Amazon has another video game success story on its hands, this one almost as unlikely as the first. The company’s gaming arm helped localize and publish the massively multiplayer online game Lost Ark, from South Korean studio Smilegate, and the results have been impressive.
The game, released in North America and Europe on Feb. 11, peaked as the second-most-played Steam title in the PC marketplace’s history, behind only Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, with more than 1.3 million players less than 24 hours after launch. Unlike New World, Amazon’s own MMO it launched last fall, Lost Ark is a free-to-play game, helping it achieve a larger player base in a shorter span of time.
Christoph Hartmann, current Amazon Games chief and the former head of Take-Two Interactive’s 2K publishing label, said the reaction to Lost Ark is evidence that the company is finally cracking the code to finding success in the game industry. New World, which launched last September with a price tag of $40, achieved similarly impressive numbers for a new entrant in the age-old genre dominated mainly by Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIV.
With Lost Ark, Amazon has now succeeded both in the first-party and publishing realms, after years of tortured game development on failed projects and without any prior experience in localizing overseas titles. For Hartmann, these successes are also a reason to believe in the future of live service gaming. The model, in which games are supported for years after launch and monetized through a variety of methods, has emerged in the past few years as a dominant approach to mainstream game development, spanning mobile to console and PC.
“The reason I left the label I founded and went to Amazon is because I want to do live service games. Because I actually believe it’s the future,” Hartmann told Protocol in an interview this week. “They have such a deep engagement with the player, they really feel connected.” Hartmann added that the business model of most single-player games nowadays has become somewhat antiquated, as game prices have remained largely flat — some publishers are now charging only $10 extra for next-gen versions of games — but budgets continue to balloon.
“It is very hard to do single-player games that have a high chance of commercial success because the production costs, as we know, with every generation of consoles or PCs, goes higher and higher,” Hartmann said. “When you look at the development cost and you look at what you pay for a game, you clearly see the development costs going [up], and then the game price is [staying flat]. That's why you have fewer and fewer games, and that's why you also have so many franchises.”
Hartmann said Amazon's strategy so far is to lean into live service gaming, but also to go against the grain when it comes to genre. That’s precisely how Amazon found itself with not just one, but two successful MMOs at a time when most mainstream gamers spend a majority of their time playing either competitive shooters or casual mobile titles.
“When I started here, it was at the peak of when Fortnite got big and PUBG got big. So everyone was chasing battle royale shooters … From what I have learned through all the years is to do the opposite from what everyone else is doing, because there's just going to be too many players,” he said. “But you also have to respect that people own a genre. I don't think there's any point in trying to fight something like Call of Duty. So definitely we're not going to do that.”
The future of games-as-a-service
Live service gaming has a controversial reputation in the industry. Though MMOs like the many games that inspired New World and Lost Ark were arguably the very first games-as-a-service titles in the ’90s and early ’00s, the current iteration of live service gaming was heavily influenced by the mobile free-to-play boom of the last decade, ushering in questionable business practices like pay-to-win, microtransactions and loot boxes.
Some games were able to perfect their models by balancing strong gameplay with fair monetization, including pioneering console and PC live service games like Bungie’s Destiny and its sequel, Riot’s League of Legends, Epic’s Fortnite and Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six Siege. But many other titles from some of the biggest publishers tried hybrid approaches, selling a game for $60 and trying to recoup development costs through microtransactions all while trying to repair bugs and smooth out rough edges post-launch.
Many of the biggest game flops of the past few years can be attributed to failing to pull off this tricky juggling act. As a result, the term live service can now sometimes carry a negative connotation, meaning unfinished at launch or generally exploitative in how it gives away a product for free — only to try and milk players for far more than the traditional $60 it might have cost if the game were released before 2008.
That reputation is starting to change as more game developers learn that their approaches aren’t working, and they need to tailor their business models to match free-to-play juggernauts like Fortnite, Genshin Impact and Valorant. Sony purchased Destiny developer Bungie for $3.6 billion, in part because of the success of Destiny’s live service model Bungie has been tuning for more than seven years. Sony now says it’s going to release as many as 10 live service games by 2026, with help from Bungie’s talent and technology.
“Bungie’s successful track record in multiformat publishing and live game services will assist us in realizing our ambitions to take PlayStation beyond the console and increase our potential audience,” PlayStation chief Jim Ryan said at the time of the acquisition. “Bungie’s expertise in delivering a world-class service approach and long-term community engagement is extremely compelling and will support the development of several future live services titles from PlayStation Studios.”
Activision Blizzard has also been rethinking its approach to live service gaming, amid the company’s reckoning over workplace toxicity and now its conditional new ownership as a Microsoft-owned publisher. The company is reportedly pausing next year’s Call of Duty release for the first time in 16 years, to focus on a reboot of its Warzone battle royale and to better position the shooter series for a live service future.
Ubisoft is taking a similar break with its Assassin’s Creed series, choosing instead to launch an eventual live service version of the role-playing stealth franchise called Assassin’s Creed Infinity. In sticking with the theme, Microsoft launched its own infinity game, aptly called Halo Infinite, last year with the intention of turning it into an ongoing platform that can live on for years.
Despite the industry’s ups and downs in regard to live service gaming, Hartmann is optimistic about the future of the model and the kinds of experiences it can deliver. “Live service is just a much better thing for the consumer because they can either buy it once and then play it for a long time and buy little pieces, or they can play free-to-play from the beginning,” he said. “But it is the zeitgeist, and I think it will be hard to find any game which is not going to have some live service component.”
Hartmann said that, in the long run, “every game is going to be a live service game,” in one way or another. He mentioned the episodic storytelling of developer Telltale Games as one example of how story-driven, single-player games can still fit the live service mold.
Amazon Games’ three pillars
This approach is also informing the company’s publishing and investment arm, too. Hartmann said Amazon wants to find hidden gems both in the form of games that are succeeding overseas and also indie titles that might strike on the next big shift in genre, similar to how PUBG started as an early-access game created out of the PC modding community.
Last September, Amazon announced it had struck a deal with independent U.K. studio Glowmade for an upcoming project, with more in the works between Amazon’s four internal studios and other unannounced publishing deals.
“We also want to be — I don't even want to call it a publisher — want to be a home for young, innovative developers,” Hartmann said. He pointed to Amazon’s resources, both in the form of marketing with Twitch and in its vast cloud computing platform. “We have the flywheel to help them to press this speed dial to get to success quicker.”
Beyond making its own games and publishing those from established developers, Amazon sees its goal of finding up-and-coming studios working on ambitious projects as the “third pillar” of its gaming division, Hartmann said. “We try to find, you know, the next big idea and really to be more of a hub for young new groups, to offer them our capabilities.”
Hartmann said Amazon is looking to build “long-term relationships” that might result in, say, an acquisition or a multiyear publishing deal. “It's still a very selective process. We're not going to say, ‘Let's throw 100 things against the wall and see what happens.’ I have so much personal commitment to people that I only want to sign up something I truly feel could be something big and very special.”
But Hartmann added that the studios and projects the company does bring into the Amazon Games fold don’t have to be immediate success stories. Like Amazon’s own gaming projects — a number of which failed and one, Crucible, that failed raither publicly — it may take time for games to really find their groove and grow their audience. New World, for instance, was delayed four times before it eventually launched last fall.
“Even if one of those games doesn't at the beginning do as well as we want, one thing I always told myself is we want to follow the Amazon DNA … We're not throwing in the towel just because we didn't didn't turn a profit in the first 24 hours,” Hartmann said. “If you believe in it, keep on going, learn from it and especially with us being committed to live service games, sometimes it takes a while for them to nurture.”