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Amazon and Google are in games for the wrong reasons | Opinion

Amazon's Crucible won't be the last embarrassment if tech companies don't stop viewing games as a means to drive cloud service revenue

The games industry has its fair share of flops. From games which simply never get the audience and interest their creators hoped for, through to games which totally miss the mark and fizzle out rapidly despite strong pre-launch hype and decent pre-order numbers, every year brings a number of launches -- even from very major publishers and studios -- that just don't pan out.

Much less common, though, to the point of being almost eyebrow-raising, is a game that launches to such universal disinterest that its publisher straight-up un-launches it -- shoving it right back into its box and telling everyone to move along, there's nothing to see here at all.

That's pretty much what happened to arena shooter Crucible this week, though, with the game -- which launched at the end of May -- being put back into closed beta. It's not being shut down entirely, and development will apparently continue on the title, but since new players can no longer sign up it will now only be accessible to the pretty small audience of existing players.

This would be a pretty embarrassing about-face for just about any games company. It's rendered far more so, however, by the fact that Crucible was meant to be the big-budget PC title that would announce the entry of one of the world's biggest technology companies, Amazon, to the core gaming market.

Needless to say, the utter lack of interest in Crucible is a terrible way for Amazon to make a start in games

Needless to say, the utter lack of interest in Crucible is a terrible way for Amazon to make a start. The company seems to have miscalculated basically everything around this game; the title itself is boring and derivative in its current form, the launch has been botched, and as for what it thought it was doing in terms of marketing and building awareness for the game... Well, let's just say it's mind-boggling that this is the best a company worth a trillion dollars off the back of selling things could do.

Yet it's worth stepping back for a moment and taking note of the fact that, on paper, Crucible was a solid prospect in some ways. Relentless Studios, its creator, has a solid roster of development talent with good track records. The budget was decent and the Amazon Lumberyard engine it runs on is a fork of Crytek's CryEngine, which is generally well regarded. If you looked merely at the people developing it, the resources at their disposal, or even the technology they were using, there's nothing about Crucible that leaps out and screams "disaster." Nothing, perhaps, except the one thing that looms over the whole project -- Amazon itself.

Look, Amazon is a great company. It's not just an amazing retailer, it's also done an extraordinary job of making itself into a top-tier player in a host of other areas including content delivery and cloud services. I would not bet against Amazon being one of the world's dominant corporations for decades to come -- in fact, full disclosure, I have done the opposite of that, and own shares of Amazon. However, Amazon is not a games company, and while the existence of Amazon Game Studios and its investment in titles like Crucible suggests that it wishes to become a games company, there are some pretty huge red flags around that entire business strategy, many of which are waving frantically over what's just happened with Crucible.

Google's Stadia was hyped as a new platform, and thus an even harder fall than Amazon's efforts at becoming a publisher

Actually, this isn't even just a story about Amazon, because the embarrassing "launch followed by oops, no, actually let's un-launch that" dance which the company just did isn't even the first such furore to happen in recent months. Late last year another trillion-dollar (or just about) tech giant also made its big pitch to become a player in the games industry, and fell flat on its face -- except that Google's Stadia was hyped up as a whole new platform, and thus an even bigger deal, and an even harder fall, than Amazon's efforts at becoming a game publisher.

Both companies, it should be noted, are down but not out. Neither of them has given up on the games business, but they've both experienced pretty bad pratfalls off the back of product launches that were supposed to put them on the map in this space and show how serious they are about being a force to be reckoned with in gaming.

I think there are two major threads that link both Amazon and Google's failures. One of them -- probably the most important -- is simply that neither company actually has a proper rationale for being in the games business to begin with. In both cases, their reasoning is entirely instrumental; they both operate major cloud services platforms, games happen to be a great way to leverage cloud services, so they want to make games that rely on the AWS or Google Cloud backends.

This is the caption for the image

This is the caption for the image

That's why these companies -- both of which have been giant players in tech for going on two decades -- are suddenly both interested in being in the games business. It's not a coincidence, it's convergent evolution. The same force that made online retailer Amazon and search engine company Google into competitors all of a sudden -- namely their overlapping desire to be a market leader in cloud services -- has also pushed both companies to try to make a splash in the games business.

The problem is that that's not a reason to make games; it's an end that they think games could fulfil. The games themselves are just a means to that end, which makes it entirely unsurprising when the games and services birthed from that philosophy aren't actually appealing or interesting to consumers. They're not designed from the outset to appeal to consumers; they're designed to connect a few things together in a corporate planning flowchart.

