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How emotional psychology and The Goonies inspired Sea of Thieves

"We're not a realistic sailing game, we're not a realistic pirate game. We're trying to build this pirate fantasy which delivers on the romance and the sense of adventure."

Kris Graft, Contributor

June 16, 2016

11 Min Read

One of the most talked about games at E3 2016 is all about being a pirate.

In Rare’s new online Xbox One and Windows pirate sim Sea of Thieves, players form crews with friends, get on a ship, and basically pretend to be a pirate. Online, they encounter other crews made up of real players, whose motivations might be less about hanging out and drinking grog, and more about forcibly taking your booty.

We had a chance to catch up with Rare studio head Craig Duncan and Sea of Thieves lead designer Mike Chapman to chat about designing for player emotions and motivation, and making a game that’s conducive to high seas adventure.

GAMASUTRA: Can you just tell me how the idea for this came about? I see you're wearing a Goonies shirt. Is that the inspiration here?

Craig Duncan: We got inspired by players playing together and creating stories together, even before the pirate theme came on. What I love about the Goonies film it's all about friends going on adventures together. For us, as game makers, giving you a world where you can go on stories and adventures with your friends we think is super-powerful.

Hopefully you've seen the gameplay trailer we showed yesterday. What we did is we invited a lot of Sea of Thieves fans into the studio and got them to play it. And we literally dropped them into the world. We didn't give them any help. We didn't give them any tutorials. We just said, "Go play the game."

They formed a crew, they got in the boat, they set sail to go have their adventure. Really, for us, we want to make a game where players group together with friends in a crew but then the magic of Sea of Thieves is you see another sail along the horizon and you know that's another group of real players. 

It seems tricky to design something like that--something that will support emergent narrative like that, especially in multiplayer.

Craig Duncan: It is, and it's actually deeper than that because it's about supporting multiple player emotions as well, because we know different players are motivated by different things. Some people are very competitively motivated. They'll see a sail on the horizon and they'll see that as an opportunity for plunder and will take it very competitively.

Our game is super-social. It's everything that you'd imagine in a pirate fantasy. You can play music, you can drink grog. So a lot of people will just play it just to hang out with their friends.

If you're interested in exploration you can go find a treasure map, go find treasure, if that's what motivates you, that kind of completionist motivation. And actually all those different player types playing in the world at the same time actually is what brings really emergent stories. 

How do you zero in on those kinds of emotions and motivations?

Craig Duncan: We've done a number of things through development. Very early on we had a wheel of emotions up in the studio.

A wheel of emotions?

Craig Duncan: So there's a guy called Dr. Robert Plutchik [we came across] when we were researching this. Imagine a heat map of emotions, where you've got sorrow and excitement in opposite quadrants, or anger and empathy in opposite corners. Most games tend to serve the power fantasy, to beat the opposition -- really aggressive emotions. Whereas there are other sort of emotions like sorrow, remorse, or awe.

We do all these in a playtesting and we've actually got people to come put Post-It notes on what emotions they have. So if your ship left you behind and your crew abandoned you, you probably feel sorrow and remorse. If you see a beautiful sunset on the horizon -- our game supports full dynamic time of day -- you might feel awe or inspired. When you climb to the top of a ridge in an island and overlook the world you might feel peace.

We wanted to create a game that had of those different emotions. Different emotions, different motivations, different player types: [we want to] throw them all in this world. You've got to give it some stimulus because you can't just let people kinda go do what they want. But every time people play the game everyone just smiles. That trailer we showed at E3 was real players playing the game and their genuine reactions and everyone just has a blast. The comment I hear more than anything else is, "I played your game, I've never smiled so much playing a game." That, for me, that's what gaming is about. It's pure fun.

Can you comment on the co-op design guidelines that your studio's been following?

Craig Duncan: Yeah, and we've been iterating on it a lot. Rare is very much about iterating, so we get things working really quickly. We play it, we playtest it. The great thing about pirates is everyone knows what to do as a pirate. So ultimately we don't really need to tell you what to do, how to act. But what we landed on super early was the cooperative bond of a crew we wanted to keep sacred.

So you being in your crew, you guys should have each other's back. You should be going on adventures together. You should be sharing in the spoils, sharing the experience. Actually crew-to-crew "griefing" is kind of okay. If you want to go with an uneasy alliance with another crew and then betray each other, [you can].

In a lot of our early prototypes we actually allowed within-crew betrayal. We thought, "Oh, that'll be cool." Actually it's horrible because you go on adventures together. You spend an hour and a half exploring the world, you get some treasure, and then someone in your crew kills you all and takes the stuff. Kind of horrible experience. 

