Amazon has had a rocky ride in video games. Ever since it announced its intention to move from mobile and Facebook games into more traditional triple-A releases back in 2014, there was a sense of mystery around its first big release.
Amazon’s first big announcement that it was barrelling into the games indstry had all of the right stuff: the megacompany brought in Clint Hocking (Splinter Cell), Kim Swift (Portal), and even Eric Nylund (best known for several Halo novels and writing the first Gears of War game). It made a supergroup of developers, and the world’s eyes were trained on the studio. And then… nothing.
Eventually – after a few false starts – Amazon has come good with New World, and for Amazon’s vice president of games studios, Christoph Hartmann, the success feels good. For its first week, New World was the top title on Steam and, at the time of writing, it’s the fifth most-played game of all time on the platform by concurrent users. This is a pretty big deal. In spite of this, and with 25 years of development under his belt, Hartmann – with credits on just about everything – is feeling humble.
“I’ve had some hits and I’ve had some failures and you get – over the years – you get very humble if something works,” says Hartmann. “It’s more like, ‘oh my god, I’m glad it works’ but ‘oh my god, what’s next for us?’”
Or what’s behind you, when it comes to Crucible. Amazon’s Crucible was released in May 2020. In June 2020, it got pulled back into closed beta. By the end of 2020, it was no more. [Editor’s note: Crucible was great, though]. For Hartmann, this doomed 12-month dance between release and testing was a valuable lesson.
“That’s one of the lessons out of Crucible,” says Hartmann. “Don’t go and do what everyone else does because everyone else went for battle royale shooters, because there was Fortnite, there was PUBG. It’s exactly the wrong thing we did there. That was my first year. The decision had already been taken, and also when [development started on Crucible], there was no Fortnite. You know, it wasn’t just copycat. Many people had the same idea at the same time.”
Things couldn’t be more different for New World, meanwhile; it’s a game that’s had its teething pains, sure, but it represents everything Hartmann thinks Amazon Games can do well. And it’s taking cues from the musical world.
“The music industry is much older, but it also comes in circles, you know,” says Hartmann. “There are years no one uses a piano, and then all of a sudden the piano’s back. I think we’re getting that with games. The industry is getting so mature. I don’t want to use the word ‘old,’ but things are also coming back. The reason we made an MMO is because everyone went away from it. I’ve got good experience of doing things other people didn’t want to do.
“One of the first games I signed up at 2K was Civilization – Sid Meier and Firaxis – and no one wanted to sign them because turn-based games were like, you know, very ‘old school’. I thought ‘yeah, they might be, but if no one does them anymore, there must be players out there who crave that, and are probably incredibly loyal’.”
When Hartmann joined Amazon in August 2018, he saw the chance to do the same again with New World. “I saw the crafting and PvP – and yes to those – but what about PvE? What if we add some PvE and make it into one of those big MMOs? People ask me why [we made a massively multiplayer online game], and it’s because no one has done one in a long time. Yeah, they’re old, but you just got to find your own touch and make them more accessible.“
With the success of New World pending (but already looking pretty assured, let’s be honest) and the wreck of Crucible washed up on the shores behind them, Hartmann says that the key for Amazon’s success will lie in being a little more selective in its projects, and never shipping a game until it’s polished – a philosophy that many other developers could do with signing up to, too (here’s looking at you, CD Projekt Red).
“I believe doing fewer is better, and making sure each game is fully focused, and only shipping a game when it’s ready,” says Hartmann. “That is something I really learned and observed from Sam Houser at Rockstar, where I also worked, and he ran all the developments. His mindset was: ‘I’d rather there be fewer games that are really big, and only ship them when they’re ready.’”
Does that sound like Amazon is going after the same sort of cadence and structure as Rockstar Games, then? Well, with a company like Amazon behind you, it’d make sense: there’s a lot of resources to fuel longer production times, and (if you can gain the trust of your audience) you’ll have an assured income at the end of the road. “When you look at the big Rockstar games,” says Hartmann, “they never fail.” Quite.
