Amazon and the video games industry have been among the lucky few businesses boosted by the ongoing pandemic.
But the past few months have been unusually unkind to Amazon Game Studios, the offshoot of the tech giant that has consistently floundered despite its seemingly enormous advantages. Amazon’s games have struggled to connect with the notoriously skeptical gaming audience, and it’s looking increasingly likely they never will.
The promise of big things
In 2014, rumors abounded that the multinational technology conglomerate planned to dip its toes into the games industry for the first time. Stories began cropping up indicating that Amazon had grand designs around its recent acquisition of gaming streaming platform Twitch, coupled with whispers of AAA game development and even its own sub-$300 console.
Like other tech giants, such as Apple and Google, Amazon had long provided a platform for games to exist on its tablets through an app store, but had not taken a hands-on approach in creation. The successful launch of the PlayStation 4 in November 2013 had put to rest any lingering concerns about the viability of console gaming. This made it more attractive for Amazon to use its vast resources to grab the medium with both hands. (Amazon's market cap was 164 billion in 2014, a figure that has increased to more than 1.5 trillion as of August 2020.)
Six years later, those dreams appear to have been deferred with games being released and hurried back into beta after cratering and multiple delays to major titles. Amazon has consistently struggled to release anything notable in a market capable of ignoring the efforts of one of the world’s largest companies.
“Like Twitch, we obsess over customers and like to think differently,” Amazon CEO and richest man in modern history Jeff Bezos said after cutting a $970 million-dollar check for the streaming platform six years ago. “We look forward to learning from them and helping them move even faster to build new services for the gaming community.”
From the top down, it looked like Amazon expected its gaming initiatives to be a boon for its technology portfolio. This began with key hirings in the gaming space. Amazon came out swinging by announcing that Kim Swift and Clint Hocking had joined Amazon Games Studios, two known names with a number of popular games under their belts. The developer’s stated goal was to produce games in the untapped market between low-budget indie titles developed with small teams and the increasingly expensive AAA game development that dominated the console space. Swift, a former lead designer at Valve responsible for games like Portal and Left 4 Dead 2, and Hocking, who brought mechanic-heavy games like Far Cry 2 to life, seemed like ideal candidates to shepherd this vision. Adding the studio Double Helix to its stable was icing on the cake.
A series of odd choices
It wasn’t long before Amazon announced the second prong of its gaming strategy, a proprietary engine based on Crytek’s Unreal competitor, CryEngine. This fairly standard move was paired with an unexpectedly aggressive one: Amazon offered the engine for free to anyone who wanted to use it. This allowed the budding publisher to earn a lot of mindshare with up-and-coming developers who frequently found themselves paying huge licensing fees for engines or giving up significant percentages of their revenue for successful titles. Moreover, it set expectations for how Amazon was going to proceed with its own in-house game development.
Between Twitch, hiring a creative staff known for thinking outside the box, and its engine strategy, and its formidable existing moneymakers of cloud services and online shopping, it was clear Amazon was not pushing into gaming half-heartedly. On the contrary, it seemed to be better poised than most, having assembled enough pieces on the chessboard to work together in a way more limited companies without conglomeration would not be able to manage. The tip of this spear was one of its first announced games, Breakaway from Double Helix.
Breakaway was one of a trio of games announced by Amazon Game Studios at TwitchCon 2016, a high-energy mixture of hero shooters and multiplayer brawlers that had shades of Overwatch before Blizzard’s smash-hit swept the world away. Leveraging Twitch integration as one of its fundamental cores, the game was an intentional shot across the bow to other online game developers who didn’t have the resources of a giant streaming platform to push its multiplayer games. Breakaway represented the loftiest dreams of esports — games that run for years and constantly bring in new players, competitions in big arenas, millions watching at home.
Amazon's official reveal trailer for Breakaway. The project was shelved in 2018.
It was cancelled in 2018 for what Amazon Games Studios publicly implied was a lack of inspiration to continue making it, stating “If a thunderbolt of inspiration strikes that leads us back to Breakaway, you’ll be the first to know” in the game’s defunct subreddit.
