Amazon Can Make Just About Anything—Except a Good Video Game

Mike Frazzini had never made a video game when he helped start Amazon Game Studios. Eight years later, he has released two duds, withdrew both from stores after a torrent of negative reactions and canceled many more. For a company that dominates countless areas of retail, consumer electronics and enterprise computing, the multiple failures in gaming show one realm that may be impervious to Amazon.com Inc.’s distinctive business philosophy. It tried to make games the Amazon way, instead of simply making games people would want to play.

Frazzini is an Amazon lifer who came up in the books section of the website, where he endeared himself to Jeff Bezos as a manager there. Conventional wisdom inside the company is that if you can run one business, you can run any other. Amazon’s deep financial resources certainly help. As head of the games division, Frazzini has acquired established development studios and pushed the company to spend nearly $1 billion for the live video streaming website Twitch. Frazzini recruited some of the top names in the video game industry, including creators of the critically acclaimed franchises EverQuest and Portal , as well as executives from Electronic Arts Inc. and other big publishers.

Then, according to numerous current and former employees of Frazzini’s game studios, he ignored much of their advice. He frequently told staff that every Amazon game needed to be a “billion-dollar franchise” and then understaffed the projects, they say. Instead of using industry-standard development tools, Frazzini insisted Amazon build its own, which might have saved the company money if the software ever worked properly. Executives under Frazzini initially rejected charges that New World , an Amazon game that would ask players to colonize a mythical land and murder inhabitants who bear a striking resemblance to Native Americans, was racist. They relented after Amazon hired a tribal consultant who found that the portrayal was indeed offensive, say two people who worked on the project. The game, previously planned for release last year, is now scheduled for this spring.

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Many of the game developers who joined Amazon found themselves repelled by the corporate culture. The company is driven by data, and employees are expected to write six-page documents to get major decisions approved. In game development, on the other hand, a phrase often uttered around the office is “finding the fun.” It refers to altering and polishing small aspects of a game to figure out what makes the experience enjoyable. The results are measured only in emotion, which is why many developers say it’s critical for the people in charge to have experience making games.

At Amazon’s core is a set of 14 leadership principles. They include “customer obsession” and “frugality.” For a company man like Frazzini, they offer a scale by which every member of the team is measured. “If you don’t come in line with that approach, you’ll struggle at Amazon,” says Jason Child, who spent more than a decade in Amazon’s finance department. Adapting to the corporate culture counts for much more than expertise, he says. “If someone is a guru in video games and they go to Amazon, would they be successful? Probably not.”

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Amazon hired celebrated developers like Kim Swift, designer of the puzzle game Portal , and Clint Hocking, director of the shooter Far Cry 2 . It also formed two more studios in California. The splashy hires kept coming, including Madden guru Richard Hilleman and online gaming pioneer John Smedley. Today, only Smedley remains. All declined to comment.

At first, new recruits thought they were entering some sort of fantasy land. Many were paid double the market rate of other game makers in the area, on top of lucrative packages of Amazon stock that just kept rising in value. Teams had deadlines, but they proved to be flexible, and overtime requests were infrequent, more than a dozen former employees say.

One aspect of working at Amazon felt similar to traditional game companies. The studios cultivated a “bro culture” in which women often weren’t given the same opportunities as men, former employees say. Four female game developers say their worst experiences of sexism in the industry were at Amazon. They shared stories of being ignored and undermined by male executives and say they were eventually driven out of the company. One former employee says male colleagues completely ignored her comments in meetings. Another says a member of senior leadership impeded her career growth after she disagreed with him and that he created new management positions above her and filled them with men.

Amazon didn’t give employees much financial incentive to release anything, either. Most big game companies pay staff bonuses based in part on the critical and commercial response to their games, but Amazon’s stock plan only rewards employees for time spent at the company. That led some to prioritize job preservation over anything else, say three former employees. They say they watched colleagues avoid arguments and only seek to placate bosses like Frazzini, even when they disagreed. (This was in defiance of the Amazon principle “Have backbone; disagree and commit.”)

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In many ways, the approach to games mirrors the one that eventually led Amazon to some success in Hollywood. It tried a bunch of different things—develop a streaming service, set up a studio, produce TVs and films, build a set-top box—and selected an Amazon insider, Roy Price, to run it. Price produced a handful of bad shows before Transparent won Amazon its first Golden Globe in 2015. Then came Oscars for Manchester by the Sea and more Golden Globes for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel . Price was ousted in 2017 over sexual harassment allegations, and Bezos took the unlikely step of looking outside of the company, to Hollywood, for his replacement, Jennifer Salke. She cemented Amazon Prime Video as an important part of the company’s business strategy. People sign up for Prime to watch The Boys , and they buy more stuff on Amazon.

Amazon could still do the same in gaming. Luna demonstrates a continued commitment, as do the investments in New World and as-yet-unannounced projects including a secretive new game from Smedley, who laid the foundation for massively multiplayer online games in the late 1990s with EverQuest . After Amazon’s misadventures in gaming, there’s at least one passage from the leadership principles the company will still hope to prove: “Leaders are right a lot.”

Jason Schrier’s new piece is out… and it’s on Amazon!

Lots to digest here, but wow.

:skull_and_crossbones:

poor double helix

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Save Double Helix. Save Killer Instinct.

Imagine if they tried to run Prime Video that way. Any show that’s not shaping up to be the next Game of Thrones gets cancelled.

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I have no idea how Prime Video runs…

The only thing they have I watch is The Boys…

The Bossman is gonna kick some ass!

interestingly enough, Amazon Prime has been having a lot more great content than Netflix as of late imo.

Amazon really needs their Phil Spencer. They should convince Peter Moore to come and work for them seeing that he is back in the game industry. He understands how the industry works and how to deal with employees.

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He’s still on the board for LFC so he legally can’t take any work for Amazon due to it being a huge conflict of interest, Amazon Prime get the Christmas Premier League fixtures so he would be working for a broadcaster whilst being on the board of a club

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Looks like he actually had some oversight this time with a co-author. Lots of sources this time as well. That’s an improvement!

He just took a job doing something else in gaming too iirc. Can’t recall what it was though.

Nifty games

Peter Moore just started a job working with Unity (the game engine company), irrc working on sports stuff

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That’s what I was thinking of yeah. Thanks!