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Columns: Amazon Game Studios: The Opening Gambit

By Gareth Harmer on October 01, 2016

Amazon Game Studios: The Opening Gambit

Following months of speculation, Amazon Game Studios has finally revealed what it’s been working on for the past few years. Surprisingly, it’s not a single launch title that’s been announced at the Unboxing event, with three related titles sharing the stage. All of them have a strong online component, utilised in a way that’s familiar to gamers. There’s an arena brawler in Breakaway, and a gorgeous sandbox MMO named New World. Further on out, Crucible covers the survival side, with a Highlander-style sole-survivor twist.

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Crucially, however, all are underpinned by the same carefully curated ecosystem. All three make heavy use of Twitch, including interesting concepts around audience participation. All three are built on Lumberyard, Amazon’s proprietary development engine, and utilise the AWS Cloud. And all three will likely have a community of engaged content creators (and ancillary services like voice chat) through Curse.

This is Amazon’s real pitch: a potentially huge shakeup to the core of PC gaming. If you’re a studio looking to build an online game, Amazon’s hoping to offer you the whole package: engine, hosting, storefront and community. While it will certainly help if its own titles are commercially successful, it’s almost immaterial. All it has to do is prove that the technology works, end to end, at scale. Manage that, and everyone from the small indie to the large AAA will be interested in what Amazon has to offer.

That’s not to say that the games don’t have to make money, or to belittle the efforts of the talented teams producing them. Amazon is a business, and it would certainly help to recoup some of their development costs. But they’re also technical demos to showcase the capability and potential of the ecosystem, and inspire other developers to consider taking the plunge.

Cloud History

In all likelihood, two seeds were probably behind Amazon’s strategy. One was likely FireFall, a beleaguered MMO that nonetheless pioneered using Amazon’s cloud services to host almost all game components, allowing the studio to scale rapidly where needed and expand easily into Europe. While the title itself didn’t perform as well as hoped, the experience was likely valuable for teams on both sides.

The other seed was probably Hero Engine, the oft-maligned codebase behind Star Wars: The Old Republic and The Elder Scrolls Online, as well as several other indie efforts. While this path has given studios a leg up in the development process, I’m also told that the engine required heavy customisation in order to produce a unique experience, creating a technical debt that still lingers with every game update.

Additionally, there’s the recent explosion of survival-sandbox experiences. Grab a copy of Unreal Engine or Unity, some hosting, and some luck at Greenlight, and you’ve got yourself a chance at Steam Early Access. It’s a well-trodden path that’s spawned some entertaining gems and absolute dross, depending on how much you’re a fan of the sub genre.

All of these are strong indicators that there’s a demand that Amazon can play to, as long as the firm can offer a cheaper service that’s easier to use and provides a faster route to market than the alternatives. Now that the complete ecosystem is unveiled, there’s one acid test remaining: does it all actually work? That’s why the three opening titles from Amazon Game Studios are vital, and why other studios will be watching their progress as intensely as gamers.

Cloud Forecast

The announcement isn’t going to be good news for everyone, particularly those that have done well from the status quo. Epic and Unity will need to look beyond game engines and start establishing ecosystems of their own, as well as strengthening educational ties to ensure a constant feed of fresh developers. Services like Discord and Forge.gg are ripe targets for being snapped up on order to offer the richer ecosystem.

Even Valve, the current de-facto destination for PC gaming, might find itself under threat. Source 2 has struggled to gain traction beyond DOTA 2 and a couple of niche titles. Likewise, the Steam store mainly carries weight because of its immense popularity with gamers and in-built community. If Amazon’s new ecosystem begins to gain traction, it has the potential to become a compelling destination for highly online gaming, leaving Steam as a curator of predominantly offline and isolated titles.

All that said, none of this will happen overnight. Outside of this opening gambit, Amazon likely has its hands full with an immense amount of engineering effort, architecting and designing an integrated experience that lets me hop from Twitch, to Curse, to Curse Voice, to Store, to Game, with a single identity, and yet without damaging any of the unique brands that made those elements so successful. It’s already happening, with the Curse app now hooking into Twitch accounts, and Amazon Prime members now getting Twitch perks.

Either way, PC gaming looks set to have its biggest shake-up in years, and I can’t wait to watch it all unfold.

Gareth Harmer / When he's not blasting or fireballing his way through a virtual world, Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer can be found dissecting the mechanics of online games. Chua at heart, he's also our resident columnist for all things WildStar.