For many of us, Amazon already controls (or at least plays a part in) numerous facets of our lives: shopping, video, music, reading, and more. Now, thanks to the acquisition of Twitch, the creation of the Lumberyard engine and the growth of its Amazon Web Services and internal game studios, the internet behemoth is poised to become a true force to be reckoned with in gaming too.
Up until this point, Amazon Game Studios had largely been known for mobile titles or games for its own Fire TV platform, but at an "unboxing" event on the eve of TwitchCon, the company officially revealed three new titles - Breakaway, New World and Crucible - that represent its new community-driven approach to the AAA games business. The games are built for the PC on Lumberyard, of course, and more importantly, they're built from the ground-up to be fully integrated with Twitch. The idea is to give the entire Twitch community new ways to interact with broadcasters. A cynic might say that Amazon is simply trying its best to push its Twitch platform on everyone and these games are designed to serve that purpose, but Patrick Gilmore, studio head for Amazon Games OC (Orange County), refuted that notion in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz.
"Prior to the acquisition when we were independent, the kernel of this team was the team that built Killer Instinct for Microsoft for Xbox One, and when we released that game it was surreal to send the build off and have it be posted and literally within hours people online are broadcasting the game, talking about the game, talking about what they loved about it, what they didn't like about it, where they hoped it went and their love of the Killer Instinct franchise. And that just made a gigantic impression on this team because it's like everything you got into game development for but times a hundred because the satisfaction is so immediate and the feedback loop is so immediate," he said.
"Serendipitously when it's more fun to watch it's also more fun to play. When it's more fun to broadcast it's also more fun to play and that's really how we shaped the development of the game"
"So we actually came into Amazon with this deep passion for broadcasting, with multiple broadcasters on the team, deep passion for community, deep passion for that type of engagement with customers - and that community-driven strategy was really shaped at Amazon partially based on the passion that studio members from Double Helix had for that type of development. It's hard to develop with those types of communities - they're hardcore gamers and they're the most passionate fans, but when you get it right it's just incredibly satisfying.
"To answer your specific question, a cynic might say Amazon is only doing these games to showcase these innovations and it's like it's actually almost the reverse of that. We believe the games are better because of these innovations and the team that is working on this, every single decision was made to make the game experience more fun and serendipitously when it's more fun to watch it's also more fun to play. When it's more fun to broadcast it's also more fun to play and that's really how we shaped the development of the game. It's informed by broadcast and it's kind of themed around the idea of Twitch and Twitch streaming but in every case where there's contention between what's fun and what's fun to watch we focus on making the core experience great. We focus on making the game great."
Gilmore said that the technology infrastructure required to help with the back-end services and the scalability to support a competitive game like Breakaway, "that's like catnip to Amazon." And of course now that his studio is part of the first-party system within Amazon, his team has a chance to showcase how Lumberyard can be used to its fullest potential and how it integrates with Twitch.
"To us Lumberyard is also GameLift, which is the server provisioning system any developer can use to control their costs and have great server availability for their networked games. It's the networking layer... it's the character pipelines, it's Twitch and the discoverability you get but also the engagement and feedback you can get from customers through Twitch. There's a gigantic ecosystem connected with Amazon and we used every piece of it we could to help make this game better. Yes, there's a showcase dimension but side by side with that I believe the services work," he said.
Gilmore noted that Amazon's community-driven approach means that players will get access to games much, much earlier than is typical with AAA titles. "The plan for Breakaway is immediately following TwitchCon we're going to go into our alpha and we're going to be very deliberate about that, letting people in as we know the game will support them - make sure we know they're having a great experience," he noted.
"You can expect that we'll release our games to customers earlier than most developers would but then we have this long tail commitment to continue to refine them. Whether that fits the specific definition of AAA or not, I think from a quality standpoint absolutely we stand toe-to-toe with the absolute best games out there in every respect. But in terms of how you might associate a specific rollout plan or release strategy with the definition of AAA I think we're trying to be disruptive and do something different that involves customers earlier in the process."
"As you look at the progress of great, big AAA games... as those games scale and become businesses in and of themselves, innovation becomes a bigger and bigger risk because your customers are demanding in a lot of ways more of the same"
He added, "In terms of how we release and how we engage and invite customers to participate in development, we strive to be the most transparent division in all of Amazon... So it's kind of a fine line because we have very senior developers, many of whom have decades of experience, and so we have a very good idea of what we want to do with the technology and where we want to take the games, but we also consider it so valuable to see the games in customers' hands and hear what they'd like to see developed."
It goes without saying that Amazon has vast resources and could easily spend to create games on the scale of a GTA. Gilmore said that Amazon "will not hesitate to spend at that level for the right title," but it's more important to invent on a large scale.
