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Sea of Thieves found its niche by leaving enough space for the imaginative to create something unique

The sea is a fierce and fickle thing – so too, it seems, are living games in 2019. Sea of Thieves’ launch last year garnered a mixed reaction: some were content to make their own fun in a watery playground with the creative tools Rare’s multiplayer pirate sim offered, while others were dissatisfied by its repetitive structure and lack of things to do. A slow but steady stream of free updates appeared – new instruments and shanties to play, challenges offering special currency, and fresh threats such as erupting volcanoes, AI skeleton ships and megalodons.

Players came and went. And then popular streamer Summit1g swaggered onto the servers at the beginning of the year. Suddenly, an audience that had written off the game was seeing its favourite streamer pulling off grand cartoon larceny and laughing himself sick in the process. Soon, fellow streaming stars Ninja and Dr Disrespect followed suit with some swashbuckling of their own, and Sea Of Thieves found itself occupying the coveted number-one spot on Twitch. The wave had finally crested, as Rare hoped it might.

Smooth sailing ahead

One of the great curiosities of video games nowadays is that often, the proof isn’t in the playing, but in the watching. So it has been with Sea Of Thieves, which has seen an uptick in player numbers ever since that recent swell of streamer interest. In Rare’s case, it’s a little bit of luck and a remarkable amount of foresight that has led to the sudden resurgence of a struggling game. Sea Of Thieves’ design was always about leaving enough space for the imaginative to create something unique. It just needed the right people to show, on a big enough platform, that it was possible.

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Then again, that influx of loot-hungry new players demonstrated how fundamentally unsuited a game such as Sea Of Thieves is to being a mainstream sensation. Part of playing pirates is, indeed, embracing the possibility of being swindled at any given moment. When it’s happening every other minute, however, the thrill of uncertainty fades. To that end, new mode The Arena now available to all players for free, as part of the Sea of Thieves Anniversary Update will serve as a fitting place for PvP showdowns, and should help better preserve the delightfully mercurial nature of Rare’s PvPvE seas.

But by now, it’s clear that some things will never change: anyone returning in hopes of an overhaul of the deliberately pedestrian voyaging structure will be disappointed. Stubborn old Rare is sticking to its guns, and an alternative idea of where meaningful ‘content’ in a multiplayer game should come from. In an age where it must be tempting to adapt one’s vision to follow the unpredictable winds of favour, there’s something wickedly subversive about how steadily Rare is steering its new flagship through the storm.

Looking for more great games to play? Then why not check out our list of the best Xbox One games