Sea of Thieves has finally arrived, and it’s the first game in four years from legendary developer Rare, the studio behind some of gaming’s greatest titles, like Donkey Kong CountryBanjo-Kazooie, and GoldenEye 007. And while Sea of Thieves itself doesn’t support VR natively, it’s undeniably immersive, and there’s a lot that VR developers can learn from its rich game design.

Sea of Thieves is a cooperative pirate game where up to four players can set sail, working together to navigate their ship through the open (and often treacherous) waters. There’s buried treasure to be found, undead skeletons to fight, cargo to be transported, sails to manage, and much more. And on top of that, the game employs a very interesting ‘shared world’ multiplayer model: instead of specifically joining single player or multiplayer modes, players are seamlessly joined together on the game’s open seas; 30 minutes might go by with just you and your crew adventuring around the game’s many islands, but when you spot another ship on the horizon, you know it’s crewed by real players who you might have to deal with—one way or another.

If you haven’t had a chance to play the full game (which launched this week, by the way) or the betas which came before it, the trailer above gives a reasonably good feel for what the game is like. Although the game doesn’t have the benefit of being built for VR headsets, it’s still undeniably immersive in ways that are important beyond just having your head surrounded by the game world. Here’s a breakdown of lessons, in no particular order, that VR developers can learn from Sea of Thieves when it comes to creating great, immersive gameplay and worlds.

1. Minimal UI & Natural Interactions

Outside of the game’s shops, Sea of Thieves has almost no UI. There’s a faint health bar and ammo counter in the corners and that’s about it. Stripping the UI away has forced Rare to get more creative about how they provide essential information—like the player’s heading, location, the time of day, and even the date. Generally that means they have to make that information available in the game world, which also means it has to be contextual.

Instead of having all of that info slapped into an abstract UI, players have access to an in-game compass, clock, and map. These items can be pulled out of the player’s inventory to be viewed, and a button allows players to hold the object outward, facing other players, so that the information can be directly conveyed from one player to another naturally. Having the information ‘in the world’ instead of attached to abstract UI makes the world feel more real, both from a usage standpoint and from a context standpoint.

Furthermore, the game makes effective use of spatial organization instead of menu hierarchies. For instance, if players want to begin a quest, they don’t sit in a lobby and click around in a menu, instead they run to the captains quarters of their ship to place a quest scroll on a table; the scroll exists in the world for the other crew members, and each crew member can cast their vote on the quest to be undertaken. If players want to access their weapon or clothing inventory, they’ll have to run below deck to find their storage lockers in the aft of the ship. And when it comes time to blast some enemies with cannons, players will need to first pull cannonballs out of the barrels at the bow of the ship, before carrying them over to a cannon to load them one at a time.

Because humans naturally organize their world spatially (which is why we have rooms in our homes uniquely dedicated to various activities, and put all the knives in one drawer instead of a spreading them out across the house), this sort of spatial interaction design deeply engages the parts of our brain which are tuned from birth for this kind of thinking.

2. Shared Game World

The unique “shared game world” model of Sea of Thieves is something we’re likely to see more and more of, because of what it means for immersion. Instead of specifically joining a single player or multiplayer game mode, the game has just one world space, and you may or may not run into other players inside of it. You don’t pick a lobby or a server or a region (aside from getting your own crew together) or anything like that. You just start your adventure, get plopped into what feels like the world (rather than ‘a server’), and off you go.

Knowing that the world you’re standing in isn’t just one of a million copies, but instead is actually shared by other real players, means that the world feels more like a place that you’re inside of, rather than a simulation that’s serving you. Knowing that other players are out there… somewhere, and that they might even know where you are before you’ve spotted them, underscores a feeling of never being alone, even if you’re playing without a crew.

What’s even more interesting is the free-form interaction between your crew and others. There’s no rule that says you have to kill each other (although that’s a popular activity). You could just as easily approach with friendly intentions, meet up with another crew, and go on an adventure together—and then backstab each other later. This means that the game isn’t forcibly dictating the kind of interactions that players have with each other, which creates choice and a sense of freedom in the game world.

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It turns out that the shared game world model is also uniquely fitting for this moment in VR, because it can work with a wide range of concurrent players. Right now it’s been shown to be very difficult for multiplayer VR games to get consistently large numbers of players playing at the same time. That means if a VR game is built for 8 vs. 8 PVP, but there’s only a small population of players playing at any given time, matching times and match quality will be low. A game designed for infrequent interactions in a shared world, like Sea of Thieves, means more opportunities for happenstance PVP interactions without the need for massive concurrent player counts and for every player to start a ‘match’ at the same time.

