Tools, Not Rules: How Sea Of Thieves’ Captaincy Update Changes Everything

Tools, Not Rules: How Sea Of Thieves’ Captaincy Update Changes Everything
Image: Sea of Thieves, Rare

For fans of Sea of Thieves, it feels like Captaincy has always been just over the horizon, approaching but still out of sight.

“It’s one of those Sea of Thieves features that was always meant to be, that was always going to happen,” Creative Director Mike Chapman tells me. I’ve just mentioned I first heard about a possible Captaincy update shortly after Sea of Thieves launched in 2018. “I mean, you say Year 1. We were talking about it even in our early prototype many, many years ago, as in, we just want to do this. It’s just a matter of time before we’re able to do it.”

Four years after the game’s launch, Rare is finally about to get Captaincy out the door.

The long-in-gestation update finally arrives this week, introducing a raft of new features. Among them is the ability to purchase, customise, and name a ship of your own. That ship will be saved, and the game will have it ready for you every time you log in. Chapman sees it as another step in the game’s mission to create a more perfect pirate sandbox.

“Like the pirate tropes that we’re trying to be inspired by, ships are a reflection of the captains who sail on them, and the crews who sail on them,” he says. “We always wanted the ship to be a reflection of who you are and how you play.”

“Your ship is your home; it’s the heart of the game,” Lead Designer Shelley Preston says.

The perks of the job

Captaincy alters several fundamental pillars of the Sea of Thieves experience. Previously, pirates would select a ship from the game’s main menu and spawn at one of seven outpost islands. Crews would scavenge the island to boost their meagre starting supplies and visit the shipwright to manually dress their boat in a preferred livery, sails, and cannons. These chores, this burst of manual labour, became a pre-session ritual. Leaving port without taking the time to do these things would always come back to bite you. Once completed, crews could set off to make their fortune.

Anyone who has grown sick of these rituals will be pleased to hear that Captaincy has its privileges.

Captains, those players who own their own vessel, will now find their personal ship waiting for them upon login. Its cosmetics will already be in place, thanks to a new system that allows for a persistent setup across sessions. The shipwright, who previously only offered ship cosmetics, now offers several new services. Captains don’t need to forage for supplies like a lowly Bilge Rat. Their lofty position allows them to purchase supplies from the shipwright, including cannons, throwables like fire and blunderbombs, fruit, meat, and worms for fishing. They don’t even have to load these supplies onto the ship; the shipwright will load them onto the boat immediately.

Captains also get access to the Sovereigns, a new faction taking up residence at every outpost. The Sovereigns represent a new turn-in point for pirates looking to offload their loot. They live in a lavishly appointed tower above each outpost and will only deal with Captains. All of the game’s sellable loot can be turned into the Sovereigns, and their buildings feature tools like elevators and dock-mounted harpoons for offloading your ship that much faster.

In this way, Captaincy streamlines the Sea of Thieves experience. There’s no more island hopping for supplies (unless you badly need them). There’s no more dividing up your loot and carrying it down the dock to the appropriate vendor, one by one. Rather than create a class war on the waves, it gives newer players something to aim for and creates a new progression loop. Purchasing a ship costs hundreds of thousands of gold. Surprisingly, it doesn’t take all that long to accrue a boat’s worth of gold. A crafty brigantine crew can amass more than enough in a single session without too much trouble.


Double check the manifest

Not every aspect of the start-of-voyage ritual will change, however. For example, you can take your ship from server to server, but you’ll have to leave your supplies behind and start fresh. This didn’t shock me to hear; Sea of Thieves already worked that way before Captaincy. What did surprise me was that Rare had considered letting Captains keep their supplies between sessions. Though Captaincy is supposed to create a sense of continuity between sessions, Preston says that supplies presented a quandary. The concern, she says, was that if allowed to keep their supplies, players might stockpile them to such an extent that they became utterly unbeatable.

“It was something we thought about! We wanted to try it, but it was just balance considerations in the end,” says Preston. “Although Captains are these VIPs, they shouldn’t be unbalanced to the other players in the sandbox. And we’ve still got brand new players coming in! They’re on solo sloops, it’s their first time; we don’t want them coming up against an armada.”

Purchasable supply crates are available from the Merchant trader on every Outpost dock. However, as a special treat just for Captains, supplies have now been moved to the shipwright, with a couple of qualifications. First, due to their power in combat, mast-felling chainshots and status-effect curseballs are not for sale and must still be found in the wild. Food crates full of items players can use to heal up have been split into two; one is full of fruit, and the other is full of meat. Food crates were previously a single box with a payload of 50 bananas, the lowest yield health item in the game. The fruit crate now contains a mix of fruits from bananas up to the very valuable pineapple. Meat crates have a selection of high-yield health items but will be raw when added to your stores. Each piece must be cooked on the ship’s stove before it can be used effectively (unless you’d like your pirate to spend a few minutes being violently sick).

