We indulge our inner ruffians in the second instalment of this behind-the-scenes series!
We’re parting the beaded curtain and venturing into the Pirate Emporium stock room once again, as we follow the journey of another in-game cosmetic from start to finish. Having managed to pull ourselves away from the hypnotic glow of The Orb, this time we’re looking at the entire Islehopper Outlaw set that crashed into the Emporium with the launch of Season Six.
Acting as the first cosmetic line that changes colour and even illuminates in the dark, the Islehopper Outlaw set provided a new challenge for our various Art teams. Its design, clearly inspired by post-apocalyptic media, also set our artists the task of translating the aesthetic of an anarchic biker gang into the world of Sea of Thieves.
Spiked hats and purple goggles on and rev up those engines, fellow rough riders – we’re going in!
The concept of the Islehopper Outlaw set may not be one you’d necessarily associate with the Golden Age of Piracy. You could argue that pirates were the biker gangs of the high seas, but they certainly weren’t plundering vessels while sporting mohawks and fluorescent goggles.
So while Sea of Thieves is no stranger to anachronistic item sets – horror, outer space and ancient history have inspired some of our cosmetics in the past – the Islehopper Outlaw range is a little more off-the-wall than usual. But as Louise Roberts from Rare’s Production team explains, picking this post-apocalyptic style was largely driven by player behaviour:
“The data analytics team and I look at what’s gone down well previously, and try to identify what things those sets have in common, or why we think they worked with different audiences. ‘It looked cool’ is normally a go-to answer from people, but isn’t particularly helpful if you’re trying to find similar success again!
“We’ve seen that a lot of players enjoy themes around being dangerous or menacing, so I try to boil that down into a brief I can give the Art team as a jumping-off point for something new. The theme we landed on for this set was ‘Biker’, as we wanted that rebellious style of expressing yourself, but given a Sea of Thieves spin.”
A rebellious set inspired by biker gangs – how does an artist then translate that into a pirate game without it seeming out of place? It took some experimentation to get it right, says Principal Concept Artist Victoria Hall, with the artists needing to balance references to similar media without losing that trademark Sea of Thieves feel:
“It was a bit of a balancing act. We found that if we introduced too many spikes and punkish elements, it leaned more into looking like something out of Mad Max. So we had to go through a few iterations to land on something which felt like a pirate would use and wear, while also having its own unique style.
“To ingrain it within Sea of Thieves, we used some existing elements from our world. Like the nails along the knuckles, or the bones that have been fashioned into a makeshift mohawk hat. Quintessential pirate motifs such as a sash around the waist also helped skew the design closer to Sea of Thieves.”
From Senior Concept Artist Esther Smisdom – who came up with the biker theming during an internal design jam – we learned that exploring Sea of Thieves’ spiky sealife helped crystallise the concept into something that would fit into our pirate world:
“To make sure the costume didn’t feel too modern, we were trying to look for existing elements in the world of Sea of Thieves that had a punkish vibe. We thought a pufferfish could be a great starting point given its natural spikes, and we quickly realised we had our very own pufferfish called an Islehopper. It couldn’t have been a more perfect name for a biker-themed set!
“So from that point onwards, the Islehopper fish became the mascot for this set. We used its fins and spikes in the logo, it inspired the mohawk made from fishbones and we settled on purple for the paint to mimic the Islehopper’s purple glow.
“With the weapons, we wanted to do something fun for the glowing effect. If you look closely, you can see the paint turns the guns into fish monsters at night.”
With themed cosmetic sets, there’s always the question of what comes first – the ship? The weapons? The costume? Victoria recalls that in this case, it was the distinct outfit that ended up being the springboard for all further designs:
“With this set, it was the costume that informed what the rest of the set would look like. Sometimes this isn’t the case, as with the starry Lodestar designs. In that example, it was the pet which inspired the set.”
So the concept was now established, and we had the uniform for our motley crew of hellraisers. While the punk look was certainly striking, it needed something else to really make it pop. This is where, according to Louise, the glow-in-the-dark motif came in:
“The interpretation of the brief from the Art team came back as quite punky, so the glow fit in well as a point of graffiti or customisation to show off a pirate’s rebellious side. I like that the set feels quite practical and gritty during the day, but becomes more threatening and posturing at night as the glow emerges.”
