Ama­zon primed

How Ama­zon Game Stu­dios is plan­ning to broaden out gam­ing’s mid­dle ground


In­side Ama­zon Game Stu­dios and its se­cre­tive all-star lineup

Ama­zon has been in the gamemak­ing busi­ness for some time, but not so any­one would no­tice. In 2008, it bought Wik And The Fa­ble Of Souls de­vel­oper Re­flex­ive and put the stu­dio to work on games for Kin­dle tablets and the Ama­zon Ap­ps­tore, fir­ing out ca­sual games such as Air­port Ma­nia and Sim­plz: Zoo. Ama­zon Game Stu­dios’ his­tory had gone largely un­doc­u­mented un­til Fe­bru­ary this year, with even a flurry of big-name hires in the sum­mer of 2013 go­ing un­no­ticed out­side of the gam­ing com­mu­nity. The ac­qui­si­tion of Dou­ble Helix in Fe­bru­ary changed the stu­dio’s pro­file, how­ever, re­veal­ing its in­ten­tions to­wards gam­ing’s mid­dle ground.

“I could name dozens of match-three and hid­den-ob­ject games, and I’d only be hit­ting on a frac­tion of a per cent of the to­tal cat­a­logue,” Ama­zon Games VP Michael Frazz­ini says. “And at the other end, we could go on for a while talk­ing about the triple-A con­sole cat­a­logue. And those are great games, [but] we just think there’s this big gap in the mid­dle.”

It’s tough to pin down just how many people are work­ing for Ama­zon Game Stu­dios now – Ama­zon still talks like a re­tailer rather than a game pub­lisher and is cagey on de­tails – but cer­tainly there are sev­eral stu­dios spread across North Amer­ica, with its home­grown one in Seat­tle and ac­quired stu­dios Dou­ble Helix and Re­flex­ive in Irvine and Lake For­est, Cal­i­for­nia, re­spec­tively. A rough es­ti­mate sug­gests it has be­tween 150 and 200 full-time de­vel­op­ers, and all but the Lake For­est team and a few in Seat­tle are rel­a­tively new to the com­pany. Un­til now, Re­flex­ive has been the pri­mary de­vel­oper for the ma­jor­ity, if not all, of Ama­zon Game Stu­dios’ ti­tles, in­clud­ing Fire TV launch game Sev Zero.

“[ Sev Zero is] a mix of tower de­fence and a shooter,” Frazz­ini says. “We had a re­ally sim­ple pro­to­type, but beam­ing up and beam­ing down [around the bat­tle­field] was just re­ally fun. We re­ally started to think about how we could push this de­vice and what it’s ca­pa­ble of. At that price point [$99], what can we do with the fidelity and the re­spon­sive­ness of the game­play? To deliver [ Sev Zero] on a $99 stream­ing de­vice, we feel re­ally good about it.”

Ama­zon’s me­dia box needs an additional $40 con­troller be­fore it re­ally en­ters mi­cro­con­sole ter­ri­tory, of course, but Sev Zero is free with the Fire TV gamepad. It’s no killer app, and the task of launch­ing hard­ware weighs heavy on its shoul­ders. To its credit, though, the stu­dio has turned out a con­sole-style third­per­son shooter with Kin­dle Fire co-op in un­der 12 months, and on a de­vice still be­ing re­fined dur­ing the game’s cre­ation.

Game de­vel­op­ment, Frazz­ini says, has been crit­i­cal to Fire TV’s evo­lu­tion. “It’s help­ful to have very early game de­vel­op­ment push­ing wa­ter through the pipes,” he says. “Lit­tle stuff like how the driv­ers work and how you think about the var­i­ous as­pects of the op­er­at­ing sys­tem [can make a big dif­fer­ence], so you get the tremen­dous ben­e­fit of that feed­back loop. One of the things [that’s a re­sult of that] is when we were talk­ing about 1GB ver­sus 2GB of RAM, we were able to show through Sev Zero that this is what you get at 1GB and this is what you get at 2GB, and we lob­bied pretty hard. Game de­vel­op­ers al­ways want more

per­for­mance. A lot of the ad­vanced ef­fects and the flu­id­ity of Sev Zero are made pos­si­ble by the additional RAM.

