Ted Timmins on the making of Sea of Thieves: Rare's pirate adventure
Getting some one-on-one time with the the PC lead designer of one of E3's most highly-anticipated games was always going to be a "rare" treat (ahem), but after hearing Ted Timmins enthuse about Sea of Thieves' "limitless potential" and Rare's plans for the future of their massively multiplayer open world pirate game, it was hard not to get caught up in the huge amount of hype surrounding it.
If you saw my hands-on preview on Stuff last week, you'll know my personal experience with Sea of Thieves was mixed, to say the least.
In my first session when everyone was pulling in the same direction, communicating and co-operating, it was incredible, rewarding and exciting. In the second play-through, stuck with a team of shipmates determined to do their own thing, it was a muddled and frustrating mess.
When I explained this to Timmins, he seemed to know exactly where I was coming from and agreed that Sea of Thieves has been deliberately designed to encourage constructive collaboration.
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"The game has been in development for about two or three years, and when I joined just over a year ago, the one thing that was instilled in me was that Sea of Thieves is about building a shared world where every time you play you have a different story, a different adventure.
"So it's great that you've seen that first-hand; you've had two sessions with two very different stories. We've actually already had 143,000 play sessions and I can tell you with confidence that none of them will have been the same.
"But that kind of co-operative experience, where everybody's on the same page is what the game's about and one thing that stands out is that there's always something new that happens or something that wildly differs which can really affect your experience," he said.
"One thing that did when we were playtesting in Twycross (Rare's UK headquarters) was use this 'pirate wheel of emotions' [see picture above] because we always want to make sure we cater to all the different emotions, player types and player motivations.
"So in your second play session it sounds you were moving towards loathing and grief and sadness as you couldn't communicate effectively with your crew. But in the first playtest it was joy and optimism as you bonded with your crew and were in awe of digging up the treasure and everything going on around you," Timmins said,
"We're always looking at this wheel whenever we add new features because we want to make sure that we keep things balanced.
"When we added sword combat, for example, we wanted to counter that by adding something for explorers because combat goes heavily towards a killer's mindset - so emotions of rage and aggression. And they're great - there are people who love that side of things," he said
"But we wanted to make sure there was a counter-balance, so we added riddle maps for people with an explorer's mindset. When you're travelling around the world, looking for clues and seeing what's on the horizon. There's more for you to discover on that side of things too.
"But we know there are players out there who might never, ever, follow a riddle map because they just want to raid other people's ships and steal their treasure. Then there are plenty of people who want to be a more sociable and friendly pirate as one of the good guys. So it's all about catering for every player's mindset," Timmins said.
The game is quite clearly geared towards online multiplayer, but Timmins was keen to emphasise that Rare are working on content that would appeal to players who prefer their own company.
"While we've always got this shared world where other ships come and go and you'll see them at sea and disappear into the fog without getting up close and personal, we're actively investigating what we might be able to do with a solo ship," he said.
"It's still the same shared world, you'll still encounter other players, but it just means that you - and maybe one other person - can jump aboard a smaller ship and navigate the world in a more personal manner," he said.
"We know what it's like. We're all gamers and we all want that experience from time to time. With Sea of Thieves, I think the magic of it is that you can play the game however you want. Not just in terms of player motivation, but from a situational perspective.
"It might be really late on a Sunday night, your family's asleep so you want to hop in on a solo ship because you don't have to communicate and you can just sail the world in peace and tranquility."
"Likewise, there will be times when it's a wild Saturday night and you want to go on an epic voyage with three of my best mates so you'll jump on a galleon, head for the horizon and conquer anyone you come across. It's about giving players the tools so that in any given session they can play how they want to play."
I was curious that if a single-player option would mean that there would be an over-arching narrative and story elements for players to discover but Timmins was adamant that Sea of Thieves is all about creating your own stories and adventures.
"In terms of actual story, we're very much focused on where the players are the legends. When you think of Blackbeard for example as a legendary pirate, he was someone who built up a reputation throughout the world through his deeds," Timmins said.
"In Sea of Thieves, you can become the Blackbeard of this world. People might see your sail or livery coming over the horizon and think 'I've heard about this ship, there's no way I'm going anywhere near that guy'. Or maybe they do actually want to take it on and make a name for themselves, or perhaps team up with another crew for an uneasy alliance where you'll attack them with a shared goal".
"There's a huge opportunity for us to allow the world constantly evolve through player's actions," he said.
Sea of Thieves has been in the alpha testing phase on Windows and Xbox for months, and thousands of players have already literally written their names in the game's history books.
"We have real players in the game right now - more than 50,000 of them - and they're constantly giving us feedback. Whenever they have an experience that resonates with the wider community we try to immortalise that in the game.
"This actually all started from when we did our first technical alpha. We actually had a player die for the first time in Sea of Thieves and we've immortalised them in the game's "ferry of the damned" [the spectral ghost ship you spawn from if your character is killed]. His gamertag is now scratched into the wall and that was our way of kicking the whole thing off," Timmins said.
Since then we've named a tavern after someone, we've had missing posters for a player that stopped playing for a while. It's really fun for us to build this world around the events that are going on.
"We're already on our 95th update, which is a record for an Xbox game, that's incredible for something that's not even on sale yet It just means that as we move towards release in early 2018, that will mark another chapter in the game's evolution."
By the time Sea of Thieves finally rolls out of the harbour next year, Microsoft's new superpowered Xbox One X console will be on the market. Does Timmins envisage Sea of Thieves taking full advantage of the new machine's processing power?
"The thing is a beast. I've been absolutely blown away by the sheer power of it. We got our development kits earlier this year and I know that the rendering team were immediately like 'wow'.
"I think of the rendering guys in terms of petrolheads and when you give a petrolhead a Ferrari they are at their most happy. So for context, they're very, very happy.
"When it comes to Sea of Thieves on Xbox One X we'll be taking full advantage of everything available to us. We actually had the game up and running on the new console very early because the architecture allows developers to embrace it from day one," Timmins said.
"It has all of these proverbial dials that we can tweak and tune to really get the maximum performance out of the game. Later this year, potentially even to our tech alpha testers, we'll be able to say to them if you've got the One X, here's the update; it allows you 4K, HDR, even the Dolby Atmos spatial sound upgrades.
"And we'll also be making sure it performs as well as possible on Windows 10, because that's another part of the ecosystem of Xbox. When it comes to cross-play between PC and console, that's something we're actively aiming for because we know that we've built a game where it's best when it's shared. The more players you can play with, the better."