Launching a new MMORPG in the year 2020 can feel a bit like trying to make the gramophone a 'thing' again. Once the peak of popularity following the launch of World of Warcraft in 2004, the genre has famously seen its fair share of major flops ever since, even while appetite for social role-playing remains steadfast amongst a core subsection of the PC crowd.
Amazon Games Studios' is well aware of this risk as it prepares to launch its upcoming title, New World, but head of player experience David Verfaillie believes the Irvine based team has created something that not only moves the genre forward, but exemplifies why these kinds of experiences are now more valuable than ever.
"No MMO is perfect when you first start working on it," he tells me, in half joking understatement. "I think the key parts to making games like this successful is working with your players, having them as closely involved as you can from the get go. That communication needs to become a muscle memory for this type of project, but I think as a studio we've really become masters at it."
New world order
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How is that player-first philosophy manifested in New World? There's no subscription fee, for starters. You pay for the game once, and you gain access to its entire world; a mysterious, supernatural isle called Aeternum that's about to become the next frontier for 17th century colonists.
Aeternum's gold rush economy is also largely player managed, as are many of its political and social systems, alongside a character progression system that forgoes compartmentalised classes for a more fluid infrastructure based around core attributes, trade skills, and weapon mastery. Verfaillie tells me that Amazon Game Studios wanted to avoid the "theme park" structure that many other MMOs go for, instead imbuing New World with a more unpredictable streak steered by its own userbase.
"Players can dramatically affect the economy by crafting and selling on the trading floor. They can control various territories, and wage war over those places, and when you own the territories, you can set tax rates. So certain towns may offer more free market economies and other towns may have a more dictatorial system with oppressive taxing. So, it's gonna be interesting to see how that all plays out."
"We do have some limits, such as the war windows, which govern when people can take over territory, so we don't have offline raiding. So we've tried to set in place rules that make sure there is no obvious interference that would create a negative experience. However, we don't want those roles to be too strict. I think part of the fun that we're trying to create is that emergent gameplay where, for example, if a company [New World's version of Guilds] takes over a territory and sets the tax rates really high, we hope that creates an objective for the rest of the world to take them down. So we want players to self govern as much as possible, and we're trying to give them the tools to do that."
Of course, this kind of vision needs foolproofing, and New World has been hosting a private Alpha since the beginning of the year as a way of letting players put its various systems through the ringer. That testing is about to expand with New World's Closed Beta starting July 23, too, which will roll on all the way until the game's full release on August 25.
The New World servers run on Amazon Web Services, a cutting edge cloud network infrastructure that resembles just one of the advantages that come from being part of one of the biggest companies in the world, and allows the studio to host up to 10,000 players per server. Through its Alpha, Amazon Game Studios has already been able to identify some of the blind spots in New World's architecture, but Verfaillie says that the upcoming Beta will finally allow the team to test its ambitious MMO experiment at scale.
"Our Alpha has had a good sized audience, but it's not been super large," he tells me. "With the Beta, what we want to do is really start to see how the game operates with many people playing at the same time, and find out how the interactions change. Things like the economy, for instance, are really hard to gauge fully without a full server of people playing."
There's also the proven fact that players, and MMO communities in particular, are full of surprises, and rather adept at finding the loopholes, blind spots, and bugs of even the biggest (and most expensive) digital universes. New World will be a much more polished experience at launch thanks to these early adopters who have charted its terrain before the rest of population arrives en masse, as Verfaillie readily admits.
"I am continuously surprised by how clever our players are, and like how they find exploits that I could have never even thought of. We've been running the current Alpha for about 18 weeks and still every week we get a new forum post or we see some new behaviour in the telemetry that shows different tricks and exploits that people are coming up with."
Verfaillie says that access to the Closed Beta is also a reward for those who have already pre-ordered New World, though others can sign up for a chance to enter its servers by registering interest online. This, and preparations for launch day, are currently the priority in this last leg of development for Amazon Games Studios, which recently had to push back New Worlds' original release window of May as a result of the transition to remote working following the spread of COVID-19.
No matter what the world will look like by then, however, Verfaillie assures me that Amazon Game Studios is committed to launching its most ambitious project in August, remaining confident that the team is prepared for that crucial day one opening.
"We are going to have a dedicated team looking after the servers, and some key personnel going into the office as we start the closed beta and obviously the launch to make sure we have boots on the ground that can react instantly and quickly to any issues that do come up. Everyone's super excited to just get this game out and have people playing it. And that excitement has motivated us to keep working through these crazy unique difficulties."
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