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We talk to Amazon about its New World MMO and the problematic associations

"The colonialism stuff: there's no way to tell that story in a good way."

Amazon's big foray into gaming begins May 2020 with the release of online PC game New World (which you might remember from a leak last year). It's a massively-multiplayer game inspired by the Age of Exploration, hence the name, taking place on a magical island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

The most exciting features are a kind of guild warfare system based around settlements and forts, where players can fight 50 versus 50 battles; an active combat system where you have to aim to land attacks; and a classless progression system where weapons have skill trees.

I spoke to game director Scot Lane about New World before The Game Awards reveal.

What I was most worried about was the setting. Indiginous people suffered terribly because of colonialism, and still do, so it's a problematic period to be associated with.

"The colonialism stuff: there's no way to tell that story in a good way," Lane told me. "We are not that. This is not in America. We don't have any history from America on the island. There's nothing there that would tie us to America."

Apart from the name, I should point out.

"It's an island in the middle of the Atlantic," Lane went on. "It's something that could be what people thought was Atlantis or Terra Australis Incognita at the time. The people who live here came here. This island was uninhabited. Everyone who came here, came here either out of greed or desire to control Azoth [a source of magic], and that's the story we're telling."

People are already on the island, then, but according to Lane, are not native.

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The lore goes like this: the island Aeternum is a place where Azoth - magical stuff - is pushed up through the crust of the earth because two forces are flowing together. Azoth can grant eternal life and magical power so people covet it, but Azoth also corrupts. The people you come across, then, are greedy, and now corrupted, explorers.

Azoth shapes the island too, twisting flora and fauna in apparently spectacular ways. The trailer I saw showed a magical world with a cartoon edge and plenty of visual variety. It was far from a realistic recreation of our world.

Owning territory and warring

Wars are the player-versus-player side of the game you do not have to participate in, but which sound exciting to me. "Our wars are 50 versus 50," Lane said, "or 50 players versus hundreds of AI attacking you. Basically what happens is there's a territory-control game going on in the background for those who want to take it to that level."

The territory-control struggle is between players. "Owning a territory is a big deal," Lane said. "It means you can literally govern a territory. You get to set tax rates, you get to determine community projects. 'How do we want to grow? Do we want to make our blacksmithing station level two [...] or do we want to focus on our tanning? Do we want to by cannons for our walls?' You're working on setting goals and town projects people work towards."

You won't elect leaders because territories are controlled by guilds, known as companies in New World, but you will get to choose which guilds to support.

"What happens is you own a territory and I live in that territory," explained Lane (a press release said you can customise homes so presumably you can build a house). "You set your tax rates really high and I live there. Another guild attacks you. I can join them or I can join you.

"If you're good, if your tax rate is low and you need more people to help support the war, I'm going to help you, because I want to keep the tax rates low and you're working on stuff I like. But if you're working on stuff I don't like, I'm going to help these other guys."

But again, wars and open-world PvP are optional. You can flag yourself up for it and opt in, or, "If you don't care about this stuff as a player, you can have a huge, massive experience without any of it."

Combat inspired by Dark Souls

Yes, you read that correctly. "We're saying action-RPG influenced a little more by games like Dark Souls," Lane said. "Now, when I say Dark Souls: it's inspired by it. We've made it a lot more accessible. We don't want anything hardcore here. But we want to feel like your skill in combat matters."

New World wants away from traditional MMO combat where click on an enemy and then press buttons to use abilities on them, maths underneath determining if you hit. "We wanted to do a different take," he said.

"For us, there is no mouse cursor in the game. Imagine my sword has to physically hit your body to damage you. We will still have abilities and cooldowns but it will all be a physical space.

"This also means my player has collision in the world, so if there are three or four of us together and we're fighting a player, our position becomes a very important part of the strategy. Think about that in a war..."

Fighting, he hopes, will be more than a game of numbers.

"In a lot of MMOs, if you're level 50, a level 45 cannot hurt you," he said. "It can't even come close to you. If you're a level 50 in our game, you're more powerful than a 45 for sure, but that skill can be overcome. Some of our QA guys are amazing. They can beat people 10, 15, even 18-20 levels ahead of them.

"That gives a chance for you, if you're not as time rich, to still compete and be a part of things. And you can definitely contribute to a war as a lower level."

Skill trees for weapons

There are no classes in New World so you can theoretically play any kind of role in combat you like, depending on where you put your attribute points when you level up.

It's a fairly similar deal to that in other games: if you want to be on the front line, invest in strength and hitpoints and wear heavy armour, whereas if you want to be on the back line and fight from range, invest in dexterity and armour you can move around in, or invest in spirit to enhance your magic and whatever magical equipment you've got on.

"Where classes come a little more into play in our game, though, is weapons," said Lane. "We have a weapon mastery system. Every weapon has skill trees. The more you use that weapon, it levels up and allows you to pick a different path.

"An example would be the hatchet. I could play a hatchet where I want to be really fast and furious with it, or I could play it as a ranged where I could throw it, and I can get different abilities that will support those."

Another thing New World has, inspired by action RPGs, is weapon quick slots. These allow weapon changes on the fly, from ranged to melee to magical and back again. "It creates this really interesting mixture of combat," said Lane.

Why it's not on console

New World is only in development for PC, as it stands. Consoles are, "Not something we've specced or considered yet," Lane said.

"I love console development, I've made a lot of console games, [but] on this we're pushing the graphics as far as we can. That's one of the big things we want to bring to the genre: to make a different-looking MMO than you've seen. And I think our combat at scale: there's a lot of things we can push because as PCs get more powerful, it allows us to add more and more to it over time."

There's some hidden subtext here. In the background, Amazon is rumoured to be making a cloud-powered game-streaming service not unlike Google Stadia, it sounds like, and is expected to announce it - and possibly even launch it - next year.

Given that New World is an internally-developed Amazon game, it follows that it will support whatever gaming platform Amazon is cooking up. Is the May release date for New World, then, a potential giveaway?

It's not something I talked about with Lane, I apologise, but it's worth bearing in mind.

New World will be released for PC in May 2020, as mentioned, and there will be a closed beta a month before, in April. Pre-orderers will be invited in.

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