How Amazon broke its gaming curse with the launch of New World

Amazon Games chief Christoph Hartmann explains why the ecommerce giant is so invested in making successful video games.

A screenshot of Amazon Games’ New World.

New World has attracted millions of players since launch.

Image: Amazon Games

Christoph Hartmann is feeling optimistic. As the head of Amazon's gaming division, Hartmann can now point to the company's first major win: a successful launch with last month's debut of New World. The massively multiplayer online game, which was delayed four times before release, has since attracted millions of players and earned Amazon a rare title as the only established tech company to break into the games industry in recent memory.

"I think we have proved [to] ourselves internally that we can do it. We can put out a game and put something out people like," said Hartmann, who joined Amazon in 2018 after two decades at publisher 2K Games, in an interview with Protocol this week. "That's just the beginning of our journey."

Two weeks after launch, New World is still ranking in the top five most watched games on Twitch, the third most-played game and second-bestselling game on Steam with a "mostly positive" rating on the often fickle platform after nearly 70,000 reviews. The game has experienced server issues due to "staggering" and "frankly surprising" demand, the company announced during launch week, that caught even a cloud computing giant like Amazon flat footed. But it's mostly been a cause of celebration for the Amazon Games team, which has struggled for years to land a hit video game.

New World, as a live service title designed to keep players engaged for years to come, will need to be refreshed with new content on a regular basis. The team will also need to update the game regularly to fix bugs, address ongoing issues and incorporate player feedback to keep people coming back and to attract new customers over time.

"There needs to be financial success. That's the obvious one. But the metric I really look at is whether we manage to have people playing the game going forward," Hartmann said. "I want to be in the league of titles that do that not just for a week or two weeks or months, but I want to be there for a couple of years." He added that if the New World team focuses on building something players enjoy and want to spend their time with, all the other financial pieces should fall into place.

For Amazon, New World's successful launch is recognition that with enough time, resources and patience, a company without a strong track record — or any record at all, really — in big-budget game development can indeed put out a hit. It's an especially important victory for the tech industry, which has found itself beguiled by the fast-growing cultural and financial weight of the video game business.

Time and again, tech and traditional media firms are finding game development to be more complicated than they thought, involving not just vast amounts of technical know-how and money, but also multidisciplinary creative talent that's often only found inside existing game studios. Amazon seems to have cracked the code, and it involves a mix of not just financial resources, but also time and a willingness to fail — sometimes spectacularly.

"There were a lot of articles written, people saying things like, 'Amazon knows how to build everything but games, why can't they build games?' It takes a few before you find a hit, or several, but they didn't lose their resolve," said Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, when addressing a crowd at a GeekWire event in Seattle last week. Hartmann said Jassy has been one of the pillars of support for Amazon Games since its earliest days in 2014, when it was focusing mostly on Facebook and mobile titles.

Even former CEO Jeff Bezos weighed in on New World, writing on Twitter earlier this month, "After many failures and setbacks in gaming we have a success. So proud of the team for [their] persistence. View setbacks as helpful obstacles that drive learning. Whatever your goals are, don't give up no matter how hard it gets." Bezos linked the Bloomberg article Jassy referenced, noting how the article was published just eights months ago. Protocol published a similar article in August 2020.

Learning from New World

Hartmann said the most valuable learning the Amazon Games team has picked up over the years is to "pick the right people and trust them and let them do their thing." Too often, he said, both traditional game companies and outsiders to the industry think they can rush a successful game project. And then, when the going gets tough, the company writing the checks throws in the towel too early or tries to find a scapegoat to explain why something didn't take off.

"You're always betting on people. Don't overpromise and underdeliver," Hartmann said. "Keep it cool and quiet and then when you're ready, put it out." Though he was careful not to throw too much criticism at Google, Hartmann said the search giant did make quite a few big promises about its Stadia cloud platform that didn't live up to reality, resulting in consumer disappointment.

The eventual dissolution of Google's internal development division just two years after the initial Stadia reveal has become a kind of teachable moment for both the tech and gaming industries, as well as a reminder of how important it is to practice patience. Though Google hired veteran talent in the industry, like longtime gaming executive Phil Harrison and seasoned game producer and studio lead Jade Raymond, it seemed unwilling to put out something that might fail.

Though Amazon is celebrating now, the many media reports about the company's failures were not exaggerations. The company has canceled two of its three major game projects since 2018, starting with a failed sports game called Breakaway that never made it out of alpha testing. The second attempt was Crucible, a multiplayer online battle arena modeled in the vein of League of Legends. It failed so quickly that Amazon effectively un-released it, putting the game back into a beta state for a few months before deciding to cancel it altogether last fall. Amazon also had to shut down a Lord of Rings MMO in the works over issues with its partner studio, which was acquired by Tencent last year.

