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Sea of Thieves and Real Emergent Gameplay

Filament Games | Educational Game Developer

Hey. Have you tried Sea of Thieves? It came out last year, it’s been up and down on Twitch, and I think is a pretty great game. It has some very bold and interesting design ideas that I think have relevance to our work here at Filament.

First off, what is Sea of Thieves? Well, it’s a pirate game. You take on the role of a swashbuckling adventurer, looking to sail the seas, dig up treasure chests, and get into hijinx. You can hop onto your own single-sailed sloop, but the game is vastly more engaging with a crew (up to 4 can man a galleon). It’s a beautiful, whimsical game, and while I think people who enjoy exploration games with action and adventure should try it, there are some particular design facets worth highlighting.

Progression Shmogression

The first interesting design choice is that the game’s progression is absolutely flat. What feels like an open-world RPG is contrasted with a complete lack of RPG advancement. You start the game with access to all 4 weapons, and all ships. Your cutlass never gets sharper, your rifle never gets a longer range…you are given all the tools, already in their optimal forms.

So how do you get better? You get better by…getting better. You learn better timing. Tricks of the trade for sailing around cannonfire, or boarding ships. You make mistakes with swordplay, get punished for it, and then don’t make that mistake again. You learn bullet drop and accuracy for different weapons, and build preferences for them depending on circumstances. You learn to check your crow’s nest for sneaky interlopers before hauling your booty back to port.

Sure, there are reputations to increase, but those simply unlock cosmetics, and the ability to take longer quests, which reward more gold and reputation…to unlock more cosmetics.

To lots of players, this feels…wrong. We’re used to scaffolding and progression. We’re used to games that ask for our time to reward us with mathematically gifted prowess that multiplies our increased skills. But to me, it just feels honest. You can get tricked, outsmarted and outplayed in Sea of Thieves, but the only real variables are you, the other pirates, and the hand of fate.

So what about Shmogression in Learning Games?

We often spend a lot of time in our design of learning games to understand what progression will mean, both in terms of “what will the player do?”, and “what will the player learn?”. So designing a game without progression seems at first glance that you’re setting aside your tools for prescribing learning.

But Sea of Thieves uses its lack of formal progression to highlight authentic progression- you are a better pirate not because you bought a new hat, but because you are a better pirate. If we can make learning game spaces with a similar structure, it means we would have doubled down on creating real, authentic gameplay objectives that let the player explore mastery in their own way- if those objectives are aligned with our learning goals, then wow! We’ve made a game that let’s players practice, demonstrate mastery and even express themselves through their learned expertise. How neat would that be?

Expect the Unexpected


You sign up for quests in Sea of Thieves which take you from one small island to the next, completing tasks like running supplies, fighting skeleton pirates, or digging up treasures. This will NOT go as planned.

Skeletal ships patrol the waters. Giant sharks and krakens emerge from the depths. Mermaid statues encrusted with gemstones appear on shore. Sunken ships that may hold pirate treasure lilt in the open sea. All of these are threats and opportunities that radically change how you chart your course, but nothing is as volatile and exciting as…the other pirates.

All of this means that you play Sea of Thieves not to engage in a reliable grind, but to step out and chart a course…for adventure!!!

The Unexpected in Learning Games is Unexpected

So how can this apply to learning games? This one is tricky- more often than not, learning games are attempting to wrap a set of actions, engagement, identity and context around a core learning objective that provides a sense of certainty and empowerment to the player. When the player does the learning thing, we want that to GO WELL FOR THE PLAYER. We don’t want to give the player mixed signals on mastery of objective content.

But what if the game is about systems with uncertainty in them? What if it’s say…a weather game? A game where your weather predictions always come true seems arguably misleading, (especially if you’re in Wisconsin, am I right? Eh? Eh? Hello?) Maybe more learning games should experiment with a sense of danger and possibility, even at the expense of creating some feel-bad moments. It definitely seems plausible, if the learning objectives themselves contain uncertainty in some form.

At any rate, Sea of Thieves laid out some bold design decisions that challenge what we value in the games we play, and for that reason you should play it. And keep in mind that learning games maybe don’t always have to be laser-focused tunnels of certainty and reward- the world certainly isn’t, and maybe that’s a lesson in itself.

More game design insights from Filament’s Chief Creative Officer Dan Norton:
What Makes Great Learning Games?
It’s a Piece of Cake to Build a Pretty Game
Abstraction in Learning Games