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Catching up with Amazon Game Studios, as it announces four games

Gamasutra speaks to Amazon's Ian Vogel about the studio's ongoing "experiments" in games, as it announces four new ones -- and its "commitment" to the space, and becoming a "cultural powerhouse."
Today, Amazon Game Studios announced partnerships with three independent development studios -- notably Frontier Developments (Elite: Dangerous, Kinectimals) and WayForward Technologies (DuckTales Remastered), as well as mobile developer Happy Tuesday. Frontier will deliver Tales From Deep Space to Amazon's fire tablets; WayForward has Til Morning's Light for the Fire Phone, and Happy Tuesday is also doing a tablet game called CreepStorm. All three games launch this year. What is Amazon's studio organization up to? Making games, of course, but more importantly doing experiments that will help it figure out the future of games -- particularly where it can leverage the "sandbox" of Amazon's own technology, products, and acquired properties, such as Twitch, says Amazon's senior game design manager Ian Vogel. In February, Amazon snapped up Double Helix, the Southern California developer of Killer Instinct for the Xbox One. Then, in the spring, the studio had a surprising one-two punch; it hired Kim Swift (Portal, Left 4 Dead) and Clint Hocking (Far Cry 2) and released its first game, Sev Zero, alongside the Fire TV, Amazon's console-like set top box. Today's third-party studio partnerships come alongside a new internally developed game called The Unmaking, which uses Amazon Web Services' AppStream technology to process massive amounts of enemies on the server and feed them back to players' Fire tablets. Amazon's also releasing a comic prequel to the game via its digital comic download site, Comixology, when the game -- which blends the famous Lord of the Rings battle at Helm's Deep with Space Invaders, in full 3D -- launches.

Amazon's strengths

Gamasutra spoke to Vogel in April about the company's plans -- and those have not substantially changed. "Our goal is to make fun, innovative titles for our devices," Vogel says. But what he seems to have realized is that with so many resources at the company's disposal, that's Amazon's true advantage over its competition. When I pointed out that it's difficult to know how to steer a massive ship like Amazon when the game market has been undergoing such rapid change for so long, Vogel acknowledged this. "We have really smart people but we can't read the future either," he replied. "What I like about our chances," says Vogel, is the company's mix of devices (Fire TV, Fire Phone, and Fire tablets), technologies, and associated web properties. Vogel calls this the company's "sandbox" -- everything from its Amazon Web Services cloud infrastructure to its proven e-commerce technology and sites like Twitch, Comixology, and Audible -- its audiobook site.

"Really kind of an experiment"

"We have so many things that we're trying, we have to see what sticks, and what works," says Vogel. "Really overall, this whole thing is kind of an experiment for us in general." The word "experiment" can be a bit scary. Not so, says Vogel. While "it is an experiment that we're trying," he says, "our commitment is not an experiment. It's a commitment. But like any industry, a lot of change is happening, and you can't read the future." Amazon intends to navigate those choppy waters with "great partners and internal folks, thinking about where we want the industry to go." Rather than focusing on supporting just one of its platforms, the company is spreading games across all of them -- games that it thinks will make them attractive to players while it leverages the strengths that have made it a massive tech company. Vogel also spoke of his desire to take advantage of Twitch, the company's highest-profile games acquisition yet, with "great long term" potential for Amazon Game Studios to leverage in its titles -- and pointed to the site as an example that has learned a lot from its own audience, rapidly -- knowledge that can spread throughout Amazon. Vogel sees "a huge ocean of opportunity," for Amazon in the games space; of his developers, he says, "we'll all trying to figure it out together." The company has already put its own streaming tech into one of its games -- at least on the gameplay side. Vogel demoed The Unmaking, a Fire tablet game that uses its AppStream technology to process the game's enemy units and deliver them in realtime, in an action game -- and it works.

Forging a "powerhouse of culture," step one

WayForward's Adam Tierney showcased the studio's new game for Amazon -- a Fire Phone exclusive called Til Morning's Light. It's a spooky adventure game set in a haunted mansion, which Tierney says was designed to be "something that validates that purchase" of a Fire Phone for players. No pressure. Even so, says Tierney, Amazon didn't try to "change or retool" the concept for the game -- one that WayForward had long been unsuccessfully pitching to publishers. In fact, the development process resulted in "one of purest games I've been able to be a part of," Tierney says. "The design guys at Amazon who are commenting on my design are really informed, and understand with a deeper knowledge and more experience in that area of gaming," than any other publisher representatives he's had to work with, Tierney says. "What we're seeing them do is just really conducive to making the best game possible."

Vogel dropped a clue about why the company is keen to let creative teams run with their ideas: "HBO and Netflix evolved into this powerhouse of culture. We've got technology and culture, and great creative teams. We have the pieces to make something here." "The first step is getting some of these products out," says Vogel. There are plans for more -- and bigger -- games. "Because things are going so quickly, the future will be even more exciting."

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