I'm excited to announce that Ars Technica has published the first part of my three-part series on the history of the ARM chip.
You can read it here: https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2022/09/a-history-of-arm-part-1-building-the-first-chip/
If you've ever wondered how your smartphone became so smart, it's because in 1983, a tiny computer company in England decided they would do something impossible.
I had a great time writing this article. I kept asking questions about CPUs, which I've always understood only at the highest levels. For example, I knew what RISC meant, it was "Reduced Instruction Set Computing". Okay, but HOW reduced? And what does an instruction set actually do?
Diving down the rabbit hole, I ended up learning how CPUs work from first principles. I've tried to share some of that knowledge in the article. I hope you enjoy it!
John Cleese playing Monty Python’s Dennis Moore, in a sketch where he discovers that the redistribution of wealth is harder than he thought.
The concept of digital money isn’t new. In fact, we all use digital money every day. The reason we can rely on numbers in a computer to safely represent our wealth is because we have laws that safeguard its handling, and centralized banks that must obey those laws.
This wasn’t always the case. In the mid-1800s, the US had no national banking system, and the metal coins issued by the government were awkward to use for large transactions. So wildcat banks appeared that made their own paper money, which they claimed was backed by real coinage. They were called “wildcat” because they built their branches far out in the wilderness, where cougars would prowl, to discourage people from visiting them to cash out. They lied about being backed by US silver coins, and printed as much fake money as they thought they could get away with. Eventually, the US government shut them down by issuing its own national paper currency, making the wildcat bank notes worthless.
An example of a wildcat bank note. Other wildcat banks included the Bank of Granite and the Bank of Singapore (the latter of which was based out of Michigan).
Cryptocurrency, which was invented back in 2008 following the collapse of the subprime mortgage market, was an attempt to separate digital money from banks. Lots of folks in the early 2000s had the idea to make “digital bucks” or “eCoins” of some kind. But the problem was this: if you weren’t attached to a real bank, how could you prevent someone from just “copy/pasting” their eCoins over and over again, gaining infinite wealth? If you didn’t want to trust a central authority and a central government, how could you make this work?
The solution was called Bitcoin. It worked like this: all transactions would be added to a public “digital ledger” that anyone could read, but that could never be changed. After all, if you could edit your transaction after the fact, you could easily “copy/paste” coins to yourself by refunding your own purchase. The Bitcoin algorithm reserved all the coins that would ever exist, then required “miners” to compete to solve ever-more challenging math problems. The first person or group to solve them would be awarded one Bitcoin, and then everyone on the network would have to verify that the solution was correct. In a similar way, every movement of Bitcoins from one digital “wallet” to another had to be approved and added to the ever-growing ledger, which was called a “blockchain”.
This trust-free solution was ridiculously inefficient, but it didn’t matter at first, because so few people bothered to use it. In the early days, it was relatively easy to mine new Bitcoins. But there wasn’t much you could do with them, because there was no connection with banks or with real money. In 2010, one of the first “purchases” made with Bitcoin involved one user transferring 10,000 Bitcoins to another user. Then the person who received them went and ordered pizza for the first person. This infamous 10K Bitcoin pizza is used as a cautionary tale to warn people to hold on to their Bitcoins, because the low price per Bitcoin back then has since skyrocketed, reaching a maximum value of $70,000. Haha, it’s the world’s most expensive pizza!
These were the actual pizzas bought for 10,000 Bitcoins in 2010. Today, if you had 10,000 Bitcoins, you’d have a hard time finding enough people with enough money to sell them to for the dollar value they claim to represent.
Except it wasn’t, really. Bitcoin was just a plaything for nerds back then, which is why the “price” per coin was so low. To cash out your Bitcoins, you had to send them to someone first, then hope they would pay you back in real dollars at an agreed-upon price. This was awkward and involved a lot of trust, the very same trust that crypto was supposed be avoiding in the first place.
