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Is Amazon finding its way in games? | Sarah Anderson interview

Bynewsmagzines

Feb 27, 2023
Is Amazon finding its way in games? | Sarah Anderson interview

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Amazon hasn’t had the easiest time in games. A decade ago, it formed Amazon Games. It made some big bets, hired a lot of game veterans as studio leaders and built a lot of teams in the past decade. Then it either didn’t launch the games, or they were released and became flops.

Amazon Games leader Mike Frazzini resigned in March 2022. Christoph Hartmann, who joined Amazon in 2018, began to centralize what was previously a collection of game projects that were more like their own separate businesses.

Amazon’s Orange County team managed to get the New World massively multiplayer online game out the door. It did well at first, then saw declines. Amazon updated the game regularly and turned around the numbers, said Sarah Anderson, head of marketing at Amazon Games. I spoke with her at last week’s Dice Summit in Las Vegas about the company’s games business.

Amazon Games also took Smilegate’s Lost Ark game, which had been published in Asia, and released it in the West. That went well, and then it started picking up other titles that were published in Asia and needed a partner to bring them to the West.

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Amazon Games teamed up with Bandai Namco to bring the Blue Protocol MMO to the West. And Amazon Games announced this month it would team up with South Korea’s NCSoft and publish the MMO Throne & Liberty in the West. Anderson said these titles are taking some of the pressure off of Amazon Games’ internal studios, which are still working on a variety of titles.

Perhaps biggest of all, Amazon Games announced in December it would publish the next installment of Tomb Raider from Embracer Group’s Crystal Dynamics studio. And Anderson said there is a lot more cooking. The company isn’t out of the woods yet, as the parent firm laid off thousands of employees. But Amazon Games continues to expand.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Sarah Anderson is head of marketing at Amazon Games.

GamesBeat: Can you tell me more about your background?

Sarah Anderson: I’m the director of global marketing for Amazon Games. I’ve been there for three and a half years, but I’ve been in the industry for about 30 years. I spent 12 of those years at 2K Games as the SVP of marketing there. I was there working with Christoph Hartmann, who’s our VP at Amazon Games now.

GamesBeat: What was interesting about Amazon that drew you there?

Anderson: First of all, Christoph was there. He’s somebody who I have a lot of respect for, because he understands both game development and the creative process, but also marketing overall. He has an amazing vision for what’s coming in the industry. He went to Amazon, I think, because he saw the opportunity, and I see it as well, which is to be able to create IP and great gaming experiences, but also IP that we can turn into transmedia IP. To be able to do amazing cool things with the power of Amazon. We have Prime Video and all these things that we can do. There’s the tech and the services of AWS and Twitch and Prime Gaming. There’s a lot to work with there to be able to connect customers and build communities around games.

GamesBeat: As far as the road map goes, what are some things that are already announced that are coming soon, and that you think are some of the best achievements at Amazon Games?

Anderson: Since I’ve been there we launched New World, which was internally created by our Orange County studio. We’ve continued to run that. Just this past fall we did a big update there combined with a fresh start with the servers. We were able to get that back to the Steam top 10. We’re showing a commitment to our players. We’ll continue to invest. We see it as a long-term franchise. We have big plans for that one.

A town in New World.
A town in New World.

We launched Lost Ark just last February. That’s a game that we’re publishing in partnership with Smilegate RPG. That’s been live in Korea for a couple of years, and we brought it here. That process involved Westernizing and localizing. It’s a big process. Making sure that it’s the best it can be for our customers. It took us about a year to get that work done. We’re continuing to support that as well, investing in that as a long-term franchise.

The things we’ve announced that are all super exciting–we have Tomb Raider, which we announced, that we’re working on with Crystal Dynamics. We’re excited about where that franchise is going to go and the things we’ll be able to do with that IP. We announced Blue Protocol with Bandai Namco. And then just two days ago, or one day ago–the days are flying by. With NCSoft we’re going to be the publisher of Throne of Liberty. And then we have other games with Disruptive Studios in Berkeley, and with Glowmade in the U.K. Plus we have our own internal studios in Montreal and San Diego working on their own projects. Irvine, or Orange County, is about to work on something new as well, but we haven’t announced that.

GamesBeat: There was a period of time when Amazon was getting dissed as the company that couldn’t make games. How did you think about that and get through that?

Anderson: It’s a testament to Amazon being a culture of innovation and invention, being willing to take risks and try things and fail and stick with it. We definitely learned a lot of hard lessons. I think we’ve come out of that pretty strong. Gaming is a long game. It’s a long-term investment. It takes years to get there.

That’s why part of our strategy has been to publish and work with some of these third-party development teams, because those games, in some cases, there’s an amazing game that the western audiences would love to play. We can bring that to them with our marketing power, and it helps us establish a business and start getting those pipelines and infrastructure going while we’re working on developing these amazing first-party experiences. It also gives us time to make sure those games are great. We can invest in the creative process and not rush them.

GamesBeat: Did it come as any surprise that that turned out to be such a success, using that skill set in bringing things from the east to the west?

Anderson: We have a lot of people on the team, a lot of talent on the team, who are veterans from various other companies. There are a lot of people who have experiences with live service games. We saw these amazing games with great partners. It was an opportunity. We want to bring these games to our customers. Once you build that infrastructure and those pipelines, you realize, “Hey, we can really do this well.” We have a lot of the services and tools. With all the marketing supporting we can bring around this, being able to harness Twitch and Prime Gaming and all those things–we were planning for it to be a success, but I think when people saw that, it opened up more opportunities.

