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A First Look Deep Inside Amazon Game Studios

The e-commerce giant aspires to fuse talent, technology, and marketing muscle into a fresh, highly Twitch-able approach to gaming.

A First Look Deep Inside Amazon Game Studios
Tales From Deep Space, one of Amazon’s upcoming games, stars an intergalactic salesman named E and a luggage drone called CASI [Images courtesy of Amazon]

To trace the beginnings of Amazon’s interest in the game business, you need to go back a long way–at least to the holiday season of 1999. That’s when the company, best known at the time as “Earth’s largest bookstore,” began offering video games for then-popular machines such as the Sega Dreamcast, Nintendo 64, and Neo Geo.

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Amazon has sold games ever since, at first on shiny discs and little plastic cartridges and more lately via digital download. But its profile in the industry was generally low until last August, when it bought Twitch, the online service which broadcasts billions of minutes of video-game play a month to 60 million people who watch everything from Grand Theft Auto V to Donkey Kong 64 as a spectator sport.

Jeff Bezos’s company swooped in and paid $970 million for Twitch only after it seemed so likely that Google would acquire the hot startup that some media outlets reported it as a done deal. It was a billion-dollar statement that Amazon was serious about games. But even before that deal made headlines, this was shaping up as Amazon’s Year of the Game.

So far in 2014, the company has acquired Double Helix, the Southern California-based company behind such games as Killer Instinct, and hired a bevy of industry talents, including leading game designers Clint Hocking (Far Cry 2) and Kim Swift (Portal) . By doing so, it’s rapidly built out Amazon Game Studios (AGS), the group within the company which produces games–some of which are done entirely in-house, and some of which are the result of collaboration with outside firms.

At the same time, Amazon has spent the year rolling out an array of devices to play those games on: not just new tablets in its Fire line but also its first smartphone and a TV box that goes Roku and Apple TV one better by treating gaming as a primary activity.

Clearly, something is afoot with games at Amazon. Just what that something is, however, isn’t easy to suss out. That’s partially because Amazon isn’t the kind of outfit that reveals its secrets prematurely. But it’s also because the the whole effort is so new that it’s still in part about exploring the possibilities.

It does begin with a stance which doesn’t need much explaining: Games matter to Amazon because they matter to people who like to buy stuff from Amazon.

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“If you look at games in general, they’re incredibly important to customers,” says Mike Frazzini, the company’s vice president of games. The fact that he instinctively refers to game players as “customers” as we chat at AGS’s Seattle headquarters is a clue that he, unlike many of his AGS compatriots, is an Amazon veteran, having joined the company a decade ago. (The business no longer thinks of itself as Earth’s largest bookstore; instead it’s identity is wrapped up in the idea of being Earth’s most customer-centric company.)

Amazon VP of Games Mike Frazzini brandishes a game controller at the company’s Fire TV launch in April 2014

Although Amazon is one of the few companies in the world that both designs gaming hardware and develops games, it isn’t modeling its approach on Sony or Microsoft or Nintendo or any of the other giants which have defined gaming’s past. Instead, it wants to bring uniquely Amazonian thinking to the business, and to leverage every available weapon in its arsenal, from Amazon Web Services’ cloud infrastructure to content brands such as ComiXology and Audible.

Welcome To The Sandbox

At Amazon Game Studios, “really, what we try to do is that we hire these great people, and we put them in the sandbox,” says Frazzini–the sandbox in question being Amazon’s particular combination of creative principles, team members, technological assets, and distribution possibilities. “We set some simple expectations, that we’re trying to do bold, new, inventive things. And within that, we have a couple of other areas, parameters, we set to try to create some notion of direction.  But then we just ask them to come up with ideas, and invent, and create.”

For those weary of the ways of the game industry as it’s existed for years, it’s an alluring pitch.

“I’ve been flipping over tables for seven years now trying to get people–executives, I guess–to understand that there’s a sea change,” says Hocking, one of the high-profile new recruits. He rattles off what’s different about the business now. Millennials outnumber Generation X-ers; mobile devices and the cloud are changing what’s possible; the technological arms race between Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox is no longer a prime factor in enabling new entertainment experiences.

There’s no question that games have the capacity to be art now,” he says. “Everything is different. And Amazon is totally open to all of these realities and possibilities.”

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“It’s a company that’s oriented around the idea that it’s risky to not take risks,” adds Swift, who decided to join Amazon based mostly on the strength of the hires it had already made, such as Ian Vogel, a former designer for Microsoft who is now studio head for AGS. “I knew nothing coming in of what I would be working on. And to me, that’s kind of exciting.”

Ian Vogel, Kim Swift, and Clint Hocking of Amazon Game StudiosPhoto: Harry McCracken for Fast Company

Listening to Hocking and Swift get excited, one can easily get excited, as well. But our conversation has well-defined boundaries. Both of them are working on projects that may not be announced until 2016; for now, they aren’t even dropping hints about what they involve.