To get around this problem, crypto fans invented “exchanges”. The idea was that people would log on to the exchange and the website would automatically connect buyers and sellers, similar to stock trading websites.
Agreeing on a price, however, was still difficult. As larger organizations started to buy and sell big piles of Bitcoin, the price would fluctuate wildly. By the time the transaction completed (which took a while, because of the inefficient nature of cryptocurrency itself) the price might be completely different.
The solution to this was called the “stablecoin”. To obtain one, you gave a real US dollar to one of the exchanges (every exchange had their own coin, for reasons we’ll see later). They gave you back a digital token that everyone agreed would always be worth exactly one dollar. You could easily exchange this stablecoin for Bitcoin or any of thousands of other copycat crypto coins. Then, if the price of your coins went down, you’d just hold on to them. If the price went up, you could convert them back to stablecoins, and then in theory, the exchange could swap them again for the same amount of real money. In theory. After all, the exchanges would always have a big pile of real dollars that people gave them for the stablecoins in the first place, right? Right?
Unfortunately, none of this was regulated, so there was nothing stopping the exchanges from printing as many new stablecoins as they could get away with, backed by exactly nothing, while claiming that they were fully backed.
Stop me if this sounds familiar.
These “exchanges” had now become 21st century digital wildcat banks, who could create their own fake currency out of nothing, charge people real money to buy it, and then make it really really hard to swap it back. They could then "buy" Bitcoins with these fake stablecoins, which would drive up the price of Bitcoin.
Some of these wildcat banks, like Celsius and Voyager, took the idea even further. They realized that most people never managed to cash out their crypto coins, but just held on to them forever. With the promise of Ponzi-level interest rates as high as 18 percent, they lured new customers in. To get these high rates of return, these crypto banks would first take ownership of the user’s coins, then lend them out to other crypto banks who were doing the same thing. The highest interest rates (up to 20 percent!) were offered by an organization that had its own “algorithmic” stablecoin called “Terra”, that didn’t even pretend to be backed by real money at all. It was backed only by another crypto coin called “Luna”.
The founder of Celsius, who liked to wear a shirt that said “Banks are not your friends” while running a crypto-based bank that stole everyone’s money.
None of this made any sense mathematically, and when the price of Luna suddenly dropped to zero, the entire house of cards fell over. Three Arrows Capital, which had a big investment in Terra/Luna, declared bankruptcy and the owners fled to Dubai. Celsius and Voyager, which had big investments in Three Arrows Capital, then declared bankruptcy a month later.
Most of the money lost was from small investors, some of whom had put their life savings into Celsius, Voyager, or similar companies. Many of these people were poor, and many were living in poor countries. Crypto was sold to these people as a way for them to beat the system, to make real wealth when there were no other opportunities.
The collapse of the digital wildcat banks wasn’t the only loss for small investors, however. The peak of crypto advertising happened in late 2021, with a barrage of celebrity endorsements, Super Bowl ads, and even renaming of sports stadiums.
This push was deliberate, and calculated. Millions of people who knew nothing about crypto were convinced that this was the “next big thing” and that they should get in while the getting was good. Bitcoin’s price peaked at $70,000 during this time. The trading was mostly one-way: groups of rich investors selling their Bitcoins in little pieces to poor individuals who were about to become much poorer. The price of Bitcoin then collapsed to around $20,000, where it remains today.
Yes, Matt Damon, fortune can favor the brave. But it usually favors rich men who know how to convince poor people to give them money.
Let’s be clear: there were definitely people who made money with crypto. These people were rich bankers who paid themselves millions of dollars to run the exchanges, and sold as many of their own tokens (that they created out of thin air for free) as they could get away with, while they manipulated the market in their favor. And because of the irreversible nature of the blockchain, these transactions can never be rolled back. Thieves and hackers have also used this "feature" of crypto to their advantage.
Some of these folks are now on the run from the law, but most aren’t. They claim to have just been running a business, and take no responsibility for their actions. Some have bought mansions worth over a hundred million dollars. The Three Arrows Capital guys put a fifty million dollar downpayment on a yacht just before they fled the country.
