Amazon Wants to ‘Win at Games.’ So Why Hasn’t It?

Three years ago, on a drab, chilly summer day in the Dutch port of Den Helder, Amazon made an extravagant pitch for its first-ever big-budget video game, Breakaway. The event, streamed live on Twitch, was an esports tournament with a twist: It would take place on a 355-foot-long naval patrol ship, the kind that hunts down pirates and drug smugglers in the Caribbean.On the upper decks, sailors stood taut as the camera ogled the vessel’s 76mm cannon. Then a pair of emcees from Amazon Game Studios, occasionally shouting over the thrum of passing helicopters, introduced the competitors. They were down below, huddled around high-end monitors—headsets on, knees jiggling anxiously, cans of Red Bull cracked open.
On paper, Breakaway was a delicious amalgamation of features from two of the most popular contemporary games, Rocket League and League of Legends. Players would gather in mythical arenas like El Dorado and Atlantis, competing to dunk a ball in the opposing team’s goal. To succeed, they would need galaxy-brain strategy, impeccable spatial reasoning, and split-second reactions.Amazon had no doubt that Twitch viewers would line up to watch the matches unfold and, later, join the game’s beta release. All told, the company spent at least a quarter of a million dollars setting up what it called the , according to a source with knowledge of the event. Still, for a tech leviathan, this was peanuts, the modest cost of entry to an estimated $100 billion industry.

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Sign up for our Longreads newsletter for the best features, ideas, and investigations from WIRED.Any veteran of the video games industry will tell you that good games are products of miracle. Think about it: A symphony of idiosyncratic, often underpaid artists, coders, designers, sound engineers, marketers, writers, and producers must all unite in their vision for a commercial art product. Anything and everything could go wrong—and it has, explosively, even at the Activision-Blizzards, the Biowares, and the Rockstars. No amount of money and personnel can ensure success. Blockbusters can flop, and indie titles, some even made by a single developer, can sell millions.Yet Amazon’s total inability to excel in gaming is remarkable. Breakaway wasn’t its first fiasco, or its last. After more than a decade of concerted effort, the tech company that brute-forced its way to dominance in books, retail, and cloud computing has failed to produce a single successful big-name title.
Amazon declined to make any executives available for an interview for this story. In a brief written statement, the company’s director of communications, Kinley Pearsall, said: “Making great games is hard, and we’re not going to get everything right, especially at the beginning—that’s part of the nature of inventing, as we’ve learned in lots of new areas Amazon has pursued. We continue to learn and create better games by listening to customers.”But six former employees of Amazon Game Studios, most of whom had left the company by 2019, told a different story. (All spoke to me on condition of anonymity.) “There’s this hubris,” one said, echoing a common refrain. “We’re Amazon. We can do it all. We can spend our way to success.”