In fact, if Amazon Game Studios is up to anything that’s figuratively or literally game-changing, we don’t know about it yet. It’s shipped a handful of games to date, and gave me a sneak peek at three more which are well on their way to being ready for release: Tales From Deep Space, Til Morning’s Light, and The Unmaking. They look nice, and smartly take advantage of opportunities available to them as Amazon products. But they also make clear that AGS is still just getting going.

The Game’s Not The Same

It’s tempting to try to understand Amazon’s nascent games business by considering its larger, better-established digital content enterprises, such as Kindle e-books. In many ways, however, they’re more different than alike.

The Kindle platform, for instance, may have started with Amazon’s first e-reader in 2007. But it’s now among the most pervasive environments in the digital world, with apps for iPhones, iPads, Android devices, Windows Phones, BlackBerrys, PCs, and Macs. The notion that Amazon might restrict an interesting new e-book to purchasers of its own devices is unthinkable: It wants everybody to buy them.

Frazzini is careful to avoid ruling out the possibility that the company might develop games for other platforms. But at least for now, the plan is to focus on titles for Amazon’s own hardware. (Its one iOS title, Sev Zero: Air Support, lets an iPad user participate in the Sev Zero space shoot-’em-up for Fire TV, making it an enabling technology rather than a self-contained experience.)

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“We want the games to be so good that they want to buy either the games themselves or–some of our games will be free to play–the content within the game,” Frazzini explains. “So we certainly have a goal of wanting to produce content that is delightful and engaging enough for customers to want to pay for. At the same time…on balance, if it adds to the list of reasons why you’d be interested in our devices, that’s great, too.”

Amazon’s gadgets could use some exclusive titles which are compelling enough to get consumers intrigued. All of them are underdogs in their respective categories–particularly the Fire Phone, which had more than its share of skeptics even before Amazon slashed the contract price from $199 to 99 cents just a few weeks after its release, suggesting that it hadn’t exactly been flying off the shelves.

Til Morning’s Light, a spooky upcoming game for Amazon’s Fire Phone

Another reason why it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Amazon to create some hits: Its devices are missing some of the ones available on the competition. The company’s AppStore currently offers more than 300,000 apps–less than a quarter of what’s in Google Play–and though it does have a decent percentage of the most popular games, there are major no-shows, including Supercell’s Clash of Clans, currently the highest-grossing app of any type on both iOS and Android. Amazon customers might pine less for what isn’t available if they had some flagship games of their own.

In the end, even if none of Amazon’s games are blockbusters, the mere exercise of trying to create blockbusters might be worth it.

“They of course want to put out a game that’s to the [Fire] platform what House of Cards is to Netflix,” says Lewis Ward, research director for gaming at IDC. “The chances of that are very low, though, and even if the games tank Amazon would have had to invest in this direction anyway: They need to understand at a deep level what makes their platform good for gaming or not, and any revenue produced by exclusive titles is gravy.”

Picking From The Amazon Buffet

The games which Amazon has released or announced fall into a number of typical genres: space shooter, tower defense, match-three puzzler. But in most cases, there are one or more aspects–some of them obvious, some behind the scenes–which mark them as Amazon products.

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It’s not about force-fitting features where they don’t belong. “The way it’s presented to us is less of a prescriptive ‘Here’s your meal, you must eat this now,’ and more of a buffet,” says Swift. “It’s like ‘Here’s all the options you can pick and choose from. Take what’s best for you, and what you really believe in.’”

Til Morning’s Light, for instance, is an upcoming game created by an independent studio, WayForward, in collaboration with Amazon. Starring a teenaged girl named Erica Page who’s been locked in a haunted house, it shares DNA with Scooby-Doo: spooky, but not scary. And because it was created specifically for the Fire Phone, it can take advantage of Dynamic Perspective, the technology which uses four cameras on the phone’s front to track your head movement, so it can render scenes which adjust themselves on the fly as you look at the screen from different directions.

As Erica runs about dealing with creepy creatures, you can peer around the mansion by…well, peering around the mansion. On a device without Dynamic Perspective, the same effect would probably be accomplished through the less intuitive method of providing on-screen controls which let you manually adjust the camera angle.

The haunted mansion in Til Morning’s Light

Adam Tierney, a designer/director at Valencia, Calif.-based WayForward, says that the game’s premise had been bumping around his head for years, and the opportunity to work with Amazon on the Fire Phone exclusive turned out to be ideal.

“The typical relationship is that we work with one or more producers on the publisher side, and usually that’s the start and end of it,” he says. “What’s interesting about Amazon is that they break down the process into expertise and individual disciplines. They have a dedicated script guy who we’re working with on the dialogue. It’s definitely been the most enjoyable experience I’ve had, just because you’re getting really useful information at each step. “

The Cloud To The Rescue

With the Fire Phone having been on the market for less than three months, Dynamic Perspective remains a bleeding-edge concept. Even if games such as Til Morning’s Light make effective use of it, it still isn’t clear whether we’ll look back on it as Amazon pushing smartphones forward or simply meandering off in a direction which didn’t turn out to be worth the effort.

