The world of AAA MMORPGs has historically been dominated by a small handful of long-lived giants: with Guild Wars 2, The Elder Scrolls Online, Final Fantasy 14, and the aging behemoth of World of Warcraft maintaining command of the space for years on end.
This may make it seem a risky choice for Amazon's initial run at AAA development, but game director Scot Lane says the decision to make its MMO, New World, stemmed from a deep love of existing games -- as well as a desire for change.
Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz following a preview of New World's 100-player "War" PvP mode, Lane says that he personally has a deep love of MMOs, including games like World of Warcraft, Ultima Online, and Black Desert Online. He also has a love of survival and fighting titles, and has worked on his fair share of both over his multiple decades of experience in the industry. And more recently, he's been fascinated by action RPGs like Diablo and Dark Souls.
"Everyone is always looking for the next new MMO. But it seems there hasn't really been a new [hit] for a while, and a lot of the focus is shifting to other genres"
That sounds like quite the cocktail of genres, but when Lane and the team were looking at what they could potentially leverage Amazon's tech prowess for in gaming, an MMO that distinguished itself by borrowing elements from survival, fighting, and action titles made perfect sense.
"I don't know where else we could do it other than Amazon," he says. "We have this big cloud infrastructure for computation. We love MMOs. We love action RPGs. That just seemed like a really cool blending and fit.
"Everyone is always looking for the next new MMO, and we've had some really good ones. Final Fantasy 14 is awesome. Black Desert. But it seems there hasn't really been a new [hit] for a while, and a lot of the focus is shifting to other genres. I saw it as an opening...so our combat style, being physics based, was a differentiator.
"We're already seeing this in some of the previews. Streamers that don't usually play MMOs give it a shot and realize, this is actually skill-based. It's not just dice rolling, which has a different kind of skill base, and they're coming in and giving it a shot."
Lane says that while he loves traditional MMOs, he does want to move away from some mechanics he enjoys but feels are outdated, like tab-targeting. But rather than focus on what he doesn't like about the genre as it is now, he's instead interested in what New World can do that's different, especially the aforementioned genre-blending.
This explains, at least in part, why the preview of New World shown to media two weeks ago was focused on the 50v50 PvP War mode. It allowed Amazon to show off the game's weapon-focused (rather than class-focused) skill system, active action combat simultaneously between 100 players, and melding of PvP and PvE elements.
"There's always the question, 'Who's gonna be the next World of Warcraft?' I think that has resulted in a lot of games that try to borrow too heavily from the formula"
"There's always the question, 'Who's gonna be the next World of Warcraft?'" he says. "I think that has resulted in a lot of games that try to borrow too heavily from the formula... You don't ever want to be the next someone else. The iPhone didn't want to be the next Blackberry. They wanted to be a really cool thing. And we would rather be our own new cool thing."
New World has undergone some significant changes since footage from the game was initially leaked back in 2018. According to Lane, it was far more PvP-focused until 18 months ago, when feedback convinced the team to pull in more PvE elements and have the systems feed off one another. Additionally, it used to have more of a survival and crafting focus, and while those elements are still present, New World has shifted to be a bit closer to the open-world MMO space.
One marked visual difference that I noticed in my preview was the lessened emphasis on the widely criticized colonialist aspects that were seemingly present as recently as 2019. Granted, I was playing endgame content, at a point where players have already built settlements and claimed areas for their own, and are now duking matters out with one another to win territory and resources. I was also told that the PvE aspect of the endgame focused on ousting dangerous, corrupted, magical foes rather than other existing human settlers.
"We wanted to start with the 1600s because it's the last gasp of the sword and shield and plate mail, and the first breath of muskets and firearms"
But that doesn't erase the still-prominent visuals of the mid-1600s European settlers taking over a new and previously unknown-to-them land. Lane's response to this concern is that while the 1600s were chosen by the team as a starting point due to the confluence of weapons technologies in that era, the plan is to eventually incorporate characters from other time periods past and future -- though it's worth pointing out that the game's marketing so far hasn't done much to hint at its role as a mystical time-shifting MMO.
"We've always focused on the exploration and finding this island because we think that's really cool," Lane says. "And this is not about like, any of that stuff [colonialism]. It's more about exploring, going to this island for this magical essence. And this island's lost in time. So we wanted to start with the 1600s because it's the last gasp of the sword and shield and plate mail, and the first breath of muskets and firearms. And we thought if we just added magic into that period, what a cool place to start as we grow."
While he can't give official numbers, Lane says that New World is actually being made by "one of the smaller MMO teams out there," and for now isn't sure if the team will grow much even after launch. He adds that the small size enables them to be more responsive and flexible to player feedback.
He also says that the current plan is to run regular updates for New World around once per month, and that the studio has been "building muscle memory" for this cadence throughout the alpha with an aim of providing "meaningful releases" each month, rather than small tweaks. There's a consideration for expansions, Lane adds, but nothing concrete yet. And it's a premium title -- multiple price points, $40 for the deluxe edition, and cosmetic microtransactions, but no required subscription to play.
"Anytime you go to Twitch, look at the top ten, top 20, top 100 and those are all games that have done really well"
New World is not Amazon's only AAA initiative currently in the cooker. Amazon kicked off 2020 with hero shooter Crucible, which launched back in May but was forced to retreat back into closed beta by the end of June after a rocky launch. And while the two games are being made by two completely different teams in different cities, New World appears to be in no hurry to risk a similar situation. Amazon recently delayed its launch from this August into spring of 2021, citing a need for more middle and end game experience for its players.
These combined announcements paint a questionable portrait of Amazon's overall game development strategy, despite the success of Twitch and Amazon Web Services as key tools for other areas of the industry. Though Lane can only speak for his own studio, he responds to a question about how much support Amazon proper has given the individual game studio by saying there's really no difference between the two at all.
"I love this question, because I get it all the time. And the funny thing is, we're Amazon. There's no 'us and them' and 'this and that.' We're one, we're the same team. And anywhere you run, the local studio has the most creative freedom, otherwise it just won't work. But we look at them and we're all on the same team. It's just a super positive back-and-forth relationship."
And unlike Crucible, New World appears to be poised to take advantage of this unity right out of the gate. Lane describes multiple features planned for New World to allow streamers to directly interface with audiences in-game, including something called "Sub Army" which allows streamers to invite their subscribers who are on the same server directly into their company or party, and "Streamer Spotlight" which allows streamers to self-identify in-game. If they get killed in PvP, or if they kill another player, that player is notified that a certain amount of viewers just watched that event happen.
Lane concludes by noting that Twitch success is a key metric for him in knowing if New World is successful or not.
"A lot of it comes down to: are people playing it and watching it?" he says. "Do we have enough people playing that love the game? Is it being watched on Twitch? That to me is an easy barometer because anytime you go to Twitch, look at the top ten, top 20, top 100 and those are all games that have done really well. And so I think it comes down to customer's delight. If we can delight customers and make a great game, we're going to be successful."