Fool's Gold: Sea of Thieves' Achievement List Is a Huge Problem

Opinion by Mark Delaney,
I did the TA readers a disservice when my Sea of Thieves review was published shortly after the game launched. It wasn't that I heaped more praise than most onto Rare's polarizing pirate sim; I still stand by the commendations as I proudly defend the game's merits as a vehicle for fun. Rather it was my failure to look more closely at the achievement list for the game. In my defense, the list was still deactivated by the developer throughout my review time with the game, and only at time of writing this today, April 11th, do they seem to have finally patched up all the issues of partly unobtainable or delayed achievements. Go back into the game starting today and your full queue of lagged achievements should finally unlock.

But even that isn't the problem which I'm referencing here in the title and in the contents of this editorial. The problem with Sea of Thieves' achievement list is instead the fact that, by design, a good portion of them are bordering on impossible, or at least so time-consuming that they come off as completely ridiculous. For an in-depth look at this problem, I asked Rich and Ollie to put the Thieves achievements in some sort of historical perspective. It was a rather simple task for the stat-trackers behind this site, and the resulting data is revealing: Sea of Thieves includes one of the most outrageous completion grinds the Xbox platform has ever seen.

Rare seems to have left achievement design up to a crew of real-life drunken sailors.Rare seems to have left achievement design up to a crew of real-life drunken sailors.

An Unprecedented Grind

The data looks at Thieves' yet to be unlocked achievements and compares them to other games' most elusive achievements over the years. In addition to that, we're able to judge just how long some of these yet to be unlocked Thieves achievements will take considering we (okay, just I) have played the game for 50+ hours at this point. We built a spreadsheet that shows the achievements that took at least three weeks before five people unlocked them, starting with a game's launch date so things weren't disrupted by early access players like reviewers or EA Access subscribers. The results show us Thieves is a special case.

Sea of Thieves launched on March 20th which means it's been just over three weeks since the game launched. Its grindy list dwarfs all others that have come before it in the entire nearly 13-year history of achievements. Currently, of Thieves' 60 possible achievements, a stunning 19 have been unlocked fewer than five times on TA, including 15 of which that have not been unlocked by anyone. Many other instances of games that had many achievements remain universally locked after three weeks were games that were largely overlooked and underplayed by our users. But Sea of Thieves is no such game. It has over 51,000 players on site at the time of writing. It's a massive AAA title with millions of players investing time in it, and yet it unfathomably has a quarter of its achievement list essentially acting like multiple hundreds-of-hours grinds. This is unlike anything else we've seen with achievements, especially if the list isn't patched.

For example, it took just 22 days after Gears of War 4 launched before five people had unlocked the infamous Seriously 4.0. Most of the achievements that went the longest before five people unlocked them are attributed to games few have played or sometimes even heard of, like "ZAZEN", zen meditation game or glitched achievements that were later fixed. To begin to find games comparable to Sea of Thieves that display such elusive achievements for tens of thousands of players, you have to scroll down to the Billionaire achievement in Prominence Poker, which took 516 days before five people unlocked the costly achievement. To date, only six have done so of more than 36,000 players on site.

The only game with a higher percentage of achievements still untouched after 24 days is the MMO Onigiri, which is similarly built for a grind. Despite that fact, if we revisit this data after 90 or so days, Onigiri's number of achievements untouched will have lowered drastically, while I would wager those for Sea of Thieves remain mostly unchanged.

Going down the list, it's obvious time after time, whenever a game has an achievement that takes an absurd amount of time, it tends to be the only one on the list or one of very few. Even when games do have several grindy achievements, they don't go near the length of time gamers will need to dedicate to Sea of Thieves. For example, one such game which demands a lot of time for a few different unlocks is The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited, and yet even there, where five different achievements took over three weeks before five people unlocked them, only one of them also took more than 40 days.

How Much Is Too Much?

The problem with Sea of Thieves' achievements is not that they're grindy. That's easily forgiven, even if sometimes annoying. Gamers are used to a reasonable grind. The problem in this case, however, is that the grind is so completely unrealistic, it's as though the list was made by a team unfamiliar with how the game works. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Rare outsourced the list's design to another team and then they greenlit it without much thought. Take the Merchant Forager achievement, for example. It tasks players with delivering 1,000 banana crates to merchants. I've played the game for more than 50 hours and I've never seen a banana crate. My only clue to their existence is that they're mentioned in this achievement. Others have reported similar issues. One player told us that in 100+ hours they've also seen none. Extrapolating a pace is impossible given that our few anecdotal instances don't even have one banana crate from which we can predict anything, but let's pretend the average player finds one banana crate every 10 hours — seemingly an extremely generous pace but let's just start there. That still means it would take 10,000 hours of playing time to unlock this achievement — and that's just one of the game's nearly 20 achievements that require some unreasonable time commitments that they may as well be labeled unobtainable on this site.

Even as a Sea of Thieves defender, it's impossible to defend the game's achievements.Even as a Sea of Thieves defender, it's impossible to defend the game's achievements.

Each of the achievements yet to be unlocked by anyone in Sea of Thieves are surely nowhere close to being unlocked. The banana crates example is probably the most egregious but they're all poorly designed like this and in many cases are mutually exclusive. Players can only sail with one active voyage at a time, so if you're trying to unlock 1,000 nautical miles on Merchant missions, Order of Souls missions, and Gold Hoarders missions, you can't even do them simultaneously. Imagine running a marathon and being told at the finish line that you have to go do it all again a dozen or more times. To make things just a bit worse Sea of Thieves doesn't offer achievement progress bars in the Xbox menus, so you don't know just how much longer you have to do each of these things. It isn't outlandish to believe the game may never be completed by anyone if the achievement list isn't altered to fit a more realistic worldview.

When you see something like this, the most pressing question becomes why. Why did Rare design the list in this way? Sea of Thieves is meant to exist as a living game, a "game as a service," so it makes sense to build the achievement list for the long haul, but that's not what has happened here. The achievement list in Sea of Thieves is so unrealistic that it seems to fail to even work within the game's own rulebook of procedurally generated content. If the studio wants players to deliver 1,000 banana crates, the drop rate for these crates needs to be drastically increased. If they want us to sail thousands of miles, let us do missions concurrently or lower the totals needed to figures that are tough but fair. Right now, the list is largely absurd and that's fun for no one.

The Hull Needs Repairs

Sea of Thieves is a big bet for Microsoft. They spent several years and countless dollars propping it up as their next great exclusive, a much-needed commodity for the brand, they would surely be the first to admit. It has since launched to subpar critic reviews and player response. Slow to detail a roadmap and only now getting over the game's initial issues with buggy achievements, Rare is likely feeling the pressure to keep their pirate community engaged for the long haul. Setting completely unrealistic milestones for the achievement hunting subsection of your community is an effective way to push people away for good.

We know achievements can be altered post-launch as we've seen it happen plenty of times before. We've even done something like this ourselves with our app. Perhaps most famously on this site, such a content update was given to Killer Instinct. At launch, the game demanded you play as each character for 2,000 matches, an ungodly sum, but after some crucial feedback and a moment of common sense, this figure was lowered to just 200 matches each. It remains a grind but now it's a much more acceptable one. It feels attainable, unlike many of those in Sea of Thieves. For the community reaction, check out the comments when we shared the news. The right move for Rare and Microsoft is to copy what we saw in Killer Instinct, Elite: Dangerous and other games: adjust some of the achievement requirements to totals that are realistically obtainable. As things stand today, it looks like they've gone bananas.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.