All right. Someone has to ask it, and it doesn’t need to be me but it’s still going to be me because I feel like it: Amazon Game Studios, seriously, what the heck is going on over there?
When we first got the news that New World was delaying until next year for launch, my immediate reactions were twofold. One, I think it’s the right call because there is no question in my mind that AGS did not need what was shaping up to be a Fallout 76-style mess on its already intensely tarnished brand. But two… well, I also immediately knew what my column was going to be this week because this is just baffling.
Yes, this means that only last week’s column prevented me from going for a solid streak of writing about the AGS catalogue and the strange road that it has taken thus far. This stuff is fascinating to me at this point, and it hasn’t even produced an actual game that’s in anything like a launch state. Amazing.
Part of me would love to do a Chronicles of Elyria-style breakdown of the path that New World has taken over the years, but the reality is that the end of the story hasn’t yet been written, which makes that less reasonable. New World also has the benefit of not, like, tricking people into putting more money toward a project that hasn’t been in active development, so that’s a thing. The only money that has been spent on New World is Amazon’s, and if anyone has “enough,” it’s Amazon.
So why the comparison to Fallout 76? Well, because they’re similar projects insofar as both seem to have been developed as open sandbox PvP MMOs without much of anything in the way of actual structured content, only to realize that people really wanted some structured content and in place of just being plopped in a wasteland over and over. Bethesda, for reasons only known to the company (because the fans sure said so quite loudly), didn’t realize this until the game had actually launched and suffered a serious drubbing.
Fortunately for Bethesda, the game has the Fallout name attached to it and Bethesda on the box, which means that people are willing to put up with a lot of nonsense to get at something positive. New World is a new IP and game, thus it doesn’t have that particular inheritance.
So yes, pulling the game back and finding the space to make the title work with a vastly changed focus? This is definitely a good idea, and it’s the right way to do it, which makes the question just a simple one about why it took this long for the notion to come up in the first place.
This is the part of every AGS decision that’s just baffling. It’s not that the company is basically approaching game development by throwing huge amounts of money at things and trusting it will eventually work; it’s that all of that decision making seems to somehow be asleep at the wheel until way too late for it to matter. Like, the whole story of Breakaway feels like the game was greenlit, developed, built, marketed, and so forth without anyone actually checking if this was a game with an actual market to break into.
And these are not games being headed by novice developers. Sure, some of the people involved aren’t ones I would call good developers, but they are at least aware of the fact that if you’re shipping a game, you need content to keep people involved. And New World’s lack of much in the way of firm content was… not exactly a secret? It was something lots of people noticed as soon as the title pulled back on its unattractive PvP aspirations.
This isn’t to say that if the team had just read outside commentary they could have avoided it. This is to say if a bunch of outside observers could all tell this was going to be an issue, the professional designers working on this game should have noticed this a long time ago. So what in the actual heck happened here?
You could say that it’s a result of a game being fundamentally designed and guided by marketing staff with no idea bout how games actually work. But if that were the case, why would it keep getting delayed and redesigned? Why would the marketing people not push for an actual release? Why is it that Amazon seems so reluctant to make its first actual release a flop, to the point of pulling back a game into beta when it did launch with a thud?
Maybe it’s the designers in charge? But again, at least some of them are veteran developers with successful titles under their belts, and they are at least accomplished enough to know that you can’t launch your game with no content and expect it to do decently. That’s not complicated and it’s not some rare wisdom. These are people who do know better than that.
Maybe it was all noticed and there were last-minute negotiations about pulling things back and being delayed and so forth? But if that were the case, why in the world would these delays keep mounting up? Why would there be no oversight or more substantial changes?
None of these possibilities makes a whole lot of sense, but they do all remind us of a fundamental truism about game development. Money helps, money is important, but at the end of the day money just isn’t everything when it comes to development. Attracting all the talent in the world isn’t going to matter when the games it’s being applied to are somehow inert or lack the motivating animus that leads people to make… well, games.
Maybe that’s the real problem here, though. Not that AGS tried to simply buy its way into the winner’s circle, but that what it has ultimately done is drop a lot of money into building games and into building marketing for these games and mandates that are trying to give everyone unfettered freedom. It’s the equivalent of giving everyone just enough lead to make truly bad decisions without the oversight necessary to pull some of it back if it becomes overzealous.
But we don’t know. The thing is that AGS has, at least so far, managed to avoid having an actual disaster on its hands; even Crucible doesn’t quite qualify for that, due in no small part to the short lead time between announcement and launch-but-not-really. So maybe the ultimate strategy is that as long as their first actual launch is solid instead of a punchline, it’ll all be worth it… and if the company has to semi-publicly flail a few times to get there, well, they can take those hits.
Mostly I’m just hoping that at the end of the day this is a net win. For all the issues stacked against it, there does seem to be a genuinely interesting game somewhere at the core of New World, and I’m hoping that this additional delay is enough time for the team to find it and refine it. Otherwise… well, expect to be back here in a year looking at this much like that aforementioned CoE retrospective.