The retail giant is ambitious, but analysts are skeptical that it can have a lasting effect.
Throughout the years, retail giant Amazon has had a small presence in the games sector thanks to a handful of browser and mobile games. Now, however, the company is making a concerted effort to break into the world’s most popular form of entertainment. According to a report from The New York Times, the company has named its Seattle-based development studio Relentless Studios, an homage to Jeff Bezos’ original name for Amazon.
Reportedly, Relentless is at work on a few titles, including a pair of MMORPGs and Crucible, a multiplayer shooter set for release next month. Additionally, Amazon is developing a cloud gaming service, codenamed Project Tempo, to compete with Google Stadia, Microsoft’s Project xCloud, and Nvidia’s GeForce Now. Amazon is also working on interactive games that Twitch broadcasters can play along with their viewers.
For David Cole, analyst at DFC Intelligence, Amazon has an uphill battle ahead if it really wants to find success in the games space.
“Back in 2012, DFC Intelligence wrote a report saying that Google, Amazon and Apple were the biggest upcoming threats to the console game business,” Cole told GameDaily. “Years later and those companies have done far less than we imagined. When Microsoft says Google and Amazon are big competitors that is not just a knock at Sony and Nintendo but really a glimpse of their larger strategic vision to provide services across a variety of platforms.”
Looking at Google Stadia, it’s easy to justify Cole’s pessimism regarding the ability of big tech companies to break into gaming; the cloud gaming platform got off to a rocky start when it launched in November last year. Since then, Google has taken strides to prepare Stadia for long-term growth by opening an internal development studio in Playa Vista, nabbing some high-profile indie exclusives, and launching a self-publishing initiative aimed gaining more traction in the indie space.
On the surface, it seems like Amazon would be in a prime position to make a strong impact in the games space; after all, it already boasts an enormous customer base (150 million are signed up for Prime), and it owns Twitch, which remains the most popular streaming platform in the world even amid a pandemic. It seems entirely within the realm of possibility that the company could offer access to a Project Tempo in a Prime membership bundle similar to what it already does with Prime Music and Video. However, Cole does not see this as realistic.
“Amazon has a sizable user base but nothing like Google or Apple on a global scale across platforms,” Cole explained. “Microsoft has proved that a larger user base in operating systems isn't an advantage in selling video game systems. The issue with Prime members is they are more the audience for hardware and not a cloud gaming packaging, which is more a secondary feature for that audience. Maybe Amazon can help facilitate a cross platform play but that is tough.”
Piers Harding-Rolls, research director of games at Ampere Analysis, echoed Cole’s thoughts on this possibility.
“It’s true Amazon has a broad gaming audience through Twitch, but I expect content subscription services to dominate in the cloud gaming market,” Harding-Rolls said. “It takes a lot of time and negotiation to build a content-based subscription service. It helps if you have a lot of first-party or exclusive content to drive adoption. It will take time for Amazon to make an impact.”
To make his point, Harding-Rolls emphasized the parallel between Amazon and Google, and their respective efforts to break into games.
“Amazon’s capabilities are quite strongly aligned to Google’s in the context of games,” he explained. “Both companies have strong cloud infrastructure, offer end-to-end cloud-based solutions and tools for the games sector, operate large live streaming platforms, are active in cloud gaming and are investing in building a first-party studio capability. Amazon has a lot of the building blocks to be competitive in a wide area of the games value chain, but like Google, lacks a deep portfolio of content like Microsoft or Sony.”
For Cole, it’s not Google, but Apple that should serve as the model for tech companies looking to jumpstart their games businesses.
“It is actually Apple that has most impressed us with the launch of Apple Arcade,” Cole said. “This was a low-key project that actually tried to do something new for the game industry and go after a unique audience. I don't think Google or Amazon have really come to grips with how to deliver something new. They are basically just copying what has come before.”
Another hurdle the companies need to overcome is the coronavirus pandemic. According to the New York Times report, COVID-19 has delayed Project Tempo. As a whole, the games industry is struggling against remote work policies issued in the face of the pandemic, with several high-profile games being delayed, including Wasteland 3 and The Last of Us II.
Amazon’s games business has been around for six years now, but it appears to be hampered by logistics. Last July, Amazon Games Studios laid off dozens of employees, with a spokesperson citing organizational challenges in the ramp-up to production. On the other side of the coin, Amazon made a number of prominent hires in former IGDA executive director Jen MacLean and Everquest co-creator John Smedley.
Looking at the big picture, Cole said that his outlook on Amazon’s future in games is rather negative.
“Overall we have become more pessimistic on the chances of companies like Google and Amazon to become major players in the game space,” he said. “They spend a lot of money, start a lot of projects, but much of it is throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.”
On paper, Amazon and Google -- heavy hitters in the tech industry with capital to spare -- are in a good position to establish a strong games business. Both companies boast a strong cloud computing branch that could theoretically be leveraged to deliver such products, but we have yet to see anything substantial. Amazon’s ambitions in the gaming space are significant, but ambition will only go so far. It will be interesting to see how this landscape shifts in the coming months and years, especially as the tech sector begins to recover from the effects of a pandemic.
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