How ‘Sea of Thieves’ Achieved its Amazing Visuals

Jeremy Ray
Games Xbox
Games Xbox PC Gaming

From Battletoads to Kinect Sports, Rare has been making games for three decades. And Ryan Stevenson, art director on the team making Sea of Thieves, has been there for 17 of those years.

Never a dull moment, surely. But after a bundle of years of being known as the Kinect Sports studio, there were more than a few developers are Rare who were happy to be working on a big, serious title again.

At the recent Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, Stevenson talked about the very beginning of the process — back when all the team knew it wanted to make was a “group-shaped narrative with a wide range of emotions.”

Fun fact: all Rare games have a pirate in them. Some are easy fits, such as Conker’s Bad Fur Day or the Donkey Kong Country games. But even if it doesn’t quite belong, Rare will make it fit. Try fitting one into Perfect Dark.

Perhaps it was in the back of their heads anyway, but the powers that be at Rare decided a pirate game was the best way to experience their goal of multi-emotion, shared narratives. Two versions of the game started production in parallel — one for refining visuals, and another low res prototype for quickly iterating on the gameplay.

While every game has its pillars, Stevenson told us the art team had its own main goals for the project:

  • To create a “modern” Rare game.
  • To create a timeless art style, similar to Viva Pinata, which has aged well.

There were a few challenges. The game had to feel like a Rare game, but without a lot of the usual Rare elements such as lots of NPCs. It was also going to be the biggest game Rare had ever created, and in the unfamiliar Unreal engine.

The ‘Paintbrush’ Effect

Structures in Sea of Thieves are simplified. Obviously it helps the game’s performance to have trees and buildings that are low polygon, but few studios can do that while really nailing a beautiful art style. It’s a skill Blizzard has really nailed over the years.

Stevenson wanted an expressive approach. There was no granular noise on the textures.

This was actually inspired a little bit by Studio Ghibli, which resulted in a paintbrush look. Everything looks very “brushmarky” when you get up close to it.

Sea of Thieves test island with fire, rain, sunset, and high noon.
Same island, different times and lighting effects.

It was important for the team that players could get a quick, clean read from looking at a vista. Noise was reduced within blocks of colour. Complex colour combinations were simplified so that all of the greens wouldn’t blur into each other, nor the browns, and blues.

The next step was seeing how light would affect everything. Rare’s art team made a test island very early, where it could see how the sun’s rays played with their settings at different times of the day.

Even from an early stage, it was looking beautiful.

Those Beautiful, Moving Waves

As Ryan Stevenson says, “There’s a lot of water and a lot of sky in Sea of Thieves, so we needed to make them look good.”

Rare also wanted everything to constantly be in motion. Whether it’s waves or clouds, swaying trees or fireplaces, nothing would be still, and being able to feel the passage of time was very important.

Cresting water became one of the highest visual bars in the game. Achieving that perfect swell, no matter the conditions, was the goal. But the “simplified” approach used on trees and buildings didn’t work here. “As soon as you start removing some of the essence of what water is, it really just doesn’t feel like water,” according to Stevenson.

Rare were able to heavily stylise how light behaved when passing through water, and played with colour tones so it was beautiful below the surface as well as above.

That left the clouds.

Stevenson was a proponent of geometric shapes in clouds, and this went through somewhat of an evolution. As you can see above, the eventual inclusion of skull forts was a nice point of interest for pirates to aim for. And in terms of the “passage of time,” distinct clouds passing quickly overhead was perfect.

Stevenson even wanted to put a ship in the clouds, and tested it out. Perhaps something we’ll see down the track?

It Feels Lived In

Stevenson’s team knew that they wanted everything to feel worn. “Patched and repaired” was the term used. Even the cosmetic items meant to look like aristocrat gear have elements of this. Torn sleeves, ripped stripes, and the like.

This applies to things you may never expect. For instance, have you noticed the wooden boards on ships sometimes do this?

Deck boards going wrong way on ship
That's not at all how that works, but we love it.

Wooden planks are never repaired to go in the opposite direction like that, but it looks great.

Everything in Rare’s pirate arena is made to look weathered. Whether it’s uneven surfaces, or damage, or just not quite fitting into its place. All of these materials were scavenged and thrown together by Caribbean corsairs, after all — perfect polish would look out of place.

Whether it’s patches on sails, or wraps on your handgun, nothing in this world is factory new.

Sea of Thieves materials looking very worn and chipped

This applies to people, too. None of the bodies you can select in Sea of Thieves are perfect. They come in all shapes and sizes, and all of them are missing a tooth or an eye.

Function is the form, here. With these imperfections, everything tells its own story. It was “wonky with logic,” as Stevenson says.

This is also taken to the next level by Rare adding player achievements to the game world. Whether it’s launching yourself as high as you can go via cannon, or drinking as many beers as possible, or some other scallywag brag, Rare has been adding in-game models to celebrate the achievement.

To see the current list (being added to as more are discovered), head to Rare’s community achievements post.

It makes for great questions as a player. How did that ship get all the way up there above that outpost? Did that player really fight the Kraken with a broom? We’d love to see Rare include these as landmarks for chest-hunting quests, though most of these are around highly trafficked hub areas.

Always in motion, never perfect, and beautifully lit and brushmarked. That’s how we’ve come to know the world of Sea of Thieves, and it’s amazing how much the early versions of the game resembled the final product. Rare must have known very early on that it was making something visually stunning, and we stand by our assertions that this is the best looking water in gaming.

Jeremy Ray
Managing Editor at FANDOM. Decade-long games critic and esports aficionado. Started in competitive Counter-Strike, then moved into broadcast, online, print and interpretative pantomime. You merely adopted the lag. I was born in it.
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