This is a keg.
In Rare’s Sea of Thieves, powder kegs sprinkle the lands and seas. You can find them on islands, in forts, or just floating in the ocean. Kegs explode. Satisfyingly so. You can use kegs in Sea of Thieves to kill other players, to sink their ships, to sink your own, or to detonate when it suits your mood.
Here are two kegs.
The narrative with two kegs is exactly the same as one keg except with additional bigger explosions.
Here’s your ship.
In Sea of Thieves, your ship, this beautiful beast, costs you exactly nothing to acquire. If you happen to sink your ship – say with a keg or two – a brand new total duplicate of your ship will be provided — free of cost.
That’s the start of the story of Sea of Thieves. It’s a game I’ve never seen before, and I’m obsessed with it not just because I’m enamored with explosive kegs.
Developed by Rare and published by Microsoft, Sea of Thieves is a pirate game. You start by picking a pirate avatar with appropriate pirate accouterments and choosing a type of ship you want to captain. Choices are the ginormous four-player Galleon, the brittle three-player Brigantine, and the flexible two- or one-person Sloop. With these choices complete, you set sail…
Let’s start with what I consider the initial novel aspects of Sea of Thieves:
No Character or Weapon Leveling A player who starts Sea of Thieves has precisely the same unchangeable set of abilities as the player who has been on since day one. Similarly, the same collection of weapons (sword, pistol, blunderbuss, sword) is immediately available and unchangeable from an ability perspective. You can use gold to update the weapons, ship, and person’s skins, but there is no unlocking of new abilities in Sea of Thieves. Everyone starts and stays the same.
No levels? How do I know I’m progressing? What does winning mean? How will I grind? It takes a chunk of time to understand, but there is subtle leveling in Sea of Thieves. New, unexpected weapon unlocks will reveal themselves. And there is most certainly a sense of progression. More on this shortly.
Sailing is A Lot of Work Video games often drastically simplify work complicated in the real world because the real world is… work. In Sea of Thieves, the designers chose to make the process of operating your ship more laborious and complicated than you’d expect in a virtual world. Yes, you steer your ship with the wheel, but you also need to raise and lower your sails, and you also need to adjust the angle of sails (“tacking”) to capture the optimal amount of the ever-shifting wind.
Veteran sailors in the audience are giggling in their heads right now and thinking, “That’s super-simplified sailing, Rands.” I believe you, but what would you usually expect from a modern video game. Design it with me right now. Standing from a single spot and with as little clicking as possible, I would like to steer the ship, raise and lower the sails, tackle the sails, and fire the cannons.
That’s not at all how it works. You can not raise or lower the sails from the wheel. You dash over to another set of ropes. The first rope adjusts the sail length, and the second rope adjusts the angle. Oh yeah, we haven’t even talked about the anchor yet. Raising the anchor is a laborious eight-second process on the Sloop (it’s somewhere close to a minute on the Galleon) where you grab the capstan and slowly walk around in a circle 1.5 times to raise the anchor.
Reads like a lot of work. Not half done. See, you need supplies, too. (And kegs). You start at an outpost populated with vendors that will sell you re-skinned versions of everything. There are also barrels filled with essentials supplies: cannonballs, magic cannonballs, firebombs, blunder bombs, and a whole slew of different types of food. These items need to be acquired and moved from the barrels on the outpost to your ship’s appropriate barrels—more bad news for productivity. You can’t carry many items, which means if you want to get a decent amount of supplies, you’ll need to run back and forth from your ship to supply barrels to your ship twenty to thirty times before your ship has sailed an inch.
If you’re under the impression this game is a lot of work, you’re right. It’s a lot of work. If you’d like to understand why it’s a delight to master, it’s time to tell you the essential design decision within Sea of Thieves.
You Are Never Safe
Story-time. Sea of Thieves has three basic types of quests: find buried treasure, kill skeletons, and deliver supplies. There are raid-like events and other seasonal quests that show up, but those are the basics: find, kill, and deliver.
