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 Country, Banjo-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.
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.