Sea of Thieves’ Shallow Nature Represents Microsoft’s Plans for the Future

It’s no secret that Sea of Thieves is a necessary title for Microsoft this year. With Crackdown 3 facing consistent delays and State of Decay 2 not coming until later this year, console owners have had little regarding exclusivity. PlayerUnknowns Battlegrounds was a lackluster port, Halo Wars 2 was good but no system seller, with only Cuphead and Forza Motorsport 7 pulling out as a must-play in the last two years.

With the remnants of legendary game developer Rare at the helm, Sea of Thieves should have been the game to own. The title to justify the Xbox One X, the one to brag about to your Playstation owning friends. A massive undertaking, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Why is it that the full release is the opposite of this?

Instead of a killer app, Sea of Thieves is a shallow representation of what could be. Islands are gorgeous, yet lifeless. Combat is equally empty, with engagements won by spamming right trigger rather than with skill. Sailing a ship with friends is a fantastic time… for a couple of hours. Sailing requires real teamwork to keep your ship afloat and heading in the right direction. However, once you’re on the way, there is nothing to do but wait.

The game is gorgeous. I’ll give it that.

Aside from cosmetics, there is little to be earned through progression. End-game content consists of a raid, a Kraken boss you can’t even kill, and a secret hub area only for the most legendary of pirates. However, it’s all pretty much the same things you’ve been doing the whole time. Receive a mission, sail to complete it, rinse and repeat. I’ve been playing Sea of Thieves since its early alpha release in 2016. Why does it feel exactly the same?

With such little depth, one has to wonder what Microsoft was thinking by letting Sea of Thieves release in this state. Where is the progression? Why can’t I upgrade my ship beyond its visuals? When do I get a new piece of gear? I’m a pirate! I want to expand my skills and have something to work towards.

Now, not every game needs progression to work. Team Fortress 2 has gone for years without a traditional leveling or ranked system. However, that game has multiple different classes to choose from, a variety of cosmetics with different effects, and heaps of updates to keep things fresh.

A beautiful ocean. If only there was more reason to sail it.

Sea of Thieves will also have multiple updates (all for free I might add,) placing itself as another service game in an industry filled with them. That’s all fine and dandy, but what’s currently there is not worth the $60 asking price. On paper, it sounds like Rare’s latest may be a failure, but Microsoft, Phil Spencer, and everyone else in power knows this. They don’t want you to buy Sea of Thieves for $60 at all. Instead, the company wants you to invest in Game Pass, the $10 a month Netflix-like game service in which Microsoft has stated that all first-party releases will be a part of.

This year, we have State of Decay 2 and Crackdown 3 coming as first-party exclusives. What do those games have in common? All of them are four player co-op experiences just like Sea of Thieves. On top of this, I can promise you that each of these titles will have downloadable content that may even be free. State of Decay 2 is even launching at $30 instead of as a full priced game, which usually (but not always) means a lack of quality. Also, all of these titles will be available on Game Pass. An average game is always more fun with friends, and Xbox is making it as easy as possible for you to join up with them.

Microsoft isn’t trying to sell games the old way anymore. Instead, they are trying to gather people into their ecosystem. Sure, a full priced game with little content sounds like a ripoff. What’s more appealing is three major service games (plus 97 other titles) for $10 a month.

The number of monthly Xbox Live users from 2016 to 2018. (Chart from statista.com)

With 100 games at your disposal, why does it matter if Sea of Thieves or say State of Decay 2 launches with nothing to do? You can play them for a few hours, leave and play some Halo 5 or Gears of War 4, and then come back to the service titles in a couple of months after some free content drops. Plus, with the focus on co-op games, this will encourage gamers to invest in Xbox Live Gold alongside Game Pass, which doesn’t currently require a Gold subscription. Hell, this even factors into selling the Xbox One X. It’s much easier to push a 500 dollar console with the promise of a hundred games for a small monthly fee.

It’s an entirely new way to go about development, though the consequences are yet to be seen. Does this mean that all future Xbox titles will shun single-player for co-op? Not likely. Gears and Halo have always offered robust solo options, and ReCore was a bold but failed attempt at one, but we should expect to see more. That said, I worry that most upcoming first-party titles will focus more on providing these shallow co-op experiences over wholesome ones just to pad out Game Pass’ value. This entire generation, Microsoft has been more about providing an “experience” with the Xbox One, rather than provide us with the games we’ve asked for. With Game Pass, they are pushing this vision even further by providing an entire ecosystem for you to be a part of. Furthering this, they are even pushing backwards compatibility to provide value from their old titles. It’s a brilliant business move, really, but is it the best for consumers?

At the end of the day, what’s important is the value you look for in each console. Are you a fan of wholesome single-player experiences? Head to the PS4 and Switch. Are you looking for quantity over quality? That seems to be Xbox’s new mantra. Only, in this case, the high level of quantity may be worth the sacrifice in quality.