As we enter what the industry is calling a “crypto winter”, these companies are laying off workers, cancelling big projects, or just going bankrupt. But their leaders all insist that crypto currencies are still inevitable and are still the future, even though they can’t quite articulate how. They assume that the price of crypto coins will eventually go back up, that the celebrities and Super Bowl ads will return, and they will once again be free to steal from the poor and give to the rich.
And they might, unless the public decides that enough is enough.
My new article made the front page of Ars Technica this week! It's about the forgotten orphan of Apple gadgets, the Newton!
This is my first article on Ars since 2018, so I'm happy to see it's getting a good reception.
Check it out!
Remembering Apple's Newton, 30 years on
In 1980, Douglas Adams wrote The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. In this excerpt, Ford and Arthur have time-traveled back to prehistoric Earth, which has just been invaded by a colony ship comprised entirely of people with useless jobs.
“How can you have money,” demanded Ford, “if none of you actually produces anything? It doesn't grow on trees you know.”
“If you would allow me to continue.. .”
Ford nodded dejectedly.
“Thank you. Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich.”
Ford stared in disbelief at the crowd who were murmuring appreciatively at this and greedily fingering the wads of leaves with which their track suits were stuffed.
“But we have also,” continued the management consultant, “run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying one ship’s peanut."
Murmurs of alarm came from the crowd. The management consultant waved them down.
“So in order to obviate this problem,” he continued, “and effectively revalue the leaf, we are about to embark on a massive defoliation campaign, and. . .er, burn down all the forests. I think you'll all agree that's a sensible move under the circumstances."
Last week, a crypto coin called Luna collapsed, from a high of $110 per coin to $0 today. Actually it was two crypto coins--the other one was called Terra--and the two were linked together to try and make Terra a “stablecoin” that would have its value constantly pegged to exactly one US dollar. Terra collapsed at the same time, and this made the price of Luna go down even more, starting a death spiral. Billions of dollars vanished in the space of a couple of days. There are many stories of small investors losing their entire life savings.
Crypto currencies have no inherent use, as you can’t typically pay for things with them, and you can’t pay your taxes with them. However, people have valued useless things many times in the past. From Dutch tulip bulbs to Beanie Babies to NFTs, people can get always hyped up about investing in things with no purpose, as long as they think the thing will increase in value.
In the case of Luna and Terra, the main reason people started to value them was because the company that created both was offering a 20% income return for anyone who stored Terra on their servers. Ostensibly, this was so the company could “loan” the coin to others.
Charles Ponzi offered investors a 50% return in the early 1920s, and his scheme lasted a couple of years before it all fell apart. Terra and Luna didn’t quite make it that long.
Before it collapsed, Luna and Terra were considered darlings of the cryptocurrency industry, creating a new “platform” for the “future of finance”. Now, they are dismissed as merely a scam, even by cryptocurrency enthusiasts. But if one “stablecoin” was always a house of cards, why not the others?
The poor folks holding Luna today have been wiped out, and they are struggling to come to terms with it. Many still believe that there is something that can be done to restore Luna’s valuation. And in a discussion thread about what should be done next, I found this tweet:
Just burn it all down. That will create value. Just like it did with the forests.
This is a little something I whipped up on paper and then made real with a great little program called Affinity Designer.
I started with a stylized representation of an old 1970s all-in-one computer, something like a TRS-80 Model III, or my own Heathkit H-89.
Then I replaced the floppy disk drive on the right with a stylized book, to indicate the "history" portion of the site. Micro, History? Get it?
The orange color is just a color I liked and decided to theme the site around. No personal computers in the 1970s and 1980s were orange, but maybe that's the point. I tried the logo in more boring colors like grey and beige, but it just wasn't as cool.
And cool was what I was going for.
