There is a lot to like about Sea of Thieves, Rare’s new multiplayer pirate game: the sunsets, the rolling motion of the sea, the utter shenanigans you can get up to with your friends. There are also some design decisions that I’m not quite convinced by, but I’m willing to give the game a few more hours to capture me. But one thing I’ve already made up my mind about is the game’s character creator. Or rather, the lack of one.
Eurogamer first reported on what would be later announced as the “infinite pirate generator,” a system that takes the place of a more traditional character creator. At the start of the game, instead of designing your pirate through a selection of various bodily and facial features, you are presented with a carousel of eight different procedurally generated pirates. You can pick one of those or roll the dice to look at eight more (or you can select one as a “favorite,” locking it in place while you continue to scroll through your options).
In the video announcing this “infinite pirate generator” approach, Sam Chester, the game’s lead character artist, explained why Rare made this decision. "We always knew we wanted a way to get cool characters into the game without having a million sliders and toggles.” He said, and he’s right. The pirates created by this generator are cool as hell. Seriously, I’d be happy to have any one of them crew my ship.
But Chester also goes on to say that the system is “kind of a way for everyone to have a cool character that represents themselves even if they have no artistic skill. And I think we've got a good system.” And that’s where there’s a disconnect, because there’s a difference between pirates I think look cool enough, and pirates I actually want to represent me for my however-many-hour tour on the Sea of Thieves. And that’s actually a little more complicated of a thought than it might seem at first blush.
Within a single roll of the character roulette, you’ll see men and women of various races across numerous body types, none of which are presented as grotesque or comedic. It’s a clever way to build a world that is inclusive and diverse from the get go, and it encourages players who would normally just hit “default” and wind up with a sort of square jawed white dude to step out of their comfort zone a bit.
All through the game’s beta, I was impressed with how the characters looked, and was eager to get my hands on a real character creator so that I could, for once, play as someone who looked like me—albeit an idealized, pirate-y version of me. Unfortunately (and ironically), this system that is meant to ensure diversity actually made that much harder for me.
I spent nearly an hour Monday morning spinning the roulette, starting and restarting characters after I decided I wasn’t happy with them. The most frustrating moments were when a character was 80% of the way there, but had some major, unchangeable feature that I really didn’t want. Take a look as I do about 20 minutes of that character browsing live on stream:
Once you pick a character, that’s it. You can customize their clothing, hair style (but not color), and accessories throughout play (in fact, earning the coin to do that makes up pretty much the entirety of the game’s “progression”), but you can’t ever change your base features. This wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t totally unable to affect the pirates the generator spits out. But you can’t: the only way to get a new base look is to delete your character—and all of the progress you’ve made—and start over.
I’m not asking for full control here, I think it’s great that Rare has made such a diverse character generator and I think the core idea of letting players quickly find a unique character to play as instead of sticking them in a character creator with sliders for an hour is great. But there are lots of ways that the game could let you hone in on a character you want to spend time as without giving you total control. Look at The Sims 4, which lets you take a base model and “lock” certain features before randomizing around the rest, for instance. Or even do what Dark Souls does, and let me just randomize around one of the models I’ve set as my favorite.
Or, honestly, just let me reroll what my character looks like whenever I want to. What’s the harm? Rare did a great job of building a system that lets every piece of clothing in the game fit nicely onto every body type across gender, and letting me reroll my character’s look whenever I want would only show that off more.
The character creator isn’t the biggest problem in Sea of Thieves (that'd be the general repetitiveness), but it’s an early game sticking point and one that I hope Rare remedies in a future patch. They’ve done so much work selling the game on the fantasy of becoming your own pirate legend, but until there’s more character customization, I’ll always feel like I’m playing the story of someone else.
If you’re playing Sea of Thieves, how do you feel about the infinite pirate generator? Otherwise, what’s your your favorite character creator of all time! (A tough one, I know.) Let me know over in the forums!