Hartman says there’s definitely a place for rapid iteration to try and find something interesting that resonates with players, but that he doesn’t think a big triple-A studio like Amazon is going to be the development studio to “reinvent the wheel”. No, instead they’re more likely to be the ones to polish it up, so to speak.
“It’s the same as how big music labels aren’t going to find the next big indie band,” says Hartmann, going back to that music metaphor. “Sure, they might find it, but the band will come from a sub-label. Eventually, [the bigger labels] just suck it up.”
This is surprisingly candid, but it’s refreshing to see someone who has been working in games for so long talk about the difficulty of finding the next big thing. Amazon’s raison d’etre, it seems, is ‘finding a good idea and making it accessible and enjoyable’.
“My whole approach to making games really fits well with Amazon, because it, too, always wants to play the long game,” says Hartmann. “After Crucible, Amazon didn’t go into panic mode and change everything, it didn’t fire someone; it just got more ambitious and said ‘let’s double down’ and started seeing what it could learn from the experience.”
New World’s comparatively smooth launch has only bolstered the studio. Being able to work internally with the Amazon Web Services team (AWS) helped, and New World itself copped a last-minute delay that saw it launching a month later than planned, but outside of long queues, the game launch was smoother than any MMO launch in memory.
“So far, we haven’t had a lot of complaints about the game,” says Hartmann. “You can see our Steam reviews. They were very good in the beginning, then they went down because of the queue time. Now they went up to being good again because it’s more or less resolved, so I guess people are still having fun.”
Now, Hartmann is looking ahead once again, outlining plans to keep supporting New World – which plans to monetize via cosmetics and with game-changing content drops coming through one-off expansion pack purchases – and strategizing about what games will release from across the broader Amazon Game Studios umbrella.
“We have three core pillars: our holy grail is our internal studios. There’s Irvine. There’s San Diego. There’s Montreal. We just started in Montreal a year ago, with a team from Rainbow Six Siege. I mean, they’re some of the best creative people I’ve worked with. You know, they’re just really, really good. I’m very hopeful that, one day, we’re going to add a [fourth studio]. I mean, we’ve got Seattle, too – so technically there’s going to be a fifth studio.”
These studios are what Amazon is hoping will be its glittering crown jewels but, as with everything else, Hartmann is keen to stress that getting them into a shape worthy of taking on the games industry at large takes time. And he’s expecting each game developed to take ‘four to five’ years to release from when they start. “We’re going to ship these games when they’re done and not rush them, and we think they’ll come out well,” Hartmann explains.
On top of this developmental push, there are publishing deals in the works, too. Amazon already has some of these (which Hartmann sees as the second pilar) ironed out – like the deal it’s established with Smilegate for the forthcoming MMORPG, Lost Ark. Hartmann wouldn’t talk about any others, but suffice to say there are at least a few more being worked out behind closed doors.
The final pillar is Project Ignite, which is where the gaming team finds a prodigious talent from somewhere in the industry and uses the corporate muscle of Amazon to help get its games to market.
“We are looking for very young or new developers who are very creative – who want to be disruptive – think outside of the box, and work with them, but give them a lot of freedom. We kind of want to be flexible, looking for some people if they just need financial support, but really want to be left alone. We can provide, and say we can deal later on with the business, and this and that. Some people who need editorial help – because we’ve got a great editorial team – we can do that, as well, because they want to make it a product outside of being just a great game idea.”
Hartmann doesn’t explicitly say it, but it’s hard not to think of these as their attempt to reinvent the wheel after all, by helping out smaller developers. See also: Devolver Digital.
“Sure, if someone is successful, we’ll always entertain the conversation if they would like to get bought by us, but actually it’s not good to buy them before they have anything achieved, because I want them to keep the freedom. I want them to be wild and not think about structure and have a crazy idea and get behind it.”
If Amazon can pull it off, it really feels like the company could have its cake and eat it when it comes to being both a premium triple-A development outfit and a helping hand to everyone out there who is just trying to find that next big thing.
Amazon Game’s New World is out now, Lost Ark is coming to western audiences in 2022.