Last month, Amazon Game Studios launched Til Morning's Light, a mobile game for iOS and Amazon Fire devices that eschews much of the conventional wisdom shaping the market right now. First of all, it carries a premium price of $7, with no in-app purchases available. It's also single-player, skipping the usual mobile game's social integration and attendant virality.
Amazon Games Studio executive producer David Holmes told GamesIndustry.biz the company's strategy isn't to deliberately go against the grain so much as it is to give customers what they want.
"One of the things we noticed is that in the mobile space, there were a lot of really good experiences that were free-to-play or pretty bite-sized, but not a lot of experiences in games that were deep and immersive," Holmes said. "We like to use the phrase 'long form,' if you think of novels versus short stories or newspaper. All those forms of the written word are entertaining and interesting, but they also serve and meet different needs. So we were interested in creating long-form mobile experiences that were closer in spirit to what you would find on PC or a game console--maybe a DS or a Vita--than you would typically find on a phone or a tablet."
"We were interested in creating long-form mobile experiences that were closer in spirit to what you would find on PC or a game console--maybe a DS or a Vita--than you would typically find on a phone or a tablet."
It makes sense then that Amazon Game Studios found a partner in Til Morning's Light developer WayForward Technologies. For well over a decade, WayForward has specialized in handheld platforms, both with its own original series (Shantae, Mighty Switch Force) and with highly regarded licensed fare (Contra 4, Aliens: Infestation). So even though Til Morning's Light marked the first time director and designer Adam Tierney has helmed a mobile project, he said it still felt like a familiar experience.
"It helps with a game like this because we didn't need to tear the concept down into something that wouldn't hold up to the original idea just to get it on mobile," Tierney said. "We were able to do a game that was substantially longer, had huge areas, a lot of depth, a lot of story content, voice over, and stuff like that. It was fantastic because we could have a very robust game that I don't think you see that much on mobile. But I do get the sense the pendulum is, to a degree, swinging in this direction. People are getting excited about seeing larger, deeper games on mobile."
On the one hand, Amazon's long-form philosophy suggests that there's still a market for the type of games WayForward has specialized in for years. On the other, Wayforward's expansion into mobile speaks to the struggles the dedicated handheld space has faced in recent years.
"I'm not sure if it's really dying as much as maybe developers are choosing to focus on iOS," Tierney said of the portable market. "At the end of the day, you're probably always going to have a Nintendo handheld. You're probably always going to have a Sony handheld. As long as these things are being created by these massive gaming companies, they're going to want content for it. So I don't think it will ever go away entirely, and as long as that stuff is around, WayForward is probably going to continue to be interested in it because it's so nostalgic for us and we just love that experience. But at the same time, we're obviously dipping our toe much more into mobile gaming now."
Holmes likewise acknowledged that the handheld market he identified as the closest analog for these long-form experiences has been soft. However, he sees that less as a challenge for games like Til Morning's Light, and more as an opportunity, reflective simply of changing play habits among the core gamer crowd.
"I actually think of it as an opportunity because I think that audience is still interested in playing deep, immersive, long-form games when they're not tethered," Holmes said. "And I think that the place they're gaming in general when they're not tethered is getting more and more to be on their touch devices rather than on dedicated gaming devices."
Though WayForward has worked with plenty of other partners in the past, Tierney said the experience with Amazon was still a unique one.
"[W]hat happens on some games is you get caught up with the bureaucracy of stuff, or maybe the management of production that you lose some of your momentum. And momentum is the greatest thing we had on this game."
"I wouldn't say anything negative about any other publishers we've worked with, but I would say by comparison, everything Amazon Game Studios did, every decision they made--and I don't even remember any mandates but if there were any--everything that came along was very thought out and very much under the understanding of what would make the best game," Tierney said. "There were really never any curve balls. There was never a moment where we had to throw this in there now, or we had to support this thing which made no sense for the game."
Tierney was particularly impressed with the Amazon team's familiarity with the project. Regardless of who he dealt with at Amazon and what discipline they focused on, Tierney said it seemed like everyone at Amazon had read and understood every document the development team sent over. That understanding also helped keep the development process on track, since they weren't being sidetracked with requests to stuff in new features for the sake of new features.
"It's easy sometimes to be working on a game and get caught up with requests," Tierney said. "Maybe the brand wants something or the publisher wants something and you're always kind of racing against the clock. I think what happens on some games is you get caught up with the bureaucracy of stuff, or maybe the management of production that you lose some of your momentum. And momentum is the greatest thing we had on this game. Amazon was really careful to make sure they were never putting up walls, that they were only popping in to discuss things when they warranted a discussion and things could be tweaked to help them realize their potential. We just had such momentum on this game that we were able to get so much done."
Even though Holmes said he liked WayForward's vision for the game and it fit with what Amazon Game Studios had wanted to do, that wasn't necessarily the primary reason for the partnership.
"The order of importance in a published project is partner first, and project second, in the sense that picking a great partner who's passionate about an idea is in some ways more important than trying to slot a particular project into a particular need," Holmes said. "At the end of the day, a great game is going to stand out and be successful; trying to over-engineer it from the beginning to be a very specific thing is really challenging... It was pretty obvious that it was something they'd been thinking about and trying to get done for a while. The amount of pre-investment they'd made into the project because it was kind of a passion project for them made it appealing as well."
"[P]icking a great partner who's passionate about an idea is in some ways more important than trying to slot a particular project into a particular need."
Now the question is how to get the word out about the game. Amazon doesn't reveal sales information as a matter of policy, but Til Morning's Light's premium price and lack of social features already eliminate some of the more obvious routes of discovery for mobile games.
"We believe that if we make great games, games that are appealing to both our audience but also the media that speaks to that audience or that partners like Apple can get excited about as well, there's a whole lot of outreach that happens just based on that," Holmes said.
Holmes has been pleasantly surprised at the support Til Morning's Light has gotten not just from Apple (arguably a competing platform holder to Amazon), but from the traditional gaming media as well. Oddly enough, he was particularly encouraged by one unforgiving review on a gaming site, because it meant the game was being held to the same standards as traditional games.
"Having these places, these sites, these partners measure us against what we're trying to achieve is exactly what we're looking for," Holmes said. "And being able to leverage all the places these core gaming audiences pay attention to, listen to, and use as decision-making vehicles has been great for us so far."