"We aspire to make games that are that big but that are new and very, very risky. If you look at how that corresponds to an investment you could probably draw some conclusions around how you make these big bets but how you don't go all the way to something on the scale of a GTA right out of the box without customers giving you some feedback," he remarked.
Gilmore, who spent time at EA from 2003-2009, has watched the AAA space evolve enormously in the last decade. Publishers have become more risk averse and the investments now needed for the games-as-a-service model that is attached to almost every title now necessitates greater year-round spending to keep players engaged. That has its drawbacks, Gilmore stressed.
"As you look at the progress of great, big AAA games, whether it's a Battlefield or GTA or Call of Duty, as those games scale and become businesses in and of themselves, innovation becomes a bigger and bigger risk because your customers are demanding in a lot of ways more of the same and it becomes really, really hard to create something that's genuinely new, and that's part of our mandate to make things that don't exist in a familiar template," he said.
"And we see that as a huge opportunity, and it's a big part of the reason why we're focused on what we call community-driven games for the lifestyle gamer or core gamer - it is leaning into those communities and making big investments to do things that are disruptive and new where we see a lot of people in the industry kind of locked into this sequel mentality or this franchise service oriented mentality. We are trying to do brand new things. You're right that the investment always has to be appropriate, and there's a dimension to that but I feel that Amazon is making the biggest bets on the new of anyone in the games space."
The fact that Amazon's newest titles are built for the PC isn't necessarily a retreat from mobile. Gilmore said it's partially due to the DNA of his original Double Helix team, but "we're building businesses with these games and where they go from there, I think the sky is the limit."
Considering the Twitch integration, it's natural to think that Amazon also has eSports aspirations for its titles. That said, most developers can't simply force a game to become an eSport from scratch - the players have to turn it into one. But a heavy community and streaming focus certainly can't hurt its chances.
"We've taken a lot of the competitive learnings and we've played [Breakaway] with a lot of professional players and we've incorporated a ton of feedback that we think makes the game perfectly balanced for competitive play... We've thought actively about that market and that opportunity but then it's really up to the community to decide how they're going to play it. It's been a big emphasis for us but we're trying to just focus on making a great game that people love to play competitively with each other and then we'll see," Gilmore said.
"I can tell you on Breakaway, the skill gap between me and one of the top players is so massive you could actually see the stratification that you would see in a real sport. There are people who play and are very satisfied on a casual fun basis, then there's A, AA, AAA stratifications that emerge where the players literally graduate to a different level of competency and win consistently when they're playing people in a lower strata... That's what we consider a super good omen and it very much lines up with the rise of eSports in the industry."
Amazon Game Studios seems to be just getting started. One look at the company's jobs page shows that it's hiring aggressively, and Gilmore confirmed, "We are growing really, really rapidly. We're about 120 developers just on the studio side right now, spread across those two teams but then connected to well over 200 people on the Lumberyard team and a swathe of developers on the AGS Live and platform services team. There's a ton of people invested in games here."
"Part of the goal is that Breakaway is the first water through the pipes on a service like Lumberyard. This team is using all those services, hardening all those APIs, contributing to the robustness of all those services for other customers"
Since Amazon acquired Double Helix a couple years ago, it's combined forces with Reflexive and brought in developers with serious chops from studios like Blizzard, Riot, Turtle Rock and more. As Amazon grows its games empire, though, will it effectively balance development with streaming, web services and toolset offerings. Valve, for example, seems to be more focused on its Steam platform than making games; likewise, Unreal is the major focus for Epic while it produces games less frequently nowadays.
"I'll tell you that this is something that we talk about internally all the time," Gilmore acknowledged. "Building services is a little bit different from building products. You can stand up a service and iterate and improve with customers. With a product there's considerably more investment up front, considerably more creativity in a different type of management to get something ready for customers in more of a product sense. We talk about this all the time inside of Amazon. One of the wonderful things about Amazon is, compared to Apple or Google or whoever else, Amazon really looks at products as a way to get as close as possible to customers. We're a customer obsessed company. If you look, for example, on Amazon Instant Video - we're providing that whole platform and we're providing the Prime service, but at the same time we're making things like Transparent on Man in the High Castle. We're actually building the content.
"You've seen that where Amazon offered services in the past where the focus is walk in the shoes of both your creator customers and also really, really understand your end customers. I think that Amazon's investment in content like Breakaway or like anything you might've seen on Amazon Instant Video, it's part of the overall strategy to create for customers. I think you'll see that it will always be part of our strategy. But you're right - between a company that's offering services like Lumberyard and offering content like Breakaway, I think that from an external perspective it would be easy to imagine that there's contention, but part of the goal is that Breakaway is the first water through the pipes on a service like Lumberyard. This team is using all those services, hardening all those APIs, contributing to the robustness of all those services for other customers. We are an internal customer. We are utilizing the services. We're hopefully driving them forward. Our agenda is to make great content for the end customer, just make an awesome game."