To kick off 2022, we're taking a look at the major games, genres and platforms that make PC gaming to see where they're at as we begin a new year.
When New World launched last year, Amazon couldn't have asked for a better result. Millions of players queued up to play on the first day—so much queuing—and the concurrent player number rose to over 900,000. As the first big MMO launch in years, it naturally garnered a lot of attention, aided by survival game vibes, a compelling PvP proposition and a completely player-driven economy.
But queues weren't the only thing stopping players from getting stuck in. People could wait for hours to get in only to be disconnected and stuck at the back of the queue again. And it started to become clear that the faction-based PvP, specifically the much-touted wars that allow factions to flip territory, were nearly impossible to participate in unless you were in a prominent company—New World's guilds—initially putting them out of reach of most players.
Exploits also started to become a serious problem, with gold and item duping wrecking the economy. At the start of November, Amazon had to effectively turn off the economy, freezing gold transfers, trading and company treasuries until the problem was resolved. This somehow created a new gold dupe exploit that could be accidentally triggered. Only a couple of weeks later, the economy had to be shut down again, as another exploit was discovered that let players dupe items like furniture and trophies, which could then be sold on the trading post.
While the crafting, combat and faction rivalries hooked players, the very flat PvE experience, where you could play for hundreds of hours and only face a handful of largely generic enemies over and over again until reaching the endgame, was much harder to enjoy. Still, people powered through at an incredible pace, and it wasn't long before a lot of them had finished the journey to max level. Unfortunately, the endgame proved to be pretty similar to the rest, with the exception of a PvP mode that Amazon deactivated. It came back after a couple of weeks.
In my New World review, I gave it a 60, adding that the "engaging crafting and faction rivalries are held back by abysmal PvE and a boring world." But that was four months and a few updates ago, so what's changed?
So, how is New World right now?
New World's last big update was on January 25, introducing Expedition Mutators. Expeditions are New World's dungeons and, despite the occasional puzzle, are a pretty forgettable bunch, especially the ones you encounter while levelling. Mutators were introduced to spice them up, augmenting enemies with new abilities and introducing a rotation of mutations and dungeons each week, with a ladder and 10 difficulty levels for those with a competitive streak.
These mutated dungeons also reward players with Umbral Shards, an item that's essential if you want to upgrade your weapons and armour to the maximum gear score. Adding more currencies and grinding was criticised, but other players were just happy to get more things to do in New World's underwhelming endgame.
January's update, like the winter update before it, aimed to give New World some much-needed variety. As well as the aforementioned Umbral Shards and Expedition Mutators, they also introduced a new weapon type, new rewards, and a new group of enemies. Naturally, many players complained about Amazon not adding brand new dungeons or fixing bugs they found especially egregious, but I think the team had its priorities right.
The death of local economies has been a less fortunate—though Amazon would argue essential—change. Initially, every settlement had its own economy, with their trading posts filled with things you could get in the region. Loads of hemp nearby? You'd see it by the truckloads when shopping. Plenty of boars around? The trading post would be full of pork. This encouraged people to invest in settlements that had easy access to the raw resources they required for their business or crafting ventures. But this also meant that settlements in higher level areas had comparatively empty trading posts.
It's reasonable to assume this would have changed as more players hit the level cap, but rather than waiting for that Amazon just ditched local economies entirely, making one unified trading post. It's certainly streamlined, but at the cost of dynamism. Being a trader just isn't very engaging now.
Economy changes aside, New World does seem like it's in a better position than it was when I finished my review in October, but that hasn't been reflected in the player population. It's easy to read too much into player numbers, and it's almost a rite of passage now for online games to be slapped with the 'Dead Game' label just because it's not managed to maintain its launch population. They never do! Launches, including expansions, are always when the most people are playing. But even with this being the case, New World has seen a steep decline, going from a peak of nearly a million concurrent players in September to around 30,000 now.
Unfortunately, Amazon's efforts do not seem to be keeping people around. Every month, tens of thousands stop playing, and there haven't been any noticeable spikes around update launches, suggesting that they aren't tempting people back.
What's been happening recently?
- Expedition Mutators and Umbral Shards were added on January 25.
- A new PTR went live on February 2 to test the upcoming February update. Amazon has paused feature development to instead focus on improvements to the live game, tweaking existing systems and squashing bugs. Changes include more flexibility when it comes to weapon swapping, letting you swap during reactions, dodges, traversal and when you're munching on consumables.
- Small updates on February 2 and 10 provided general and endgame fixes, as well as tweaks for the void gauntlet, ice gauntlet and rapier.
Are the players happy?
MMO players never truly experience happiness (or is that just me?). Steam reviews continue to be mixed, tens of thousands of players aren't returning with the passing of each month, and worries about the population decline is a common thread on various forums. If it's not yet dead, they fear, it's still dying.
There's also some optimism, though, and a belief that the February update might fix things and bring people back. Given that actual new features have failed to do this, it seems unlikely that an update focused on polish, balance and bug fixes will have more luck, but at least it's an update the existing playerbase seems to be looking forward to, whatever it ends up doing for the MMO's fortunes.
And for everyone worried about its future, there are plenty of posts on the official and Steam forums, as well as the subreddit, where people are just getting on with things, playing the game and uploading clips of epic 100+ PvP brawls in the open world. It might be quieter now—though server mergers mean this isn't as noticeable in-game—but there are still thousands of players just having a good time.
Speaking of server mergers, while they are necessary when server populations get too small, it's hard to please everybody, or indeed anybody, when you're merging two dynamic worlds with factions fighting over territory. All the hard-won gains, the settlements players spent days trying to take over, the investment in those settlements after they were taken over—it all ends up being erased.
Despite this, there are still calls for more server mergers. Amazon's not announced plans for new mergers, but there are servers out there that are lucky to get 100 players in at the same time, which just isn't workable in an MMO. As an alternative, Amazon has been giving players opportunities to transfer to different servers—which people were desperate for at launch—but that's only a short-term solution, and one that actually puts the struggling servers in a worse position.
As I write this, it's the middle of the afternoon in Europe, but only two of the EU Central servers have over 1,000 players online, and half of them have fewer than 200 people playing. A few of them are so quiet that, even if everyone online was up for it, they couldn't participate in structured PvP, like wars.
What comes next?
Since New World is still in the midst of its decline, it's hard to predict where it will end up. MMOs typically start big, decline a bit over a few months, and then settle into a rhythm, but New World hasn't reached that last part yet. If you look at, say Star Wars: The Old Republic, which is now a decade old, you can see plenty of ups and downs, but over the course of a given year it generally remains stable. That'll eventually happen with New World, too, but the question is where the plateau will be.
It's currently got a lot of competition from another Amazon game, Lost Ark, which Korean developer Smilegate has been running for a few years now, but which was just published in the West under Amazon this month. It had a ridiculously successful launch, even better than New World's, and is still in the honeymoon period, with concurrent player numbers still frequently hovering around the million mark.
Even with an expansion, it's hard to imagine New World ever matching these numbers again. A perfect storm of pandemic boredom and a lack of competition gave it a great start, but it's not been able to even come close to maintaining that momentum. Something less ambitious is still possible, though, and even with the likes of Lost Ark seducing players away, New World offers a very different proposition, with a more laid-back pace and a focus on crafting and exploration that Lost Ark doesn't have.
Amazon hasn't announced when the February update will be applied to live servers, but with only a few days in the month left, expect it soon. Unless it gets delayed until March.