The term “Microcomputer” was born in the 1970s, along with computers it described. It distinguished these machines from “minicomputers”, which were the size of refrigerators, and “mainframes”, which were the size of rooms. Sometimes entire floors.
But while minicomputers were just smaller mainframes, microcomputers were a completely different thing. Banks and governments used mainframes, as they still do (in some cases) today. Minis were cheaper than mainframes, so they could be used by smaller organizations, like universities. Both types of computers were designed for, and sold to, institutions.
But microcomputers were for people.
The companies that made mainframes and minis couldn’t understand why any individual would want to own a computer. And the folks who made micros happen were people who would do anything to have their own personal computer. So when Steve Wozniak designed the Apple I at his desk at Hewlett-Packard on his own time, for fun, he was required by his contract to offer HP the chance to own it.
The HP manager declined, and the rest was history.
Today, we all carry, at all times, a nanocomputer, a super tiny and powerful computer in our pocket that is entirely ours, and is typically called a “smartphone”. Smartphones aren’t phones at all. They are smaller microcomputers, in exactly the same way that minis were smaller mainframes. They all connect to a massive global network of even more powerful microcomputers that all talk to each other constantly.
How did we get from there to here?
The story of the personal computer, the microcomputer, has been told at various times by various people. Some of these stories are in books that are now out of print and on television shows that can no longer be found on anything but faded, used VHS tapes.
And some of the folks who were around at the beginning of this revolution are starting to pass on. In just the last couple of years, we’ve lost Clive Sinclair, who gave the world the ZX81 and Spectrum, and John Roach, the driving force behind the TRS-80, among others.
There are many stories of this time that remain untold. There weren’t just a couple of microcomputer companies in the late 1970s. There were over fifty.. I know this because I counted them once, as a kid, looking at a single issue of Computers and Electronics. Even back then I knew this number was unsustainable. The industry exploded and companies rose and fell with frightening speed. Many fortunes were made and lost.
So who is going to tell all these stories?
I have my own experience in this space. Thanks to Ars Technica, I was able to complete my own dream of telling the complete History of the Amiga. This took me years, but it was some of the most exciting writing I’ve ever done.
Now, I want to do the same thing, but for all the other computers. I also want to do this on a new website that I’m building myself.
It’s a big project, and I’m going to need a lot of help. It also won’t happen right away. I’m going to take the time to prepare the groundwork first.
If you’d like to know more, and you’d like to sign up to be notified when the alpha of the site goes live, just head over to micro-history.com and sign up.
I’ll see you there!
If you’ve been following technology news over the past six months, you’ve undoubtedly heard the term “Metaverse” being promoted from many sources. Last October, Facebook announced it was changing its name to “Meta”, and Mark Zuckerberg released a video explaining how the company was going to start building “the Metaverse” and how awesome it was all going to be.
But what exactly is the Metaverse? Do we have to care about it? Is it going to affect our lives in a significant way? Are we going to miss out if we don’t somehow invest in the Metaverse right now?
What is the Metaverse?
The Metaverse isn’t well defined, which is the first red flag. But I’ll take a stab at it. In Zuckerberg’s video, he outlined some of the main attributes:
- It’s a universal, infinitely-extensible, shared virtual world
- The main way you interact with it is through Virtual Reality (VR) goggles
- You appear in the Metaverse as an “avatar” which can look like you or anything else
- You have a universal “account” in the Metaverse and can purchase and trade virtual goods
- In the Metaverse, you can play games, but also go to virtual school, have virtual conferences, go to virtual concerts, and have virtual weddings
One main aspect of the Metaverse is that your avatar and your virtual possessions have to be able to move seamlessly between different virtual worlds and experiences. If you couldn’t, it would just be a “Verse”, or more accurately, just a video game. Second Life, released in 2003, had avatars, accounts, virtual goods, virtual schools and conferences, and even virtual weddings. It was culturally significant enough to have an episode of “The Office” dedicated to it. But you wouldn’t call Second Life “the Metaverse”, even if you attached VR to it (which is possible today with a bit of fiddling and some special software).