There's still a fundamental and deep-seated lack of understanding or interest in games at the top levels of the company

There's nothing in the DNA of these companies which actually lends itself to making great games. That's something you can bootstrap by importing great talent and experience from the games industry, sure, but the strongest seeds can still wither in barren soil. Coming at the whole notion of game and service development with the attitude that you merely want a product that fulfils a completely different corporate need is a surefire way to a pretty barren harvest.

This leads to the second commonality, which is that while both companies have indeed hired some pretty impressive talent behind the scenes -- people who do genuinely get games and who would, in the right environment, be able to make a pretty solid fist out of launching a major new competitor into the market -- there's still a fundamental and deep-seated lack of understanding or interest in games at the top levels of the company. As a result, the whole notion of being in the games business itself seems like a big risk and a radical move to the decision makers, which utterly extinguishes their appetite for taking any creative risk or making any radical moves in the games and services they actually offer.

The most important and undeniable criticism of both Google and Amazon's entries into the games business is that they're boring. Stadia is a boring service. Google seems convinced that changing the way games are delivered is exciting -- it is not. Games are exciting. The technical details of how they're played doesn't matter until it starts messing with the experience, at which point it's annoying. At its very best, it's not exciting, it's invisible. Google was so convinced that delivery mechanisms were exciting in and of themselves that it came incredibly late to the realisation that maybe they were going to need exclusive games for it, none of which we've seen yet.

The most important and undeniable criticism of both Google and Amazon's entries into the games business is that they're boring

As for Amazon, Crucible is an undeniably boring game; a cookie-cutter arena shooter that's got Design-By-Committee scrawled all over it and which shows little of the talent or creativity you might have expected given the pedigree of its developers. The fact that Amazon has the kind of financial clout to be able to develop a game, launch it, and then say "oops, nope, back to closed beta" without breaking a sweat is wasted here. With the capacity to fritter away cash like this, imagine the creative risks they could have taken. Instead, that money is being wasted because Amazon doesn't really get games, sees this whole experiment as being inherently "out there", and thus has backed itself into a corner where doing something uninteresting was the only thing that would fly with the firm's management.

These problems aren't unique to Amazon and Google, and there's plenty of hope yet that these companies might overcome their rocky starts. After all, Microsoft's Xbox team has literally spent decades fighting like tigers to protect their little fiefdom within the company, and that battle hasn't always been won without compromise. Xbox One was arguably the product of a badly tuned compromise with the company's inherently conservative ideas about games, and even Xbox Series X, for all that the hardware is impressive and the growing line-up of first party studios is hugely promising, is the product of a carefully balanced compromise between the people at Xbox who genuinely get games and the rest of Microsoft, who don't care about anything other than how games can complement Azure and Windows.

As for Sony, the Japanese firm had its own long series of battles for the soul of PlayStation and how it related to the rest of Sony's content and hardware line-up. That only really came to an end when PlayStation effectively consumed the rest of the company from inside out, with the promotion of Kaz Hirai to CEO in the early 2010s.

At their heart, though, both Sony and Microsoft currently make games because they see them as a pillar of their business -- or at least, enough people in senior decision-making roles see videogames as a pillar in itself, rather than a means to support other business ventures. That allows the freedom to make creative decisions and take risks based on what people who really understand video games think will entertain and delight their audiences.

Google and Amazon aren't there -- not yet, at least. They're making games because they think games could be a useful means to boost totally different pillars. Of course, there are passionate people in the games segment of both companies, but as long as the core thing they're working towards isn't "make awesome games that people love", but rather "fulfil these KPIs related to other business segments", it's impossible for them to unleash their talent and make games or services that are actually meaningful. Until Amazon and Google can find a way to insulate their creative processes and funding decisions from that kind of thinking, all their billions won't be able to buy success.

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Latest comments (1)

Alexander Bell Contractor, Google30 days ago
Disclaimer - I currently work for Google, but not involved in Stadia. Views personal

I think one thing people overlook about Stadia (or Geforce Now, for that matter) - it has massive potential outside North America & European markets.

Emerging markets like India & Brazil have been lacklustre ventures for Microsoft & Sony (and Nintendo) - as current-gen hardware sales barely tip close to 1 million units in India, at the end of the product lifecycle. I have no doubts the Series X & PS5 will be prohibitively expensive in these markets, too.

Consumer WiFi is getting better in these areas - and the advent of 5G also has potential to offer users gigabits per second speeds. Removing the proprietary hardware barrier for these consumers, could offer them an actual chance to play next-gen releases via Stadia/GeForce now - and give developers and publishers new audiences and sales channels.

Of course, there are going to be logistical headaches with data centres, publishing rights and local laws - but I believe streaming platforms like Stadia are being built for a global audience, not just Western gamers. Their success should be ultimately measured by how they succeed in emerging markets, and not just by how they disrupt the Sony, Microsoft & Nintendo trifecta in the US & Europe.
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