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Sea Of Thieves and “Games as a Service”

Only part of a pirate's life for you, the rest later...

How does one define, “content?” I don’t ask this out of posterity, or some cynical notion by which to seem facetious. This is, I think, a very relevant question that we must always ask in this industry. Personally, I think “content” is one of those nebulous things that is just inherently subjective person by person and game by game. However, I also believe at the end of the day, there is some bottom floor after which we may be able to universally agree where that content ceases to exist. Such is the case for Sea of Thieves. I believe the game to lack any meaningful content. Joseph Bradford penned his review over at our sister site, MMORPG.com, and I recommend everyone read it.

As I played Sea of Thieves with Bradford for his review, I found it to be a game full of nothing but repetitive fetch quests, no meaningful progression system, and several metric tonnes of catastrophically missed potential. And in a game themed around pirates, with developer Rare having all that incredible pirate mythos to build off of, Sea of Thieves is completely devoid of content.

Of course, I have seen many ardent defenders of Sea of Thieves’ lack of content, many of whom commented on our review.

The one main defence I’ve observed revolves around this notion that Rare will be patching in more content and features throughout the year, and will be doing so in so-called “free updates.”

And this is the underlying problem. This notion of releasing a shell of a game today for full price and then patching in any actual content post-release typifies this unfortunate new paradigm, “games as a service.” Sea of Thieves absolutely reeks of “games as a service.” Former artist, Rob Beddall, whose identity has been confirmed, wrote the following on Reddit, indicating Rare’s plans for the game when discussing the ship design.

All through production there was no physical anchor in the game (they were planning on anchors being an upgrade you could buy through microtransactions, alongside sniper scopes…).

These plans for microtransactions are confirmed by Rare’s Joe Neate,

After a few months, this is when we want to be rolling out the first expansions for the game. When we bring in our first major update, that’s when we want to add the option for players to spend money, if they want.

This groundwork is laid even barer when looking at the cost of items at the various vendors in-game. Keep in mind, these items are purely cosmetic. Buying a gun, for example, doesn’t mean that the gun you just purchased has any better stats. It doesn’t fire faster. It doesn’t do any additional damage. It’s just a skin. That’s it.

Yet when looking at these prices — 13,500 gold just for a new gun skin — it seems rather clear to any discerning consumer that from Day One, Sea of Thieves was designed to monopolize the players’ finite time and pass off this grind as “content.”

Here again, Beddall corroborates this.

I worked on this game for over 2 years. A lot of internal people voiced their concerns that the game was insanely repetitive and shallow. This was about a year a go before I left . I guess nothing has changed. I’ve been waiting a year for this day and the shit storm that would hit once everyone realised they had been sold half a game. I’m gonna sit back with a few beers and watch the story unfold 🙂

It is here where the “games as a service” notion comes into play. Sea of Thieves is incredibly dull and lacks any meaningful content. And it is in this designed vacuum where Rare can step in heroically and claim that they’ll continue to release updates to the game, and will do so “for free.”

The problem is, this works. People will see these updates as a supplement to what currently exists in the game, and the fact that they’re free will psychologically manipulate these consumers into thinking that Rare are the good guys, that they don’t have to be doing this but are doing so out of the goodness of their hearts. In other words, they’ll see Rare as their friends, their pals.

But in reality, these “updates” and “roadmaps” discussed by Rare ahead of the game’s launch are all content that should have been included in the game from Day One. Again, here’s Rare’s Joe Neate,

I have a roadmap in my head to the end of the year that’s quite detailed. Our main post launch goal is giving captain options for pirate legends. We want to make sure we’re enriching the experience for everyone, so new merchants, trading posts, and trading companies.

Sounds fun, right? Sounds like content. The concerning bit here is that Neate seems focused on “enriching the experience for everyone,” but only after launch. One must ask, why wasn’t this focus on enriching the experience applied to the launch game for Day One?

For some insight on this, we can again turn to Beddall,

The main pirate ship was constantly being worked on the whole time I was there. That’s 2 years for 1 asset. It became a bit of a joke among us. Personally I think they need to be a bit more relaxed and not be so anal about perfection if they’re going to release DLC. Otherwise there’s just not going to be enough content.

In not so many words, this is “games as a service” — releasing a shell of a game on Day One for full price and then updating the game with content that should have been in the game at launch.

As a consumer, when I look at this whole situation, I cannot shake the feeling that there some gross incompetence at work here on the part of Rare and Microsoft. Financially, it may very well work. In fact, we know it did because Sea of Thieves is now the fastest-selling new IP of this generation, with over two million players in its first week.

But when viewing this through the lens of a discerning consumer, when zooming out and looking at the bigger picture as one must, it is paramount that we ask ourselves whether or not this whole “games as a service” is healthy for the industry and healthy for consumers in the long term.I’m of the frank opinion that “games as a service” is doing and will do more damage than good. As consumers, do we really want to be asked to spend $60 for hollow shells of games on Day One? No doubt some diehards out there will say, “it’s not a big deal,” but I’m willing to bet that more reasonable consumers do not want that future.

Imagine purchas a new vehicle, but upon receiving it, you find out all you’re really getting is a chassis, some wheels, and a single seat. If the dealership then tells you that you’ll receive the remaining seats, AC, radio, etc. at some later date, you’d be angry. And rightfully so. Again, it seems rather incredible to me that media and consumers do not reciprocate the same level of critical thinking when it comes to games. Regardless of industry, it’s your hard-earned money. It’s your finite time.

Call me “entitled” if you must, but I’d rather have a full-featured game on Day One, and then have the option to buy meaningful supplemental content as post-release expansions. That’s a model I’m happy to spend my hard-earned $60 on. 

Written by
A highly opinionated avid PC gamer, Poorna blindly panics with his friends in various multiplayer games, much to the detriment of his team. Constantly questioning industry practices and a passion for technological progress drive his love for the video game industry. He pulls no punches and tells it like he sees it. He runs a podcast, Gaming The Industry, with fellow writer, Joseph Bradford, discussing industry practices and their effects on consumers.

2 Comments

  1. I feel much the same way about Sea of Thieves.

    The last analogy is particularly interesting to someone who loves cars, as you haven’t been able to “own” some ferraris & lambos since the 80s, so much as be in a contractual agreement with the companies themselves. Same is true for some farm equipment; like John Deere.

    As for whether this’ll ever change? I doubt it. If we aren’t watching the playerbase struggle soon, then it speaks to its success in providing what enough people call content to run a business.

    I didn’t think video game streaming was content, but just saw someone get 530$ in 15 minutes sitting on the mast of their boat in SoT, so the lines for what people are willing to pay for what are always being redrawn.

  2. It’s a great demo for a game… but where’s the rest?

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