No, the main issue that prevents Second Life, or Fortnite, or World of Warcraft, from being called the Metaverse, is that all these virtual worlds are isolated from each other. You can’t bring your Orc Warrior into Fortnite. Zuckerberg even admitted in his video that “no one company can build the Metaverse”.
Some companies have already tried. Roblox, a hugely popular children’s game, lets players bring their avatar into thousands of different “experiences”, which are mostly simple games designed by other children. But Roblox is not the Metaverse either. You can’t take your Roblox avatar into a different game. Nor can you use the virtual items you paid for anywhere except for Roblox.
What would it look like if you could? Most advocates of the Metaverse point to books and movies like Ready Player One, a dystopian science-fiction story where there is a single persistent world that everyone plays in all the time. (It’s worth noting here that the bad guys in the story operate their own completely independent virtual world that nobody seems to play, so they are hell-bent on cheating in order to wrest control of this dominant Metaverse away from its founders).
Apart from the fact that nobody should want to live in a dystopia, there are a few problems with wanting to create a real-life Ready Player One:
Problem One: nobody wants to play only one game
The Metaverse presumes that a single company operating a single video game platform would become so dominant that nobody would want to play anything else. In real life, new video games come out all the time, and trends shift back and forth. Fortnite came out of nowhere and became hugely popular, but not everyone plays Fortnite. Why would gamers want to limit themselves to a single title forever?
Problem Two: having different types of games interoperate is impossible
Nobody (least of all the author) ever explains how the gameplay in Ready Player One would be balanced, or even work at all. You can purchase virtual guns and combat armor, so how would that work in a fantasy setting, or a medieval farming simulator? There seem to be no limits on jumping from world to world. If there were, and you could lock out the sci-fi combat troops from your farming game, how is that different from just playing a separate game entirely?
Problem Three: pay-to-win is no fun and people hate it
The integration of items that cost real-world money into games has always been a disaster whenever any games company has tried it. Blizzard’s Diablo III launched with a “real money auction house” where players could sell their loot to other players. This ended up destroying the fun of the game, because the best move was always to buy the most powerful equipment at the start and roll through all the enemies unimpeded, rather than, you know, playing the game. Everyone hated it and Blizzard quickly ripped it out of Diablo forever.
But the Metaverse implies a real money auction house, not just for one game, but for everything. The end result would be that rich people would win all the time and everyone else would get killed by the rich people over and over again, with no chance of victory. How is this fun? Why would anyone play this?
Problem Four: people don’t want to spend all day in VR
There is no evidence that people want to spend all of their time in virtual reality. I have a VR headset myself, and I really enjoy playing games on it. Mostly I play quick movement games like Beat Saber, or larger role-playing adventures like the VR version of Fallout 4. But I find playing VR to be tiring, so I limit my game sessions to about an hour or so. It’s hard on the eyes, and most games can’t be played sitting down. Even if headsets get lighter and more powerful, which they will, I don’t think people will want to be in VR all day, every day. I certainly don’t, and I love the technology. So a “Metaverse” that is VR-only will have a limited audience.
Problem Five: companies will never cooperate to make one company rich
In order for “many companies” to create a single Metaverse that everyone plays in, it would require that one company (Zuckerberg is hoping it’s Facebook) creates a virtual universe so attractive that everyone else would give up trying to make their own games and just make content for Facebook’s universe.
This is the Roblox business model. It works when the labor is cheap or free (in this case, it’s literally child labor) but it doesn’t scale past Roblox’s very limited and simple games. Nobody is going to want to make Diablo V or Fortnite II, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to do so, and then hand over 95% of their profits to Facebook.
The only way this could work is if somehow all companies could agree to a single standard for the Metaverse to use. This would not only require a standard game engine (say, the Unreal Engine owned by Fortnite creator Epic Games) but also a huge list of standard ways that the game would be built and how every part would talk to each other. These standards would have to be agreed upon and could never change once they were, otherwise separate parts of the Metaverse would immediately break and stop working with each other.
