Loss sucks. No one likes to lose anything, be it contests, passwords, or their marbles. In the earliest video games, losing was often tied to failure. “Lose lives till the quarters run out” remained a basic arcade strategy for years. Home consoles changed that, and, because losing sucks, our games coddled us with unlimited continues and save files. Is there a game that makes losing fun? Can you buy a dancing seafaring monkey in it?
Yes and yes. Sea of Thieves from Rare delivers an MMO experience unlike any other. It's not just the charming pirate aesthetic, either. There are no experience points in SoT, no rare gear, no player levels. Just cosmetics and shiny loot. Shiny loot that can be lost. Or taken. Either way, it’s a whole lot of fun.
What makes Sea of Thieves standout among a crowded genre is its unconventional approach to everything we typically expect from MMOs. Because there are no levels, every player has the same health and damage. Victory often comes down to luck, technique, or teamwork. Solo play is possible, and fun in its own way, but the joy of SoT is in banding together with a crew of misfits and plundering treasure (or stealing it from someone else).
Most MMOs are big on quality of life improvements. Fast travel, massive inventories, minimaps littered with quest markers. Sea of Thieves has none of these. The mechanics are purely tactile. To go somewhere, you sail. To pilot a ship you need to manually raise each sail, set the angle, and steer with wide turns in mind.
To recover loot you have to carry each piece individually, valuables never enter your inventory. Treasure is always vulnerable. Hauling loot to an outpost, including bringing each chest, jewel or enchanted skull to vendors one at a time, often takes longer than the adventuring itself.
So why is this fun?
The fun is in the thrill of those moments. When things go smoothly, you have a simple session with friendly crewmates chatting away as you manually unload cargo. But things have a tendency to go sideways on the open sea. There are plenty of NPC dangers, from ghostly galleons to mighty kraken, all capable of sinking your ship quickly.
These pale in comparison to what a crew of your fellow players can do to decimate your ship in the blink of an eye and pilfer all that hard-earned plunder for themselves. Either way, the sense of danger looming over everything makes what is mundane in most MMOs into something risky and exciting.
And as losses go, even the big ones in Sea of Thieves are bearable because you’re only able to acquire cosmetics for yourself and your ship. You won’t buy better cannons or faster sails, and then feel discouraged when a competitive edge is gone for good. You just lose money you can spend on stuff that looks cool. Because it's an MMO the social component of looking cool still matters, but you don’t ever feel like you end up worse at the game after a big loss. It’s simply not possible.
This slow but chaotic rhythm is usually the sticking point for most players. Sea of Thieves is a game that takes time, while promising nothing and everything all at once. Find treasure, fight ghostly skeletons and sea creatures, grief other players, go fishing, or just hang out. You truly have nothing to lose.
Sea of Thieves is available now on Xbox and PC, and included in Game Pass subscriptions. It’s also available on Steam, where it is half-off until April 15.