Amazon, Google and why you can't just invent a blockbusting games developer

Guardian Technology 03 Feb 2021 08:00

It was perhaps not the most surprising video game industry revelation of all time. Last week, Bloomberg published an eviscerating exposé on the dysfunctional culture at Amazon Game Studios, the development teams formed by the online retail giant, which have so far failed to produce a single hit title for PC or consoles, despite recruiting a wealth of industry veterans. The backstory as presented in the article is almost too predictable: Amazon trusted its game studios to a company veteran, Mike Frazzini, with no experience in game development, who greenlit expensive projects that chased already successful titles (a League of Legends clone called Nova, a Fortnite competitor named Intensity) and ended up being cancelled. According to staff who spoke to Bloomberg, the studios also adopted a “bro culture” in which female staff were belittled and sidelined. Bloomberg said they approached Amazon for a response, but a spokeswoman declined to comment or make Frazzini available for an interview.

What this has shown is that a game development studio isn’t something that can simply be built and operated through the combination of financial investment and a few big-name talent acquisitions. You can’t just pour in money at one end and watch blockbusting games pop out the other. One inconvenient factor that seems to have been overlooked in both these cases is that, like a movie production team, or a sitcom writers’ room, or an orchestra, or a repertory theatre company, a games studio is a culture. It requires a combination of factors, including a shared vision, a work ethic, a supportive environment, a sense of identity and purpose, which emerge not out of funding, but out of creative relationships and trust. Frustratingly, you can’t buy these things, they develop.

Nobody designed these places to feel like this, it just happened; it evolved over time, and through the gauze of shared experiences. I love to visit Rare, the studio in the Midlands that created Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie and more recently Sea of Thieves. Located within acres of countryside, it feels like a world unto itself, and it is staffed both by industry veterans with decades of experience, and fresh-faced graduates and newcomers who talked to me about feeling heard and valued and a part of something truly enriching. I’m not sure if that’s something that can be purchased.

Video games were projected to make $160bn in 2020, according to industry analyst Newzoo. They have become the entertainment and cultural format of choice for Generation Z, so of course major entertainment and retail corporations want to get a creative grip on the sector. It is almost too cliched, too on the nose, the way Amazon and Google went at it with their expensive test tube studios, the way they seem to have wanted to leverage Triple A game development in order to promote their other services and technologies – as though holistic business integration was ever enough to motivate great art or even decent entertainment. Even the most soulless Hollywood action blockbusters emerge from creative stables that bring particular visions to the screen. You might think Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay are hacks but you sure know when you’re watching something they made.

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BloombergAmazon Game StudiosMike FrazziniAmazonPhil Harrison
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