So, again, we're still play-testing this and we're still getting more and more real players in and seeing how people play. For us, cooperative is all about your crew. Back to the Goonies reference. It's you and your friends against the world and that's the way we want it to feel.

But when you see that other sail on the horizon, you know that's another crew of people and maybe they've just had a battle. Maybe they're limping back to port, maybe you're in that situation, you're limping back to port. Maybe you're vulnerable, maybe you're ruthless and hunting for treasure. We want you to see that sail and think what is that other crew? Who are they? What are their motives? Can we trade something with them? Can it be uneasy?

Can you give your take on the guidelines and the tenets that you follow when creating an online co-op game that relies on cooperating with your crew and also [pitting you] against other players?

Mike Chapman: I've been getting a lot of questions today around, "How do people switch roles? How do people assign their roles?" For us, right from the start we wanted to keep players flat. What I mean by that is, there are no defined roles. It's up to the players. There's no system that governs that. We give you a ship, we give you a world. If you want interact with the anchor, man the cannons, repair the ship, just go walk up to it and interact with it. It's completely intuitive.

So, for us, that's kind of co-op gameplay. It's up to the player to decide how they use that ship to navigate through the world and decide what things they want to go after, and choose the goals to go after. It's completely up to the players, we're just building this world for them, building these quests for them. It's up to them how they interact with it. 

Was that counter-intuitive? Removing some of the guidance for players? Did you feel like you wanted to give them more structure than they actually needed?

Mike Chapman: Not really. There will be progression systems in the game for different player motivations. But in terms of the core game experience, we've approached the mechanics to be really intuitive. One of the tenets we use is it needs to be believable, but not realistic. We're not a realistic sailing game, we're not a realistic pirate game.

We're trying to build this pirate fantasy which delivers on the romance and the sense of adventure. Everything that players have got in their mind about being a pirate. That's what we're going after. 
That [gameplay trailer had] real fans, real players playing the game. We got them to Rare, gave them a tour of the studio, sat them down in front of the game. We didn't explain anything. All they knew was, "I'm a pirate."

That was it. 

We actually saw them playing, me and the rest of the design team, and they were sailing the ship that they had no idea about before within five minutes. Honestly, we were choking up. It was a magical moment and we knew we had the right direction.

Is this something that might show up on Xbox Preview and then you could get all that information, like player data feedback?

Mike Chapman: We're not talking specifically here around plans of that detail, but we know that we want to get the game into a beta. The game's so ambitions. This massive shared world where you navigate seamlessly, there's all these different goals you can go after.

Different crew sizes, different ships potentially longer term. We just want try those systems at scale with real players, just to see, are players gravitating more towards combat? Are they gravitating more towards quests? Do they want to have battles against more mythical creatures than what we initially provide? We just want to get it into real players' hands. 

It's really interesting talking to Craig about the prototyping and the playtesting. What are some of the key points you learned watching people actually play the game throughout the playtesting stages?

Mike Chapman: Really early on we felt we were [going in the right] direction, but we wanted to prove it. I think traditionally you spend a lot more time working theoretically where you're working on white board, you're working on Post-Its, you're working on design documentation. We just wanted to make it real and prototype the actual thing. It doesn't have to look visually great, it just needs to have that cool mechanic there.

We knew we were going to learn very early on that we didn't have to overly explain everything. I think that's what's great about the setting is that everyone's got in their minds what a pirate fantasy is. You have in your mind all the things you could do, all the things you could be.

Your goal from there is to meet players halfway. They'd be like, "Oh, I can't get the ship moving. I need to get the anchor up. I need to get the sails down." When you think about the types of quests that could be in the world, when you think about pirates or pirate tropes, your mind kind of fills in the blanks so you can imagine the direction we're going to go in.

It's funny, I got into Rust, the online game, for a while. I like the idea of letting go of structure in multiplayer games. Rust takes it to an extreme. It's kind of like, "Here are some things to craft,” and then it's weird because then society starts to take shape. But usually society is terrible in Rust, everyone's a jerk. 

Mike Chapman: That is a great example where we just want to provide enough structure, enough guidance. Ultimately the players will define how they progress, the paths they take -- I think it's just a massive opportunity. The Rust example, Day Z, great experiences.

I've played a lot of those games, but we wanted to bring that experience, build on it, but bring it to a wider audience. I think they can be quite alienating for a lot of people. The balance of loss is too high. People fear being punished. So I think we want to bring it to a wider audience, but do so with that Rare charm, Rare tone, that classic Rare game feel that people want from us.

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