Friday, August 25, 2023
Sea of Stars is a game I've had my eye on ever since the Kickstarter launched in March of 2020. It had everything I loved in a game, except one thing: an Xbox version. I backed the project anyway, hoping for an Xbox stretch goal to pop up down the line. That never happened, but in true karmic fashion I was rewarded for not canceling my pledge with the announcement earlier this year that an Xbox version was indeed happening - and better yet the game would be coming to Game Pass for more players to enjoy.
Needless to say, I have this game targeted as my next RPG guide, and I was eager to learn more about what to expect as an achievement hunter when I begin Sea of Stars next week. I reached out to Sabotage Studios and was able to get some insight from creative director Thierry Boulanger about their thought process when creating the achievement list and some of that important info most people look for before starting a game, generally highlighted in our Road Maps at the top of a guide: completion time, number of playthroughs, and missables.
Below is a sampling of the game’s 42 achievements and some questions we put forth to Thierry. The rest of the list is “being left a mystery as to not spoil pivotal moments for the game's story” - the full list will be revealed at launch.
XBA: “What was your thought process in creating the achievement list? Were there certain areas of the game or mechanics/mini-games you wanted to highlight by linking achievements to them?”
Thierry: “The first thing I started from was how many there were going to be in total for it to make sense. I really liked the way it played out in The Messenger, so I went for roughly the same amount. The idea from there was just high-level balancing - a real focus on how to properly pace everything, because the initial impulse you want to do is add one for every boss, and for everything that you have in the game.
But then I went from this list and thought: how do I make these meaningful? Because for me, at least as a player, I’m not super drawn to achievements - they feel better to me when they actually feel like achievements, and not just a thing you stumble upon (I don’t know if I’ve achieved something by reading the first 15 minutes of the game, in contrast). So for me it’s a great way to emphasize moments - if you get a killshot on a boss, and you get the screen freeze for the final hit while you also see that pop-up coming up, it can add impact to a powerful moment.
Roughly half of Sea of Stars’ achievements are what we call “stumble upons.” They just happen; they are markers designating that you in fact went through the main path of the game. The other half of them are things that either have to do with skill or completion. So completion would be - with exploration, for example, there are treasure chests in the game, and you get an achievement if you open every single chest. The game won’t reward that in any other way, but I think achievements are a very useful tool in that scenario.
You see some players motivated by the feeling of turning over every stone. I feel like achievements are more interesting for them; if a prompt was in the main game where some character remarked “what, you haven’t found everything yet?”, it can feel like the game is suggesting you’re improper, especially if you only want to reach the credits and feel at that point like you’ve gotten what you wanted out of the game. On the other hand, achievements for some are out of sight, out of mind (that’s how I play games). But if I connect a lot with a game, then I go through the achievements - because I use them as pointers to areas where there might be things to do that I haven’t fully explored. So I tried to treat them as that kind of tool in Sea of Stars - I treat them as guides to make sure that you stumble upon some things or challenges you might otherwise miss out on.
For example, we have a Moonerang magic attack which bounces off targets, and if you press the action button with precise timing, the attack can keep going as it accelerates. So there’s an achievement for getting it to bounce 25 times, which no one will accomplish their first time. It’s very likely that few people will do more than 9 bounces for a good portion of their first session.
So the idea is you can look it up in our in-game book which replicates all the achievements from the console’s operating system - we like the idea that you don’t have to exit the context of the game to look at the list, and that instead there’s a physical, kinetic thing to it. So maybe you’ve been playing for a while, and you open the book and have a moment of realization: “oh, if I bounce the Moonerang spell 25 times …” You’re essentially your own quest-giver in this scenario. From that point you can enter combat, try to bounce it 25 times, try to find a configuration where it’ll be easier to pull off or whatever.
So without forcing these actions on the player, there’s a few of our achievements like this. And once you have everything and have cleared every achievement, you can know for sure you’ve turned every stone in the game and there’s nothing left to find.”
XBA: “How long would you estimate 100% completion of achievements to take in comparison to completing just the story?”
Thierry: “It’s hard to tell. This one is hard to answer - we don’t want to get into playtime estimates, mainly because it could break the immersion or devalue some of the story beats, you know? If you watch a movie and you’re like “well I know this character is invincible because they’re in the sequel” or whatever, it can pull you out of the story. I’m trying - and I know it’s not going to work because the internet’s going to do it’s thing - but I’m hoping people will play it without having in mind how much time is left in the game, and that they won’t use that to determine what’s still possible within the story and what isn’t.
To compare 100% completion with the main path: beating the game will give you half of the achievements, and if you start going after the rest of them … it really depends on the player type and how they play the game. For example, we have relics in the game that you can turn on or off. They’re kind of like an options menu, really, but they’re presented as items (for some reason I need everything to have a narrative reason to be a physical thing in the game). And so relics are things that you gather - you’re given a few up front which double your hit points or autoheal you after every fight. So obviously that would be the equivalent of choosing Easy before you start your game - but I just personally prefer the setup of “oh, you get this relic that you can activate.” You can also mix and match them, so it’s not like you lock yourself into a certain difficulty. Maybe you like having the enemies hit harder, but you also like having the autoheal after combat and you choose to play the game like that.