Finding buried treasure quests involve traveling to one of the many islands in the sea and acquiring chests via an X marks the spot map or other clues. I was on a buried treasure quest early in my experience with the game. Look at a map with an unnamed island, figure out a direction, find the unnamed island with the treasure on my ship’s map, and then go through the pleasantly laborious process of getting the ship pointed in the right direction. Not only do the wheel, sails, and the anchor need attention, but the only way to know which direction you’re going is by looking at a compass—no heads-up direction display. You must constantly check your compass, pay attention to local landmarks, and triangulate.
Arriving at the small island, I begin the equally laborious process of now slowing the ship down, pointing it in the right direction so that I don’t run aground. Finally, I must land the anchor at just the right time so that my travel swims to/from the island are short.
Glancing at the map, I quickly triangulate where the treasure is buried. Again, the only map I have with this information is the one in my hand, and there is no real-time indication of where I am on this map. I must look at local landmarks like clumps of palm trees and interesting shaped rocks to figure out where the treasure is buried.
Three palm trees. A big pointy rock. On the south side of the island. I jump off the side of the ship and head in what I think is the right direction. The game I play with myself is do I find the chest when I dig my very first hole? So. Dig. THUNK Success! I… wait. Is someone talking?
Other voice: There’s someone here.
It is. Someone else is on the island—a younger gentleman.
Other voice: Maybe we should kill them?
Wait, kill me? I, just, wait…
The younger gentlemen lunges for me from behind a rock, cutlass swinging, and I’m totally unprepared. This was early in my Sea of Thieves experience, and I had no expectation regarding multiplayer. I’ve seen no one until this brute, and his cutlass shows up.
I have a sword. And a blunderbuss. And food to heal, but OW OW OW.
Other voice: We’re killing him.
They sure are. Running. Trying to remember the keyboard command to attack and OW OW OW.
Other voice: He’s running.
And I’m dead.
As my ghost slowly floats away from my corpse, heading to Davy Jones’ Locker, I notice the other’s player’s ship is sitting maybe 300 yards from my ship. How’d they get there so quickly? Why didn’t I notice until I heard their voice? 1
Formative lessons we can learn from this story:
- Sea of Thieves is an open world. There are only six other pirate ships on a server at a given time. There are pirates on these pirate ships. And often kegs. The latter explodes.
- Unlike other open-world games, there is no obvious place for new players to hide. You can be a griefer anywhere in Sea of Thieves, but the word doesn’t carry the same weight as other games because… it’s a pirate game. You are supposed to pillage, plunder, and kill. It says it right there in the name: T H I E V E S.
- Because the game is open world and because there are no safe havens, you must remain entirely situational aware at all times. This means continuously searching your surroundings for clues. I see a sloop on the horizon. Is it heading my direction? Ok. How far away is it? What’s the wind like? How long do I have before I have to act? My choices will be to fight or run. How capable am I at each?
Recap. On top of a tremendous amount of supply prep work and the laborious maintenance required to keep my ship pointed in the right direction, I need to read maps that look like they were drawn by my five-year-old to search Kraken and Megalodon-infested seas for buried treasure while continually scanning the environment for the smallest clues of impending random doom from any direction. 2
I love this game.
I mean it.
You never know what might happen when you fire up a Sea of Thieves session. For each blissfully quiet session where you calmly sail the seas and dutifully complete your pirate duties, there is another session where five minutes into your sail, a clearly armed-to-the-teeth brig is suddenly chasing you across the ocean.
Sea of Thieves is a choose your own adventure book where you randomly open the book to a page and start pirating. I’ll explain.
Discover How to Survive
As I mentioned earlier, kegs are littered across the Sea of Thieves. You can find them randomly floating in the sea, or you can go to one of the many forts and find them all over the place. I like to keep one or two kegs on my solo sloop.
