If You Still Think Sea of Thieves Has No Content, You're Not Paying Attention

By Mark Delaney,
Rare's Sea of Thieves launched a little over eight months ago for Xbox One and Windows. Since then it's received four major content updates, eight limited-time events, recurring screenshot contests, and weekly patches addressing bugs, quality of life updates, and much-requested features from the community. Scroll most forums online, however, and you'll tend to hear mostly about how it lacks content, how it's a pretty looking game but there's just nothing to do. This refrain from critics arguably made some sense at launch. Personally, I still loved it, as I wrote in my review back then, but I was sympathetic to the idea that its gameplay loop would not be for everyone.

Today though, so many updates and patches later, the refrain of "no content!" still gets used whenever I read about Sea of Thieves outside of the game's forums and fan channels like Discord and Reddit. As someone who believes Sea of Thieves is a unique and special video game and sees it as my far and away Game of the Year for 2018, I'm tired of this lazy criticism. If you still think Sea of Thieves has no content, you're just not paying attention, and I think it's time you try it again.

Cargo Runs

Sea of Thieves expects you to not mind its lack of skills to acquire. It hopes you don't mind that all weapons are equivalent beyond their cosmetic differences. It asks you to accept its central loop of leveling up across three trading companies, playing missions that have you digging for treasure, battling skeletons, and delivering livestock. At launch, Rare's pirate adventure was barraged by professional critics and players who weren't into this one bit.

Few deny the game's stunning and special visual style, and it's a smartly instructive game with how it uses audio to inform players of crucial details like when their ship is taking on water or when skeletons have just emerged from the sands. But these things all come secondary to the general gaming audiences that only care about one thing: is it fun? For plenty of people, the perceived grind of leveling to Pirate Legend was antithetical to fun. Many still did appreciate the game even then, of course, but the narrative for Sea of Thieves began to emerge. "There's nothing to do." This sentiment became the go-to criticism here on TA and everywhere else the game was mentioned. Even some casual fans of the game would follow their praise with this caveat.

Rare was never shy about their "tools, not rules" directive and since day one they gave players space to create their own stories and make their own fun, but so many wanted more structured content. Fortunately, over the eight months since the game's launch, they've found a great balance to offer more variety and depth to the game without ever betraying the original open-ended design of Sea of Thieves.

In May, Rare released the game's first major add-on, The Hungering Deep, which introduced the Megalodon in a story campaign that demanded crews lay down their swords and team up to take down "The Hungering One." I wrote elsewhere how this campaign was the moment that brought Sea of Thieves to a new level for me, showing me a side of games I had never seen before in over 20 years of playing. Along with this new permanent AI threat, new tools for players like the speaking trumpet made communication with other crews a better, more interesting experience. The game's campaign also began to flesh out the lore of Sea of Thieves, which runs deeper all the time for those that seek it out.

Sunken Curse

In July, the second major update released. Cursed Sails introduced the much-requested skeleton ships. Earlier in Sea of Thieves' development, Rare was adamant that every ship in the distance players ever see will always be other real players. They spoke of it as a feature to the game, but after many fans asked for PVE ship battles, Rare went and made it the highlight of Cursed Sails. Today these skellie ships roam the seas, much like the Megalodon, sometimes docile and sometimes aggressive, but always willing to go to war should you start one. Other new toys like cursed cannonballs allowed for the PVE and PVP combat to grow deeper by attacking your rivals with often catastrophic effects such as a cannonball that forces players to dance. Such a feature perfectly captures the tone of the game, displaying Rare's unique penchant for charm.

September's update expanded the map for the first time. Today 15 new islands sit in The Devil's Roar, which has essentially become Sea of Thieves' hard mode. This section of the world is littered with active volcanoes, tremors, geysers, and superheated water, making even a simple dig-and-ditch treasure hunt quite a challenge. Anyone who believed the game was too lax before needs to visit The Devil's Roar and tell me it's still a laid-back game. Like all major updates, other new features came with the marquee additions of the Forsaken Shores update. In this case, it was the rowboat, which can be docked to your ship and used to your heart's content. It's the embodiment of "tools, not rules."

The most recent update is Sea of Thieves' most expansive yet. Shrouded Spoils foregoes a story chapter this time, but instead attends to virtually all aspects of the game, offering a major quality-of-life boon by improving how players interact, how they fight, and how they get rich. It's an update that feels welcoming to both new players and veterans, with Pirate Legends getting new exclusive content and all enemy types receiving new loot drops and previously unseen behaviors and tools. Krakens can now assault sloops (the smallest, once off-limits ships in the game), there are now five free-roaming and visually varied Megs, even skellie ships, which once behaved like the game's forts only at sea, now roam freely and may engage on their own volition. Six new forts are now inviting massive battles too. Tons of new loot like mermaid gems, Ancient Bone Dust, and gunpowder mega-kegs have arrived, ensuring basically anything players are doing short of just sailing around will reward them.

The next update even condenses the Sea of Thieves experience into shorter, faster-paced action sequences with The Arena. Arriving in early 2019, this update seeks to appeal to the crowd that rightfully finds the game demands too much time to do much of note. I admit if I want to play the game at my high level, I need to have at least an hour or two set aside to assure I can finish my missions. It's not a game that can be truly enjoyed in short bursts — at least not until The Arena arrives. Every need is being met. Every play style is being catered to. Rare is listening and working with their fans and even their critics.

Forsaken Shores

All of these major updates have been buoyed by frequent new challenges since May. Since The Hungering Deep, they've introduced their eight events that had players blasting themselves out of cannons, taking down mermaid statues, evading new gunpowder skeletons, and much more. All year long they've been consistently bringing new ways to play into the game, and though the rewards for many of these events are time-limited, the new features around which they're built become permanent additions to the world. These are all on top of weekly patches which genuinely consider player feedback. Collectively, the game feels like it's being made to consistently reward existing fans while always trying to catch the eye of new potential players too. Ultimately, that's what the game service model is, so why does Sea of Thieves still today take so much criticism for its unjust claims of being empty?

Part of the problem is that this type of model is still fairly new to the gaming world, so lots of people are still getting on board with watching a game grow up before them, rather than it being everything it will be on day one. If we're unceasingly moving toward more and more games like this, we need to be more nuanced with our opinions. If a game was empty in March but has since received four major updates among an ocean of other fixes and improvements, it's truly lazy and irresponsible for us to keep saying it's empty when we haven't given it another chance. This is the sentiment I see repeated often and it's frustrating because of how stubborn it is.

Sea of Thieves is game service done so right. It should be used as a model for other games going for the same kind of evolution. The devs engage and even play with fans often. When enough players want something, Rare tries to implement it. They have been working their asses off all year, releasing free update after free update, building the best possible version of a pirate game with signature Rare flair and if you're still wondering if it's "empty," it's time to see for yourself that the world is full of all sorts of new adventures. It may be a pirate's life for you after all.
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.