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

Amazon made its first sizable bet on gaming in 2008, when it acquired a small developer with a dozen or so PC and Mac titles to its name. The company hung around the low-limit tables for the next few years, releasing a kid-friendly Facebook game starring a family of foxes in 2012—its first under the banner of Amazon Game Studios.

At the time, one source said, the company thought of video games as a playful way to move product. It planned, for example, to publish titles for its ill-fated Fire phone and Kindle Fire tablet. And there was a vague idea that, somehow, Amazon could find a targeted way to sell Prime subscriptions to the gaming demographic. (In a statement, the company said, “Our goal is, and always has been, to make great games.”)

Soon, though, Amazon executives began thinking bigger. Word among employees, two sources told me, was that Jeff Bezos, the CEO, wanted to “win at games.” Mike Frazzini, who had volunteered to lead the company’s gaming initiative, was tasked with building a billion-dollar franchise. A game that huge wouldn’t just sell a few extra Kindles; it would draw in money all across the Amazon empire.

Frazzini was a trusted executive. An Amazon lifer, he had made a name for himself in the company’s marquee book business. His knowledge of video games, though, seemed thin to some. In meetings, two former employees said, Frazzini would mention his love of R.B.I Baseball, a jock’s game from the late 1980s, or talk about what an avid gamer his son was. (Amazon contested this characterization as inaccurate, writing, “While RBI is his favorite game, he has been playing games since he was a kid, and has been a passionate gamer.”)

Frazzini’s seeming lack of experience might have raised eyebrows at most studios, but at Amazon it wasn’t so unusual. The philosophy there, one former employee told me, “is that any product manager can go between any business—from groceries to film to games to Kindle. The skillset is interchangeable. They just have to learn the particular market.”

Frazzini reported to Andy Jassy, the head of Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud-computing arm, and drew his budget from AWS’s ever-refreshing coffers. With Jassy’s support, Frazzini set about realizing the boss’s vision. His approach, according to one former employee familiar with his thinking, went like this: “I have an unlimited amount of money. I can pay the best people whatever they want to come work here. And so we should just do all of the things at once. Why waste time?”

Here again, Amazon seemed to be bucking industry norms. Most rookie studios take a cautious, incremental approach to game development: They write their code on a tried and tested third-party game engine, such as Unreal or Unity, rather than going to the trouble of building one from scratch. They release a medium-scale title or two and hope for the best. And then, if they haven’t gone out of business, they begin the long, difficult job of making a big-budget AAA game.

But Amazon Game Studios would do none of that. Instead, it would try to transform its quaint little hamlet into a Jetsons-style cityscape overnight. It would cobble together its own game engine and wrangle all the data and code on its own AWS servers. The games themselves (Amazon, of course, planned to develop several AAA titles simultaneously) would also serve as advertisements for the company’s other services. Bingo.

Over the next 18 months, Amazon transformed itself into a would-be gaming giant. In early 2014, the company acquired Double Helix Games, a studio based in Irvine, California, that employed about 75 people. Its head, Patrick Gilmore, had led production on numerous successful titles, including 2013’s Killer Instinct.

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