How Sea of Thieves is confronting toxic behaviour in gaming

The swashbuckling multiplayer game was created to encourage better behaviour online

The world of multiplayer gaming needs a hero. Toxicity, the oft-used the buzzword for multiplayer behaviour that encompasses abuse, bullying and trolling, shows no sign of abating – it was the star of an article last year, entitled ‘7 Signs You’re A Toxic Gamer‘; that piece was a response to the world’s most-subscribed YouTube star PewDiePie using a racial slur during a live-stream, but the article itself became the subject of another PewDiePie video in which he derided even the concept of toxicity.

Enter Sea of Thieves, a game about swashbuckling pirates on the hunt for loot, to stamp out the causes: executive producer Joe Neate tells NME it was created with the intention of being “a new type of multiplayer game”.

Sea of Thieves‘ executive producer Joe Neate

So Joe – why is toxicity such a big problem, and how did it instigate the creation of Sea of Thieves?

Joe Neate: When we set out to make Sea of Thieves we wanted to make a new type of multiplayer game. Something that encouraged different sorts of behaviours. If you’re playing purely competitive multiplayer games, then competition can lead to toxicity. You’re trying to just get an edge over someone. You can do that by being abusive, or being negative, or using voice in a negative way. Some people will use the anonymity of voice chat on the internet to gain an advantage or to make people feel uncomfortable. We felt that there’s an opportunity to encourage people to behave the right way.

When it came to Sea of Thieves and the design of the crew, and how the crew work together, we made it so that everything is co-operative, so you can’t harm other people in your crew. There’s no incentive to harm each other. Also, when you’re going out on quests and seeking treasure, the design of the game is that all those rewards are shared. There’s no incentive to go out on your own or to betray your crew. We wanted that crew bond to be sacred.

How do you encourage people to be nice to each other?

JN: We brought in mechanics called “social lubricants”. They don’t have a mechanical benefit, but they have an emotional benefit.

You can play music on instruments – and when you play them, and another player is playing them, it syncs up the music together, and your character does this cool animation. It’s just fun – it makes you smile. When you do that with strangers, whether that’s in an online environment, or with your mates, or in a pub, or whatever, that kind of experience bonds you together. If you can smile and laugh together, you start forming a bond.

Drinking in the game is another part of that. You start every game in a tavern and you head out on your adventures. We tried to make this social, positive space, where people will be encouraged to build bonds and ultimately make friends. There’s even an emote you can play that will make friends on Xbox Live: if I play the emote – the salute – and you play it at the same time, it will automatically make friends.

It’s not all about competition, it’s about co-operation – and there’s room for competition in the world with other crews. But we don’t purposefully force you to be competitive. The colour of the Gamertags above players heads, for you and your crew, is green – because it’s recognised as a friendly colour in online multiplayer games. But if you encounter another crew, the gamer tag above their head is white. Earlier on it was kind of an orange-red colour, but that’s recognised in game-language as an enemy player. We’re not trying to do that. We changed it to white, so when you see one you don’t instantly think “I’ll point my gun at that.”

Is this the first game to make addressing toxic behaviour a key component?

JN: A game like Minecraft is similar: you’re not really encouraged to do anything competitive. You’re encouraged to have the freedom to do what you want to do. The game revolves around building stuff, doing stuff together, so I think that’s an interesting online experience that isn’t completely competitive.

Even the use of voice has been dropped over the years. It used to be very very prevalent – and we saw that as an opportunity as opposed to something that we shouldn’t go after. Let’s go after something that encourages the use of voice as a tool – because we all use it. It’s a fantastic tool that we use in everyday life, so why can’t we create it on an online space that encourages it and uses it in a positive way?

But we also know that some people aren’t comfortable using voice – maybe they’ve had a negative experience in another game, maybe they’ve had abuse or maybe they have a speech or hearing impediment and they don’t feel comfortable using it. So we’ve got what we call our non-verbal communication system, which is another way to encourage speech between players in a positive way. So, when I’m on the wheel I can ask for directions, or ask for help lowering the sail so I can see better, or if another player’s on a map they can send a series of commands – “Hey, head north-east! Head south!” It’s all contextual and it automatically translates, so if I’m playing with somebody from France, when I send the message it will appear in English on my screen but in their screen it will be in French. So we can play together and communicate together.

