In the face of a turbulent launch and prevailing criticism, Rare have continually been forthcoming with their plans to fill Sea of Thieves desolate seas with new content as quickly and consistently as they can muster. The first expansion, bringing a new AI threat, new items and a "time-limited campaign" dropped last night - and we spoke to Rare about just what they hope they can achieve with "The Hungering Deep" and where they go next.
As the first major content update, The Hungering Deep is shouldering a lot of expectations. Since launch, players and critics alike have bemoaned Sea of Thieves lack of content, goals and a mundane core gameplay loop. Kotaku's review put it succinctly when stating that it's a bit like being in a "theatre before the set is built." Others tarred it with the No Man's Sky brush and the idea of a 'No Man's Sea' gathered steam.
All that is to say, expectations around The Hungering Deep are pretty high. The eyes of the current player base are fixed firmly on Rare, but so are those that have been wanting more. It's something that Executive Producer Joe Neate doesn't shy away from.
"It's okay for people to want to do new things, they want new stuff on top. That's fair for people to say that. We've always wanted to grow and evolve this game. I think what the feedback has done, it's really helped us put the right stuff on the roadmap and breaking down the post-launch roadmap in the right way."
The first stop on that roadmap dropped on May 29 and it brings a raft of changes, including the previously-mentioned 'time-limited campaign' where players can follow a trail of rumours left by a new, one-eyed NPC known as Merrick to gather new items, before solving the mystery of The Hungering Deep and unveiling the new AI threat.
Some will shudder at the idea of a "time-limited campaign". However, Joe's quick to point out that while the campaign itself — meeting Merrick, following his clues — will only run for a couple of weeks, the additions to the game are everlasting. No matter when you eventually dive in (or back in) to Sea of Thieves these new features and threats will remain, ready for you to uncover. Essentially, Rare want to bring new features into the game in interesting ways.
"What we'd like to do, when we're introducing those features we want to run a cool campaign around it that gives players some goals and some lore and some rewards so it brings those features into the world in a cool way."
The philosophy behind the update doesn't stray at all from Rare's initial vision for Thieves either, it's still about bringing players together in interesting ways. Particularly, The Hungering Deep uses the new musical instrument and a new communication tool to allow crews to interact more easily.
That's key to uncovering the new AI threat - but more importantly it's key to the ideals Rare want to instill in the game.
"Sea of Thieves is unique. We always try and do things to bring people together and encourage people to play socially and play with other players. Whether that's out with other players in the world have interesting encounters or whether it's just crewing up with players" Neate says.
"We believe strongly that that's what makes Sea of Thieves so special - when you have interesting encounters with other players it's like nothing else. We'll be doubling down on that in terms of encouraging people to have interesting encounters, putting in more ways for it to happen."
Neate explains that they also realise not every player is playing the same way. That's part of the reason why you'll need to uncover Merrick's clues before the new musical instrument and new tool is yours. Some players want to see more of the world, want their actions to mean something - or at least feel like they can break out of the core loop that the game's three factions currently dole out.
Ultimately, Rare will continue to rely on player feedback, analysing the way people use the new tools and instruments, watching Twitch and Mixer streams, to craft the experience moving forward.
Like the pirates that fill their virtual world, oft playing in ways the studio could not predict, Rare is experimenting, too.
"We're just trying new stuff as the game evolves, having listened to feedback from players and seeing the things that people are asking for - that's what we're trying with this [update]. We'll see how it goes and we'll take feedback."
The transparency is refreshing - if this was the last content update we knew was coming, I'd be concerned, but as it's part of a broader strategy of delivering new content, filling out the holes in an empty sea, it feels like this considered experimentation will benefit the game in the long run. It's part of a process - Neate tells me they were happy with the product they launched but also thinks that he will learn more in the next year than he's learnt over the course of his career.
"It's a huge opportunity that we can learn so much."
Neate also confirmed that future updates of this nature - the mysteriously titled 'Forsaken Shores' and 'Cursed Sails' updates - will have similar launches, releasing new features, cosmetics and items with time-limited quests.
"We plan to do a very similar thing for each [content drop]. The more features we put into the game... the game just gets richer because there is a possibility for more stories."
And they're still learning how to deliver 'Games as a Service', something they've never done before.
"We had so many people coming in and playing [at launch]" Neate explains. "We learnt loads. We had such interest in the game. So many people turned up to play in that first week. It was a whirlwind. The amount of people playing - watching the numbers go up in terms of concurrent view - it far exceeded any concurrency tests we'd run before."
Those high player numbers exposed Rare to some of the issues we're seeing now. It's great to play and interact with other ships on the seas, but that can become tiresome and people want more. You only need to look at the Sea of Thieves subreddit and forums to know that extra content is at #1 on the list of things players want - and Rare continue to learn how to best manage that.
During my playthrough of The Hungering Deep 'campaign', I ran into a few roadblocks. The thrill of unravelling the mystery certainly provided a new <em.Seda of Thieves experience beyond Get Quest, Find Island, Dig Treasure/Kill Skeletons/Grab Animals but once our band of three got the campaign's final act, we were roadblocked - we needed another two players to 'complete' the campaign and summon the new AI threat. Sadly, after waiting for 45 minutes at the final location, hunting down various sloops that passed by and shouting at them to come help us, we couldn't find enough pirates to help summon the beast.
There's a constant push-and-pull between creating unique player interactions within the game's framework and just genuinely crafting interesting setpieces and instances that threatens to hurt Sea of Thieves the most. There's no question that forcing players to interact in unique ways is the machine with which the best stories are generated, but that machine can also spit out unnecessary blockades that, in an empty game world like the one I encountered during my playthrough, force you to either do something else or switch off entirely.
After The Hungering Deep launches and the two week campaign wraps up, Rare will begin running weekly events and updates for players, giving them a constant content stream until their next major content update drops later in the year.
How will Sea of Thieves vocal community react to that? Rare can only wait and see. Whatever the outcome, they've shown they're always willing to learn, experiment and listen to player's feedback.
One line that sticks with me after Neate and I have finished talking is something he touches on when we discuss the game's turbulent launch period. I imagine him captaining the ship, standing stoic, eye pressed to a spyglass at Sea of Thieves' bow.
"I'm always forward-looking, rather than backward-looking."
Whatever lurks over the horizon, Rare are ready to meet it head on.
The Hungering Deep is available now as a free update to Sea of Thieves.