“To be a successful platform in games you really need three things,” Christopher Dring, Publisher of GamesIndustry.Biz, tells Inverse. “You need good technology, which Google and Amazon both possess. You need a strong community to reach, which in YouTube and Twitch, both Google and Amazon have some of the biggest communities in the industry. And you need games… and this is where both of these businesses fall down. Amazon and Google have the ability to strike some big third-party deals and secure indie games, but they lack the ability to launch regular AAA products like an Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo, EA, Ubisoft and so on. They also lack a back catalogue of products to help get any service off the ground.”
The other two games Breakaway was announced with, Crucible and New World, have faced similar hardships. Crucible shared DNA with other big esports titles and seemed to have a solid foundation for an idea. Four years later, the ideas from 2016 were extensively reworked, a process Amazon Games Studio head Lou Castle described in detail to GamesIndustry.biz just ahead of the game’s May 2020 release.
"We decided that rather than ship something that was probably gonna be an also-ran, it would be better for us to go through and do the hard work of just overhauling everything and rebuilding the game from scratch. For almost all of 2017 and partway through 2018, we kept that version alive… adding new characters, new designs, throwing away characters that didn't work, and doing a lot of things that the community let us do because we had hundreds of people in our influencer community that were working on the game behind the scenes with us. So the game evolved dramatically."
Even so, Crucible debuted to little fanfare or enthusiasm justifying all that extra time and money. The game did not release with any special Twitch integration or particular esports strategy due to, as Castle explained it, primarily being a small studio. The resources that Amazon presumably would have poured into this title a few years prior seemed to be absent when it finally came time to release the game. As a result, Crucible was largely ignored after entering the market on May 20. Just slightly over a month later, the title was taken back into closed beta on June 30, having cratered to only a few hundred concurrent players just before the axe fell. (For comparison, Riot Games’ own splashy new hero shooter, Valorant, was boasting concurrent player figures around 3 million in late May.)
A tough road ahead
New World was going to be Amazon’s MMORPG, or massively multiplayer online RPG. The genre has many competitors, but few that can catch up to Blizzard's World of Warcraft or Square Enix's FInal Fantasy XIV, though the tech giant seemed eager to try.
After years of experimenting with various hooks, Amazon went on a press tour with the title in early 2019, where it was roundly criticized for not bringing anything interesting to the table and steeping itself in pro-colonialist mechanics centered around historical 15th-century nations vying for land. By the end of the year, New World was re-revealed during The Game Awards, a yearly show celebrating gaming with voted-on awards though largely known for its trailer and announcement spots. The new New World had transformed into a fantasy game that sidestepped a lot of its criticism by fictionalizing its environment while maintaining its core gameplay. The reformed MMORPG targeted a 2020 release date, from which it has now been delayed into 2021.
“New World’s success is also far from guaranteed,” warns Piers Harding-Rolls, Research Director of games at AmpereAnalysis. “There have been so many failures in the MMO space reflecting the immense challenges of executing on these types of games, that the likelihood of success for Amazon’s MMO is relatively slim. Even so, the decision to delay its launch to develop more end-game content does show that Amazon is aware of the need to have enough content to maintain ongoing engagement.”
It is impossible to ever truly count Amazon out, but it’s clear the company underestimated the challenges it faced in gaming. The tech company possesses all the resources needed to quite simply take over the industry should it decide to make such a thing a priority, but as the months pass and Amazon seems increasingly less interested in the long-term investments of gaming, it's difficult to imagine Jeff Bezos’ multi-billion dollar conglomerate pursuing the development and publishing of video games as anything greater than a passing fancy.
Developers of note have passed through Amazon’s halls with nary a word to say about the experience, which doesn't indicate any grand ambition for leaving its mark on the gaming world. Time is quickly running out for the company to establish credibility among gamers, and for those who have followed the sagas of Crucible and Breakaway, it may already be too late.