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Let’s take the second question first - no. Chapman makes clear that the world will be entirely handcrafted, designed so players can visit places, have adventures, join a new crew, and bring expertise with them, helping navigate the world by landmarks alone and pointing out useful details (for instance, one island, Thieves’ Haven, includes a ship-sized sea cave that can be used to escape out of sight of marauding players).
As for how precisely big it is, Rare aren’t saying just yet - likely because it doesn’t technically exist at this point - but Chapman does say sailing around the whole world could take 6-8 hours (although that might include stop-offs at ports, fights, etc.). What we do know is that it will be entirely seamless (no Destiny planet-hopping here), and it won’t be an endless blue-ocean-and-palm trees landscape: “There are different regions,” Chapman explains, “regions that have different feels, like classic Caribbean, lush wilderness with ancient civilisations, or ones that feel more barren. Regions that convey different emotions and you feel like you’ve been on that seamless journey, that you’ve travelled a long distance.”
What is there to do off of ships?
Chapman doesn’t get into the specifics of this all too much, but makes mention of NPC-manned ports with ship merchants and quest givers, as well as islands peppered with buried treasure and stalked by skeletons or the like. He also mentions “safe zone outposts” - presumably those ports will make up some or all of these - where players will be able to wield swords and show off their in-game wealth, but seemingly not be able to go full PvP on strangers’ booties or booty (I promise this is the only time I’ll make that joke).
How do quests work?
On the whole, it seems those legend-type quests will be activated in the normal way; you visit an NPC in a pre-defined location (for example, a port), and they send you off on the first step of your chosen journey. It’s not at all clear how the giant shared world feeds into those set quests - we don’t know if rival crews can arrive to scupper your fun and steal your profit. But Chapman’s keen to point out other opportunities. too.
He mentions “procedural layers” over the core game, which lead to the kind of ambient quests we’re becoming used to from more conventional open world game. Examples include generated shipwrecks, which crews can dive into looking for sunken treasure, or spotting a glinting bottle washed up on a beach through your telescope, which could contain a map to some far-flung new location. That tallies with a separate part of the conversation where he talks about digging up buried treasure as your crew fights off marauding skeletons - odds are that buried treasure and its associated hazards are generated when you find the map.
Will there be real historical pirates?
Simply, no. Sea of Thieves is its own pirate-themed world. “Very early on in development we decided we didn’t want Blackbeard,” explains Chapman, “and the reason why is we want players to become the Blackbeards of our world.”
Chapman doesn’t approach this head-on, but it feels as though treasure will be a single currency, used to upgrade yourself and your ship. But there’s a key difference between cash here and in something like The Division - treasure is a physical object, and it only belongs to the person physically holding it at the time.
Treasure chests or valuable artifacts have to be carried onto your ship, then stored in holds, before presumably being traded in at port for your chosen rewards. It leads to some brilliant-sounding thinking - enemy ship boarders will presumably head straight to the main cargo hold to steal what you’ve got, so some players might choose to hide their chests somewhere else (the captain’s cabin for example) as a misdirect, forcing raiders to spend that little bit longer searching for it, or even give up entirely. And what if those artifacts look really, really cool? A richer captain might choose to just keep it as an ornament/rainy day fund.
There are two key parts to death in Sea of Thieves, your ship and your character - both are beguilingly weird. Rare doesn’t want death to feel like too much of an impediment, so a sunken ship is always salvageable. In this case, you visit a magical mermaid who makes it rise out of the depths. While you’re dead, however, any treasure on that ship is fair gain. Don’t get back quick enough and fellow pirates will likely do their pirate thing, diving in and grabbing anything not well-hidden enough.
So, why wouldn’t you have gotten back quickly? “If players die,” explains Chapman, “a ghost rises up from their body, and they go to the Ferry of the Damned, a ghost ship.” He compares the Ferry to the waiting room in Beetlejuice, a place where all the dead players on a server will congregate and be able to discuss how they died. Heading up the ship is a ghost captain, an NPC you’ll need to complete (as-yet unspecified) tasks for before you’re allowed back to the world of the living. Do so, and you’ll be allowed to walk the plank, dropping your soul from the phantom plane back into your body. Oddly, it reminds me of how death was treated in Haunting: Starring Polterguy, except hopefully not crap.