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But there’s a different technological domain where everybody knows that the company is a category-defining leader: cloud computing, where its Amazon Web Services group popularized the idea of delivering resources on demand across the Internet. And those web services are directly applicable to problems which Amazon Game Studios is trying to solve.

Exhibit A: another upcoming Fire tablet game, The Unmaking. The plot involves you managing to tick off the gods who created you, and getting thrust into battle with them and their hordes. But when AGS began work on the game, it looked like its tablets didn’t have enough computational oomph to tell the story. “We got to about a dozen characters, and the game cratered, and there was no way we could run it,” remembers Vogel.

“Being at Amazon, we were lucky. We could say ‘Hey, let’s go talk to our friends in the cloud team, and see if there’s anything we can use there.’ And we found this new product called AppStream, which was still, I think, in alpha when we met them.”

The epic, cloud-rendered action of The Unmaking

As implemented in The Unmaking, the technology uses Amazon Web Services servers to do the heavy lifting of rendering thousands of warriors, blazing projectiles, and collapsing columns. It then pushes the scene down to the tablet, monitoring available bandwidth as it does so to ensure a fluid experience. “It’s a density of enemies you’ve never seen in a tablet game,” Vogel says.

“This would actually work for many more genres. Not to be facetious, but the cloud’s the limit.”

Promotional Possibilities

Of all the upcoming Amazon games I got a peek at, the one that is most immediately appealing to me is Tales From Deep Space, which was created by Cambridge, England-based Frontier Development in collaboration with AGS. I’m not smitten with it on technological grounds. It’s just that the game, which stars a little traveling salesman named E and a luggage drone known as CASI, looks imaginative and charming, reminding me alternately of both Charlie Chaplin and Wall-E. Which is a useful reminder that any Amazon game that succeeds will do so because it is, above all, fun.

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Like WayForward’s Tierney, Frontier Director of Development James Dixon says that Amazon’s contribution to his firm’s creation was the furthest thing from the sort of counterproductive meddling which many large companies are experts at: “They got the game, honestly, from the start. They’ve also given us the creative freedom to make the game we sold to them. They haven’t pushed us down any particular path.”

Big Moon, the space station in Tales From Deep Space

Unlike Til Morning’s Light and The Unmaking, Deep Space isn’t a showcase for any particular Amazon technical capability. But it will get a distinctly Amazonian cross-media promotional boost in the form of a digital comic book which helps explains E and CASI’s backstory. That’s an easy move for Amazon to make: Last April, it bought ComiXology, the leading e-comics platform. Readers who come across the comic on ComiXology will get introduced to the game; gamers who play Deep Space and then seek out the comic will be introduced to ComiXology.

Amazon’s ComiXology subsidiary will distribute a Tales From Deep Space tie-in comic

For Til Morning’s Light, Amazon is creating a tie-in involving protagonist Erica Page’s audio blog; That one will be done through audio-book kingpin Audible, which the company has owned since 2008. It’s easy to envision games still to come getting promoted via similar collaborations with other arms of its far-flung content empire: Amazon Prime Music, for instance, or Amazon Instant Video.

Twitch And Beyond

And then there’s the newest part of that empire: Twitch. The game-watching site gives Amazon an opportunity to reach tens of millions of people who might be interested in its games–at least if they own Amazon hardware or are willing to consider acquiring it. But given that the acquisition closed less than three weeks before I visited Amazon, it wasn’t surprising that Frazzini wasn’t ready to be specific about the company’s vision for its new toy, other than emphasizing that it wants Twitch to keep on being Twitch.

“We really meant what we’ve said all along, which is that they are independent. It’s a wholly owned subsidiary–Emmett [Shear] continues to be the CEO–and we’re looking for ways to help them move faster over time. We have some ideas for sure. And they’re nothing that’s baked yet enough to talk about.”

Still, even if Amazon people aren’t talking to the press about what Twitch might mean for Amazon Game Studios and vice versa, they’re talking internally. “In the case of my project, I’ve been actively thinking, coincidentally, ‘Oh, Twitch is really important, and there’s all sorts of exciting things happening over there and lots of communities being built, and we need to think about our games in the context of Twitch,'” says Hocking. “And then one day it was like ‘Oh, by the way, we bought Twitch.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, cool. Can I meet with those guys?’ ‘Yeah, they’ll be up here in two weeks.’”

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With Amazon more than most of its competitors, it’s dangerous to be impatient. Pundits like to render verdicts on its efforts within weeks of launch–witness the widespread writing of hasty obituaries for the Fire Phone–but the company generally has goals which it understands will take a while to accomplish, and it’s willing to take its time.

“We like to try new things, and we like to stick with it,” says Frazzini. “And we focus like crazy on customers. I think that’s a pretty good combination. How the games resonate with customers is going to be the ultimate scorecard.”

In the case of Amazon Game Studios, with Hocking and Swift’s projects still under wraps, it may be 2016 before Amazon–or anyone else–knows the score for sure.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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