It's been close to three months since New World, the musket-toting MMO, welcomed players to the beaches of Aeternum, a land of bears, cranberries and piratical skeletons. Squeezed into those two fall months were enough bugs, controversies, and economic crises to last other games an entire year.
First, it became so popular you had to join a queue to play, then a bug allowed players to duplicate gold, then supply-and-demand weirdness led to some players returning to a barter-style economy. Now that player numbers have dropped, the developers are hoping to catch their breath.
We spoke to a director at Amazon Games about what went wrong, what he'd do differently if he had the chance, and how (with small changes and a bit of diligence) they hope to make things right.
"We are reviewing our cadence," says Scot Lane, game director at Amazon Games. "[It] is no secret we’ve made some mistakes trying to move too fast. Our goal is to slow down for a bit and improve our processes."
Lane is talking about the monthly updates, but he could easily be speaking about the game's hectic birth. When it launched in late September, millions clamored to join what seemed to be the first blockbuster MMORPG released in years, which promised a deep player-driven economy and high-quality player-versus-player combat. But where there's a big game launch, there are server woes. Even Amazon, barons of internet infrastructure, did not have enough servers ready for the waves of explorers queueing to chop down trees and fight the undead.
In response, the studio doubled the servers, and blocked players from joining already overpopulated ones. Almost a month after release, the studio finally let players swap from one server to another. That is until server hoppers quickly noticed they could duplicate coins by glitching the transfer process. Less than 24 hours after introducing this most basic feature of MMOs, the developers switched it off to stop players abusing that exploit.
This is the short version of the game's challenging launch. For all the fun players were having skinning boars and firing muskets at one another, Amazon Studios was beset by crashes and controversy. There were even reports it was bricking some expensive graphics cards. This was later revealed to be caused by manufacturing faults by the card producer, EVGA.
Now that the baby-faced MMO has made it through those first few months, the developers are happy to talk a little more frankly about that opening salvo of difficulties, the future of the game, and their baptism by bug report.
"We were nervous about stability and crashes, moreso than exploits and dupes," says Lane. "I think we all know how wrong we were on our assumptions."
Milk and honey
The busy launch has had a knock-on effect. It was the plan to add fresh features to the game once a month. We've already seen the Void Gauntlet (a new weapon) and the winter events now playable in test servers. But after an overwhelmingly populous launch, the studio is rethinking how revolutionary they can feasibly be in 30-day bursts.
"We will still have monthly releases," says Lane, "but some will be more focused on bugs and balance than new features."
A focus on bug-stomping makes sense, considering how threatening one simple bug can be to a mystical island with infinite trees but finite coin. New World has seen more than one glitch that makes it possible for players to duplicate gold currency, or in one case duplicate a trophy that could be sold for those envied dubloons.
The first time a gold-duping bug like this reared its head, the developers knew they had to act fast. A flood of new money could wreck the already temperamental economy. Imagine if everyone in the US suddenly knew how to counterfeit perfect dollar bills with a few mouse clicks. What would happen to the price of milk?
"We had alarms going off informing us," says Lane, "and then it was backed up by players letting us know via forums, Reddit, etc… My personal reaction was frustration. We want to focus on gameplay and improving the experience, so when we have bugs, exploits, and things like that it detracts from what we really want to be doing."
The devs shut down wealth transfers and rooted out offending players with bans. The markets didn't get swamped with illegitimate gold coins. A similar bug would rear its head twice more, and other problems would later threaten the economy but at least rampant inflation wouldn't be one of them. .
But it's not just bugs that can disrupt the circulation of cash, the developers quickly realized. In the same update that introduced the magical Void Gauntlet and its purple blasts of arcane destruction, players noted a more mundane change:
"Reduced the quantity of honey gained from apiaries by 50% and the amount of milk from cows by 65%," reads one fix on a long list. "The bees and cows are happy about this change."
This is the microscopic level at which MMO developers have long had to manipulate their worlds. New World is no different. Tiny changes like this not only control the volume of certain items in the world, says Lane, but are also designed to nudge players towards the wilderness, instead of hanging out in town, milking Bessie all day.
