Investment and business acumen do not directly correlate to success in a creative medium. No industry exhibits this greater than in video games, where fun and creativity are paramount, and it is a lesson few have had a harder time learning than Amazon. The company’s endeavours in video game development have been met with conflict and difficulty ever since Amazon Games’ entry into the PC and console game market. This piece will illuminate the precise reason why.
By Dontae Jones
Nowadays, you would have to travel a considerable distance to find people who have never encountered the Amazon brand—standing tall as a giant of the industry and a household name. From books to groceries and pharmaceuticals, it is a massive corporation with many successful developments over the years. However, despite its prior successes, it has faced an especially tumultuous expansion into video game development for PC and video game consoles.
Despite the money and time Amazon has put into this project, it only has two successful releases in its computer game portfolio; by all regards, Amazon Games – formerly Amazon Game Studio – has had a challenging decade. From delays and layoffs to outright cancellations of projects, the megacorporation has unfortunately had a swathe of public and expensive difficulties breaking into this new market.
Picture this, it’s 2012, and Amazon has taken a bold step forward in its launching of the Facebook game Living Science. Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, is personally overseeing this exciting new arm of the company, Amazon Games Studio, and its mission is to break into the computer game market as the next big player. It announces these intentions officially in 2014 and then reveals it has three ambitious videogame projects in development just two years later.
That dream has yet to be realised, with the state of many of its releases speaking to an endeavour that is still struggling to find its foothold. Particularly damning examples include the game Crucible, a shooting game inspired by the colourful and popular Overwatch, and an adaptation of the Amazon Prime show The Grand Tour. Both games received scathing audience reviews, were pulled from storefronts amidst the controversy, and were summarily cancelled.
The whys are numerous and exhaustive, but the core of it stems from the leadership team’s initial ignorance of the industry and a lack of direction as a result.
The studio’s former head, Mike Frazzini – in conjunction with former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos – did all the right things to set the company up for success. Amazon Games gathered renowned industry talent – including Kim Swift of the award-winning game Portal and Clint Hocking of Far Cry 2 – with a good mix of developers working on well-established titles to fresh and eager talent. Mike even had the co-founder of huge gaming studio 2K Games, Christoph Hartmann, as his vice-president from 2018, and yet the studio found itself in a troubled state.
This information can be challenging to process as an outsider looking in as, on paper, this may seem like the perfect setup. Industry leaders know what they’re doing and a tidy mix of passionate and experienced team members working on projects with Amazon’s sizeable capital at its back.
But all of that is nothing without proper direction.
The story of mega-successful games like Five Nights at Freddy’s and Undertale are well known within the videogame industry. Miniscule – often being one person – teams on shoestring budgets who create genre and industry-defining titles. These titles were built from clear design decisions, a strong passion for what the developers were making, and an extremely focused development cycle. All these factors then meld together to manifest a title that spawns a franchise and colossal success.
The issue that Amazon Games has struggled with is its desire to reach that final stage, colossal success, whilst lacking the core building blocks that manifest it. This is made clear by how Mike Frazzini stated that he wanted the studio to pursue projects like Minecraft, The Walking Dead, and The Room.
Highlighted here is a fundamental misunderstanding of the industry and a lack of definitive focus or direction within its studio. Though this may seem odd to state, as Mike’s vision may seem quite clear on the surface with what he and his team are pursuing, a look at what precisely those three games are will illuminate the issue.
Minecraft is one of the single most popular video games in human history. It is a game entirely focused on creativity and the ability for a player to have free reign of the game’s world to make their own fun. In sharp contrast, the Walking Dead is a linear, episodic story game with strong character-based stories where players choose dialogue options and solve minor puzzles or situations between long stints of characters talking to one another. Meanwhile, the Room is a three-dimensional, single-player puzzle game. It was initially designed and released for the Apple App store, taking advantage of the unique makeup of a mobile phone in its gameplay.
Each game has its imitators, people and studios who have seen the lightning in the bottle and are looking to catch that success. That success is the only common strand between the three of them and is precisely what Mike was chasing.
The Room sold a staggering 6.5 million copies, spawned four additional games and was popular enough that it was later redesigned to be released on PC and games consoles. The Walking Dead sold 8.5 million copies in just 2013 – with an estimated $40 million in revenue at the time and was accompanied by three sequels and a spin-off title. Then there’s Minecraft, a game that requires no introduction as one of the most successful videogames ever created, the source of a media empire that comprises multiple spin-offs, merchandise, and so much more that Microsoft was willing to spend $2.5 billion for.
Mike, and his executive team, were – albeit understandably – chasing billion dollar successes. However, the studio heads focussed too heavily on success without a proper understanding of how to get there, which is precisely why the studio has struggled for so long. Encapsulated poignantly when Mark stated that the company planned,
“…to make games that resonate with a huge audience of players”,
Again, this sounds excellent and profitable on paper, but a mass appeal is a challenging goal to achieve. He made this statement ahead of the publication of the much-maligned game Crucible, a game that videogame publication IGN described as,
“…like a monster assembled from dismembered design ideas from the world of e-sports” in its video review of the game, with the consensus of the public being condemnation of its derivative nature. Perfectly highlighting the inherent problem Amazon Games faced and must continue to address.
No amount of business acumen will ever substitute for creativity. No figure in investment will equal a project that consumers find fun or engaging. You cannot pluck ideas and concepts from something already popular, compile them together and create a product that will print money in creative media, especially video games. This is a lesson that Amazon Games has had to learn the hard way.
But learn they have!
With the appointment of Christoph Hartmann in 2018, there seemed to be a shift in how things are done. His experience in the industry led to immediate and sweeping changes – including the company’s adoption of third-party development software instead of its proprietary one. Since then, the studio has faced further delays, project cancellations and has said goodbye to members of the team – including Mike Frazzini in early 2022.
Fortunately, these struggles have manifested in successes; the launches of its games New World and Lost Ark were met with resounding critical and commercial success, the former very much attributed to the care taken in its development – which includes its multiple delays until it was ready.
Vast capital and a well-established brand are boons that can elevate a fledgling project, but neither will provide any guarantee of success in a medium like video games. Small projects can spawn fortunes, whilst expensive endeavours just as quickly take their studios down with them. Video games are born of creativity and live and die on their ability to provide fun; with both being such nebulous and subjective concepts, it’s no wonder that many business-minded executives struggle to understand the industry as a whole.
Though Amazon Games has seemingly found its footing with New Worlds and Lost Ark, its decade-long journey – and cancelled projects in the interim – should stand as a cautionary tale for any looking to expand into the industry or any industry where audience engagement is paramount. You can have all the right ingredients and bottomless funds for investment, but that is no substitute for creativity – nor will it guarantee success – as it takes a creative mind to manage creativity effectively.