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
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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
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