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New World’s influences span WoW, Diablo, and “even DayZ a little”

Amazon Games' Rich Lawrence and Scot Lane talk about innovating in a somewhat stale scene

Gate Keeper enemy standing guard with a two-handed sword in WoW and Diablo-inspired MMO, New World

Fans of MMOs have a rough time of it. Sure, there are plenty of options out there fulfilling all manner of niches, but if you’re looking for something new and fresh it can be a long wait for innovation. Most of the big dogs are starting to show their age, and can be pretty formulaic when coming up with new tricks each expansion cycle.

That’s what makes new releases like Amazon Games' New World so exciting. A potential new player in the genre can really spice things up, reinvigorating the scene with different takes on everything from combat and player agency, to how the economy should work. But it's also vital to iterate on the more traditional features refined by the best MMOs over the past three decades.

How do you go about throwing your hat in the ring without falling by the wayside like so many failed contenders over the years? We chat with Amazon Games studio head Rich Lawrence and New World game director Scot Lane to get their take.

“Our team has spent a tremendous – some would say disturbing – amount of time playing MMOs,” Lawrence says, “it’s a genre we love playing. There are elements we love about everything from Ultima Online and Everquest, to more modern entries like Guild Wars, Black Desert Online, and EVE Online.” Lawrence also points to games like Dark Age of Camelot for “building a lot of meaning into the ‘sides’ of PvP”, single-player games for examples of good action combat, and World of Warcraft for its “tremendous dedication to production quality”.

Of course there are plenty of inspirations outside of MMORPGs, too. “When designing games you take inspiration from almost every game you’ve played, whether you realise it or not,” Lane explains. “I’ve personally found inspiration from so many games that it’s hard to name a few, but the top would be World of Warcraft, Dark Souls, Diablo, Guild Wars, and even DayZ a little.”

Fishing by a lake in Gate Keeper enemy standing guard with a two-handed sword in WoW and Diablo-inspired MMO, New World

The team believes that even when crafting something new, you need to be aware of the history drawn up by the gaming monoliths that form the foundation of the genre. However, Lane adds that “While we take inspiration from other games, we aren’t trying to recreate what other games have done just because they did them.” There’s a fine line to walk here, between being inspired by and iterating on the more traditional experiences players will recognise as MMO gameplay, while providing enough innovation to reinvigorate what can feel like a somewhat stale scene.

“One thing that needs innovation, oddly enough, is driving social aspects into play more often,” Lawrence says. “MMOs are inherently social in that you’re surrounded by other players, but sometimes they can feel massively single-player. I really like games that throw me together with different players on a regular basis without making it a chore – I think the MMO space has some things to learn from mobile in that regard. One of our goals for New World is to make players valuable to each other in unusual ways, like PvP and PvE players being important to each other for example.”

But there are definitely still more traditional MMO elements present in New World’s core game design. Instanced dungeons, world PvP, the ‘holy trinity’ of tank, healer, and DPS – which features are most important to preserve, and which areas are due an update? “This is a difficult one to answer as every genre is constantly iterating and innovating,” Lane says. Look at WoW five or ten years ago versus today. We thought about what would be fun and what we’d like to play and we quickly landed on bringing action-RPG combat to an MMO game at scale. We debated the holy trinity of tank, heal, and dps, and in the end decided this was indeed the best approach: it’s widely understood by players, and frankly it just works.”

PvP combat in Gate Keeper enemy standing guard with a two-handed sword in WoW and Diablo-inspired MMO, New World

While Amazon Games’ MMO is by no means the first to bring action combat to the genre, for many players it’s New World’s biggest draw. The majority of its competitors still opt for a fighting style focused on rotating through abilities on cooldown. Large melees in New World feel pretty brutal as a result, and the lack of auto-lock targeting brings shades of Soulsbourne’s intensity to smaller duels.

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“We believe the key to getting action combat right in an MMO is delivering combat that feels responsive, performant, and is skill-based,” Lane says. “Those three items are so interconnected that if any fall short, it has a negative effect on the entire experience. Beyond that, it’s about creating interesting, fun, and tactical combat where player choice really matters.”

But this is still an MMO, with player leveling and gear disparity. There surely comes a point in any such system where player skill falls to superior item levels. “Skill matters a lot in New World because of its capsule-based hit detection,” Lane explains, “so within a reasonable level range, skill can overcome a level or gear disparity. But we also want to reward players for leveling and gearing up, so when skill is about equal gear shines through. But yes, a skilled player has a shot against a higher level, better geared player, within reason.”

Cooking in Gate Keeper enemy standing guard with a two-handed sword in Amazon Games' MMO, New World

PvE content in New World has been reworked in response to alpha feedback, with the team hoping PvE will be as important as PvP. “While we have a strong PvP player base, we were under-servicing our PvE players, and they let us know,” Lane says. “Our goal is to deliver a game where PvP and PvE players don’t merely coexist, but complement each other, and we feel we are moving closer to that with every new feature.” It’s a bold endeavour, and one that many MMOs have struggled with in the past.

Player agency is another area Amazon Games is hoping will set its MMO apart from the competition. Few games have managed to offer up a balanced, player-driven economy, with EVE Online, Albion Online, and Old School Runescape being the standouts. Amazon Games is looking to increase player agency by placing regional economic control directly into the hands of players. “Player agency has a big role in New World,” Lane says. “There are no game vendors in Aeternum, so everything is done through trading posts or player-to-player trading. Players own the land on the map, and it will likely look different every time you log on. Players also set the taxes and trading fees throughout the world.

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“You may be in a town where a tyrant has control and everything is super expensive, or the opposite, where all rates are low and the town is booming. As a player, your company has a chance to take over any territory not under your faction’s control, so if you don’t like the way things are being run, you can do something about it.”

A Brute invading a town in New World

Putting players in control of both taxation and the ability to depose manic regional rulers almost feels like a social experiment. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the longer term, and how players gel with fluctuating price points for their goods based on the decisions of a few local player overlords.

Of course a player-driven economy relies on players sticking around, and whether it’s Marvel Heroes, Warhammer Online, Wildstar, or Club Penguin, there are dozens of MMOs that have lived and died while titans like World of Warcraft carry on. The question of what gives an MMO staying power is a difficult but important one to answer.

“That’s simple to answer but hard to do,” Lawrence says. “To have staying power, you have to be constantly hungry to delight players, which is quite hard as what pleases one player is often another’s least favourite feature. You spend a lot of effort getting an MMO ready for launch, and then you’ve got to realise that even if you succeed, you’ve captured a moment in time that will start shifting from that first day of live operation.”

A view of the a dungeon in Expedition Lazarus from the MMO New World

“First and foremost,” Lane adds, “we plan to continue engaging and evolving with the players, delivering content that fills their wants and needs for as long as they want to play New World. I think that’s required for an MMO to have staying power. Beyond that, we have to have mechanisms and processes in place that enable us to continue to rapidly deliver content to keep the experience fresh and fun.”

New World is certainly an ambitious undertaking, but it remains to be seen if the world of Aeternum will represent an interesting experiment or the next experience to revolutionise the genre. In any case, new blood is rarely a bad thing, and both Amazon Games and the genre it’s aiming to revitalise stand to learn plenty when New World releases on August 31, 2021.

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