"Milk and honey are very versatile cooking ingredients, and the abundance and easy accessibility of them was unbalancing the need to pursue hunting, harvesting, and [finding] provisions chests in the world… For example, when players come across a tree covered in honeycombs, it should be an exciting harvesting moment, and that was not having the desired impact."
The free-ish market
Even with subtle changes beneficial to Bessie's udders, Lane admits the economy did not get "where we’d like it to be", particularly for high-level players who reach the endgame. The studio is considering other tweaks. They might make salvaging items more profitable, for example (this is when you get a few pennies for breaking down or "salvaging" materials from tools, armor or weapons). They're also aiming to make it "more accessible" to buy a house in one of the land's many townships, among other adjustments.
"This is a very delicate balance. [W]e’re continuously monitoring and looking for ways to improve to keep the economy competitive and avoiding massive inflation."
Economics is a dry topic. But two things are as unavoidable in New World as they are in our own: death and taxes. Even if you do buy that one-floor bungalow in the corner of Everfell village, you'll have to pay tax on it, cash that goes straight to whatever player-run gang controls the village. Considering the complaints of some players and their growing discontent for this fiefdom of levies and fees, it's tempting to think of New World as an experimental economic realm where Jeff Bezos can propagate the idea that all tax is bad, actually. This is a video game funded by Amazon, after all.
"That is not our intention," Lane says. "We just want to make a fun game that evolves based on our players’ actions…The tax is in place to create a connection and some friction with our factions and owning companies as well…"
In other words, the taxes are there to encourage the appearance of player governors with punitive Prince John ideas, and rowdy groups of Merry Men.
"Players, especially home owners, who feel gouged can band together and overthrow them via wars," says the director.
The Robin Hoods of this MMO have yet to appear in any charismatic form. But the Prince Johns have admittedly turned up, with a few of the more devious governors embezzling gold and running off to start life afresh on new servers. It's these player-made moments that Lane looks most fondly on as successes.
"One of my favorite experiences was walking into a tavern in Windsward and there was someone standing on a table singing (through VOIP) while others sat around watching and it was just cool.
"Thankfully, he had a good voice."
Listening through the noise
This, along with watching PvP ambushes unfold in real-time, have been highlights for the director of the studio. Yet they've come amid a flood of understandable complaints. Following the explosion of interest two months ago, New World's player numbers have dropped and leveled out at daily peaks of about 130,000, at least according to Steam Player Count (never a perfect tool, please note). It remains one of the most-played games on Steam, even if those numbers don't match the first spasms of hype.
"All MMOs experience a drop off after the initial surge," says Lane. "I think there are many reasons that happens, and we brought some of it on ourselves by introducing bugs into the environment. We are improving daily… and if we continue to do that I believe many player[s] will come back."
In the short term, that means fixes. In the long-term, the studio will be "growing Aeternum not only in size, but in variety and activities". Boar-killers and PvP death-dealers will be equally glad to learn new weapons are on the way. Though when asked what those will be, Lane holds the line.
"Marketing would kill me… I’d hate to make a great blunder and give out the wrong details on upcoming weapons so we’ll have to wait a bit."
Making an MMO is one of the more perilous projects a studio can undertake. Few have lasted as long as World of Warcraft or Eve Online, the weathered veterans of a notoriously difficult and occasionally profitable genre. If anyone has an insight into just how tough it can be, it's Lane and the rest of Amazon Games.
"If I could do it over again, knowing what I know now… I would find more ways to test for and protect against these hard-to-find but game-damaging issues."
And even then, if you don't squash all the bugs in time, the players will let you know.
"There can be a lot of noise," says Lane.
The solution, it turns out, is a lot like walking into that tavern in Windsward and listening as a player clambers on top of a table to blow some hot air. You've got to stand there and watch.
"It sounds like it should be simple, but it is a complex situation… Simply listening isn't enough, we discovered, it's just as important to follow up, to talk to our players, bring them into the discussion to show them we are listening.
"We look at this journey as a marathon," says Lane, "and we are barely out of the starting blocks."
Brendan Caldwell is a freelance writer at IGN