Sea of Thieves is mostly about hunting down treasure with your friends, but every now and then things get ugly. In a game where everyone wants loot and crews can battle each other at the drop of the hat, the line between being a pirate and being a jerk feels razor-thin.
There’s only a few things to do in Sea of Thieves—find buried treasure, collect bounties on dangerous skeleton pirates, and raid forts—and each activity offers all kinds of loot. You’ll find curse skulls, massive chest of gold, and collections of rare supplies like tea or silk. Once you have these supplies, you can bring them to an outpost to sell. However, at any given time, other players can take your treasure and try to steal it for themselves. Sea of Thieves matches are small, with the large open sea only filling with a handful of ships, but when players meet there is a choice to be made: play nice or play like a pirate.
Trolls and griefers suck. Players who exist only to cause trouble for everyone else or ruin the experience are far too common online, from players who intentional throw Overwatch games to Fortnite squads secretly working together. It sucks. But Sea of Thieves’ very structure encourages less the honorable behavior. While it is possible to behave yourself and still succeed, the lure of other players’ loot and the bombastic spectacle of ship battles makes it hard to resist engaging in some bloodthirsty behavior.
This weekend, I started playing Sea of Thieves with my friends. After a series of bounties, we decided to raid a fort full of skeletons only for another crew to attack and sink our ship. This led to a series of engagements where this crew—who were frankly, assholes—continued to harass us as we tried to return to the island and continue the activity. We even offered to split loot with them if they wanted to join up to fight the skeletons. They never listened, trolling us for hours and hours. It only ended with a new player managed to broker a truce. But as we all fought the skeletons, my crew hatched a plan: one of us would detonate explosive barrels on the troll’s ship and we would take their loot. The plan went off without a hitch and we took everything. It felt good.
This might sound like a simple case of outsmarting griefers but earlier in our session we had another random player climb on our ship who sailed with us for a time. Jokingly, I raised my pistol to his head when he wasn’t looking. It would be so easy to betray him. When I wasn’t looking, another member of my crew did the deed. At first, I was shocked but then I laughed. The audacity of it all was absurd. We’d drank grog and raised sails with this stranger and at a whim executed him for a laugh. Isn’t that what pirates do?
As currently designed, the only thing to do in Sea of Thieves is purchase new clothings or items for your character. There’s no building feature to, say, build a friendly port for players or games inside taverns to have friendly competition. The core loop of the game, as befitting a game about pirates, is about acquiring cash and flaunting that wealth. Bounties and treasure hunts offer a pathway for success but stealing from other players speeds up the process considerably. You can grind activities for hours or raid someone else’s galleon in as little as five minutes if you play your cards right.
There’s also little repercussion for embracing your darker impulses while playing Sea of Thieves. There’s no punishment that sends NPC law enforcement after you or a mechanic to place bounties on those who’ve betrayed you. At worst, you anger some players who try to hunt you down for revenge before they eventually get bored. Without systems in place that encourage players to team up against dangerous pirate crews, Sea of Thieves is a hectic free-for-all where cruelty is often the best path to profit.
Sea of Thieves lives somewhere between a cooperative MMO and competitive deathmatch and knowing when to engage in either mode is difficult. Betraying a trusting solo player so you can take all of their stuff makes sense. The game allows it, the reward structure encourages it. Why feel bad if that’s what the game wants you to do? And yet, every player is just someone trying to have fun and your bit of thievery could be the capstone on a horrible day. That knowledge makes it difficult to screw someone over. I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong to play Sea of Thieves like a pirate but that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a dick move.