One screenshot of the revised shipwright screen catches my attention: a box of worms used to catch fish is more expensive than the meat box. I would have considered the meat to be far more valuable. When I mention this, Chapman and Preston are bemused. Clearly, the gold pricing in the recent Deep Dive trailer is not final.


And you will know us by the trail of empty storage crates

Another long-awaited change: ship names. Choosing a name for your ship is the first step in forging its legend. Your ship’s name will be emblazoned on a customisable nameplate above the Captain’s quarters on each boat. It also hangs on the outer rear of the hull. Long-time Xbox Live users wondered if ship names would have to be unique, that once a name was locked in, it was off limits for good. Chapman and Preston are happy to report that this isn’t the case.

“You can have multiples of the same name, much like our pet naming at the moment,” says Preston. “We wanted to give players as much creative freedom as possible, and there’s nothing worse than when you’ve got this amazing name and then you’ve got to put a 2 on the end of it.”

“An asterisk,” Chapman laughs. “Imagine if Jack Sparrow had to put an asterisk on the Black Pearl. ‘BlackPearl_1’. It’d be rubbish, wouldn’t it?”

While we were chatting, Preston mentioned a change to the game’s spyglass. When looking at a Captained ship from a distance, a new overlay will appear with some basic information: the ship’s name, rank, and the Gamertag of its Captain. This change had caused a stir among Sea of Thieves partners and its community of content creators. The pool of Sea of Thieves creators and those who watch them are pretty contained. As a result, many creators already struggle with being recognised server-to-server. For example, BoxyFresh, one of the most popular Sea of Thieves creators, is recognised on almost every server he joins. Without an expansion of the game’s privacy controls, they say, this one change to the spyglass could have dire ramifications for content creators. Trolls and stream snipers could use it to identify creators from across the map and make their lives hell.

Preston indicates that existing streamer controls, namely the ability to scramble all player names on a creator’s screen, have been expanded to ship names. However, neither Chapman nor Preston confirmed if that would apply outwardly to anyone spying on a creator’s ship.


We’re going on an adventure

Being a sandbox game, Sea of Thieves can leave some players paralysed by indecision. What to do first? Where to go? What to focus on? Rare wants to give Captains a great deal of control over the length and breadth of any voyages they embark upon and the effect they’ll have upon your ship. This is where the new Captain’s Voyages and Milestones come in. Captain’s Voyages can be purchased from the shipwright and come in several different flavours. Short-run, single-island quests will take you on a breezy, 30-minute tour. There are sprawling, multi-stage quests that will have you loot hauling for hours and hours.

Your deeds — the actions you take, the quests you complete, the things that you engage with in Sea of Thieves, tick off Captaincy Milestones. These unlock cosmetics you can use to decorate your ship, but they also contribute to the Captain’s Log, a little black book that sits on your mission table. The Captain’s Log reels off the story of your ship through stats and figures but can be customised to surface specific information (like a counter from the last time you sank or your total number of enemy ships destroyed). The Log can be viewed by anyone on your crew and pirates from other crews who might board your boat. In the event of a sinking, the Captain’s Log will float up among the other loot. It can then be taken to the Reaper’s Hideout and sold.

The other side of Milestones is the building of your ship’s legend. Milestones are awarded under five banners: The Gold Seeker, The Voyager, The Emissary, The Hunter, and The Feared. The Milestone banner that most reflects your playstyle, the one for which you have the most unlocks, informs your ship’s title. Your title gives someone perving on your boat from afar an idea of what they may be dealing with if they decide to interact with you.

That doesn’t mean you should believe it, though. As Chapman eagerly points out, a Captain that understands how the Milestone system works could easily manipulate it. For example, you may spot a ship titled “The Legendary Emissary” and assume that they aren’t interested in combat. When you come over to say hello, however, you quickly realise you’ve been duped by a band of cutthroats who’ve deliberately ground through their Emissary Milestones to lampshade all the murdering they do.


Rough seas

Sea of Thieves‘ Captaincy changes are not limited to the outside of the ship, however. The inside has changed as well. The interior of Captained vessels can be customised with themed furniture, trinkets, and paintings unlocked on your adventures. Your deeds, along with pertinent details about your voyages and the ship’s battle record, are contained in a Captain’s Log on the quest table. Were a crafty stowaway (referred to in the community as a ‘tucker’) to get aboard, they should be able to get a clear picture of who they’re dealing with based on the decor alone.

In February, senior members of the Sea of Thieves team recorded a Hot Topics episode of the game’s official podcast. In it, Chapman, Senior Producer Drew Stevens, and Executive Producer Joe Neate sat for a roundtable discussion with Head of Community Christina McGrath. It was a frank and clear-eyed assessment of the game as it existed at that moment. First, a recent update had created headaches with server stability. Solo players were finding it harder than ever to hold their own against larger crews. A mandate to retain support for even the oldest Xbox One hardware had meant lowering the maximum number of ships on each server from six to five. And most significant of all, the time had come to address the game’s long-running battle with inconsistent hit registration.