There’s a different relic that negates about 95 percent of your hit points; you have about five hit points left if you start a fresh game with this equipped. That means everything in the game instantly kills you with one hit. But when you successfully time your block with this relic equipped, it caps the damage at one point. So it removes all the margin for error as well as the fallback of using healing items, and you have to time everything perfectly or you die (of course, you also have a team of characters and can revive teammates to bring them back). So it’s like a very hard way to play the game. The hardest achievement in the game is to kill 10 bosses with this relic equipped. You can choose which bosses you want to try it with - it’s not a thing where you have to turn it on and do the whole game, and if you turn it off it fails the achievement – you can have it off before a particular boss, turn it on, and it will still count toward the goal. So getting 10 bosses with that I think is the big challenge that not everyone will go for.
Other than that, it’s mostly about completion, exploration, and finding everything that there is in the world. We’re rewarding exploration in a lot of ways - it’s more linear at first, but eventually it opens up; you get your boat and you get to sail around.”
XBA: “Are there any achievements that would be considered “missable” (such as areas of the game or side-quests that would become unavailable due to story progression)?”
Thierry: “So the 10 bosses one I previously mentioned involves a relic that you get so late that you need to do a new game - just in terms of balancing and how you come across things in the game, I didn’t want the scenario where someone is just a few hours in, they unlock this super impossible thing, they start playing that way, and then they begin to hate the experience. It’s really balanced so that once you find the relic, you can try something that’s really hard in situations where you know the pattern already so you know what to attempt - it’s not a good way to play while you’re discovering new enemies. So for that achievement, it’s not that it’s missable, but it does call for starting a New Game+ (which makes it slightly easier since your stats carry over). It also unlocks even for a standard new game; even if you don’t play a New Game+, some of the relics you get carry over globally, including this one.
But other than that, no, absolutely nothing is missable - and that was the one rule: nothing can be missable. There’s nothing I hate more than “oh, sorry, you opened this chest too early so no epic sword for you ever.” And it’s like, how was I supposed to know? I’m like 15 hours in, and I have to start over? So no, there’s absolutely nothing missable.
You also get something in the game that helps you get pointers. The game’s in an archipelago, so it spans many islands, but you get something that lets you obtain information. It’s all optional, the guidance isn’t in your face if you don’t want it, but there’s a way in the game to know if an island is complete - it’ll call out the name of a level or dungeon and note if there’s treasure left somewhere. Eventually it’ll give you the All Clear, confirming there is absolutely nothing left to do in an area. It gives you this little thing where you can know for sure - if you’ve set out to find every chest, you don’t have to search this entire world. This way you can at least focus on where there is actually something left to find.”
XBA: “Anything else you might want to highlight about the creative process of making an achievement list?”
Thierry: “Well for me, I don’t know that achievements are something that I would personally add into the game if it weren’t a given, or something that’s expected - it’s like par for the course to have achievements in a game. So I’m always interested in how we can leverage this since it’s expected - it’s like a language that we can use. You don’t really need to explain that if your HP goes to 0, you’re dead, and if your whole party reaches 0, it’s game over. There’s just things that people understand right away, and achievements are often one of them.
So I think it’s a good way where, as a developer, you can give a high five to the player. You can add a little bit of impact to a powerful moment; you can be like “hey, you did it!”. Also it’s a great window for puns - any puns, even the really silly ones. They’re exclusively in the achievements, because it seems like there’s a second layer of language with achievements, where it’s welcome as a place to just be silly. They’re certainly fun to write.
But in terms of how to approach the list and designing it all, it’s really a mix of offering guides and then giving props to the player when it’s appropriate. And also giving them reassurance once they have done everything - that they don’t need to keep dwelling on this, or wonder if there was something else they’ve overlooked. Achievements can help establish that they’ve cleared everything, they’ve conquered the list, and that they’re good.
The other thing was - with the book that’s in the game, I still think it’s cute to have a way to make it feel more real than just a list of goals that’s outside of the game. Also, I know we’re speaking specifically to Xbox here, but the in-game approach is great for a system like the Switch where the system doesn’t have achievements listed on your account or profile. This way those players can also have that experience of doing the achievements and tracking their progress even if the console itself doesn’t have an achievements system.”
So there you have it. When all is said and done, we’re looking at nothing missable during the main playthrough, a partial second playthrough on NG+ for the “What a technique!” achievement mentioned above, and a lot of your typical feats in a JRPG such as collecting treasure chests, cooking and fishing, and defeating optional bosses.
We would like to thank Thierry and Sabotage Studios for an early look at some of the achievements we can begin working on next week, as well as an insight into how they created the list. Look for Sea of Stars on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and the Windows Store for $34.99 this Tuesday, August 29th – or play at no extra charge with your Xbox Game Pass subscription via Xbox, PC, or Cloud.