There are streamers I respect quite a bit who correctly advise that keeping a keg on your ship is a bad idea. The crow’s nest is the first place streamers target with snipers when attacking because so many players (like me) stash kegs in the crow’s nest because they think it’s a safe place to store an explosive that instantly detonates when shot.
I remain pro-keg for now because, for a solo relatively inexperienced player, kegs are my great equalizer. If I’m sailing around the seas looking for a fight and I see another ship, the chances are their ship is bigger, they have more crew-mates and experience. I will lose most battles purely on a number of competently-fired-cannonball basis.
But…. But! If they are busy doing a quest on an island and they don’t see me coming, I can park my Sloop behind a rock, jump in the water with my keg, and swim the remaining distance to their ship – killing sharks as I go. I board their ship, light the fuse on the keg, drop it at the base of their mast, and jump back into the sea.
KA-BOOM Mast down. Can’t move. Ship on fire.
Griefer? No. Pirate. The most elegant way to fight? No. Pirate. Does it consistently work? No. There are other pirates on the sea who know this approach and immediately start scanning the ocean’s surface when any ship is nearby. Some smarter pirates always leave someone on their ship to deal with me and my keg proclivities.
Fun trying? Hell yes. Every time. Those last 50 yards under the ocean after swimming for twenty minutes slowly pushing an explosive in front of you with sharks nipping at your pirate boots? My heart starts beating hard every time.
The joy of Sea of Thieves is first finding the narrative you’re currently in and then shoving the narrative in whatever direction suits you.
Finding and Advancing the Narrative
I’ve played Sea of Thieves a lot since I started writing this piece. I play a lot with my pirate pal @lingnik. We play a couple of nights a week, first coordinating start times in the Destiny Slack. This particular evening, I was late to jump into the Discord, where we voice chat.
Me: Hey, too late to jump in?
Lingnik: <pause> No, I could <longer pause> use your help.
Me: What’s up?
Lingnik: I’m not sure where I am.
The narrative. He’d been playing solo. He’d found another sloop, they’d tussled, his ship was sunk, but he survived. He covertly boarded the other ship and was tossing their hard-earned loot off the ship as they sailed. He was eventually discovered and killed, which was around when I arrived.
He invited me, and I appeared not on the ship, but in the middle of the open sea. No ship. Floating. Probably where his ship had just sunk. Dense fog, and there’s a dingy sitting right here.
Lingnik: Ok, head northwest. There’s a trail of loot.
I start paddling the dingy. I can’t see more than 20 feet in any direction because of the fog, but I eventually come upon the loot. I jump off the dinghy to grab the loot when I see… the other ship… heading straight for me slowly because they are picking up their stolen tossed loot. Quickly boarding, I am ready to fight, but there is no one here because they were in the water, grabbing the loot and the dinghy. I start throwing firebombs. They figure out I’m on their ship, and I quickly sword them. Lingnik quickly arrives in his new ship, cannons are deployed, and the ship is sunk.
Did we plan this? No. Has this narrative ever happened before? Not to us. Is this one of great many random Sea of Thieves stories I could tell you? You bet.
The Next Part of the Story
This is a mega-keg.
Mega-kegs are very rare in the Sea of Thieves. They are a guaranteed drop when doing the raid-like Fort events, and every so often, you’ll find one randomly in the seas. Mega-kegs explode. Like really explode. Like insta-sink ship explode.
Here are two mega-kegs.
I don’t know what the narrative is for two mega-kegs, but I am looking forward to discovering the narrative with even bigger explosions.
- Sea of Thieves is a cross-platform game. It runs on the Xbox and PC. On the Xbox, the default microphone setting is set to hot or on. This means a slew of Xbox players are sailing the seas with their mics unknowingly on. You can only hear other players when you’re close, but hot mics make for hilarious combat.
- Bonus ending of this story. Once dead, I was sent to the netherworld briefly, but quickly respawned on my nearby ship, which was a convenient position for a cannon attack on my attacker. They were just as unprepared as I.