E3 2017: Hands-on with Sea of Thieves’ multiplayer ship crewing


As I mentioned in MassivelyOP’s Best of E3 Overthinking article, I came away from this year’s con thinking Sea of Thieves was the best playable online multiplayer game with a playable demo there, despite that demo being “terrible.” What I mean by “terrible” is that it created the potential for some of the worst parts of gaming to come true. There’s a reason most MMOs demo a battleground, boss fight, or newbie experience: Those are easy to demo, especially for non-MMO fans. Some demos give players a zone to explore, which is better, when done well. Rarely are people put into a situation where the entire demo requires coordination, but Rare did it, and it paid off, despite the fact that it’s not selling an MMO.

Allow me to explain.

An unlikely alliance

Our demo was simple: There was a boat, some maps, and the open sea. No “kill the other team and win a shirt!” to motivate our baser instincts, no demo people hovering over our shoulders constantly telling us what to do (though we did get tips as a whole team), just “go do something.” The demo stations put people into crews of 4. I was partnered with a non-native English speaking streamer who ignored not only the demo guy but the rest of our group and two other native English speakers who were more interested in trying to kill each other despite the fact that the demo didn’t seem to have team attacks on (I believe we were in a party but may have been mistaken).

I was disappointed but realized this group was pretty realistic. I think many people just want to jump in a game and have things happen for them to react to, which is why sandbox play isn’t for everyone. Our demo was held hostage to solo player experience and expectations of quest markers. These guys wanted to do their own thing while I wanted to be a crew of pirates. It was obvious I’d have to take charge.

Having played the demo at last year’s E3, I knew some of the basics: We needed someone to raise the anchor, someone else to lower the sails, steer the ship, and give directions (since the ship’s sails block the captain’s view). However, you don’t really need everyone to move the ship, just to do it well. I could run around and do it all myself, but that wouldn’t be fun. That being said, I did lower the sails and tell people I was taking the ship. One guy noticed this and ran over. As his partner no longer had someone to air-slash at, he followed.

(Incidentally, he had found the grog, much to his delight, but the drunk effect had been turned up since last year’s demo, I suspect; I had tried it before the demo started because of course I had to, and it made me a bit sick IRL, but I’d also tried to clear it with bananas or exercise — digging, which sadly doesn’t go down very far — but nope. Going for a “swim” ended up working, causing crew member #3 to vomit before coming aboard. Hooray!)

Only our streamer friend (who did understand English) missed the message. With the demo guy explaining the tips, we raised the anchor to get the ship to move… and then I dropped it when the other two ran off. The streamer had seen the ship move and ran over, asking me how to climb up the ladder once he got there. It’s actually why I dropped the anchor: The idea of being left alone sucks, but it’s easier to consider when for a moment it looks like it’s going to happen.

Sea of Thieves felt like an IKEA furniture set that requires multiple people, with our demo guy acting as a picture of a chair wordlessly describing what could be.
Then came the next problem: Everyone was “playing” on the ship. I understood the desire to explore, but for me, the fact that we were considered press and granted the reserved demo area should have meant everyone present should be ready to explore together. Apparently I was wrong. Sea of Thieves felt like an IKEA furniture set that requires multiple people, with our demo guy acting as a picture of a chair wordlessly describing what could be. I wouldn’t fault anyone with trying mash parts together to make a go-kart, but taking the hammer and hitting your friend with it felt like a great way to waste potential.

I took the helm begrudgingly. Although I could have raised the sails a bit to improve my vision and solo, I didn’t. This was a group-based demo for a group-based game. I was with an unruly seeming group the game had dumped together like some PUG-tastic dungeon match maker. I admit my MMO pride made me feel too experienced or too old to deal with reducing gameplay to mindless PvP, especially when I’ve already been there and done that with countless survival games.

So I sailed straight toward what I thought was an island and kept mentioning that I couldn’t see anything. It was true that I couldn’t after awhile, but it turned out I had set us on a course towards a rock. We had maps, which our demo guy mentioned, but no one else was bothering with them. At this point, someone figured out how to get up the crow’s nest and give directions. Teamwork! We weren’t using the map, but after some wandering around, we found an island.

Once there, we learned that, yes, as in the E3 2017 preview, canons can be used to launch yourself. You have to empty cannonballs from them first then either aim them yourself before jumping in or asking a friend to aim you, but either way, they’ll launch you out of the ship and towards your target without damaging you, even if you fall from a pretty good height (for the moment). However, like many sandbox games, the freedom to find content also means you have to search for it. Our island seemed a bit boring beyond a few skeletons.

Our demo guy gently hinted again that we should check the maps. Our inventory contained several types of maps, such as a fairly straightforward map with treasure and another one that was just a riddle. However, they’re mostly unlabeled. We had to have one person reading the well-labeled map on the ship while the other, just like in the trailer, showed the map to another person. By this time, another player and I were working pretty well together.

All good things

At some point in our adventure, being a team of two with two hanger-ons stopped being good enough. While I directed a teammate towards land, our partners had been elsewhere when we needed to drop the anchor, which acts as the shop’s brakes. Our ship was therefore taking on water. I’d been here before, though. Our demo guy was explaining the basics of ship repair: grab a board, put it over the holes, hammer it shut. Meanwhile, I had grabbed my bucket and started to move water off of the boat. Our streamer, trying not to panic, asked how to equip the board so he could help out. It took an emergency, but we were acting as a team.

Too bad we lost the ship anyway.

Above the wreckage though, a mermaid appeared. Don’t think Ariel, though. Think more Undyne from Undertale. I love how so many characters in SoT are what would traditionally be considered ugly, with big guts, scarred faces, and unibrows. And that’s just the women! At any rate, for a small fee, our one-eyed mermaid and her friends raised our ship. While swimming to it, I had noticed something interesting: I could actually take water from the ocean. I emptied my bucket before boarding, and then an idea struck me.

“Hey, demo guy. Can I bring water from the ocean and put it on my ship?”

The demo guy thought for a moment and noted how no one had asked that before, nor had he heard of anyone on the team or in the alpha trying it. He thought it would be possible, but then realized we were nearly out of time. Gaining some intel, he did mention that there were other players to our east. It seems we weren’t in our own demo but in the same shared world as the teams at other stations.

Though there was a storm between us, we decided to cut through it, thinking it’d be a shortcut. I hoped to test out my theory of downing the enemy with ocean water without actually breaking their ship. Sadly, I never got to try it because environmental/weather damage is a thing in Sea of Thieves. The rough waves made travel more difficult, causing us to constantly turn the ship in our attempts to make a beeline through the storm. Lightning flashed, and our demo guy asked about the ship. We thought it was a joke. A short time later, near the heart of the storm, it happened again. The boat shifted. Being in the crow’s nest, I didn’t know what was going on. My teammates were panicking. One of them seemed to have died. The screens of the other two had frozen. The ship wasn’t moving forward at all and remained tilted. I rushed down to help, and then… the demo ended.

It wasn’t perfect, and clearly we were terrible pirates and mariners, but for all that, we were reasonably coordinated by the end, which I think really shows the strength of what Rare’s built here. There was no inherent grouping reward, just inner motivation to make use of multiple tools meant for group play. A couple of my teammates walked up and shook my hand when they exited. There was a learning curve to the game, but it hadn’t felt that steep in terms of game skill, just communication. I’d talked people into working with not just me but each other. And unlike most MMO demos I walk away from, Sea of Thieves gave me a great story to tell.

Massively Overpowered is on the ground in Los Angeles, California, for E3 2017, bringing you expert MMO coverage on The Elder Scrolls Online, Black Desert, and everything else on display at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo!
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