Frazzini is the vice president of Amazon Game
Studios which is producing video games for the
company's new Fire TV.
FOREST, Calif. ó At a studio tucked away in a
nondescript Orange County office park, Amazon.com is
hoping to remake the video-game business.
the past year, two dozen or so developers at Amazon Game
Studios raced to create "Sev Zero," a video
game thatís not so much a blockbuster as it is a
window into Amazonís gaming ambition.
Zero" doesnít have mind-melting graphics or a
riveting storyline that keeps gamers itching for the
next battle. Instead, itís a somewhat familiar game,
in which gamers battle aliens to protect Earthís power
grid. The weapons include shotguns and rifles, and
players can unlock upgrades as they progress through the
game. The menacing aliens are never too clever.
Zero" is a fine diversion but not likely to
displace "Halo," "Call of Duty" or
the current favorite, "Titanfall," in
hard-core gamersí hearts.
it would be wrong to write off Amazonís game business
as merely another feature it packed into its new Fire TV
streaming-media device, launched last month. That would
underestimate Amazonís ambition and misread the
potential threat to as much as $1 billion of the companyís
online retail giant has been beefing up its
game-development staff and acquiring game studios as one
risk looms: It needs a strategy to replace its sales of
shiny $60 video-game disks when the vast majority of
those games are eventually downloaded or streamed.
understand Amazonís strategy, itís important to
consider digital-media history. Amazon was late to the
digital-music transformation a decade ago, when Appleís
iPod and iTunes shifted music sales from physical
compact discs to digital downloads. CD sales plummeted
and many millions of dollars in revenue evaporated from
Amazon, among the largest purveyors of those disks. It
eventually developed its own digital-music business, but
itís been playing catchup ever since.
was a wake-up call for Amazon. Its executives could see
the same shift from physical sales to digital downloads
coming for books and DVDs. So rather than allow another
company to snatch those sales away, Amazon realized it
needed to cannibalize its own business.
led to the development of Amazonís Kindle electronic
reader, a move that helped make Amazon the top seller of
digital books. And itís driving Amazonís push into
the digital delivery of movies and television programs
with its Amazon Prime Instant Video service, which is
duking it out with Netflix.
little doubt that the lionís share of video games,
even the graphics-laden blockbusters that sell for $60 a
disk, will one day be available via download or stream.
Current limitations in bandwidth mean that day is still
years away. But just as surely as music, books and
movies can be delivered digitally, so eventually will
become a matter of truth," said Mike Frazzini, the
vice president who runs Amazonís game business, noting
that there already are plenty of popular PC games, such
as "League of Legends" and "World of
Tanks," that are downloadable.
for Amazon, that truth comes with some potential risks.
Amazon generates about $1 billion in annual sales of
physical video games from its website, said Robert W.
Baird & Co. analyst Colin Sebastian. Itís among
the top video-game retailers, trailing only GameStop,
Walmart and a handful of big-box stores. As the game
market evolves to digital delivery, Amazon needs to put
itself in a position to retain game sales that would
absolutely critical that they stay relevant when it
comes to digital distribution," Sebastian said.
"For Amazon, they obviously need to be there."
Amazon has little history in gaming, it brings plenty of
other assets to the business. It clearly knows how to
sell content digitally, having done so with the Amazon
Appstore for Android devices. Its Amazon Web Services,
which rents infrastructure computer services to other
companies over the Internet, could one day render
complex graphics on its servers and stream games online.
more, Amazon has plenty of money to invest and a history
of taking long-term approaches to make new markets pan
first serious step into game development came in 2008,
when it bought Reflexive Entertainment, a Lake Forest,
Calif., studio that made casual games for PCs and the
Xbox 360. In 2012, developers released "Air
Patriots," a mobile game for the Kindle as well as
Appleís iPhones and iPads and some Android devices.
