Amazon’s biggest push into video game development was one of the industry’s worst kept secrets. Rumours spread for months that the retail giant was working on an Android console, driven by revelations of key hires and acquisitions, as well as leaked photos of a game controller.
This culminated with last month’s not-so-surprise announcement and US launch of Fire TV: a device that offers games, music, movies and other entertainment straight to the TV for a one-off price of $99. It has been interpreted as an open challenge to everything from the high-end Apple TV to indie microconsole Ouya, but Amazon claims it is simply a response to a gap in the market.
“We saw a lot of companies selling millions and millions of devices like this, and customers like those devices for a lot of reasons, but there were also some pretty big gaps,” Amazon’s VP of games Mike Frazzini tells Develop. “We heard about those gaps partly from our customers, through customer reviews as well as our customer services team, and thought there was something special we could build.”
So far, the move has worked out well. While sales figures have yet to be disclosed, Fire TV sold out within a week of its launch – the console-style game controller within a day – proving demand exists for such a device.
“That was not in any stretch by design,” assures Frazzini. “Something we spend a lot of time on at Amazon is keeping inventory stocked for customers. Obviously it resonated really strongly with them. We’re off to a great start and we’re really happy with the reception so far.”
It’s not just customers’ heads that Fire TV is turning: a surge of interest from a range of game developers has positioned the device as a hot new platform in an increasingly varied market. This is due in no small part to the fact that Amazon brought the secret console to some of the world’s most prominent studios long before it was ever announced.
“When we were first talking to developers, they would hear about the device and everything it offered, and they themselves wanted to buy it,” Frazzini says. “It’s great to see developers get excited about something you’re working on and to have their games ready at launch. Having titles like Mojang’s Minecraft, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Gameloft’s Asphalt 8 and games from EA, Ubisoft, 2K and Sega – we’re really happy with the line-up we have for launch.
“And early feedback from customers is that they appreciated that the games we went and got are actually good and fun. That early reception and the launch titles have all been very positive. We’re very happy with how things are starting for Fire TV.”
A gap in the market
However, Fire TV isn’t just about closer ties between Amazon and established game developers. Instead, it is a platform with which the firm can show off its own growing development prowess.
Amazon has been creating social and mobile games for a few years now, largely to help provide unique content for its Amazon App Store and Kindle Fire tablets. In February, its designs for larger-scale development were revealed when the firm acquired Killer Instinct dev Double Helix, and began recruiting other experienced game creators.
We’ve hired people that have worked on some of the best games ever released: AoE, Forza, BioShock, Half-Life – the list goes on.
Mike Frazzini, Amazon
Frazzini claims that, like the launch of Fire TV, this is largely a response to gaps Amazon has indentified in the current market.
“Game development is going through a shift,” he says. “You’ve got two ends of the spectrum at the moment: at one end you have teams of hundreds working for multiple years on a triple-A game, and at the other you have smaller projects like physics puzzlers or match-three titles.
“We see the growth of a middle area where you have teams of maybe six to thirty people that are working for 18 months on a game, and they’re able to create these rich and immersive experiences that are just extremely fun to play and rich with creativity and character. That’s the model of how we think about game development within our studios, and something we’re seeing as a trend in the industry: companies like Telltale Games making titles like The Walking Dead, or your homegrown Fireproof Games – I think those guys are super talented.”
Just days after the Fire TV announcement, it emerged that Amazon had hired familiar names like Portal creator Kim Swift and Splinter Cell designer Clint Hocking. But this duo is the tip of the talent iceberg.
“We’ve hired people that have worked on some of the best games ever released: Thief, BioShock, Age of Empires, Half-Life, Left 4 Dead, Forza – the list goes on,” says Frazzini. “We actually have people on the team that had worked with Clint and Kim, who recommended them.
