By JJ Robinson
New World, Released in 2021, developed by Amazon Game Studios, Double Helix Games
For a game made by the all conquering corporate behemoth that is Amazon, New World is surprisingly enthusiastic about the merits of taxation for common social good.
In the Riverworld setting of 60’s sci-fi author Philip José Farmer, millions of people from across human civilisation suddenly awaken along the shores of a vast river valley.
They appear exactly as they were at age 25, speaking only Esperanto, and naked apart from a small modesty towel. Grievous injuries regrow, while the dead are once again resurrected randomly along the river. Why is this happening? Beyond immediate survival, development of a towel-based resource economy, and the repeated hunting down and slaying of one’s enemies across multiple lifetimes, the quest to find purpose in Farmer’s literary world is central to the overall mystery of the story.
It’s the perfect premise for a Massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). This has not gone unnoticed by online retailer Amazon for the expansive game New World that is has developed as part through its cloud-powered game development division.
After parting with £35 for the privilege to gain access to New World, players wash up on the in-game shores of Aeternum, a mysterious and inescapable island where they quickly learn they are unable to permanently die. Gamified resurrection thusly is baked into the narrative. Players quickly divide into one of three factions: the religious zealots of the Covenant (yellow), the conniving scientists of the Syndicate (purple), and the piratey thugs of the Marauders (green).
Whichever you choose, you play a somewhat conquistadora-style settler exploring the island’s mysteries while strip-mining it of natural resources, its immortal wildlife a genuinely renewable supply of natural leather. What drives this need to craft ever-more potent muskets and tricorne hats? The urge to slap down the other factions and seize the means of production.
This makes for a pleasantly emergent and player-driven political sandbox. New World is like a Greatest Hits album of the past 15 years of online worldscaping, inventing little of its own but liberally borrowing features like Warhammer Online’s town and territory control.
Companies (guilds) initially race to buy up neutral territory, which are taken on behalf of the faction but controlled by individual companies like little East India baronies. A company can seize a territory owned by another faction by launching and successfully coordinating a 50 v 50 Battlefield-style invasion of the enemy’s fort. Control of a town not only drapes it in a company’s livery, but lets its rulers set tariffs for crafting, trade and player housing. This income in turn is reinvested into upgrading the town’s crafting tiers and the fort’s defensive features… or is siphoned off by crooked company leadership. All players can use a town’s services regardless of faction, but those of an owning faction get a substantial discount along with other territory bonuses.
This all makes a gleefully febrile environment for political intrigue, corruption, economic exploitation and earnest debates in global chat about the merits of libertarian self-sufficiency versus high-tax Scandinavian-style reinvestment in high tier public crafting services.
Amazon’s very own dictator simulator
A company governor is functionally a dictator, but one readily deposed by a rival faction should they abuse their power. Masking greed with a veneer of legitimacy and democratic pageantry is key, lest the town empty of tax-shy players. An underinvested town can’t fund fort defences and becomes vulnerable to seizure.
On one server (Ophir, chosen because it’s also the name of a gin), is the largest Syndicate company. Stygian Gleam built the server’s first tier 4 workshop then abruptly imposed extreme taxation to capitalise on its market dominated. The town flooded with eager yellow and green customers, grudgingly handing over their coin even as they vented fury at being viciously exploited. While they vowed to overthrow their capitalist oppressors, Gleam reinvested their tax monies in a subsidiary company, Glow, buying the swamp town to the east. The combined might of the two firms is now aimed at seizing the Marauder’s ill-conceived expansion into other turf: war is tonight, and no-one fancies the chances of those hapless green scrubs.
This kind of emergent player-driven gameplay will be key to the game’s longevity, with each server becoming an engrossing and unique ongoing political drama driven by the players that frequent it. Conquest and control grant the right to impose taxation, but not retain power; and shrewd server diplomacy is as critical to success as being able to take the head off a Covenant goon with a musketball at 200 yards. PVP: Player Versus Politics.
There’s many other things to like about New World. The moment-to-moment gameplay is satisfyingly third-person and real-time, rather than the button-mashing number rotations of most other MMOs (the term ‘rotation’ summons the image of the hamster wheel that these games become).
Real-time MMO has long been a technical challenge with thousands of players in the same space, making New World a behind-the-scenes achievement in server and network architecture naturally suited to Amazon’s talents. Limiting a player’s storage to each town rather than having a global ‘bank’ seemed annoying at first, but it is also to be commended as to how it subtly invests you in a particular town, faction and company. Losing a home town to those creepy Covenant bastards or disorganised green rabble would sting; such conflict is a powerful narrative engine and the dynamically-generated saga of the server is likely to keep players logging back in as much as loot or objectives.
OG World of Warcraft understood this: key to the rift between Horde and Alliance were the imposed limits on communication, with text chat appearing garbled to the opposing faction. Ganks, backstabs/spit emotes and other such slights accumulated on a PVP server, so that by the time you were level 60 your character had a lifetime of grievances to take out on lower level players – or forgive, in a fruitless effort to end the cycle of violence.
New World is great when it leans into this conflict dynamic, where WoW became shy of doing so. Sure, invading WoW’s cities was possible, but unrewarding and thoroughly discouraged by mechanic of unrelenting and punishingly high level guard swarms. The most interesting conflicts were fenced off in discreet battlezones, rather than raging chaotically across the open world map.
In New World you can chase the barebones fetch quests and never turn on your PVP flag, but to do so is relinquish your agency and become a cog in a capitalist machine controlled by those who own your preferred crafting station.
Choosing to play the game seemingly outside of the politics will let the player grind through the world while also generating tax for your server’s corporate masters. Alternatively, will you engage that PVP flag and train for the day you can yourself seize control of the labour of others?
If New World draws grumbles it comes from the sheer amount of walking you must do between quest icons. Periodic hearthstones back to your inn are free but fast travel is resource expensive, especially when laden with loot. Mounts are easily the most demanded new feature (though conveniently dismissed through the fiction of all animals on the island being mad). It is hard to see an in-game reason for why an engineer of skill 67 shouldn’t be able to at least make a bicycle.
While doubtless intended to cynically extend playtime, the slow pace of exploration and travel is refreshing – the world is gorgeous and detailed, littered with resources and hidden nooks, and diverse in height, flora and biome. The lighting is gorgeous – lying on a secluded rocky outcrop as the sun sets on the horizon, popping Covenant paladins with a musket on the road below, is thoroughly therapeutic. Slow gameplay, like slow food, can be inherently wholesome.
José Farmer’s Riverworld turns out to ultimately be an alien experiment in human morality: given eternal life and all the tools of survival, will people be inherently good? New World is on the surface a conventional MMORPG that belies an intriguing and gently-incentivised experiment in emergent player-driven economics and politics.
That Amazon should be offering a moral lesson in the merits of taxation as a means of collective civil development is ironic and hilarious – given the well documented and convoluted nature of its finances and creative accounting.
Given eternal life and all the tools of survival, will people still gripe endlessly about high tariffs? So far, the answer is: damn right. On Aeternum, you need not worry about death – only taxes.