3. ‘Physical’ Objects Make for Emergent Fun

In many games, objects are not ‘real’ or ‘physical’, per se. In Battlefield 1, for instance, the player’s gun is explicitly owned only by the player itself, and is more or less just attached to the player’s character model—it isn’t like you can turn to a teammate and hand them your gun or a grenade if they need it. In Skyrim, you change weapons by opening a menu and selecting which weapon should attach to each of your character’s hands—if you want to ‘pass’ a sword from your right hand to your left hand, you have to go into the menu to deselect it from one hand and then select it in the other… instead of simply handing the sword from one hand to the other.

Because almost all of our interaction with the real world happen with our hands, and because VR motion controllers put player’s hands into the game, VR games are perfect for exploiting the emergent fun that can come from real, physics-based items which aren’t inherently attached to individual players.

I recall one time playing Rec Room when my friend and I were pinned down by enemy fire on opposite sides of a hallway. I couldn’t peek out because I was being shot at, but my friend was in immediate danger after his gun was knocked out of his hands and he was left defenseless with approaching enemies. I called out to him and threw my own gun across the hall to him, which he caught and used to defend himself. It felt like a moment from an action movie, and it was completely emergent—made possible only because the items in Rec Room are ‘real’, physically simulated entities that every player can see, touch, and interact with dynamically.

Sea of Thieves does something similar with many of the game’s most important items. Treasure chests, for instance, which you can dig up on the game’s islands after following clues to their whereabouts, are shared, ownerless objects. When you uncover one, you need to pick it up in your hands are carry it back to your ship; when you’re carrying it, it actually rests in your hands and prevents you from doing other things like drawing a sword or shooting a gun.

Much of the drama and tension in Sea of Thieves is a direct result of important items being ownerless and ‘real’ to all players simultaneously. If you die on the way back to your ship, the chest falls to the ground and anyone—like your own crew member, or even an enemy—can grab it for themselves. In order to truly secure the chest, getting it back to your ship isn’t enough—you’ll need to safely venture back to a port and turn the chest in before you can claim its rewards. Along the way an enemy crew could come board your ship and steal the chests, or a mutinous crewmate could silently drop them over the edge to be left floating in the open ocean as your ship sails on.

And yet too many VR games are still relying on the old model of having items that are super glued directly to the player’s hands, completely eliminating opportunities for unique emergent fun between the player and the world and between the player and other players.

4. Strong Moment to Moment Gameplay, Even When ‘Nothing’ is Happening

In many games, effectively moving around the world is as simple as tilting a stick or pressing the W key. In such games, if you took away everything but movement, you’d likely get bored in minutes. In Sea of Thieves, just getting around the open waters is fun and challenging, with skills to learn and master. Even if you took everything else away, there’s hours of fun to be had just sailing.

Players need to spin a mechanism to raise the anchor, pull ropes to raise, lower, and change the direction of the sails, operate the helm, and navigate across large stretches—and none of it happens through menus (see lesson #1 above). Players have to go to the right set of ropes for each individual sail in order to adjust them appropriately for the wind.

This level of interactivity, just to move around the game world, means that even when there’s ‘nothing’ going on, players are engaged.

Continued on Page 2: Cooperation, Optional Pacing, & Meaningful Weapons »

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  • gothicvillas

    Rare is onto something but in the current stage game world feels a bit empty. Killing skeletons is one thing I cant stand! This is just plain silly. Collecting treasures so you can buy new clothes is another thing I cant get excited about. After 5-6hrs me and my mates we got bored and put the game down. Maybe later they will add more things to do.
    But if Sea Of Thieves had VR support, that would be a completely different story. I could just sail and watch sea waves for hours. On a flat screen standard TV, this gets old very quick. No immersion imo.

    • nargorn

      Would rather like to get Kingdom Come Deliverance with VR Support instead of this or Skyrim. If anyone thinks the same here you go:

      http://steamcommunity.com/app/379430/discussions/0/1698294337763806957/

      • Matt Clark

        Imagine Mount and Blade Bannerlord

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        • Todd Ison

          Bannerlord when?
          But yes, I would never play anything else if I had bannerlord for VR… I probably wont play anything else when/if bannerlord comes out finally anyways… at least not for a few days/months/years.

        • Sandy Wich

          Don’t tease me, I’ve already been waiting for that friggen game for like 7 years.

    • Pablo C

      Sorry, I didn´t get it. So, this game, does or does not have VR support?, and at what level? Touch controllers? 6DOF?

      • gothicvillas

        No VR support at all. Thats the whole point. In non VR environment, it gets old very quick.

      • Myrddin Emrys

        As Ben said early in the article, the game has no VR support, but it does have a lot of the hallmarks of a well designed VR game so he described those. I wouldn’t be surprised at all of Rare is working on a VR version.

