What I’m Playing: Sea of Thieves

Sea of Thieves is a beautiful, joyful, pulse-quickening, sweet tech demo. The team obviously spent enormous effort, skill, and time in getting the water and the wind and the sailing just exactly right—and they are marvelous! Unfortunately, after years of development, they have little game to go with them. And the game industry has seen too many games live too long in development. This is a real problem, because a game that stays in development too long dies. A novel too long in development risks being over-written, but the tech doesn’t move past it. A novel in the works for ten years may risk feeling old school, or thrillers may seem ripped from yesterday’s headlines, but most genres are insulated from the dangers of time. A game in development for a decade, however, finds that everyone else’s graphics and even gameplay have moved beyond them. The audience no longer can be wowed by a game coded on an old game engine.

So the corporate overlords have a point beyond simple greed when they push a game like this out the door. Plus, even with your overlord is Microsoft, paying the salaries of a hundred (or whatever) highly-skilled people for four years isn’t cheap. At some point, you need to see a profit. That’s not Microsoft being evil, that’s just reality. You can’t pour money into a pit forever, especially as you know what you get back will decline sharply if they take too long. (“Oh, you have HDR and 4k?” goes from a selling point to “So what? How’s the holographic rendering?”)

The game is really fun, and if you play it with a friend—or more, I guess, but I only have one, so… ya know… 😉 —it’s even more fun. Sailing is great: it feels exploratory and even dangerous. Your first storm is awe-inspiring. But after a few hours, you realize the game is empty.

The quests are all fetch quests. There are literally 3 different fetch quests, and… that’s it. There are no NPC ships. At all. So there no merchants for your pirates to… pirate. You’re only fighting other pirates–that is, exactly the people you’d avoid as a real pirate. Most of those are smart enough that when they get plunder, they take it immediately to the many and readily available ports, and sell it right away. So if you sink another ship, you get little or nothing in game terms. If you seize a ship, you might get a chest, which gives you gold that you can use to… get a cosmetic upgrade. (Or more realistically, one chest will pay for 1/15th of a cosmetic upgrade.) There aren’t enough cosmetic upgrades to make this meaningful, nor are they tied to anything you’ve done in-game. After you’ve done 200 fetch quests you can get a peg leg, or something. None of the upgrades add any function.

I understand why. Your progress in this game is simply that you learn how to do harder stuff through your own gaming skill or memorization of the map; every pirate is on equal footing in gameplay terms. That’s a really bold decision. After all, if you reward experienced players by letting them earn better guns, you open a wider gulf between them and the newbs who log on for the first time. This makes things friendlier to new players.

But it flattens out the game. There’s no progress. That makes a game that already feels purposeless feel even more so.

If getting treasure doesn’t DO anything but help you play dress-up, and the dress-up you play isn’t even meaningful, what does that encourage instead? Well, I think it encourages you to abandon the pointless pursuit of loot yourself and enjoy messing up other players’ pointless pursuit of loot instead. There’s a name for this: griefing.

There are two types of ships: big and little. There are no better ships. If you’re playing alone, you need to be on the little ship.

The death mechanic is compelling, even brilliant. If you’ve killed a hostile pirate before you die (which happens often in ship battles), you’ll find him too in the afterlife. You can talk to each other. This humanizes your opponents (which is everyone) and makes for a friendlier game experience. I think it’s awesome. (More on this in a moment.)

But—and I think this is being addressed in an update—you respawn WAY too close to your fight. If you die, you can quickly rush back to your ship to rejoin the same fight before it’s even over. So death doesn’t suck much for the person who dies. That’s nice. (Though it encourages reckless play.) But in game terms, it also means that killing a hostile pirate doesn’t mean putting him or her out of the fight. If you’re outnumbered, you’re screwed. You can’t kill opponents fast enough to win.

The same thing happens if your whole ship gets sunk. Your ship respawns within view of your opponents. I played alone one night, and took on a bigger ship that (it turned out) had four players on it. They killed me, sank my ship, killed me, killed me, sank my ship again, and sank my ship again. I couldn’t get away from them, period, and no matter how many of them I killed, they always outnumbered me because of the respawn.

This level of game design stupidity is hard to comprehend. Did no one in the many months of beta tests act like a-holes? That’s hard to believe. These are gamers, after all.

And if you’re on a ship of four players, what’s fun? Killing other weaker ships. You’re playing a pirate. That’s the whole point. The money doesn’t matter in this game, so it doesn’t matter that you’re killing a ship that doesn’t give you loot. Loot is pointless. Your own ship respawns too, so you don’t lose anything if you lose the fight, either. So the fun is in demonstrating your mastery over other players. Of course this is going to happen.

But!–and this was a unique gameplay experience enabled by the death mechanic–I told the guys killing me that they were griefers and being assholes coming after a new player. (It was the very first day the game came out, and they already had the sails that cost 70k gold—so they’d been playing a long, long time in the beta.) They were first like, “Hey, it’s a pirate game, buddy.” But then they hunted me down (a 4th or 5th time), and apologized. This doesn’t happen in online games. They gave me some chests they were carrying, and we went our separate ways.

