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Christoph Hartmann, current head of Amazon Games and former head of Take-Two Interactive’s 2K publishing label, said the reaction to Lost Ark is proof that the company is finally cracking the code to succeed in the game. game industry. New World, which launched last September with a $40 price tag, has achieved equally impressive numbers for a newcomer to the age-old genre dominated primarily by Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV from Square Enix.
With Lost Ark, Amazon has now succeeded in both the first-party and publishing realms, after years of tortured game development on failed projects and with no prior experience in localizing titles overseas. . For Hartmann, these successes are also a reason to believe in the future of live gaming. The model, in which games are supported for years after launch and monetized through various methods, has emerged in recent years as a mainstream approach to mainstream game development, spanning mobile to console and PC.
“The reason I left the label that I founded and went to Amazon is because I want to make live service games. Because I really believe that’s the future,” Hartmann told Protocol in an interview this week. “They have such a deep engagement with the player that they really feel connected.” Hartmann added that the business model for most single-player games these days is become somewhat antiquated, as game prices have remained largely stable – some publishers now only charge $10 more for next-gen game releases – but budgets continue to swell.
“It’s very difficult to make single-player games that have a high chance of commercial success because production costs, as we know, with each generation of consoles or PCs, increase more and more,” Hartmann said. “When you look at the cost of development and you look at what you’re paying for a game, you clearly see development costs going [up]then the price of the game is [staying flat]. That’s why you have fewer and fewer games, and that’s why you also have so many franchises.”
Hartmann said Amazon’s strategy so far is to look at live service games, but also go against the grain when it comes to genre. This is precisely how Amazon ended up with not one, but two successful MMOs at a time when most mainstream gamers spend the majority of their time playing competitive shooters or mobile titles. occasional.
“When I started here, it was at the height of when Fortnite got big and PUBG got big. So everyone was chasing battle royale shooters… From what I learned at over the years you have to do the opposite of what other people do because there will be too many players, “he said. “But you also have to respect that people have a gender. I don’t think Not that it’s worth trying to fight something like Call of Duty, so we’re definitely not going to.
The future of games as a service
Live gaming has a controversial reputation in the industry. Although MMOs like the many games that inspired New World and Lost Ark were arguably the very first game-as-a-service titles in the 90s and early 2000s, the current iteration of live-action gaming has been strongly influenced by free mobile. to-play boom of the past decade, ushering in questionable business practices like pay-to-win, microtransactions, and loot boxes.
Some games have been able to hone their models by balancing strong gameplay with fair monetization, including pioneering console and PC live service games like Bungie’s Destiny and its sequel, Riot’s League of Legends, Epic’s Fortnite, and Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six Siege. But plenty of other titles from some of the biggest publishers have tried hybrid approaches, selling a game for $60 and trying to recoup development costs through microtransactions while trying to fix bugs and smooth out post-launch rough edges. .
Many of the biggest gambling flops of recent years can be attributed to the failure of this delicate act of juggling. As a result, the term live service can now sometimes carry a negative connotation meaning either unfinished at launch or generally exploitative in the way it gives away product for free – only to try and milk players for far more than 60 traditional $ it might have cost. if the game was released before 2008.
That reputation is starting to change as more game developers learn that their approaches aren’t working and that they need to adapt their business models to match free-to-play behemoths like Fortnite, Genshin Impact, and Valorant. Sony bought Destiny developer Bungie for $3.6 billion, in part because of the success of Destiny’s live-service model, which Bungie has settled for over seven years. Sony now says it will release up to 10 live service games by 2026, with the help of talent and technology from Bungie.
“Bungie’s success in multi-format publishing and live game services will help us achieve our ambitions to take PlayStation beyond the console and grow our potential audience,” said PlayStation chief Jim Ryan, at the time of acquisition. “Bungie’s expertise in delivering a world-class service approach and long-term community engagement is extremely compelling and will support the development of several future PlayStation Studios live-service titles.”
Activision Blizzard has also revamped its approach to live service games, amid the company’s consideration of workplace toxicity and now its new conditional ownership as a Microsoft-owned publisher. The company is said to have paused Call of Duty release next year for the first time in 16 years, to focus on a reboot of its Warzone battle royale and to better position the shooter series for a live-service future.
Ubisoft is taking a similar break with its Assassin’s Creed series, opting instead to launch a possible live-service version of the role-playing stealth franchise called Assassin’s Creed Infinity. Sticking with the theme, Microsoft launched its own infinity game last year, aptly called Halo Infinite, with the intention of making it an ongoing platformer that could last for years to come.
Despite the industry’s ups and downs when it comes to live service gaming, Hartmann is optimistic about the future of the model and the kinds of experiences it can deliver. “The live service is just a much better thing for the consumer because they can either buy it once and then play it for a long time and buy small pieces or play it for free right from the start,” he said. . “But that’s the zeitgeist, and I think it will be hard to find a game that doesn’t have a live service component.”
Hartmann said that in the long run, “every game will be a live service game,” one way or another. He mentioned developer Telltale Games’ episodic storytelling as an example of how story-driven single-player games can still fit the live-service mold.
The Three Pillars of Amazon Games
This approach also informs the publishing and investment arm of the company. Hartmann said Amazon wanted to find hidden gems both in the form of games that are successful overseas and also indie titles that could hit in the next big genre shift, similar to how PUBG started as an early access game created from PC modding. community.
Last September, Amazon announced that it had reached an agreement with indie UK studio Glowmade for an upcoming project, with other projects underway between Amazon’s four in-house studios and other unannounced publishing deals.
“We also want to be – I don’t even want to call it a publisher – want to be a home for young, innovative developers,” Hartmann said. He pointed to Amazon’s resources, both in the form of marketing with Twitch and in its extensive cloud computing platform. “We have the flywheel to help them press that fast dial to get things done faster.”
Beyond making its own games and publishing those from established developers, Amazon sees its goal of finding up-and-coming studios working on ambitious projects as the “third pillar” of its games division, Hartmann said. “We’re trying to find, you know, the next big idea and really be more of a hub for young new bands, to offer them our abilities.”
Hartmann said Amazon is looking to establish “long-term relationships” that could lead to, for example, an acquisition or a multi-year publishing deal. “It’s still a very selective process. We’re not going to say, “Let’s throw 100 things against the wall and see what happens.” I have so much personal commitment to people that I just want to sign something that I think could be something big and very special.
But Hartmann added that the studios and projects the company brings into the Amazon Games fold don’t have to be immediate successes. Like Amazon’s own gaming projects – a number of which have failed and one, Crucible, which has failed rather publicly – it may take time for games to really find their footing and expand their audience. New World, for example, was delayed four times before its launch last fall.
“Even if at the beginning one of these games doesn’t work as well as we want it to, one thing that I always said to myself is that we want to follow the DNA of Amazon… We don’t throw away the towel just because we didn’t make a profit in the first 24 hours,” Hartmann said. “If you believe in it, keep going, learn from it and most importantly with our commitment to live service, sometimes it takes them a while to develop.”