        • Sandy Wich

          If it did I’d buy SOT twice. One for my head, the other for my erecti-

      • benz145

        Second sentence:

        “And while Sea of Thieves itself doesn’t support VR natively, it’s undeniably immersive, and there’s a lot that VR developers can learn from its rich game design.”

        • Pablo C

          Yeah, I thought it was like Fallout, that originally did not, but the VR version does. English is not my fisrt language.

    • Mane Vr

      I was a part of the beta and also got bored playing and worse yet i am not a big pvp player also i don’t play with random people online so i was solo on my ship… so not recommended

      • KUKWES

        Pretty fun game when played with friends. I picked up game pass for free for a month because of a code I had. Pretty great value to play the game even if you pay for game or do the 14 day trial but like he said solo is not fun.

        • Michael Slesinski

          even getting arrested is “pretty fun” with friends. you guys need to stop that bullshit logic. the game is really a 2/10 but since you can play it with friends its a 7? thats asinine.

    • Sandy Wich

      I thought the exact same thing man. How. The. Hell. After ALL this development time, did Microsoft NOT impliment a VR mode for Sea Of Thieves?!??!… It’s basically MADE for VR!

  • Raphael

    So let’s see… we’re discussing a non-VR game because it would be great in VR? Maybe I need to quit doing drugs.

    • Xron

      Ermm, and why is it a bad thing? o.O
      Comparisons is an ok thing, because you can see which parts are lacking.

      • Robert Cummings

        Exactly. VR developers need to take note of the things that games like SoT are good at, and WHY they are good. Otherwise, we just get more wave shooters.

        And just for the record, my friends and I are having a blast in Sea of Thieves, both single-player and grouped. It’s hardly a “wasteland”.

        • Raphael

          The wave shooter thing ended some time ago. Let’s not exaggerate.

        • Michael Slesinski

          “having a blast” in a 1’x1′ sandbox? i guess that just makes you easily amused.

          • Robert Cummings

            Also easily amused by people who feel the need to denigrate people who like things they don’t like.

        • Sandy Wich

          Omg if I see another VR wave shooter……….

      • Raphael

        So I’m working on a non-vr game. Based on feedback from gamers it’s going to be successful. Wondering if I can have it featured on this site…

    • benz145

      Not even necessarily because it would be great in VR (though perhaps there’s some potential), but because, as I pointed out in the article, the game is immersive in ways that go beyond just having your vision taken up by the game world. Developers need to understand and learn how to design in ways that create deep immersion in order to make great VR games.

      • Michael Slesinski

        ..and alot of games have done it better, but you didnt cover THEM.

        • Sandy Wich

          What games have done it better?.. I’m quite series when I say that after playing SOT, it’s likely the best game i’ve ever seen that would have been flawless for VR.

          Everything you do requires actual physical interaction, lots of hand-work in telescope, shooting, sword fighting, sailing, messing with sales, canons, loading canons, carrying loot, fixing hull breaches…

          Honestly if SOT had more content and was VR capable, and done well… I’d probably install my entire VR games library as it would be on an entirely different level.

  • LowRezSkyline

    Please don’t cover non-VR games as if they are VR games. It’s pretty weak link bait bullshit.

    • JJ

      yeah they lost some face value wit this one.

      • Peter Hansen

        This article is about what this game can tell us about mechanics that many VR games could hugely benefit from. Perfectly valid, good reading.

        • Mateusz Pawluczuk

          Vr games can benefit hugely from non-vr solutions, yeah makes sense.. /s If this game has such good VR mechanics that all VR games should aspire then why is it non-vr? ;) Is Ben hoping SoT gets VR support or is this some kind of sponsored article? Just feels out of place, plenty of games have minimalistic UI and rich game design yet are not featured on RtVR..

          • Peter Hansen

            This game would not work very well in VR. But it has some features VR developers should take a look at. That is not a very complicated statement. What exactly do you not understand? Tell me and let me help you.

            Unless you just want to complain or troll. That’s fine by me.

          • Mateusz Pawluczuk

            I just think it’s bad practice to feature non-vr games on RtVR. I, just like many others, come here strictly for news from the VR world. So I guess you could say I’m voicing my complaint :)

            P.S Sorry if my post came across as confrontational Peter, wasn’t my intention.

          • Michael Slesinski

            they could have done the exact same thing with breath of the wild of pretty much any other game. you can extrapolate useful data from almost any relative source.. but you shouldnt need to. like game developers need to be TOLD to steal other peoples ideas..

    • Michael Slesinski

      amen, this pile of shit game gets enough press without it being where it doesnt belong.

