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Amazon’s first major video game is here after several false starts

Amazon has been selling games from independent as well as the world’s largest publishers for decades, and its Amazon Web Services and tools support development of other companies’ games.

Bloomberg|
Last Updated: May 21, 2020, 08.46 AM IST
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By Priya Anand and Olga Kharif

Amazon.com Inc. faces a crucial test on Wednesday with the release of its first original big-budget video game. The reception from homebound gamers will signal whether the company can become a force in a $159-billion global industry dominated by the likes of Microsoft Corp. and Activision Blizzard Inc.

Crucible is a free-to-play PC game in which teams hunt down opponents and creatures on a distant planet. Amazon plans to start selling another game in August. Called New World, it will put players on a mysterious island where they will battle one another and hunt. The company is also working on The Lord of The Rings game and some unannounced projects.

Crucible will make money by selling digital merchandise as well as seasonal battle passes. New World should fetch $40 for a standard edition and $50 for a deluxe version, including additional in-game items and a digital art book.

“There’s tremendous room for invention in games,” says Mike Frazzini, the vice president of Amazon Games. “We’re just getting started.”

If the first two titles are well received, Amazon’s gaming division could attract talent and shed a reputation for fits and starts. Popular games could also help build momentum for the company’s widely expected launch of a game-streaming service to rival Google Stadia, which lets users play a bunch games from any compatible device, without needing to download or update them. “There is much riding on the success of Crucible and New World,” says Billy Pidgeon, an analyst at Go Play Research.

Amazon has been selling games from independent as well as the world’s largest publishers for decades, and its Amazon Web Services and tools support development of other companies’ games. It entered game publishing in 2012, partly to give consumers another reason to sign up for its Prime subscription, which along with free shipping offers a variety of entertainment options including television shows and movies. Early efforts that focused on mid-tier games, including some designed for Amazon's Fire TV streaming devices, didn't make a splash.

Amazon constructed its game strategy from various pieces. In 2014, the Seattle-based company purchased Twitch, where people stream themselves playing such games as Fortnite and Valorant. Two years later, Amazon launched Twitch Prime, which gives game-playing Prime subscribers extra perks for no additional cost.

The company began working on its own titles by hiring famed designers like Kim Swift. But Amazon has struggled to retain key talent, including Swift, who left for Electronic Arts Inc. and now works at Google. In 2018, Amazon canceled a game called Breakaway, in which teams tried to move a ball to their opponent’s goal. Last summer, the gaming news publication Kotaku reported that the company had laid off dozens of game developers and shelved some unannounced titles. Even the Crucible and New World release dates have been pushed out; Amazon blamed fallout from Covid-19.

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There’s plenty of competition. Microsoft, Sony Corp. and Nintendo Co. all have their own hardware—often an advantage because consoles enable advanced features. Facebook Inc., meanwhile, offers games like FarmVille on its social network, and its Facebook Gaming live-streaming service has been stealing share and streamers from Twitch. Amazon is also competing with established game publishers such as Activision and EA, which are constantly improving their existing games and coming up with new hits.

Amazon has called in some extra help to push its games across the finish line. In 2017, former EA veteran Bing Gordon left Amazon’s board to help guide the division as a consultant. He has advised on marketing strategy and even played some games and offered feedback. Gordon is renowned for leading EA’s product development and creating an innovative pricing strategy for its online games.

His initial agreement to consult for Amazon’s games division was extended and runs for about another year, according to a person familiar with the matter. A company spokesperson confirmed Gordon is advising the division. His involvement with Amazon’s game unit was previously reported by the tech news site The Information. Gordon is also on the board of mobile game maker Zynga Inc.

“Amazon Game Studios is still finding its way,” says Susan Eustis, president of Wintergreen Research. But one hit game could provide a huge lift, she adds, and Amazon's 150 million paid Prime members globally represent a big market advantage.

Launching a product in the midst of a pandemic may seem counter-intuitive. But gaming has become a go-to entertainment choice for people hunkered down at home—a captive audience if ever there was one. Players have been flocking to new releases like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, as well as rediscovering old favorites like Fortnite. Still, as the lockdowns ease, the recent surge in game playing could abate. Whether people keep paying for games amid skyrocketing unemployment remains to be seen.

Amazon’s new games are likely to get a bump from Twitch, which can help publishers market new releases. Twitch’s players and streamers have been involved in the development of Crucible from early on. The game itself is specifically adapted to show well on the service: Characters are easily recognizable from a distance. It’s fast-paced from the get-go, an effort to make it exciting to watch. Twitch has said that ads on the platform to promote EA’s Apex Legends game helped it get 25 million unique users in a week.

“One of the things that we hear most often from people who try Crucible is that it feels unique,” Frazzini says. “There are elements and gameplay mechanics that feel familiar, but they’re combined in a way that’s different from anything else they’ve played.”

But making a blockbuster game is not easy, for anyone. Some reviewers who got an early peek at the two games liked them; others have not.

“The buzz on these games has not been that great,” says David Cole, founder of DFC Intelligence, which tracks digital entertainment. “They are ambitious, but the market changes fast and both products already look passe now.”

There have been plenty of naysayers with many titles that have gone on to become a success. Ultimately, it’s the players who will decide whether Amazon will become a gaming powerhouse.

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