The first success story for Amazon Game Studios may almost be upon us. New World, the ecommerce giant's massively multiplayer online game, is due out next month. But it's been a bumpy road for the Irvine-based development team. The most recent hurdle, after more than a year of remote work due to the pandemic, was yet another delay that pushed the release date out by one month.
Game director Scot Lane told Protocol the main culprit was bugs, as well as other unforeseen issues from running the game at unprecedented scale during a beta period that started in July. "We have a little bit more work to do than we thought," Lane said in an interview over Zoom last week. "The surprise for me was our alpha community didn't find nearly all the exploits the whole world found."
One bug, which allowed players to duplicate items, was discovered within days, and savvy fans worked together online to map out the best and most expedient ways of exploiting it. "Players are really clever at finding exploits. There are really no substitutes for that," Lane said. "It was clever and smart, and it was something we hadn't anticipated."
New World is a big gamble from Amazon's game division, launching into an established genre with heavyweights like World of Warcraft that have been around for two decades. And a lot is riding on the game's success after the highly public failure of Amazon's prior project.
The company's first foray into big-budget video games was called Crucible, a multiplayer online battle arena game influenced in part by major esports titles like Riot Games' League of Legends. But the game felt uninspired, derivative and directionless, with a hodgepodge of various design ideas pulling it many directions at once.
Crucible was launched last year and then, a few months later, put back into a closed beta state after it failed to gain traction. In October 2020, the company canceled it outright, feeding the narrative that tech companies like Amazon and Google have been throwing large sums of money at a problem they don't have the creative chops to solve. In February, Google closed down its internal game development division for its Stadia cloud service, choosing instead to license third-party games from established developers. The question since has been whether Amazon would follow suit.
That hasn't happened. New World is now Amazon's next big bet, and while it's been a rocky road not made any easier by COVID-19, the MMO is showing much more promise than Crucible after a successful beta that brought in "well over 1 million players," Amazon confirmed. "It was surprising. We had a lot more players than we expected come through. Honestly, we were humbled," Lane said.
The team has also shown a strong willingness to get New World right. Since the beginning of last year, New World has been delayed four times. That number of launch date misses might typically spell a disaster in the making. Instead, Lane said it's about ensuring the launch meets the team's expectations and those of its early, diehard alpha and beta players. (Trying to meet deadlines during the pandemic was also an extremely difficult task, he said.)
"About four or five days into the beta, we started discussing this among ourselves," Lane said of the delay. He added that the team fully expected to hit its Aug. 31 release date, but that "players found more bugs than expected" and there was simply more work to do. "It's important for us to listen to players and important for us to have a good launch," Lane said. "A good launch is everything in MMOs." The game is now scheduled to release on Sept. 28.
Player feedback has been the biggest driver of change for New World, Lane said. The game saw a surge in popularity on Twitch thanks to a promotional event Amazon ran with streamers in the U.S. and U.K. That attracted new players in droves, and with the new interest came more feedback about how New World could be improved. "If there's anything we've learned in the last few years, the more we engage players the better it is for everyone," Lane said. "The game is going to get bigger and bigger over time and it's going to be based on what they're asking for."
"I'm very frustrated about a lot of the problems that New World has, but I actually have a lot of faith in the game," popular Twitch streamer Asmongold told Dexerto earlier this month. "And the simple reason for that is because I complained about half of these things and they made them better. They listened to feedback." The company is now planning some changes to the full release, though it declined to share specifics. Lane said he wants new and existing players to be pleasantly surprised.
New World is arriving at a time of rapid change for the industry. Some game makers, like Epic and Roblox, are chasing the metaverse, collaborating with real-world brands and hosting concerts. Others, like EA, are pouring money into mobile and free-to-play. New World is more of a throwback to the heyday of the MMO genre. It does feature some new twists on combat and interesting social features like a competitive faction system that allows players to influence the world's power structure.
But New World's biggest differentiator is its business model. Most MMO games charge a monthly subscription fee, while many of the world's most successful esports and mobile hits have long since gone free-to-play to attract the most players possible and make money back through microtransactions.
New World, on the other hand, will cost $40 at launch, with no subscription fee. "We're a new game, and we have to earn trust with players," Lane said. New World, he added, is a "full-fledged MMO for $40 and no subscription … that seems like a good deal provided we can deliver on a full game."
Despite the delay, the timing is still promising for New World. Activision Blizzard is seeing an exodus of players from longtime MMO leader World of Warcraft due to the company's ongoing sexual harassment and discrimination crisis. Another major competitor, Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIV, is struggling on a technical level to support an influx of new players. New World now has a chance to arrive on the scene and establish itself as a fresh newcomer to the genre.
After the flop of Crucible, the pressure is on Lane and the New World team to deliver and establish Amazon Game Studios as not just another fleeting hobby for the game-obsessed tech industry. "At the end of the day, we have to make players love this game," Lane said. "We want New World to be an experience that delights players."
Update Aug. 18, 11:15 a.m. ET: Added new metrics on New World's beta player count from Amazon.