So the brilliance of half of the death mechanic countered the stupidity of the spawn distance. (Which is fixable.)

But it all points to the emptiness of the game. After you master sailing (which takes some time!), what do you DO? The islands have cool cave paintings and are fun to explore—but there’s no one who made the paintings. There’s no quests to find out anything. No lore. Nothing to discover. Obviously, that content is planned already, but it doesn’t exist yet. Your opponents are players, or skeletons or harder skeletons. That’s it. The NPCs otherwise stay in their booths, handing out ale or one of the three fetch quests. The same 4 NPCs (with different looks but identical dialogue and functions) inhabit every island.

There is apparently an endgame (being a legendary pirate), which takes 100+ hours to get to. 100-some hours of mind-numbing fetch quests, which opens… more of the same, but with a cooler-looking ship.

I see a ton of potential here IF they reinvest their profits into developing all their ideas, and IF they move quickly to make necessary changes (realizing problems, unlike Activision/Destiny 2), and IF the player base either doesn’t drop off too dramatically or if they believe they can lure players back with additional new content (which will have to include micro-transactions so they can show an on-going profit stream), if all that happens, then in a year, this will be an amazing game.

It already is an amazing game for a few hours. I hope it survives. I hope the content that is surely in the pipeline is as good as the sailing and weather. It’s getting terribly low reviews right now because, like I did in school, you’re averaging 95%’s in with some 0%’s. Those zeroes really pull your average down! Is this game as bad as the shoddy work out there that gets a 6 or a 7 out of 10? No, not even close. But then, it’s not a whole game either.

Right now, I can’t give it a grade. It earns an

INCOMPLETE.

Teacher’s note: “Must work on time management skills. Not living up to potential. Please finish your project before graduation, Rare.”

Night Angel 10th Anniversary Hardcover Omnibus

For those of you who have been asking–for 10 years!–there will soon finally be a way for you to get Night Angel in hardcover!

On September 19, Orbit is releasing a hardcover omnibus of the entire trilogy. (Quick definition: “omnibus” means you get all 3 books together in one gorgeous package.) With a new foreword (that I really need to write!), this will include the goodies I added for the trade paper omnibus: an Annotated Glossary, Updated Map, and Deleted Scenes. Orbit is really aiming to make something beautiful with this hardcover–they’ve told me the concept for the cover art, and I think it’s going to be awesome! They’re also invested in keeping the price accessible. An entire trilogy-in-one totaling more than 1200 pages, at this quality, with extras and an amazing cover, without cutting corners, and at the price they’ve told me? Before now, I thought they liked me–this is proof!

(Before anyone asks, I won’t be doing a book tour for this one as my whole attention is devoted to finishing Lightbringer.) More details and cover image will come as soon as possible! Also, if you want to get longer and more entertaining versions of this kind of news before anyone else, please do subscribe to my (4-ish times/year) newsletter by filling out your email at the sign-up bar at the top of this webpage.

 

What I’m Reading: Nero’s Killing Machine

I’m not sure if I should add a point or take it away for the fact that this had to be a difficult book to write. A history of a single Roman military legion is simply faced with an enormous problem: How do you make the story of what are actually many armies over hundreds of years into a unified story of an army, as if it were one living breathing beast? As one of the last chapters admits, the men of the early 14th legion would have sneered at the bearded, married, business-owning, involved-in-local-politics later legion that dared to share the same name as their beloved legion that ferociously banned all those things. This central difficulty is made worse by a peculiarity of how Rome recruited and fielded its legions: men signed up for 16- or later 20-year stints, after which they retired. Granted, some men would stay in, and be moved to the upper ranks, but the vast majority of each legion simply left. An entire new army was formed of green recruits every 20-ish years. (And you did NOT want to go into battle with that baby army for a while!) So how is this army with massive periodic turnover to be treated as the same army in one story over centuries? How do you successfully tell that story?

You don’t. At least, I don’t think that Stephen Dando-Collins quite makes the case on which this book rests: If you’re telling the tale of The Martial and Victorius Twinned 14th Legion, you’re saying there IS a tale of the fourteenth–and there isn’t. There are only tales, plural, of the 14th during certain years. It’s like talking about the Boston Red Sox. You can tell of the Cy Young years and compare them to the Roger Clemens years. At best, maybe you could structure a tale around the 86 years without a World Series win. (But really, to have the metaphor be more accurate, you’d have to have the Red Sox move from Boston every couple years to a new home city, and change coaches/generals more frequently. On the plus side, the level of looting could stay about the same.

