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Inside the Fire TV: What's Amazon planning for games?
Amazon's Michael Frazzini and Ian Vogel explain what the company's expectations are for its new device's impact on the game market -- and what they hope to accomplish with internally developed titles.
April 8, 2014
7 Min Read
Last week, Amazon launched the Fire TV -- a video streaming box that, crucially for Gamasutra's audience, is designed to play games too. It can be paired with an optional $40 controller that bears more than a passing resemblance to an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 pad. It's also much more powerful than its competition, with 2GB of RAM and a quad-core processor, making it very well suited to good-looking games. Publishing games for it -- aside from working in controller support -- is substantially the same as getting them onto the Amazon Appstore for Android. In fact, when I sat down to talk to Amazon's Michael Frazzini, VP of Amazon Games, and Ian Vogel, senior game design manager at Amazon Game Studios, I expected to talk a lot about the developer experience of working with Amazon. That, however, is a known quantity, and any new wrinkles (such as supporting the new controller) are documented at its developer portal. Amazon has worked with partners like Mojang and Gameloft to get games onto the Fire TV for launch, and from here on out it's mostly going to be up to developers to support it. Policies and programs will remain the same. The conversation, instead, turned to what Amazon hopes to do with the Fire TV, and its internal game development efforts at Amazon Game Studios. There's a tremendous amount of potential in both -- but as of the surprise launch last week, there's not a lot that's yet concrete to talk about. Frazzini was quick to play up the fact that the device is not a console, but a multi-purpose entertainment device that streams content to TVs, like an Apple TV, but also includes a robust game marketplace. "Similar to a tablet, you may buy it for one thing and end up playing games," says Frazzini. That combination, he thinks, will lead people to buy the device -- and then gravitate toward games, since the device can do them well. Of course, that's contingent on something crucial: "if we do our job in bringing great, compelling content." The company's game studio strategy is informed, Frazzini says, by its success in creating original video programming for its streaming services. "It's worked out really well for Amazon Studios... it's sort of a no-brainer." He particularly thinks two audiences will be important to the Fire TV: Kids, who are already well-versed in the tablet games that make up the majority of its early library, and adults who are lapsed gamers and can't quite see the value of laying down several hundred dollars for a next-gen game console, but have fond memories of playing before they lost touch with the market. What do they have in common? A 99-dollar device is in their reach.
The Missing Middle -- Can Amazon Find It?
Over the course of the last console generation, retail games got bigger and bigger. The most successful indie games were small. Mid-sized productions got choked out. Frazzini and Vogel are hoping that Fire TV can be a place they can reemerge. There's a "huge spot in the middle that we view as a bit of a gap right now," Frazzini says. Games like The Walking Dead, Minecraft, and The Room -- his three disparate examples -- rest there. More can, he believes. There's "a significant growth in the number of studios that are five to 30 people, and work from six to 18 months on a game," he says, with "a tremendous amount of creativity and craftsmanship. A lot of them are fantastic." That's the "middle" he's talking about. But Frazzini also called out Super Meat Boy and Fez as the sorts of games he'd like to see on the platform. "In general, we want all the content," he says, "and those type of games would be a big fit." Again, he alluded to people who grew up playing NES but have fallen away from games. They could be won back, he thinks.
But It's Not Apparent What's Up, Just Yet
Our conversation carried on for about an hour, and by the end of it, it was clear that Amazon doesn't yet know who's going to buy what kind of games for the system. The initial announcement touted the fact that the average price of a paid game on Fire TV is $1.85, but its own internal studios' Sev Zero is $6.99. Games like Fez cost more than that on consoles and Steam. "Developers determine the business model they want to pursue, developers set their list prices. If someone wants to come out and set a list price of $14.99, they can do that, and if the experience is fantastic, people will pay for it," Frazzini says. Still, he admits, "What gamers? Who's going to play? We're going to learn." Beyond the cheap device and cheap games that will attract kids (and their parents) as well as lure in casual players who might buy a tablet game here and there, he didn't seem sure who would embrace the system. What he does think is that once people start buying games, the ease of search and recommendation engines that power the company's website will push them towards more titles they'll genuinely enjoy. There is one way to lure in players, of course, one Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are also well-versed in: first-party games.
How Internal Development Will Shape the Fire TV
As with any first party, the audience and the experiences it enjoys are likely to be defined, in large part, by Amazon's own games. Its recent moves -- hiring Kim Swift and Clint Hocking, and buying Killer Instinct developer Double Helix -- suggest that the company is serious about its game development efforts. "We want the games to show off, or otherwise push or represent, a great experience on these devices for customers," Frazzini says. Ian Vogel is himself a veteran developer, having worked on Thief and System Shock 2, and more recently, Age of Empires Online. His hope is that the studio can recruit "a particular breed of thinker, people who want to get stuff done and want to be innovative, and creative, and challenge the tropes and patterns we see in the industry." If they can do that, he thinks, the studio can "find that gap between the two bookends of the industry," in the "opportunity space between casual and triple-A." "There's a lot of creativity we can instill," Vogel says of the developers at the studio. "We really just want to make great games, and we want to have an impact." Besides Swift and Hocking, whose names everyone will recognize, Vogel also called out two more game veteran hires: former Valve developer Tom Leonard (Left 4 Dead) and Ubisoft's Chris Roby (Assassin's Creed III.) There will be more. "We're organizing smaller teams," says Frazzini. "The people we try to hire, they come in knowing we have these smaller teams and shorter timelines." He's hoping that the developers can inject "a lot of autonomy and craftsmanship" into the games. "Whatever traditionally worked, we don't want to do that," Frazzini says. "How can we create experiences that can be different and wow customers in unique ways? We're not trying to replicate what's already worked, we're trying to think about what the next thing we can create is -- that's the kind of teams we're trying to hire, and the kind of culture we're trying to create." There's little evidence of that in Sev Zero, however. It's extremely conventional, marine-vs-aliens stuff, a first person shooter/tower defense hybrid -- but it's also obviously been developed on a quick schedule to meet a launch date, and to be fair, it's very competently made. Call it a proof-of-concept. It will be awhile before we can see these grander ambitions realized, clearly. Frazzini and Vogel promised we'll see more sometime this year -- when they're ready, and not before. If they come, and are as significant as the talents behind them suggest they could be, they could change the shape of the landscape of what games played on a television are and how we access them. For now, though, it is left to those of us who are not building them to wait.
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