This week: a game about exploring outer space and a big executive shakeup at Electronic Arts. But first: a rare video game victory for Amazon.

Amazon finally wins at video games

New World, the just-released online game from Inc., was once so offensive to Native Americans, the developers had to bring in a tribal consultant to convince the company to change course. 

Years later, stripped of racist depictions and most references to its origins as a game about colonizing America, New World appears to be Amazon’s first big video game hit. The game has exceeded 750,000 concurrent players on the PC platform Steam and is being watched by hundreds of thousands of people on Twitch. Amazon hasn’t released sales figures, and, only three days after the game’s debut, it’s still too soon for official reviews. But New World is getting far more buzz than any other game the company has produced so far.

There were lengthy queues just to get into the game. Fans say they are enjoying the combat, the crafting system and the ways in which the world shifts based on how players are doing. (The game is broken up into three factions, each actively fighting over control of the land. You get perks if your faction owns a given territory.)

It’s been a long road for Amazon Game Studios, which set out to develop console games around 2014 but had so far failed to release anything successful. The company announced three games in 2016: New World, Breakaway and Crucible. Breakaway was canceled. Crucible was released, then un-released, then also canceled. Other games in development, such as projects code-named Nova and Intensity, were put to pasture before they were even revealed. 

Despite Amazon’s success at seemingly everything else, from product deliveries to smart speakers, video game development appeared to be one of the few markets that Jeff Bezos couldn’t crack.

Amazon’s New World game. Source: Amazon

But this week, the tech giant finally got a win. Early critical reception for New World has been mixed, but the numbers are great. A couple of developers who worked on New World told me they were thrilled to see the game find an audience after everything they’d been through. The game was delayed several times and morale was low after the cancellation of Crucible last year.

Things finally seem good for Bezos’s gaming division. Yet in the wake of Activision Blizzard Inc.’s cultural reckoning over sexual discrimination and harassment, it’s also worth re-examining an excerpt from our report earlier this year about Amazon’s video game woes.

One aspect of working at Amazon felt similar to traditional game companies. The studios cultivated a “bro culture” in which women often weren’t given the same opportunities as men, former employees say. Four female game developers say their worst experiences of sexism in the industry were at Amazon. They shared stories of being ignored and undermined by male executives and say they were eventually driven out of the company. One former employee says male colleagues completely ignored her comments in meetings. Another says a member of senior leadership impeded her career growth after she disagreed with him and that he created new management positions above her and filled them with men.

There were many details we couldn’t include in the story because they might identify sources or otherwise cause harm. But anecdotes about Amazon’s sexist culture sounded just as blatant as anything we’ve heard from Activision or Ubisoft Entertainment SA. Some food for thought for anyone out there who’s been boycotting Blizzard’s World of Warcraft but is eager to jump into New World.

What to play this weekend

Outer Wilds. Source: Mobius

If you’d rather explore the solar system than battle magical monsters with muskets then check out Outer Wilds, a game that puts you in a rickety old spaceship and sends you out to travel the stars. You play as an explorer and archaeologist sent out into a strange galaxy to dig up clues on an ancient alien race. Outer Wilds came out in 2019 but this week received a new expansion, Echoes of the Eye, that is just as brilliant as the base game. There are mysteries to be solved, new alien locations to be explored and loads of cool secrets.

On the money by Olga Kharif

So, a big people move in gaming this week: Laura Miele was promoted to chief operating officer at Electronic Arts Inc. That effectively makes her the most powerful woman in gaming -- by far. Sure, Activision Blizzard now has women in executive roles in public relations and human resources. Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. has a female chief financial officer. But Miele, who previously managed EA's 20-plus studios, is the highest-positioned woman who actually works on corporate video-game strategy. Her appointment stands out in the context of a cultural reckoning in the industry, where workers have spoken out against a sexist culture at companies including Ubisoft and Activision. Miele, who also mentors women during her free time, is the rare example of a woman who's made it to the top -- and she can perhaps be an inspiration to countless other women hoping for change in the male-dominated field.

This week in gaming news

Questions still swirl around the long-rumored Nintendo Switch Pro, reported to be a more powerful version of the popular gaming console. Employees at 11 game companies told Bloomberg that their teams were in possession of a 4K development for the Switch, but it’s not clear if or when that will translate to actual hardware. Nintendo denied the report. A Switch capable of handling games at 4K resolution isn’t expected until late 2022 at the earliest.

Netflix buys its first game studio. After making video games a priority for expansion, the streaming site bought Night School Studio, known for the supernatural mystery adventure Oxenfree and its upcoming sequel. Netflix plans to make games a part of its subscription, with no ads or in-app purchases. 

Bungie, the company behind Destiny, is ending mandatory arbitration clauses for all employees, “given the growing concern that arbitration may not be the fairest way to resolve employment complaints,” Bungie boss Pete Parsons wrote. Employees of Activision Blizzard requested the removal of mandatory arbitrary clauses at their company this summer but didn’t receive a response.

As the fallout continues at Blizzard, the developers of World of Warcraft are going through the game and removing a bunch of gags. “Goofy jokes and occasional mature innuendos are part of WoW, and probably always will be,” they wrote. “Still, we want to remain mindful of whether certain elements of that world are welcoming to all players. In short, we want our jokes to be inclusive and not punch down.”

Sims creator Will Wright is working on a new game using blockchain and AI. In the game, called Proxi, players go on a journey of self-discovery, creating little snow globes filled with memories. You can then own your memory as an NFT and buy or trade other memories and objects. News that the legendary designer is working with ecologically unfriendly cryptocurrency was controversial.

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