New World is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) for the PC, made by Amazon Studios. It was released on September 28th 2021, and the big story surrounding its launch was the fact that the game servers were so overwhelmed that people had to spend hours and even sometimes half a day sitting in a login queue.
Scaling issues with game servers on launch day are common, and harder to solve than most people imagine. Full disclaimer: I work for a division of Activision Blizzard that handles online play, but my opinions in this article don’t represent that company at all. In any case, the server issues are mostly gone now, and they aren’t what I want to talk about anyway.
Jeff Bezos gave Amazon Studios a mandate to “dominate gaming”. After several years and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, they had done the exact opposite of that. Their first title, Breakaway, was an online game where two teams tried to put a ball in their opponents’ goal while physically fighting them off. It was announced in 2016 but cancelled in 2018. The studio’s second title, Crucible, was a hero-based team shooter in the vein of Overwatch or Team Fortress 2. It was actually released in 2020 but then un-released a few months later due to low player count.
So the third game, New World, had a lot of pressure on it to succeed. One or two failures can be written off as learning experiences, but three failures become a pattern. Amazon was determined not to let this happen. Because the company owns Twitch, the dominant game streaming platform, they could easily incentivize Twitch streamers to play New World, and even more easily promote these streams to the entire Twitch audience. Watching entertaining people having fun playing games with their friends is a huge motivator to buy a game.
And it worked! So many people bought the game that the servers buckled on launch day. Even now, a month later, there are still tons of people playing the game. You can log into any server and see a lively world populated by thousands of players.
So Amazon must be breathing a sigh of relief. They finally shipped a massive hit, and can continue on with their mission to dominate the gaming landscape. Right?
New World is certainly a hit, for now. But the game is unlikely to find long-term success. More importantly, I don’t think Amazon Studios has learned what it takes to make hit games, because New World succeeded for the wrong reasons.
Let’s look at the game itself to figure out this contradiction. Firstly, the positives: the game looks gorgeous, it has a large and lush world for players to explore, the combat has the potential to be interesting, there are lots of other people playing it, it has a complex and potentially interesting crafting system, and there are many opportunities for both player-versus-environment (PVE) and player-versus-player (PVP) conflicts.
That’s the good stuff. Now for the not-so-good stuff. New World doesn’t really have an underlying story. This isn’t a small thing, and it can't be patched in later.
The game starts off with a cinematic of a silver-masked man getting a mysterious item from a hooded stranger on board a sailing ship. You, the player character, are also on this ship. The ship crashes on the shore of an unknown magical island and most of the crew are killed. You, the player, must fight evil corrupted zombie crew-mates and make your way to civilization, where friendly townspeople will give you tasks to go kill wildlife, chop down trees and hit rocks, and join one of three indistinguishable factions.
And that’s basically it.
It’s not clear what anyone’s ultimate objective is on this magical island, where some people (the players) can never be killed and others turn into generic zombies. Leveling up and looting treasure, sure, that’s a given. But to what end? Perhaps there’s some Big Bad Boss lurking out there that you’ll eventually have to team up to defeat, but there’s no evidence of this in the first twenty hours of play. And the factions that you join don’t seem to matter at all. Join one, and you’ll get a yellow, green, or purple icon above your head, and can participate in massive battles (that don’t happen in the main world) that can maybe swing the affiliation of a sector of land towards or away from your faction. But since anyone can walk into any town that has any color of banners flying from the rafters, why should the player care? My starting town switched factions twice since I began playing, and it didn’t seem to affect any of the non-player characters (NPCs) or the quests they gave me. It doesn’t help that every city has an identical layout, either.
Beyond this massive oversight, the game itself has tons of different systems, and most of them work fine, but none of them are outstanding. There’s nothing that stands out about the combat, which has a block, dodge, and three special moves for each type of weapon. It feels like it could be more interesting than it ends up being in practice, because when enemies start to attack you and you’ve already started your own attack animation, you can’t stop to dodge or parry. So it ends up being mostly about skill levels and numbers. It’s like a MMORPG wanted to be Dark Souls and then realized that it had to be an MMORPG, so it landed in a solidly bland middle.
Speaking of levels, everything has a level. Every weapon skill can be leveled up by using them. Hitting rocks has a level. Chopping trees has a level. Sewing thread has a level. And the one thing in common with all these levels is that they start out advancing fast but then settle down into a slower and slower grind. How many more hundred levels do I need in chopping to cut down this harder tree? I don’t know. I may never get there before boredom sets in.
At the end of the day, New World is a very pretty MMORPG that doesn’t do anything in particular better than any other game. There are MMORPGs with better crafting. There are some with better combat. Some have more interesting PVP. Almost all of them have a better story.
New World hit the market at a very unique time: the exact point that a lot of people were tired of playing World of Warcraft and wanted something that was similar but looked better. New World was exactly that game at exactly the right time. Combined with Amazon’s built-in Twitch advertising advantage, it was poised for success. And it’s not a bad game by any means. It’s satisfying to level up a character and grind through a beautiful, lush world.
But in the long term, the missing story and lack of meaningful end-game content will cause players to drift off. There’s no monthly subscription fee, just a one-time purchase, so there’s no reason not to quit when it gets boring. If you enjoy playing with your friends, you’ll stop when they stop. The Twitch streamers will move on to the next great gaming craze. Eventually, the game will become a wasteland, and there is nothing sadder than an MMORPG with nobody in it.
Why didn’t Amazon Studios do a better job with New World? They had near-infinite amounts of money to spend. They had skilled talent that Amazon lured from other game studios. What they didn’t have was a mandate from the top that was anything more than “go dominate”. What do you do when given such marching orders? You spend money and you hire talent. But to what end? Since it’s not clear, you look at games that “dominate” now and try and make games that have the same systems, but “better”. But what does “better” mean, exactly? New World has great graphics, lots of combat and crafting systems, and PVE and PVP content. But it’s missing that spark, that understanding, that sense of what good games can be when backed by leadership who live and breathe them.
Jeff Bezos doesn’t understand games, so he can’t give Amazon Studios the inspiration that it needs. Since the only thing he wants is numbers, Amazon Studios will find a way to deliver those numbers. At least for a while.