In explaining the root of the hit registration issue, Chapman had offered a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the Sea of Thieves simulation. Its most significant asset, the expansive and impressive ocean dominating the game world, was its Achilles’ Heel. Between player and AI vessels buffeted by waves, emergent threats, floating loot, wind, the storm, and frantic, projectile-based PVP combat, the game was at its calculative limit. The ferocity of player gunfights would push the game beyond that calculative limit, and hitreg would rear its ugly, Kraken-like head.

But despite PVP getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop, it was the ships that sat at the centre of the problem. Constantly interacting with the physics of Sea of Thieves’ digital oceans made ships (in raw design terms) the game’s most expensive assets. At the time, Chapman described the design of the boats as being as complex as an entire level in any other game. As a result, changes to any of the game’s three ships were not to be made lightly, and optimisations would have to be made whenever change became necessary.

Rare started by adding fire that could spread across the ship. Months later, it would rework cannonball holes from a single gaping wound in the hull to three tiers that would gradually open up with repeated strikes. When the food system was revised, a small kitchen was added to each boat for cooking meats. Harpoons were added. Chainshots and the ability to break masts, wheels and capstans appeared. Each small step took months, some years, to implement. The process was slow and careful, like a jeweller gently adjusting a watch.

And now Rare is making the most significant number of changes to its boats in the game’s history, all in one fell swoop.

Not only are some of these changes cosmetic, but they’re also interactive. Trinkets and portraits can be knocked askew by travelling through the storm or taking cannon fire. Then, if they wish, players can go around and nudge them all back into place. Implementing all of this must have been a nightmare. Chapman and Preston are clear when I ask about it: it wasn’t easy.

“Anytime you touch those ships, there’s always a level of optimisation work and performance management,” says Chapman when I refer to the Hot Topics podcast. “I know it’s a bit of a shorthand, but it is like a level in another game that’s moving around you, when you think about the complexity of physics and calculating collision on a buoyant surface.

“There’s always an added complexity of going near the ships, where you have to factor that time into the work, and find the performance savings. Because we wanted to push the customisation as far as we could, which leads to all these new interaction points on the ship — and all the memory implications of that. Your ship has to look completely different from mine, and all the other ships on the server, and the game has to handle that absolutely flawlessly.”

But there are other considerations, too, like geometry, clipping, and still having a place for everything onboard. “Some players have played the game for years, and you get that muscle memory,” says Chapman, “and when you’re in a battle, what you don’t want is to be tripping over stuff that you’ve customised while you’re trying to repair a hole.”

Finding those performance savings in the final push to get Captaincy out the door took longer than expected. In the months leading up to its release, Rare delayed the beginning of the Season 7 content roadmap twice, buying itself time to smooth the update out. No update in the game’s history had been delayed like this before, which concerned long-time fans. There is an understanding in the community that the first week after a significant update often leaves Sea of Thieves rife with unexpected bugs. Given the magnitude of the update, fans were concerned Rare might have opened a Pandora’s Box internally.

But if Chapman and Preston were worried about the state of Sea of Thieves once the Captaincy update rolls out, they didn’t show it. On the contrary, both were lively and animated when pressed on the game’s immediate future.

New Horizons

Captaincy represents a major milestone in Sea of Thieves’ planned ten-year life cycle. It is perhaps the most significant and consequential update the game has ever received and will fundamentally change how a large percentage of its audience interacts with its core systems. Promised and whispered about for years, like a true tall tale, the Captains and Sovereigns have finally arrived.

One wonders how many other rumours and legends the community holds dear will arrive down the line. The fabled pirate hideout? The long-rumoured Arctic section of the map? Adventures in the Sea of the Damned?

Like the game itself, the Captaincy update has its problems to solve, but what it promises is rather beautiful. Rare weathered a long storm to bring Season 7 into port. All that remains to be seen now is if it can bring the ship to a stop without scratching up the paintwork.

Sea of Thieves is out now on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and Windows PC. It’s also on Game Pass for cloud, console and PC.


  • Great article, quality content right here.
    It’s pretty hype to speak to the developers. I can’t imagine how that must feel, even when it’s just part of the journo job. If you’re ever in the position when you’re talking to them again, tell them to update the Chinese New Year figurehead and sails for the other 11 animals. :p
    I didn’t know that Sea of Thieves was one of those “10 year” games. It’s crazy to think how far they’ve come and we’re only at the halfway mark. What could the future hold?
    As for the rumoured ice zone, the common theory is that we’re not getting any more map expansions, because the Xbox One can barely handle the game as is (minute long load in from the Ferry, or so I’m told). It kinda sucks, and learning that they’re apparently in a blood pact to support the One until the end of the game is unfortunate. Just imagine what they could do without limitations… oh well, here’s to Sea of Thieves 2.
    Lastly, as a bit of a gotcha: while there are 7 outposts around the map, you can only ever spawn at 6 of them. Morrow’s Peak is not a spawn point, unless I’m up my arse and mistaken. Gotta hand in that SoT badge!

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