We’ve seen so many people make friends by playing this game together. That’s been incredible for us to do. Anything we can do to make a positive experience, to make people make friends.

How else do the game’s mechanics limit toxicity? Is it right that your avatar’s look is randomised?

JN: You’re delivered a line up of eight characters which are chosen for you by our technology – randomised by gender, ethnicity, shape, or whatever. But you can, if you want, refresh that, and it will generate another eight and another eight. You can keep going until you find one that’s like “That’s cool, I wanna play as that one.” What we’re trying to do there is to try and get people to step a little bit out of their comfort zone, because when you’re faced with a standard character-creator generally you end up making yourself. We wanted people to play as someone you wouldn’t normally. But we obviously wanted anybody from any background to come in as well and be able to see characters that represent them. Even the clothes aren’t gender-specific, so can wear what you want, nothing is restricted, they all fit any character when you’re in the game. It’s all about choice.

How about the ‘brig’ system? It sounds like a sin-bin…

JN: As much as we create or put positive guidelines in place, there are some people in online games that want to set out with a goal to create a negative experience for others. They’re in the minority, in any game, but it does happen. As a crew you have to vote on everything together, and the same goes if there’s somebody negative in your crew – you have the option to vote them into the brig. As long as everybody else in the crew agrees that they’re being negative, it puts them in the brig. It’s a place on the ship – a little jail cell at the bottom. You also have the option to mute that player, so you can’t hear anything they’re saying over the communications.

Instead of kicking that player from the game, which is kind of like a badge of honour to some negative players – they’re trying to annoy you so much that they get kicked out, it’s almost like they’ve won – we tried something different psychologically: we put you in the brig. It’s almost like a naughty step, an opportunity to apologise and say sorry. For those negative people, they have the opportunity to apologise and convince the crew to let them back out. They learn the error of their ways, or they have to quit – but that’s almost like admitting defeat for a negative player, or a troll. They have to make the decision to leave themselves.

We’ve been testing that out for a few months now and broadly, it’s working as designed. There’s a few cases we have to alter how we allow players to crew together – they can be playing with their friends, and they push a stranger into the brig to allow them to play with their friends. So we’re changing that. But broadly, it’s acting as designed.

With a game like Sea of Thieves, you have to be constantly active, constantly assessing people, see how they’re acting, making improvements based on feedback from data and players. Ultimately, it’s this grand psychological experiment where you’re trying to create this healthy social space online. We need guidelines and tools in place to allow people to control it. You ultimately rely on how players play the game, and interact with other players around them.

There’s currently a marketing stunt for the game where players can win a bunch of golden bananas worth £80,000. How does it reflect the spirit of the game?

JN: The UK Team actually came and proposed this to us – this real life quest where players are going to have to work together to solve all of these clues and win a set of real gold bananas. It’s very aligned to the game itself – it’s a set of clues that are going to unfold in a set of different ways. There’s a character that’s part of this quest that hasn’t been revealed yet who’s going to be part of it, and she’s one of our future characters who is going to come into the game as it expands and evolves as a service. So there’s a lot of links between our game and between this. It’s a really cool thing for our core community, because we’ve already done these kinds of events or campaigns with our community surrounding the game.

Sea of Thieves bananas

Sea of Thieves’ Golden Bananas

People love these alternate reality games, so to be able to do something like this, to this scale, with that kind of prize – not only is it cool that they’re golden bananas, but it’s a pretty significant monetary prize. I’m really looking forward to seeing who wins it, and to see if it’s someone from our community. And, do I know them from our community? Because we know so many people from our community that we built up over the last year. I would like nothing more than to be like, “Oh, it’s those guys!” It’s so in tune with what our game is: it’s literally a group of friends co-operating to try and get treasure, but it’s real treasure. I love it.

Sea of Thieves is out March 20 on Microsoft Windows and Xbox One.