75% of the way through 2021, the biggest new PC launch of the year is an Amazon Games game. Did you see that coming?
New World has drawn 801,642 simultaneous players today, its fourth day online. And counting. That's the most of any new game on Steam in 2021. It should register a higher number this weekend, when the greatest number of people are logged into Steam. Concurrent players aren't a scientific measure of popularity and sales (at times thousands of those players have been idling in long server queues), but it's a useful basic indicator of what people are playing right now. And a boatload of them are playing New World.
(For those who like to keep score, Valheim had the second-biggest launch, hitting 498K concurrents in February, and eventually selling at least 8 million copies.)
We're now living in a world where the website you buy replacement electric toothbrush heads from manages one of the most popular PC games in the world. Amazon struck gold in the underserved MMO market, offering a rare alternative to World of Warcraft, whose fans have bristled this year at faction balance and other issues, stimulating a search for greener pastures.
The sunken ships before the New World
New World's early success is more notable for all the years of pain and false starts Amazon has faced in trying to break ground in the gaming industry. (Disclosure: I worked at Amazon Games for four months in 2015-16.)
Let's review some of that difficult history:
Released: May 2020
Shut down: November 2020
This free-to-play, third-person competitive hero shooter clumsily un-released into closed beta after it launched before shutting down altogether. "So much of Crucible feels like misguided effort, starting with its game modes," Morgan wrote in our review. "Crucible’s combat is sluggish and the gluttony of explosion effects are hard to read up close. Imposing assault rifles and miniguns sound like they’re shooting marbles. Neither NPC nor players react to taking damage … There are too many shooters out there that do what Crucible does way better."
Untitled LOTR MMO
Cancelled before release
Amazon is producing an astonishingly expensive Lord of the Rings TV series, so you can understand its prior interest in creating a game. It was working with LA-based Athlon Games on a LOTR MMO in 2019, but the company that owns that company got acquired by Tencent this year, and development halted. “We love the Lord of the Rings IP, and are disappointed that we won’t be bringing this game to customers,” Amazon said in April.
The MMO was going to be set "a time long before the events of The Lord of the Rings, exploring lands, people and creatures never seen before by fans of the Tolkien universe," but we never got a glimpse of what this looked like. It is surprising that at one point Amazon had two parallel MMO projects in production.
The Grand Tour
Released: January 2019, on consoles
Shut down: July 2020
This Amazon Prime Video tie-in was a somewhat ambitious cross-media project—an "episodic" racing game that blended actual, fullscreen segments of the show into the game itself, bookending gameplay with clips across a variety of challenges. But some reviews actually complained that the game "spent too much time on footage," not unlike overlong cutscenes in a Kojima game. Like Crucible, this is a case where plentiful alternatives in the genre couldn't have helped.
Released: December 2016 as an open alpha
Shut down: March 2018
Breakaway mashed together many of the popular elements of the era: character-based 4v4, MOBA-style competition on a symmetrical arena populated with power ups, but with a battle for a ball at the center. This was Amazon's attempt at an esport, but like so many other competitive games of this era it failed to escape the long shadows of Dota 2, LoL, and Rocket League.
Outside of these four shuttered projects, a January Bloomberg report ("Amazon Can Make Just About Anything—Except a Good Video Game") revealed that Amazon Games cancelled two other games, codenamed Nova (a MOBA) and Intensity, that were cut in 2017 and 2019 respectively. The article cited two sources at Amazon who claimed $500 million per year was being spent to create Amazon's gaming projects.
After many failures and setbacks in gaming we have a success. So proud of the team for the persistence. View setbacks as helpful obstacles that drive learning. Whatever your goals are, don’t give up no matter how hard it gets. @playnewworld (1/2) https://t.co/LK0VUdCSS9October 1, 2021
It's not unusual for game publishers to cancel projects in development. And even for longstanding, giant studios like EA and Ubisoft, it's not unusual for new games to be met with cold reception. But as a games industry newcomer who's also a ubiquitous global giant, Amazon's efforts were judged harshly, not unlike the cold response Google has faced on its Stadia project. For many gamers and industry commentators, Amazon's defeats validated the notion that money and scale alone aren't sufficient to break into this famously fickle creative business.
Until now, perhaps.
Queue issues aside, the path to New World's early success was paved by two things: these four prominent failures, and the decision to delay New World four separate times (May 2020 was its first announced release date). But more than anything, I think it's simply tapped into a starved marketplace: MMOs are unique for their ability to rally friend groups back together, and as we covered in September, the thirst for a WoW alternative was visible in the lead-up.
It'll be interesting to see how well New World sustains that famously ravenous gaming demographic. I suspect we'll start to see endgame complaints popping up in another week or two as diehards hit the level cap. And the year isn't over yet: it could be eclipsed by Battlefield 2042's launch in November.