With the design locked in, it was time to make these seabound scoundrels glow. Principal Level Artist Hannah Smith and Principal Environment Artist Andy Betts took point on creating the 3D models for much of the set, and found that getting parts of it to illuminate and then return to normal took some experimentation. Andy has the technical explanation:
“From a 3D perspective, we approached the Islehopper Outlaw items in a similar way to most of our sets – especially those that glow – but for this particular set, we required some changes to our materials that allowed us to switch off the glowing effect during the daytime.
“Once we had this set finished and reviewed, it did highlight that the glows were a little scattered across the items. This made them ‘noisy’ and a little difficult to identify at night. This was highlighted even more when viewing the capstan and all the cannons on the ship’s deck from afar. So as part of our internal work at the end of an item’s creation process, these needed a little tweaking, just to tone down the glow in some areas and reduce the overall visual noise.”
With the models built, it was off to Technical Art Intern Emmett Green to refine the glow. The figurehead for the Islehopper Outlaw ship set proved to be a unique challenge, Emmett says, as having it dramatically burst into flame at nightfall and then slowly fade at sunrise required extensive tinkering with the digital light switches:
“The glow-in-the-dark shaders were quite simple – we already had things in place to control brightness based on time of day, so most of it was just combining features we already had. The figurehead torches were the most interesting as the flames needed to change in size rather than just fade out during the daytime. We had no extra space for masks after the initial emission maps either, so I had to use vertex colours to increase the glow on the torch tips at night. I spent a lot of time trying to capture how gorgeous the concept art looked in these flames.”
Punk look? Check. Glow-in-the-dark elements? Check. Now all we needed was a set of final names and descriptions. As Esther said, the original concept art featured ‘The Islehoppers’ as a sample name due to the set’s resemblance to the eponymous fish, so keeping this as part of the final name seemed natural.
For the descriptions, we didn’t want to characterise this gang as too threatening. With their love of spikes and fluorescent paint and all their ramshackle equipment, they felt closer to street punks than a dangerous cartel of hardened criminals, so leaning into the endearing shoddiness of their weapons and ship set felt right – along with their desire to be taken very seriously. Settling on the Islehopper Outlaw name also gave the set an almost antiheroic feel, akin to the bandits you’d see roaming the Wild West. We can imagine this gang of hoodlums nodding profusely in agreement when the name was suggested.
From the player response to the Islehopper Outlaw cosmetics, it looks like this unusual design definitely attracted some attention. Pirates got on board with the anarchic spirit of the set, and Emmett on our Tech Art team was happy with the response to the fluorescent design:
“I’m glad that the glow-in-the-dark feature has gone down well with so many people and that they enjoy reactive cosmetics as much as I do!”
From an editorial perspective, there’s a certain degree of trepidation whenever we see items hit the Pirate Emporium, mainly to see if players notice certain gags or references. There’s always a moment of glee when someone on Discord or Twitter finds a joke we managed to put in, or something gets added to the Trivia section of the Sea of Thieves wiki. It’s kind of a badge of honour.
Meanwhile, Producer Louise was pleased to see that pirates were letting their rage out with the suitably rock ‘n’ roll built-in emote:
“The community response to this set has been great, I’ve seen a lot of videos of people performing the Banjo Smash Emote. It took us a couple of attempts to come up with what the built-in emote for this set should be – a lot of our initial ideas weren’t technically possible. I think it was Art Director Ryan who eventually cracked it and suggested smashing your banjo like it’s the end of a punk gig and you’re trashing everything!”
Can we expect future fish-based sets? Will there be another pirate gang based on Pondies to rival our spiky Islehopper ne’er-do-wells? Keep your eyes on the Emporium, says Louise:
“It’s very cool to be along for the ride when new technology and visual effects are being worked out. We’re already looking at some future sets along these lines! There are a lot of different fish we can draw from, and it’s exciting to reimagine something players are so familiar with from encountering them on the seas.”
And so ends our current trip into the Pirate Emporium’s backroom to see how this rabble-rousing set came to be – thank you to everyone who gave us thoughts from their time spent working on the distinctive Islehopper Outlaw range. You can still pick and choose your favourite parts of this set from the in-game Pirate Emporium, and stay tuned to see what future monthly shipments may bring!
If you’re in the market for more behind-the-scenes insights, browse our News section for a whole heap of features. For the latest Sea of Thieves content updates, peruse our What’s New page for an archive of release notes and make sure you’re following us on our many social media channels: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitch, TikTok and our official Forums and Discord server. Catch you later!