Amazon Boosting Game Teams in Seattle, CA with Social & Mobile Focus

1/24/12Follow @curtwoodward

Amazon.com’s cloud-computing services already power some of the biggest names in online gaming. Its new Kindle Fire tablet and app store are giving game publishers a critical new sales channel. And now, the e-commerce pioneer appears to be getting more serious about publishing its own games.

Over the last few months, Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) has ramped up job postings for game developers, artists, designers, and producers at both an Orange County research and development office and, for jobs focusing on social games, at its Seattle headquarters. Several notable names from the gaming industry have also joined the company recently, with a range of experience that spans many different gaming genres.

Some game publishers—who count Amazon as a key partner—have now concluded that it could become a competitor as well. Not much is known about what the secretive company is working on, and no sources who suspect Amazon is planning a bigger push into game publishing would comment on the record for this story. Amazon itself did not respond to e-mailed requests for comment.

But, as is often the case, you can tell what the company is planning by what it’s telling prospective job applicants.

In ads for developer, engineer, and producer jobs, Amazon describes its game development studio as a place to “imagine and develop games that will shape the future of interactive media,” with “an agile team made up of the brightest engineers, artists, producers and designers in the industry.”

The scope of what the company says it plans to build is pretty wide, pointing toward the all-platforms gaming experience expected to soon be standard in the industry: “We conceptualize, build and distribute the most exciting and addicting games on Android, iPhone/iPad, Kindle, HTML5 and other next generation operating systems!” The studio is based in an Orange County, CA, office of the company’s a2z research and development subsidiary.

Digital game publishing isn’t completely new territory for Amazon, but it’s been relatively quiet so far. The company purchased small game studio Reflexive Entertainment in 2008, and that unit has continued to publish some casual titles and e-book games for the Kindle digital reader—examples include cheery casual game Airport Mania 2 and interactive e-book Dusk World.

But now that Amazon has introduced its new full-color, touchscreen Kindle Fire tablet, it’s got a much stronger hand in selling digital games—and a much bigger reason to explore creating its own titles. Tellingly, the company’s job board lists six new game studio positions since the public introduction of the Kindle Fire, including three that were just posted yesterday.

Meanwhile, up at its Seattle headquarters, Amazon is building up a group that focuses on “social games innovation.” The company’s job board lists a dozen open positions mentioning that team, most of them posted in the past three months. Some of the jobs being advertised could be suited to a platform project, rather than game production. But job descriptions for designers and artists are pretty specific about the kind of work needed to produce a title. The artist, for example, is expected to “set the artistic direction [of] a new social game.”

Word of a social gaming project started leaking out last summer when the website IndustryGamers reported that Amazon had hired longtime role-playing-game designer Jonathan Tweet to work on a social game, following his stint working on Facebook games at GameHouse, a division of Seattle-based RealNetworks.

Since then, Amazon has accumulated more experienced game-industry talent. They include Nik Davidson, a veteran of massively multiplayer online games; Paul Furio, who has experience in social and casual games, as well as interactive fiction; and Russ Glaser, a user experience designer who worked on several high-profile projects for Microsoft’s Xbox Live service, including Xbox Live Mobile and the integration of Facebook.

Some don’t think that Amazon is too serious about becoming a major game publisher. GameHouse president Matt Hulett says Amazon will probably use its industry talent to strengthen its distribution platform, possibly developing demonstration titles to show off the strength of its platform.

“Remember ‘Minesweeper’ on Microsoft Windows? Sometimes you need a couple of reference apps that are bundled in so that people know what to do,” Hulett says. “I just seriously doubt that Amazon would try to build its own hit games.”

But there are precedents for just such a strategy. For one thing, it’s quite common for big video game distribution platforms to produce their own titles—Microsoft, Valve, and BigFish Games are three prominent examples just in the Seattle area.

Amazon also has shown an interest in producing other kinds of content that it sells. After years of disrupting the business of selling books, Amazon is now directly taking on the publishing houses by signing up its own authors. And it’s also exploring new ways of getting movies made with its Amazon Studios project, a complement to a new video-streaming business.

That’s before we even discuss the plain dollars-and-cents reasons. Video gaming has been a relatively strong area of the overall media industry in the past decade, pulling in an estimated $16.5 billion last year. The console game sector may have suffered, but social and casual games continue to be hot, despite Facebook game-leader Zynga’s sometimes disappointing IPO—in Seattle alone, we saw PopCap Games acquired for up to $1.3 billion and Double Down Interactive sold for up to $500 million. And games continue to be the most popular smartphone apps, according to tracking by the research firm Nielsen.

Finally, don’t forget that Amazon started life as a seller of media—namely books—and views its new Kindle Fire in that vein, with CEO Jeff Bezos recently telling Wired that the device is “a fully integrated media service.”

If integration’s your thing, it’s pretty hard to beat this recipe: Owning the game itself, the app store that delivers it, the computing power that makes it tick, and the device that it lands on.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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