Why ‘Sea of Thieves’ Wants Players to Be Bored

Jeremy Ray
Xbox PC Gaming
Xbox PC Gaming Games

We recently spoke to Joe Neate, executive producer at Rare, about the upcoming Sea of Thieves. He’s a man who loves to talk about his game. We managed to get in about four questions over thirty minutes. But when he started talking about targetting the different psychological types of gamers, we had to press him on it.


Did you bring out Bartle’s matrix of player types and target different playstyles?

The Bartle thing, I think it’s pretty well devised. We want to make sure that whether you’re an explorer or killer, there’s always going to be something for you, but it’s a good balance.

Bartle matrix taxonomy player types

We looked at Bartle’s matrix, and there’s also the wheel of emotions that Dr Robert Plutchik devised. It’s this wheel of all the different emotions humans can have. We want to make a game that actually has a wide range of emotions. So it’s not overly competitive where your only emotions are real joy when you kill someone or real anger when they kill you, and not much in between.

We want moments of serenity. When you’re just sailing along and it’s peaceful, and the sun is setting over the horizon, you can just stop and look at the sun, it’s beautiful. And you just have those moments of peace.

And even boredom! Boredom is an emotion.

The obvious worry there is that when players are bored, they’ll just switch Sea of Thieves off.

Sometimes it’s okay to be a little bit bored and be like, what do we do? Let’s fill in this space, let’s get the instruments about, and piss about. And just have some fun. We’ve provided tools for players to fill that boredom space in their own way.

And it’s okay for us to have that, as long as you’ve got a range of things so there’s peaks and troughs. Sometimes you are on a long journey trying to get to an island that’s at distance and stuff, and you have to do things during that time. But we give players the tools to do it. I’ve always wanted a wide range of emotions.

Sea of Thieves steering quiet moments

So we had this emotions wheel image, and then we made our own piratey version of it. And we put it up in the studio. In early playtests, we’d gather round and write down our memorable moments or stories while playing the game, and the associated emotions, and put them on post-its and stick them over it.

What you want is a spread. You don’t want them all in one area, or big gaps. And pretty consistently we put things in and made things too combat focused, and you started seeing a cluster of things over the redder emotions.

There is of course, a fifth player type. The type that gets its fun from antisocial behaviour. How do you plan on keeping everyone aligned on the same goal in a large group of individuals with different types of preferred fun?

I think your design decisions in the game affect how people behave.

So in the Sea of Thieves alpha, we put in a brig system. Which is, if someone is toxic or whatever, as a crew you can democratically vote to put them into the brig at the bottom of the ship. So they’re basically in pirate prison. So the only way that person can get out is if the crew votes them out. They can apologise, either verbally or there’s a nonverbal emote system.

If that person continues to be toxic, you can mute them. So they’re just shouting into the void.

Sea of Thieves cannon combat

What we don’t want is to give the crew the ability to kick that player, because that player has then won. Because that’s almost like a badge of honour, to annoy people so much they force you to leave the game. So the psychological trick with the brig stuff is the player has to choose to quit themselves.

So they’ve been locked in the brig, they’re muted, and they literally cannot do anything. So they have to choose to quit themselves, and it’s almost like they’re admitting defeat.

Some games have opted for reducing communication options lately, but that can always hinder effectiveness in a team game.

If you think about a game that’s designed around competition, people will always take any advantage they can get. And a really easy advantage to try and do is to get under someone’s skin.

We’ve put in a ton of effort to provide lots of nonverbal communication, for people who can’t or just don’t want to speak. These are all contextual, so if you’re looking at the helm, you’ll see prompts for verbalising turn directions and the like.

Also, if you die in Sea of Thieves, you basically go to the ferry of the damned. which is basically the waiting room from Beetlejuice. But anyone who died at the same time as you goes to the ferry of the damned the same time as you.

It’s a social space for dead people. But we basically wanted to make death fun for dead people. All you can do when you die is chat and make friends. You can’t hurt each other, there are no weapons. People have been battling out in the sea, and then they meet up there, and are like “Did you kill me? Was that your cannonball? That was awesome!”

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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