Hands-on with Amazon's MMO New World, where hundreds of players war over a supernatural continent

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Why is Amazon making an MMO, other than the fact that it can? This is the question I had before seeing New World at Gamescom, which is being made by Amazon Game Studio's Orange County team, which was formerly known as Killer Instinct and Silent Hill: Homecoming developer Double Helix. This is a game that leverages the retail giant's AWS cloud computing services to let potentially thousands of players share a massive environment, letting them build colonies and fight over territory. 

It feels like part MMO, part survival game. You build forts with other players, you can cut down every tree, mine pretty much every stone, and if there's a resource you need but don't have, you might need to venture to another part of the world to get it. What they're aiming for sounds like a simulated society. You'll apparently be able to set quests for other players, paying them gold if there's a certain resource you need tracking down.

"We looked at a lot of survival games, and it's like the zombie apocalypse, the disintegration of society, right? Small raiding parties roaming around," says studio head Patrick Gilmore. "And we thought, this technology gives us the ability to look at how big a society can grow, and what happens when civilisation's working. We're looking forward to seeing how players organise themselves in that context."

New World is set in a mysterious, supernatural continent at the end of the 17th century. While the world contains creatures like bears and wolves, weirder enemies are waiting out there for you too. I didn't see any in my demo, but that's because we didn't reach nighttime. "They're actually pretty hardcore, so we steered you guys away from them," Gilmore says. "The day/night cycle is pretty important. What you didn't experience is actually being in the wild when night falls, and what happens when some supernatural beings come out."

Siege tactics

In my 15-20 minutes playing the game, I instead got to kill a few wolves, chop down a tree, then put on some armour and raid another clan's base. This demo is set in one small peninsula of what seems like a gigantic map. Scale, density and population are mentioned as the goals in building this environment.

The most fun part of this demo is a very guided siege of the base of another player, called Jack the Blade. I carry a gunpowder keg to a fragile-looking wall outside, place it down, light a fuse then stand back. As the wall blows, me and a few other players collectively kill the clan leader and the other troops hanging around there, before claiming the territory. The combat feels a bit too gentle to me at the moment, and I prefer aiming and firing a rifle to swinging a sword, but there is drama and excitement to this mini-siege as all the different players clash. 

This is just a microcosm of the sort of conflicts the game wants to bring to life. I ask Gilmore how many players they expect to support in this continent. "The land area, and again we have to test and make sure we're right, but the land area is designed for 10,000. That's a lot. That's off in the future. We're going to start at 500, which is already big, and we're just gonna grow it from there."

That's a hefty long-term target, but I get an idea of studio's plan for supporting that many potential players. The progression system in New World doesn't have classes, so the point is you have the flexibility to do whatever you want. During the presentation, the studio talks about how you can avoid fighting entirely and become an alchemist, or how you can just work on a fort and make higher tier items. They want you to be able to have a vocation in the game, if that's your preference. 

Everything in the world will be built by players—it seems like the larger and more diverse in skills your clan is, the more likely you are to control huge parts of the world. You can also sack it all off and become a criminal, if you want to, but there'll then be no penalty for players who kill you. 

Amazon's cloud technology is how the game supports this many players. "The biggest breakthrough was that ability to scale one simulation across multiple hubs in the cloud," Gilmore explains, as I pretend to completely understand what that means. "We're leveraging AWS to create a new type of gameplay experience, and that was really kind of the foundation of the game. First we had to build the technology, and then it was all about, what's the customer experience?" Amazon, then, is looking to demonstrate its tech's potential with this game. "Absolutely. Although the technology is bespoke to this game—it's brand new and created just for New World."

Even though Amazon Game Studios Orange County used to be known as Double Helix, this exact team is something of a new creation. "Our executive producer Rich Lawrence spent 15 years making MMOs, and then we have combat specialists who made the combat in [games] like Killer Instinct and Breakaway, and then our world designers come from [games like] BioShock, and are focused on putting narrative into the world while they're designing this space. This is this team, as a unified team, their very first game, so we tried to assemble a bunch of people who were heavy hitters for their specific craft."

I ask how they're going to charge for the game. "We're going to monetise as just premium—so straight up you pay a flat rate, come in and join the game, it's a live service. As it expands, you're in that community. We are going to have MTX in the game, but no loot boxes, no pay-to-win, it's all just like additional vanity content."

It's impossible to get a sense of how well New World will simulate entires societies based on such a simple demo, but just from the player count, I'm interested to see what this continent will look like after the first players arrive later this year. "[It's an] invite-only alpha, players can sign up today at NewWorld.com," says Gilmore. "Some aspects of the game are experimental...we're gonna test, we're gonna expand over time. It's a closed alpha, invite-only. We'll bring people in, from the sign-up list, starting this fall."

Will players build entire neighbouring cities? Will this land generate amazing, EVE-like stories of immense clashes over territory? I hope New World progresses far enough that I can see what it's capable of. As it stands, I do wish this demo had shown me the stranger elements of the titular New World, given that its choice of setting is potentially its biggest strength.