Nonetheless, this is a reasonably entertaining and informative book of pop-history. I learned things. In fact, I learned some things that were directly in conflict with other things I’ve learned, at least one of them recently. I’d recently relayed to a friend the factoid that Roman legionaries were required to be 6′ tall–which I found remarkable! That’d be like recruiting only guys who are 6’5″ or something today, which would be pretty darn difficult, but on the other hand, I could see that recruitment strategy making a lot of sense when you’re looking to go murder people by the strength of your muscles alone. So yeah, sure, you want the tallest, strongest guys from every college sports team to go do your murder and looting work. And then one could see why armies made up of such men, also trained into believing they can kick anyone’s butt, and instilled with immense discipline would, in fact, be able to kick anyone’s butt–except this book says it’s not true at all. Crap. Sorry friend I told this factoid to. Instead, Mr. Dando-Collins says the average legionary was 5’4″, which is believable, and actually sort of remarkable in its own way. Imagine a bunch of guys 5’4″ kicking your butt and taking all your worldly goods. Plus your self-respect. Surely the Germans who averaged 5’8″ thought so.

In reading about the ancient world, I was again impressed by how fully a Judeo-Christian ethic seems to have suffused our present Western understanding of morality during warfare. War in the ancient world was incredibly brutal, and unapologetically so. Not just the fighting, but how people were treated in the aftermath, and what excuses (none) were deemed necessary to go to war in the first place. Certainly, instead of spreading the light of civilization or securing the borders so the Empire could be safe, one gets a palpable sense over and over that the men of the Roman legions just wanted to go kill people and take their stuff. (This, despite the fact that going and doing that would certainly cost a lot of them their lives.) Somehow in my mind, I’d separated the Roman soldiers from, say, Vikings. Vikings and other raiders are just thieves, murderers, and rapists, right? (Who happen to bring some good stuff along with them.) But Rome? Rome is law and order. Pax Romana, baby!

Well, that law is Roman law. Roman law provides no protection for anyone who is NOT a Roman citizen. So in the famous case of Boudica, where her dying husband Prasutagus (some say dad) tries to leave her half of his estate (the other half going to Nero, hoping that buys his good will), the law is very different from what we would think. Roman law doesn’t let women inherit, and anyone who dies without an heir leaves everything to Caesar. So to Nero, the guy tried to buy him off by… giving Nero only half of what belonged to Nero by law. It didn’t buy Nero’s good will at all–and, you know, Nero is Nero. So Nero’s little bailiffs go to evict Boudica who is “squatting” in Nero’s house with her daughters. (i.e. She hasn’t left her own house.)

She defies the bailiffs, and they beat the hell out of her and rape her daughters–and this is legal, or at least not illegal. A non-citizen has no legal protection, period. (It happens to be very unwise, but there’s no record that the bailiffs are disciplined for what will start a war.)

Boudica stokes the fires of Celtic fury at what’s been done to her–and everyone already hates the Romans anyway. (Go figure.) So they rise up, and take some towns. Now these are cities and clans aligned with Rome–which is exactly what Boudica’s clan had been, up until that month! And when Boudica’s army takes these cities, does she have mercy on the people there? Not even close.

The Roman writers, not shy about the realities of warfare, called it ‘an orgy of violence’. We’re talking non-combatants and children tortured to death literally for fun. Maybe you can try to dismiss that as propaganda, but it seems the Romans believed it was literally true. There may have been some religious significance to burning people to death and the like… but what? That makes it okay, then? Even if any of this was exaggerated, the death toll was like 70,000 in a couple weeks. Mostly civilians.

That London has a statue of a woman who murdered everyone in it who didn’t flee–meaning old people, young people, the stubborn, and those in denial that a fellow Breton would murder them–is deeply bizarre, that is, until you learn that Elizabeth I identified her as a brave figure fighting off a foreign invasion (just like herself), and later, Queen Victoria set her up as some kind of national hero (also just like herself).

Hmm, politicians abusing history to advance their own ends, how weird is that?

I guess all of us are suckers for an underdog story: brave woman stands up to defend her country against horrible guys! As far as I can tell (and I’m no expert, certainly), the real story is something like this: One, horrible men treat a woman and her family horribly. Two, horrible woman goes on to command the murder, torture, and rape of other tens of thousands of people much like herself. Three, horrible men’s army comes back, fight bravely and well, and then horribly murders the horrible murderers.

History’s awesome, isn’t it? Except where it really, really sucks.

I’m reminded of how earlier times should really be viewed as more alien than I sometimes do. People are people, sure, but culture is more powerful than we think. The Geneva Conventions seem obvious to us. They’re actually not obvious–they’re a triumph of civilization, of imposing morality on the most barbarous of human activities. (They’re often violated, sure, but they’re often upheld, too! And sometimes is a whole lot better than never.)

Excellently performed, although there was a slight technical irritant of the mic picking up the sound of Mr. Fass’s breaths, which became somewhat hypnotic: “Wow, that was a really long sentence to manage on that quick of a breath.” But this is surely a first-world audio problem–I mean, c’mon “the mic is too sensitive”? I can’t really take points off for that, can I?

3.5 out of 5.