that the goals we have as an organisation and as individuals are aligned.

“When I go to Redmond (where Microsoft’s global HQ is located), I’m like the cool cousin who visits every now and then and shows them some great Sea of Thieves stuff. They always make time for me or anyone else from Rare that visits.

A Sea of Thieves picture hanging on a wall at Rare
A Sea of Thieves picture hanging on a wall at Rare

“I think what you get from Rare, and it may be the location or it may be the people, is we build different games in a different way. When Phil Spencer (head of Xbox) and I talk about gaming, we want games to be available to everyone, we want people to play games with their friends, we want them to play games that they have fun in and are welcoming. What Rare is doing is the same as what Xbox is trying to do as a platform and what Microsoft is trying to do with gaming.”

The camaraderie and cooperation that exists in the office has been placed front and centre in Sea of Thieves. You have to work with other gamers to build a crew, with one on the wheel, one lowering the sails, one firing the cannons and one in the crow’s nest with a telescope. When one player buys a pet – a feature that will be made available after the game is launched – then each member of the crew can pick it up and play with it. Players will also be able to use a “speaking trumpet” to contact people on other ships.

According to Executive Producer Joe Neate, Sea of Thieves is, at its heart, a shared adventure. Rare have made it incredibly easy to make friends, and you can join a crew with a “pirate legend” simply by saluting each other at the same time. But you can also try to defeat them, because players can’t improve the power of weapons; you won’t be able to buy items that make your character stronger, or jump higher, or run faster, and there won’t be loot crates.

“We want to do things that add to the fun and social nature of the game,” Neate adds.

“We wanted to make a game that focused on the skills that everybody has: figuring things out, communicating with each other, social skills, and bringing a small group of players together. If the group is small it helps with social bonding; if you go to the pub with 12 people you split into three or four groups, whereas if there are three or four of you, you are all chatting all having fun. It’s a mix of cooperation and good competition, and really interesting stories can emerge from that.

“Quite often you will find there is no one on the wheel when you thought there was. It’s about, can players work together, can they use those skills I mentioned, can they take on different roles? It can be nice and relaxing to sit in the crow’s nest and scan the horizon using a spyglass, or repairing the ship, or bailing it out when it takes on water, just working together in unison. We knew we had something special when we could play like that in our prototype.

“There will be enough goals to pull you through, enough quests that get you going, but whatever you set out to do, it’s going to be different and probably won’t end up like you meant it to. That’s the ethos of this game.”

It’s late afternoon and Duncan is back in his office. He’s happy with how the day has gone. The journalists have played Sea of Thieves and loved it, the launch is another day closer and gamers seem to like what they see. This is the moment Duncan reveals that the team at Rare have purposely kept some aspects of the game secret until the launch, despite how open the development process has been.

“We want there to be some surprises, we don’t want to tell everyone everything,” he says. But launch is just day one, we definitely have plans beyond that. We want Sea of Thieves to be a multi-year journey. We haven’t just built a game that we’re going to launch and we expect people to play through and be done. Our hope is that players continue to play. We want our game to be replayable and we want to keep adding ingredients.

“We have some bits that no one’s seen and we want to keep adding those beyond the launch.”