March 2013, the game studio got word that Amazon was
going to launch a TV set-top box in a year, and the
company wanted a marquee game that could debut at the
same time. The task, though, wasnít to just build a
fun game. Developers at the studio had to create a title
that could showcase the capabilities of Amazonís new
small team of four developers and designers cobbled
together a prototype that would become "Sev
Zero." To move quickly, they reused assets created
from other games. In the earliest prototype, the hero
was a stock ninja character and the baddies, evil aliens
in the final version, were ogres. Within three weeks
they created a simple maze where the ninjas could
teleport in and battle the ogres.
the game included a split screen when two gamers played,
a feature common to multiplayer games. But a few months
into the development, Ernie Ramirez, who runs the Lake
Forest studio, decided to cut split screen for something
that he thought could be much better.
team had figured out a way for gamers with Kindle Fire
tablets to connect with other players, essentially
targeting and blasting aliens to give air support to the
primary gamer using a controller. The developers felt
the new approach didnít just make the game more fun;
it also showcased the Fire TVís ability to connect
with a mobile device to enhance a game.
seem to like it, too. With a little more than a month of
data since the launch of "Sev Zero," Amazon
said gamers who play with another player using Air
Support play 67 percent longer than when they play
the developers at the studio are proud of the game, they
also recognize itís not a big-budget title in which
they could address every last detail gamers might want.
In the race to get the game done in time for the Fire TV
launch, they werenít able to develop the sort of
detailed backstory many gamers crave.
our schedule, we had to go light on story," said
Brian Fisher, a programmer who worked on the game.
of the nearly completed game, though, showed that gamers
wanted to know why the tower needed defending and who
the evildoers were.
corrected it as best we could in the limited time we
had," Fisher said.
a few weeks, the studio added details to the storyline.
The game takes place in the 22nd century, when an alien
species, the Neíahtu, are trying to destroy the Earthís
energy grid to disable its defenses. Gamers need to help
a computer prodigy named Amy Ramanujan, who has already
repelled a computer virus aimed at shutting down the
grid, stop a new Neíahtu incursion.
could have had more complexity," Fisher said in
hindsight. "We really needed to ship [ÄėSev Zeroí]
with the device."
month after the gameís launch, itís gotten mixed
reviews. Though only 16 customers have rated the game on
Amazonís website, theyíve given it 4.4 stars out of
5. But reviews from other video-game websites havenít
been as kind.
the action portion is entertaining, it simply doesnít
have much personality," said a review in Shacknews,
which follows the video-game business. "The story
isnít particularly engaging as well. What we end up
with is a game thatís fun for a while, but very easy
to put down."
Fire TV device, too, has mixed reviews, and early
reception of its gaming platform has been lackluster.
its current form, I donít see it as much of a
competitor," said David Cole, a longtime
game-industry analyst at DFC Intelligence.
TV doesnít have the graphics horsepower to rival the
more expensive consoles made by Sony and Microsoft that
appeal to hard-core gamers. At the same time, Cole isnít
certain that casual gamers are all that interested in
spending money on a Fire TV to get the quick gaming fix
they can find on smartphones or tablets.
seems to be targeting a Goldilocks gamer ó not too
hard-core, but not too casual. "They are going
after the middle group, and thatís really tough to
do," Cole said.
course, Fire TV is only Amazonís first stab at a
streaming-media and gaming device. Game consoles such as
Microsoftís $499 Xbox One and Sonyís $399
PlayStation 4 typically stay on the market for five
years or longer before new models emerge. But Amazonís
$99 Fire TV will likely get a refresh in a year or two.
no game for the Fire TV that rivals the best-selling
games on either the Xbox or PlayStation, and thereís
little likelihood of one anytime soon.
now, Amazon wants to show whatís possible on its
device. It wants gamers and game developers to see what
it has created with "Sev Zero" and imagine
what could be next.
no streaming-media device that can play a game like
that," Frazzini said.
annual shareholders meeting will take place at 9 a.m.
Wednesday at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Besides the
election of directors and routine business, the meeting
will include a question-and-answer session allowing
investors to speak their minds directly to Chief
Executive Jeff Bezos.