“We set out from the beginning to find the people we thought were super talented and embrace this model of development that we’re pursuing, and, while not wholly unique, is different from the way a lot of companies think about development time frames, team sizes and so on. What we’re finding is a lot of people who have worked on these bigger teams like the notion of being able to work in a smaller group over a shorter time, where they can have a lot of considerable impact on the direction and design of the game.”
FROm seller to studio
And Amazon isn’t finished yet. Back in March, job listings were spotted that called for developers experienced in Unity, CryEngine and Unreal, with credits on titles aimed at avid video game players. This is not a company looking to make another haven for Flappy Bird clones – Amazon plans to establish Fire TV as a platform with a much stronger appeal.
“We’ve been making games for a few years now, and it’s really in the last year or so that we’ve dramatically increased our investment,” says Frazzini. “That’s what you’re seeing in the acquisition of Double Helix, as well as some of the other folks we have brought on.
“It may seem obvious but I’m going to say it anyway – we want to make great games that customers love. We have a couple of different things we put into game development in terms of our approach.
“First and foremost is we’re building titles specifically for our devices. So for Fire TV, we’ve been working for quite a while on Sev Zero. It’s meant to not only be a fun game, but also show developers and customers the quality of content that can be played on this device.”
Frazzini also cites the cloud infrastructure of Amazon Web Services as another point of difference. Already used by some studios, the firm is keen to expand AWS with techniques and functionality that is honed for making games on Fire TV.
“We’ve already got a prototype of a game that we’ve now put into full development where there are thousands of characters on the screen simultaneously interacting,” says Frazzini by way of example. “The tremendous amount of physics and AI in this sort of game would require a high-end gaming PC, but we’re running part of it in the Amazon cloud and part of it on the device. It’s an interesting experience that we’ve always wanted to create but haven’t been able to due to the limitations of the devices.
“As we build that technology, we’ll also release it to third-party developers so they can use it in their games as well. And not just for Amazon – developers could use it to make games for any platform.”
Having pioneered recommended purchases to customers, Amazon is also looking at how it can help developers sell their games, as well as release them.
“We obviously want developers to be successful, so we invest in manual and automated merchandising through both Amazon and the device that aim to help customers discover the vast selection of games they might want to play,” says Frazzini.
“Think of our books business: a massive catalogue where we aim to help customers find new books specifically interesting to them based on other books they’ve read. In a similar fashion, we try to do that with games. We want to help developers and the titles that they make reach the customers that would love to play them.”
The reference to Amazon’s books business really brings home how adventurous a leap it is making into game development. The firm is best known for selling other people’s products, not manufacturing its own. And yet with the expansion into Kindle, Kindle Fire and now Fire TV, what was once a retailer is now looking more and more like a bona fide platform holder.
Frazzini says this is the natural evolution of Amazon, a by-product of its ongoing mission to give customers what they want. But the road to these new ventures is an unusual one.
“The first thing we do in any big strategy session or with any big idea that somebody has, is write a press release – before any code has been written, before any design work has been done,” Frazzini says.
“The point in this is to express directly, as though you were releasing that day, why customers should be interested in the service or the product we’ve built. It’s a really interesting model of development that applies across all of our businesses.
“Additionally, we organise our company in a way that all of our teams are thinking about customers in their own context. So as someone in games, I think about people who play them. It means we have invention going on all over the place in the company.
“Within games, we thought about Fire TV a long time ago largely as you see it in the launch. But we also have a photos business that thought about it in their own right, and other businesses too. We obviously all have common customers, but we think about experiences in the context that we operate in and try to come up with the most compelling experiences we can offer.”
The result is a device that could live up to the concept of microconsoles, an avenue for Amazon to show the progress it’s making in game development, and an intriguing new marketplace for game studios everywhere.
How central game development will be to Amazon’s future remains to be seen, but with investment in Double Helix, Kim Swift, Clint Hocking and an unknown number of other devs, it’s a safe bet that the retailer-turned-platform-holder has far more planned.