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For flagging Amazon games unit, 'new world' 'has to be our breakthrough'

If it is successful, the computer game could create momentum for Amazon and bolster the perception that it is serious about the lucrative video game business that has eluded the tech giant so far

By Kellen Browning
Published: Sep 29, 2021

For flagging Amazon games unit, 'new world' 'has to be our breakthrough'After more than a year of delays, Amazon released "New World," an online multiplayer game

Amazon has been successful in nearly every industry it has entered, from books and grocery shopping to cloud computing and movie streaming. So it has been puzzling to many that success in the lucrative video game business has eluded the tech giant.

On Tuesday, Amazon gave producing its own video games another try. After more than a year of delays, it released "New World," an online multiplayer game in which players join factions, fight monsters, fight one another and colonize a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean.

The $40 computer game, which has received generally positive reviews as players tested early versions over the past few months, comes at a crucial time for the tech giant’s disappointing gaming efforts.

After spending by some estimates hundreds of millions of dollars, neither of the other two big-budget games Amazon announced it was producing in 2016 alongside "New World" exist today. Some of its top gaming hires have departed over the years without putting out any notable titles. Last year, the company also removed another game from storefronts after a poor reception.

"New World" “has to be our breakthrough game — there’s no doubt about it,” said Christoph Hartmann, the vice president of Amazon Games. “Just for morale of people, at some point you want to see some success.”

Amazon’s biggest accomplishment in the gaming industry so far has been the acquisition of Twitch, the livestreaming video site, which the company bought in 2014 for about $1 billion. Amazon has also forged ahead with a new gaming subscription service, called Luna, and recently announced a new development studio in Montreal.

But success with its own games has been difficult for Amazon, which opened its gaming studio in 2012. Mike Frazzini, a longtime company executive, took the helm and said he wanted to make hits like "Minecraft." Instead, though it has produced a handful of mobile titles, Amazon has canceled or ended at least four bigger games over the past several years.

In 2018, Amazon ended development of a sports game called "Breakaway," acknowledging that it “didn’t achieve the breakthrough that made the game what we all hoped it could be.” In 2020, it took the rare step of killing an already released game, "Crucible," after the multiplayer game was panned as a “hollow and forgettable experience.” This April, it canceled a planned "Lord of the Rings" game after a contract dispute with Chinese tech giant Tencent, with which it was teaming up to produce the title.

One oft-cited reason for Amazon’s struggles is that the typical mindset of Big Tech companies — taking an analytical approach that involves throwing money at something, scaling up and hoping for results — does not work in a fickle, artistic industry like gaming, where users are quick to criticize and slow to embrace new entrants.

“What governs Amazon, first and foremost, is this spreadsheet logic,” said Joost van Dreunen, a New York University professor who studies the business of video games. “I don’t know if a hodgepodge, creative process of creating games really fits into the corporate culture at Amazon.”

Outside of Amazon, which does not break out its gaming sales in its financial disclosures, the gaming industry has flourished, especially during the pandemic. Newzoo, a gaming analytics firm, has projected that people will spend $175.8 billion on games this year.

Amazon, of course, has found success after a slow start in producing television shows and movies. Gaming analysts suggested that Amazon could just now be figuring out the gaming business — which adds a dimension of technological skill — similar to how it took several years to land on a winning strategy in the streaming world.

“It’s about experience,” said Rupantar Guha, a gaming analyst at the analytics company GlobalData. “Although they have been slow, I think they are starting to get there.”

Hartmann, who reports to Frazzini, acknowledged that Amazon had failed in the past. When he joined the company in 2018, "New World" “didn’t look promising.” "Crucible," he said, was meant to compete with "Fortnite," one of the most popular games ever, and was “too ambitious” in scope. “In the long run, I think you learn with the defeats,” he said.

But he likened the studio to a talented yet youthful sports team that is on the rise. “You can put the best people together, but they’re not going to win the championship immediately,” he said.

Hartmann, an industry veteran who founded 2K Games, which produces popular titles like "NBA 2K," has tried to adjust Amazon’s focus from worrying about financial goals to developing enjoyable content.

“It’s a Big Tech company, so there will be always an element of, if you keep on pounding at it a certain way, eventually you will spit something out the other side,” said Hartmann. Instead, he encouraged a more creative approach less focused on bench marks and the bottom line. With games, “most decisions are with your gut, and that’s sometimes a very risky proposition for a Big Tech company.”

Gamers who have played early versions of "New World" said it was colorful and action-packed. Amazon would not share sales figures, but said it had more than 1 million players in one two-week test period of the game over the summer. "New World" was also the top-selling title on the online game store Steam during that time.

Dan James, a Twitch streamer and longtime gamer from Southampton, England, said an initial test of the game last year was rocky and somewhat underwhelming, but developers have since expanded gameplay options, introduced voice-overs, improved fighting mechanics and made a host of other changes that have people buzzing with enthusiasm.

“'New World' looks bloody awesome,” said James, 32, who has played various iterations of the game leading up to its official launch. He said there remained some skepticism among gamers “because Amazon doesn’t have a big game out there yet,” but said the company had proved that it could create, at the very least, “an awesome baseline.”

If it is successful, "New World" could create momentum for Amazon and bolster the perception that it is a serious rival in this industry. But van Dreunen questioned whether Amazon would want to continue investing in the endeavor, especially if early returns on "New World" are underwhelming. And even if "New World" is hugely successful, he said, one game does not necessarily justify years of failures and spending.

“Let’s say it’s the flagship title, cool. This is the 'Super Mario' of Amazon. OK, cool, what else you got? You need to have a catalog, you need to have a full offering,” van Dreunen said. “One swallow doesn’t make a summer.”

Still, Amazon has a reputation for persistence, even if the company loses money initially. Hartmann said executives had embraced a long-term vision for game development. The company plans to release a game called "Lost Ark" in 2022, and has other projects in the works.

Guha said patience was the tech giant’s greatest asset. “The best thing about Amazon is they don’t give up,” he said.

©2019 New York Times News Service