  • David Herrington

    I think we all know what’s going on here. Ben got a bribe from Microsoft to cover the game as a “story” but in reality it’s just a marketing stunt for Sea of Thieves.

    Regardless, he makes some good points about Sea of Thieves. Despite it currently being an empty wasteland of a game, the interactions are actually very well done. I wonder if Rare will actually make it VR compatible.

    I also wonder if the Xbox One X will support Windows MR in the near future but Microsoft haven’t really said anything about it… yet.

    • JJ

      yeah he lost some face value with that one

      • Xron

        Stating great points of Non Vr game, that would add up immersion in a Vr game, is really ok…
        Unless You’re trolling, or hired by some other site to criticize this one -.-

        • jj

          nah its pretty annoying actually. As David said its clearly was Ben getting paid.

          • Matt Clark

            Eh, if I ran this site, I know I would create an article about how Sea of Thieves would be a great VR title. I would also say the same about Bioshock and Dishonored. They would all lend themselves to some damn good vr. What better way to get discussion rolling about a game deserving VR support than an article by a lead VR news site?

          • Raphael

            I wanna play bioshock in VR. Won’t ever happen except via mod or vorpx though. :(

          • Peter Hansen

            Sea of Thieves would NOT be a great VR title. You would be covered in vomit instantly.

            But this is not what this article was about. It’s about what we can learn from this game for creating immersive game mechanics.

            Stop being so toxic, everybody.

    • benz145

      You might be being hyperbolic, but we don’t do sponsored content, and we’re completely independent.

      I played the game, found it to be immersive, wondered why, and spent time distilling what could be learned from the game. For anyone interested in what makes good game design, it’s an interesting piece with things to learn, especially for VR developers who may also be gamers in general, and therefor interested in Sea of Thieves. I stand behind this article 100%.

      • David Herrington

        I may have overstepped my bounds and I thank you for your honesty. I will revise my comment so as not to disparage your reputation. There is a lot of money surrounding this game in place to put out fires and build hype, and I mistakenly assumed this to be the case.

        I appreciate what you guys do and look forward to more coverage.

        Honestly, I do hope that Sea of Thieves gets enough content soon to be what many would call a “full game” and even eventually comes to VR. Those water effects are out of this world.

        • benz145

          Thanks David, it means more to me that you’re willing to listen and have a conversation than any offense taken by initial claim.

          It sounds like you’ve been playing the game yourself, what are your thoughts on the points I made in the article?

      • Michael Slesinski

        you could do this with ANY fucking game! have fun telling everyone what vr developers can steal (oh sorry i mean “learn”) from far cry 5 in a couple days, and why didnt you tell them what they could steal (drat.. again) from vermintide 2? because you have some outside force MOTIVATING you to cover this game in particular.

  • Gary Kohout

    HAHA, I just skimmed through the article and thought “Dang, I need to check this game out!” Didn’t figure out it isn’t VR until reading the comments. LOL

  • Peter Laurent

    Sea of Thieves would be awesome in VR, if your stomach can handle it… sadly the game will never come to Steam, so Microsoft would have to completely overhaul the Windows Store for this to happen, but maybe they’ll have a VR announcement at E3 this year for Xbox One and Windows 10

    • Michael Slesinski

      er what? microsoft already sells vr games on its store.

      • Peter Laurent

        I stand corrected… however it is only for Windows Mixed Reality, so Oculus and Vive users would be out of luck

        • Michael Slesinski

          um.. oculus store has games on it that arent even on steam. the ones on the windows store are things like arizona sunshine and super hot vr, the only real exclusive (which again is whats on the oculus store) is minecraft.. and minecraft has NEVER needed steam.

          • Peter Laurent

            Sea of Thieves requires the Xbox Live service, it will never come to Steam.

    • Sandy Wich

      They did hype VR for the X, and even though I don’t think they are going to bring VR to it, It’s hard to believe they don’t want to get a piece of the future of entertainment at SOME point down the road, right?

  • Riaan Prinsloo

    Per se… not per say. Small thing, but like the removal of unnecessary items from the UI, little things can make a big difference. ;)

    • benz145

      Thanks Riaan, seems this article can teach lessons beyond what makes for strong immersion : P

  • Trip

    Wow, what a tease ya jerks! This game looks amazing and I think I’ll have to buy it but damn if it doesn’t look like it should have native VR support! We need to talk the devs into making it happen! I’d buy it for sure!

  • Raphael

    Perhaps you should have a regular section (page) of games that should be in VR… send a message to backward thinking developers….

  • Interesting article for people that are designing VR games

  • Michael Slesinski

    theres only 1 thing to learn from this game: finish the damn game BEFORE you release it.