"Crucible was really in the world of Fortnite being at its peak, PUBG being at its peak," Hartmann said. "It probably wasn't the smartest idea... it's like trying to beat Call of Duty on their home ground or do a military shooter and shipping it on Black Friday." Hartmann said those lessons weren't completely new to him, but "we always have to get reminded what happened the past often repeats itself."

Hartmann attributes New World's success to the company's willingness to delay the game, its determination to prove detractors wrong and its ability to think outside the box when it comes to what genres might produce a modern hit.

The MMO is one of gaming's oldest and most refined categories, but the genre has been out of style for years and large, entrenched competitors like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV haven't iterated in quite some time. Unlike Crucible, which Hartmann said was forced into competing with battle royale titles like Fortnite and PUBG for players' time and attention, New World just had to offer something fresh. And Hartmann and the team predicted that an MMO might attract lapsed fans of the genre and also players who have always wanted to play one but felt they missed the boat years ago.

"We at 2K bought Firaxis and bought the Civilization franchise and no one wanted to do a turn-based strategy game," Hartmann said. "I said the good thing is no one does them anymore, but people like to play them. It was the completely right decision and it feels similar to what we have now."

Hartmann explained that New World was originally a competitive multiplayer game without any collaborative component, like a typical MMO. "I felt we needed a larger audience and we needed to add PvE," he said, referencing the industry phrase "player versus environment" that acts as shorthand for collaborative online play. But the team said they simply didn't have enough time to make a game of that size and scope. However, Hartmann convinced his bosses it was the right decision, and he also protected the team every time they needed to push out the release date.

"I came here to Amazon under the promise to have a long-term vision and they're not going to make us rush things out and [instead] play the long game," he said. "The company held up in that promise and allowed us to move the game out a couple of times."

Hartmann is familiar with the long-term mindset. He founded the 2K Games publishing label in 2005, overseeing not only the resurrection of Sid Meier's Civilization, but also some of the most seminal releases of the last two decades. That includes the BioShock and Borderlands series and arguably the only competitor to Electronic Arts' sports portfolio with the 2K Sports subsidiary.

Many of those games, most notably BioShock, required Hartmann to have the same tough conversations about how to balance art and quality with deadlines and business model implications. "BioShock got delayed multiple times and wasn't ready," he said. "I had to do the unpleasant conversation a couple of times," he said, but it resulted in one of the most commercially and culturally successful games of the 2000s.

Amazon's vision for the game industry

The long-term vision Hartmann has for Amazon Games now is to be a little bit of everything. The company is expanding its publishing ambitions with a deal in place to bring South Korean MMO Lost Ark to North America and Europe and a publishing contract with U.K. studio Glowmade for an upcoming title.

Hartmann said there's a fair amount of divisional collaboration at Amazon between AWS as the cloud computing platform that hosts New World, the Luna cloud gaming platform and then game streaming with Twitch. He also said there's growing collaboration between Amazon's content library and Hollywood connections on the film, TV and music side and its gaming division. Ramin Djawadi, best known for scoring Marvel films and composing the "Game of Thrones" soundtrack, created the music for New World, for instance.

"I think it's just the beginning, I see many more transmedia opportunities rising in the future," Hartmann said. He points to "The Witcher" series at Netflix and the recent string of successful video game films like "Detective Pikachu" and the "Sonic the Hedgehog" adaptation as proof that gaming is fast becoming a new pop culture pillar that transcends the medium. "I think games will be what comics have been in the past," he added.

For Amazon, gaming has always been a somewhat peculiar investment. Though the company does own Twitch, it's been hard for outsiders looking in to adequately explain how gaming fits into the broader ecommerce vision. Many of Amazon's entertainment divisions to date have helped prop up its Prime subscription platform, and retail still makes up Amazon's largest business by revenue.

Gaming, on the other hand, can be a money sink unless you happen to strike gold. New World, though it has had a successful launch, is not on track to become the next Fortnite, Genshin Impact or League of Legends. And it will take many more years and many more games for Amazon to create the kind of portfolio that can start turning serious profits.

But Hartmann said the company's gaming division is not so much interested in the money — New World, after all, is a $40 game without a subscription service — or about trying to win the gaming lottery. They'd just keep developing mobile games if that were the case. Instead, he said the vision is to round out Amazon's overall entertainment ambitions to include what he sees as the most pivotal and fast-growing market in the business, one Amazon cannot afford to watch from the sidelines.

"If any company is investing in entertainment and sees entertainment as one of their pillars of the future, you can't be without games," Hartmann said. "It is by now the largest entertainment category in the world and growing about 10% each year." In other words, Amazon won't be taken seriously in entertainment if it doesn't have a successful gaming division, Hartmann thinks.

"My kids are growing up with games, and not watching TV but watching Twitch. They'll keep those patterns forever," he added. "There's no way around if you're serious about having a foothold in the industry."

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