“We ap­ply a some­what unique model to game de­vel­op­ment. At one end you have [small] games, and at the other you have these triple-A ex­pe­ri­ences. What we’re start­ing to see is de­vel­op­ers leav­ing pub­lish­ers and start­ing com­pa­nies that work in the mid­dle a lit­tle bit more, which is what we’re pur­su­ing. It’s where you have a team from be­tween six to 30 people work­ing any­where from 12 to 18 months on a game, and those games have a tremen­dous amount of char­ac­ter and soul and crafts­man­ship and style, and I be­lieve they can com­pete with any game, pe­riod. People on those teams re­ally like that model be­cause they’re able to dra­mat­i­cally in­flu­ence the di­rec­tion of the game. In the end, what that means is unique and fresh and fun ex­pe­ri­ences. Hearth­stone: He­roes Of

Warcraft, I think, is a good ex­am­ple of that kind of game. An­other would be Tell­tale Games’ The Walk­ing Dead. I think Fire­proof’s The Room is an­other great ex­am­ple of a game with style and char­ac­ter and [a de­gree of] im­mer­sion to it, too, and a great ex­am­ple of work­ing in that mid­dle space.”

This foray into the mid­dle ground is go­ing to be de­vel­oped by a who’s who of cre­ative talent from across the in­dus­try. Ama­zon Game Stu­dios’ Seat­tle team has ex­isted since at least 2011, but un­der­went a mas­sive ex­pan­sion last year, when the stu­dio hired de­signer Ian Vo­gel ( Thief,

BioShock), pro­ducer Ju­dith Hoff­man ( Dun­geons & Drag­ons On­line), artist Adam Bolton ( Bioshock In­fi­nite) and nov­el­ist Eric Ny­lund (Halo: The Fall Of Reach) among oth­ers, form­ing a care­fully con­structed team of de­vel­op­ment talent at Ama­zon’s cam­pus di­rected by for­mer

“We’re try­ing to be in­ven­tors. This isn’t about find­ing the model that’s worked the best and re­peat­ing it”

Mi­crosoft Game Stu­dios di­rec­tor David Luehmann. Kim Swift ( Por­tal) fol­lowed in spring of 2014, along with de­signer Chris Roby ( Ghost Re­con Phan­toms) and Clint Hock­ing ( Far Cry 2). Dou­ble Helix and Re­flex­ive’s teams work out of Or­ange County, Cal­i­for­nia, and were joined in April 2014 by Tomb Raider’s se­nior and tech­ni­cal de­signer, Jonathan Hamel.

“What we’re do­ing, from a de­vel­oper stand­point, is pretty en­tic­ing,” Frazz­ini says. “If you have a con­ver­sa­tion with any­one of any pro­file that’s com­ing here to make games, [the ra­tio­nale is] pretty straight­for­ward: you can in­flu­ence the plat­form; de­vel­op­ers like the smaller teams, be­cause the in­put they can have on an in­di­vid­ual ti­tle is huge; and we’re re­ally try­ing to cre­ate ex­pe­ri­ences that are new and dif­fer­ent. We’re try­ing to be in­ven­tors. This isn’t about try­ing to find the model that’s worked the best and re­peat­ing it. We think we’ve hired some re­ally tal­ented people; they’ve built some of the best games ever re­leased. And as you hire a few, you start to at­tract more and build up the teams that way.”

Frazz­ini’s ten­ure at Ama­zon be­gan in 2004, pre­dat­ing the gam­ing ini­tia­tive by four years. To­day he over­sees the stu­dios de­vel­op­ing ex­clu­sively for Kin­dle Fire and Fire TV, and the Game Ser­vices di­vi­sion re­spon­si­ble for work­ing with de­vel­op­ers on an­a­lyt­ics, Ama­zon’s GameCir­cle achieve­ment and leader­board sys­tem, and its App­Stream cloud ser­vices.

It’s the cloud that will play a key role in the fu­ture of Ama­zon Game Stu­dios’ out­put. Frazz­ini: “Some of the fu­ture projects we’re work­ing on in­te­grate fairly deeply with Ama­zon Web Ser­vices to bring ex­pe­ri­ences to mass­mar­ket and in­ex­pen­sive de­vices that you would just other­wise never be able to do with­out the back­ing of the cloud.”

