Rare’s Sea of Thieves is one of the most anticipated games coming out this year. The multiplayer pirate adventure has been touted as a game that Xbox has desperately been needing for a while, and with closed beta stats reaching well over three-hundred thousand players and over two-million hours of gameplay, it’s clearly a title that players can’t wait to get their hands on. Those explosive numbers put into perspective for both Rare and Microsoft the potential Sea of Thieves has to be huge.
Sea of Thieves’ growing popularity, though, highlights a bigger issue with Xbox One exclusives and Microsoft’s ongoing struggle to bring quality first-party games to the console.
Xbox One has sold 36.6 million units since it launched in November 2013. While those numbers are impressive, they are staggering in comparison to the 74.3 million console sales for PlayStation 4, and the fast-growing number of Switch sales at almost twelve million.
PS4 users have God of War 4, Days Gone, Detroit: Become Human and more to keep on their radar. Nintendo is keeping Switch fans happy with releases like Super Mario Odyssey and huge ports like Doom and Skyrim. But you don’t have to look closely to see that Microsoft has been pushing the same franchises for years and doing little to brush the dust off them. While the company has kept long-time Xbox fans content, its done little to expand consumer reach and convince more gamers this is a console worth owning.
Continuations of Xbox franchises like Gears of War 4, and even new games like ReCore did little to make a huge impact during the 4th quarter of 2016. While those games were popular in their own right, they released in the midst of other huge games like Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Final Fantasy XV, and Dishonored 2, all of which came out on multiple platforms and reached a wider audience of gamers.
Awareness of Xbox One’s exclusive problem has led Microsoft into odd partnerships in the past, and soon we started seeing Lara Croft in promotional posters and videos alongside Master Chief. Leading up to the release of Rise of the Tomb Raider in 2015, Microsoft anticipated Tomb Raider’s popularity and its historically-rooted association with PlayStation would boost Xbox sales.
However, Rise of the Tomb Raider’s launch day was overshadowed by Fallout 4, which released on multiple consoles and platforms that very same day. Ultimately, Rise of the Tomb Raider’s moment as a timed Xbox One exclusive had little impact for the console’s sales, and it certainly didn’t stagger the PlayStation 4’s.
Put that business deal into perspective with canceled Xbox exclusives like Platinum Games’ Scalebound, the Phantom Dust remake, the never-ending delay of Crackdown 3, and you’re left with a company that has a shaky handle on its exclusives and its industry momentum.
All of this has made the release of Sea of Thieves so hugely anticipated. The developers at Rare, though, choose not to think about the pressure that its game could be the Xbox One’s saving grace. Instead, studio head Craig Duncan focuses on the positive reception of the game thus far and is hopeful for its longevity. “We want Sea of Thieves to be the friendliest, most accessible game ever made,” Duncan says. “I want people to still be playing it five or even ten years from now. We’re in this for the long game.”
Duncan and the Rare team’s excitement isn’t unwarranted. Just from playing the closed beta, it’s clear that Sea of Thieves is an ambitious game. Since its announcement at E3 2015, the trailers that have been released don’t do the game justice, or reveal how expansive the world of Sea of Thieves really is. It’s an immersive experience that’s aesthetically beautiful and filled with charm. It has some of the bluest waters seen in video games, which respond in realistic ways depending on the weather.
Nearly every aspect of Sea of Thieves is held together by its multiplayer component, as you are creating allied and enemy pirates with each decision you make. With an interactive communication wheel, quick enemy encounters, and vast islands in need of exploration, Rare is making sure that building a legendary pirate crew has enough replay value to keep players interested. Hands-on time with Sea of Thieves is definitely a worthwhile experience, but in a console generation where Xbox is desperately lagging, Microsoft needs more.
Sea of Thieves will undoubtedly build a solid fan-base upon its release; but player interest can easily fade in the wake of the quality games that are releasing on multiple consoles like Far Cry 5 and the heavy-hitting titles that have yet to release coming exclusively on PlayStation 4, like Death Stranding, Days Gone, and The Last of Us II.
When Sea of Thieves releases in March, it will join popular but aging Xbox franchises like Gears of War, Halo, and Forza. The game can’t single-handedly sustain a console that has been in need of new exclusives for years.