Amazon: Connecting audiences is more important than VR

Amazon: Connecting audiences is more important than VR
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

April 19th 2016 at 2:57PM

VP of Amazon Games Mike Frazzini says firm is more focused on community when developing new Lumberyard engine

It was impossible to escape virtual reality at this year’s Game Developers Conference.

The show floor in San Francisco was packed with firms showing off demos and tools for Oculus, Vive and Gear – and the press briefings from the three leading engines firms, the companies Amazon Lumberyard is now in competition with, were dominated by talk of VR innovations.

And while Amazon certainly isn’t ignoring virtual reality, Mike Frazzini – VP of Amazon Games – says it isn’t the highest priority for the team behind Lumberyard.

“For us, business models and devices are not the centre of our focus,” he told Develop at the show. “The focus is on customers and the experiences they want to create. Downstream from that, a very important layer is what is your business model? Where are you going to distribute it, and on which device?

“Is VR relevant? Absolutely, and we do have areas of investment there. We just think it exists at a higher level of cognitive contemplation as it relates to what it is you’re creating as a developer and an artist.

“We’re not taking our eye off VR, and we’re also making sure our technology supports it. Lumberyard is able to produce some of the highest quality visuals, and as you think about presence, you want high quality, high performance and high flexibility so that as a developer you can customise as deeply as you want. We feel like we’re really set up well as a toolset for VR developers, but ultimately it’s not just about VR. It’s about connecting people and audiences as well.”

To emphasise his point, Frazzini cited the growing importance of leading streaming site Twitch – which, conveniently, is owned by Amazon. The site has become a major factor in the ongoing success of games today, with countless developers striving for ‘streamable’ gameplay and mechanics that are as fun to watch as they are to play. But to accomplish this, a new way of thinking is needed.

“Twitch has become the way to launch and find games,” said Frazzini. “Some games developers, early in their projects, are engaging and talking about their designs on Twitch, but there’s a later stage aspect to consider. When the game launches, you’ll have not one audience, but three: players, broadcasters and viewers, all sharing in a live experience.

“If you can create tools to make the engagement within the three sets of people more interesting and fun, you see increases in engagement and retention.”

We feel like we’re really set up well as a toolset for VR developers, but ultimately it’s not just about VR. It’s about connecting people and audiences as well.

Amazon has done just that with Lumberyard. Frazzini’s first example is ChatPlay, a tool that takes commands from Twitch’s chat column and allows them to be inputs into the game. This was demonstrated to us with a simple arena-based multiplayer game, where spectators could spawn in power-ups and weapons to help give players an edge over their rivals.

“The community can influence what’s happening in the game in any number of ways that are deep, meaningful and ultimately fun,” says Frazzini.

“The second thing we’ve created with Lumberyard is JoinIn. Broadcasters have all these fans watching them – JoinIn lets them choose fans from the chat channel and invite them to play with you in the next round. We’re doing that through a simple mechanism within the game that gives broadcasters this tool for a one-click jump-in-and-join system. It’s like if you’re watching Steph Curry shooting hoops in his backyard, and you could click a button and be with him. It’s super cool.

“We’re getting so many ideas from customers about how to help them, and the tools we can build with them to help engage audiences via Twitch, which is a really important aspect of success. We think focusing on tools to help developers build and engage with large communities of fans is really important – whether or not that’s for VR, mobile, PC or console.”

We have leading positions in many very important areas of the industry, and Lumberyard is a way to bring them together and help developers become more successful – that’s entirely our focus.

It’s an interesting change of pace while the Unreal, Unity and Crytek are all pushing VR as the most powerful new weapon in their respective arsenals. When asked how Frazzini thinks Lumberyard will stack up against these engines going forward, he stresses that Amazon is not looking to overthrow the market leaders at this point.

“We’re very customer-centric, not competitor-centric,” he said. “So when we launched, we concentrated on what customers were telling us and on working with devs to help them be more successful.

“We look at who we are as a company: we have hundreds of millions of active customers who love to play games in our retail business, we have Amazon Web Services as a way to connect to the Cloud, we have Twitch as a way to connect to the audience. We have leading positions in many very important areas of the industry, and Lumberyard is a way to bring them together and help developers become more successful – that’s entirely our focus. We don’t think in terms of what number we are in the engine rankings.

“We feel very good about the initial reception, but there’s a lot of hard work to do. Engines are complex beasts. We have to roll up our sleeves and get to work. When you deliver 1.1, then 1.2, then 1.3, people step back and say ‘wow, these guys are making a lot of progress’. But we’ve got to earn that. It only comes through delivery of results.”

This article is part of our month-long Virtual Reality Special. You can find more VR content here.