It’s a bet­ter ex­pla­na­tion for the in­flux of cre­ative talent than any pur­ported de­sire to work in smaller teams on faster projects. Ama­zon can of­fer cre­ative free­dom and a con­sid­er­able salary, but it can’t yet of­fer the recog­ni­tion and re­spect ma­jor de­vel­op­ers and small in­de­pen­dents can earn on es­tab­lished plat­forms. But Ama­zon Web Ser­vices is one of the world’s largest cloud com­put­ing out­fits, and a pos­si­ble fu­ture for Ama­zon Game Stu­dios’ soft­ware is be­ing streamed to ev­ery de­vice with a screen via the cloud.

“We’re here to build games from the ground up for Ama­zon de­vices: Fire TV and Kin­dle Fire tablets,” Frazz­ini says. “And the stu­dio – as we think about the types of games we want to build – we not only have the de­vices, we also have the Ama­zon cloud, and that’s a re­ally fun part of the de­vel­op­ment process.”

To­day, and in the com­ing months, Ama­zon’s in­fra­struc­ture will be put to work only for on­line game servers and – in the case of one game in its com­ing cat­a­logue, Frazz­ini says – dis­trib­uted com­put­ing to han­dle thou­sands of on­screen units, but the sheer size of Ama­zon Web Ser­vices places the com­pany along­side Mi­crosoft and

A pos­si­ble fu­ture for Ama­zon Game Stu­dios’ soft­ware is be­ing streamed to ev­ery de­vice via the cloud

While other pub­lish­ers are care­ful with their lan­guage, pre­fer­ring ‘gamers’ to ‘cus­tomers’, Ama­zon Game Stu­dios has been in the re­tail busi­ness for too long to change how it talks or con­ceal its mo­ti­va­tions for mov­ing into game de­vel­op­ment. “Games are a won­der­ful cat­e­gory for cus­tomers,” Frazz­ini says. “Within Ama­zon’s re­tail busi­ness, people buy a lot of games, and they are the num­ber one or two cat­e­gory on ev­ery de­vice with a screen in terms of time spent. Even if [people] aren’t buy­ing the de­vice to play games, they of­ten end up play­ing a lot more than they ex­pected. Some cus­tomers will buy [Fire TV] be­cause they want to watch Net­flix, and they’ll end up play­ing a lot of games.”

Still, Frazz­ini prom­ises a cre­ative en­vi­ron­ment not weighed down by commercial con­sid­er­a­tions. “I think our [cre­ative] guide­lines are such that it’s very broad,” he says. “When de­vel­op­ers and artists come to Ama­zon, they work on lean, ag­ile de­vel­op­ment teams, which al­lows for more cre­ative in­put and au­ton­omy. At Ama­zon, we de­sign, build and dis­trib­ute our de­vices, and at the stu­dio we build our games from the ground up for those de­vices. [To­gether with] Web Ser­vices, that makes Ama­zon a de­vel­oper’s sand­box that in­spires in­ven­tion. We’re gonna make kids’ games and core games, and the soul of each game will be driven by the people on that team. It’s the best ideas that will res­onate the most.“

Michael Frazz­ini has worked for Ama­zon since 2004, grad­u­at­ing from prod­uct man­ager to di­rec­tor of Ama­zon Game Stu­dios in 2009, and then to VP of Ama­zon Games in 2014

The Fire TV con­troller is sim­i­lar in shape and build qual­ity to an OnLive con­troller. It’s a solid enough bit of hard­ware, but a far cry from the er­gonomics of a DualShock 4 or Xbox One’s hun­dred­mil­lion-dol­lar pad

From top: Kim Swift, Clint Hock­ing and Jonathan Hamel are some of Ama­zon Game Stu­dios’ all-star lineup. What they are work­ing on re­mains a mys­tery

SevZero is Fire TV’s flag­ship ti­tle, but it’s no Su­perMario64 or Halo, and it’s not nearly enough to jus­tify the price of the hard­ware. It will take a new game from Dou­ble Helix or Ama­zon’s Seat­tle stu­dio to draw play­ers to Fire TV

Fire TV’s box is an un­re­mark­able piece of min­i­mal­ist de­sign, but so in­of­fen­sive as to al­most van­ish along­side your other TV hard­ware, es­pe­cially when placed be­side heavy­weight brutes such as an Xbox One or a PS4

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