This, too, will never happen. Standards take years, sometimes decades to finalize, and what large company would want to wait around for this to happen, when they could build their own Metaverse right now and keep all the profits to themselves?
So where do we go from here?
Make no mistake, companies both big and small are all building their own “Metaverse” products, and none of them will ever interoperate with each other. Why would they? Why would a company allow you to pay some other company for a virtual item or avatar, and then let you use it for free in their game, costing them time and money to support? They won’t.
So who is building a Metaverse right now? Facebook and Microsoft have committed to building one of their own, which by definition will not be Metaverses since they won’t interoperate with each other. Google and Apple will probably be right behind. In the meantime, Fortnite and Roblox exist, along with tons of smaller games that are each their own persistent world. The independently-built VR Chat is the most popular place to virtually hang out in virtual reality right now, despite Facebook releasing the first version of their own virtual reality chat program. People go where other people hang out. Facebook is popular because so many people use it, but this popularity did not transfer over to VR chatting. It’s just like when Microsoft released a phone that ran Windows, and people ignored it because it wasn’t as popular as the iPhone or Android.
But what about Web 3.0?
Some folks are pretending that a new thing called “Web 3.0” will somehow mean that all the problems I’ve listed above will magically go away and the Metaverse will arise naturally from the power of blockchain and cryptocurrency. This definitely won’t happen. Explaining why is another whole article, but for now I’ll point out that all blockchain and crypto adds to the discussion is a very slow public database that can’t ever be changed and is ridiculously expensive to operate. It doesn’t solve the interoperability issue (blockchain games currently cannot and will not ever work with each other) and it doesn’t solve the balance issue, or the corporate motivation issue, or any of the other issues I’ve brought up. Most of these “blockchain” games don’t even run on blockchains at all, because they are too expensive to use. They just loosely tie themselves to a new crypto coin or new non-fungible tokens, so they can get some quick investment money. Most of them are just scams.
To sum up:
- Facebook is building something it calls a Metaverse
- So are a bunch of other companies
- None of these games/social spaces/virtual worlds will ever interoperate with each other, because companies have no financial incentive to make this work
- Therefore, none of these worlds will ever be a Metaverse
- Therefore, the Metaverse won’t ever happen
Here’s my advice for you, if you’re thinking you need to invest into “The Metaverse” today. You don’t. Play the games you want, in VR or not in VR. Use the chat programs you want, in VR or not in VR. Don’t worry about a universal dystopia that can never happen. You don’t have to sell your soul to Facebook, or anyone else.
Well, it's been only a little over a month since New World was released, and the bloom is already off the rose.
A combination of crazy bugs and a rapidly-dropping player base (going from nearly 1 million concurrent players shortly after launch to under 250,000 today) has the future of the game already in question.
Seems like the post-mortem might come sooner than I thought!
EDIT: As of February 8, 2022, the game is down to about 45,000 concurrent players, most servers are ghost towns. and about half this population are gold-farming bots. The game is done; it's toast. I hate to say I told you so, but...
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.
Eagle-eyed viewers of this blog have already noticed the shiny new banner up top, along with a nice new headshot of yours truly. That photo is courtesy of a good friend of mine, expert photographer Stephen Mirowski.
I've been neglecting my blog while I concentrated on my newsletter, Arcade Dreams, and other personal projects. I think it's time I changed that. Blog writing isn't a quick path to success (and one could argue that it never was), but it's still fun, and it's a great way to keep in touch with your audience.
And I still have some things I want to say, about video games, about science fiction, and about life in general.
So stay tuned!
I'm a writer and occasional programmer. I write science fiction stories and novels.
I am the writer for the upcoming documentary series Arcade Dreams.
I also write technology articles for Ars Technica.
I'm the creator of newLISP on Rockets, a web development framework and blog application.