Amazon Games is publishing Blue Protocol in the West.

The roundtable I just hosted was on global games publishing and how interesting that is. We have a couple of examples where we’ve taken games that are being developed in Korea or Japan and brought them to western audiences. How much do you localize those games for the west? There are a lot of decisions that have to be made. Is it just language, or are you actually adapting for the culture and changing the content?

What we believe is important is to respect the vision of the developer and creator of the game. That’s important. But how do you make those adjustments and culturalize it? It’s been a really interesting challenge. That’s something we’ve been focused on over the past two years with these projects, and we’re going to continue doing it. Blue Protocol is an interesting one, because it’s being developed in Japan, but it’s anime, which is so hot right now. I don’t even think there’s that much we need to change with it. We have to look at things like the monetization schemes. We are localizing it and working with Bandai Namco to do that. But it’s super exciting.

GamesBeat: Does that also give more breathing room to the internal teams?

Anderson: That’s exactly it. You still need the games themselves to make sense financially. You can’t be in development for 10 years on new IP. But it gives them room to be the best game they can be, to make sure that we’re getting the inputs we need. We’re investing through that process. Sometimes, through the process, they need to change direction a bit. We have our whole development process we go through, and a big part of that is finding the fun. Where is the fun in this game? We want all these games to be 10-year franchises. You have to feel pretty confident.

That also means you have to be willing to kill things. That’s hard to do, but I think all the best game companies do it at some point. You have to make some hard decisions.

Lost Ark
Amazon games published Smilegate’s Lost Ark in the West.

GamesBeat: Supercell’s talked about how they’ve killed 30 titles over the years.

Anderson: Yeah, I saw that on their blog. It’s a fascinating industry. How often do movies cancel projects? I don’t know.

GamesBeat: It feels like Amazon has gotten over a hump.

Anderson: I feel like we have great momentum right now. Partly because we’ve had some success, and also, even when we faltered a bit–New World launched really well. Then the population dropped a little. But we had the great fall moment. We won some awards for being the MMO that had the best support going for it. Things like that. The community is seeing that we’re going to stick with this.

Amazon has leadership principles you may have heard of. One of the key things is “customer-obsessed.” We’re very player-obsessed. We’re always trying to make sure that we’re being forthright with our community. We’re trying to be transparent. We care about the players, that they’re getting value and that they understand we’re investing in the community. The other one is “earns trust.” We have to earn the trust of our players, but also the right to be in the industry. We have to prove that we’re committed to our franchises and we care about our players. We care about making great quality games. I think we’ve been doing that. That’s why we’ve been able to sign some deals lately, too. Developers want to work with us because they see that we care about the players and the quality of their experience.

GamesBeat: How does it balance with Amazon cutting back staff? At the same time you have these opportunities that can cause you to grow.

Anderson: It’s the economic situation we’re all in. Businesses have to figure out what they’re going to invest in. [Amazon CEO] Andy Jassy has said he’s committed to games and sees games as one of the critical entertainment verticals. We’ve been announcing deals recently, so that shows there’s continued support and investment. But we have to run as a business. We have to make smart investments and decisions. We’re just going to continue to do that.

GamesBeat: Is there almost more interest in individual game titles, or this new concept of transmedia, where you have movie and TV show opportunities alongside the games as well? Tomb Raider is an example of where that’s going to go.

Anderson: I’m speaking from the games business. To me, the games are first and foremost. We want to build amazing, great game experiences. But when you look at IP like Tomb Raider, which is an amazing game that has also gone into other media, I think that if we can give our fans and community a way to engage with these properties through television and movies–we’ve all seen such great examples of that with The Last of Us and Arcane. There have been some really cool things. I think it’s a service to the fans to let them engage with the franchise in a different way.

As a marketer I care about building franchises that are going to last. That means that the IP is all over, of course. But first and foremost it has to be about a great game experience.

GamesBeat: It feels like all these great things are happening right now. I’m not sure why they’re all working so well. They used to be total flops.

Anderson: I know! It’s true. They used to be awful. “Oh my God, there’s gonna be a movie and it’s going to be an embarrassment to the industry.” It’s not like that anymore.

Amazon Studios is becoming very active and turning its eye to games.
Amazon Studios is becoming very active and turning its eye to games.

GamesBeat: There are still puzzling things out there. Electronic Arts cancelled Apex Legends Mobile after 47 million downloads and winning Game of the Year awards. Maybe it’s because they need to take control of it back from Tencent.

Anderson: Maybe the economics just didn’t work in that deal.

GamesBeat: The same for Activision and Call of Duty Warzone on mobile. Now Warzone is going to be locally produced. These are things that are changing in the industry. There’s a lot of obscurity to it. People have asked about Amazon and Tolkien, whether you’re done with it on the game side. There was an end to one project. But it feels like that whole IP is not finished. There are so many more things games can do in that space.

Anderson: There were conversations that definitely stopped at one point. I will say, as a marketer, I would love to work with that IP. I’ll just leave it at that. I would love to see that.

For now, I feel like we have good momentum. We’re excited about the games we’re announcing. We’re still learning and growing. Amazon is providing us with the space to do that. They’re letting us try things and investing in a long-term plan. Right now we have two live and we’re launching more in the coming years. We have a couple of things we’ve already announced. We’re not talking dates yet because we’re still working all that out, but we’re feeling bullish and excited about the future.

We have great talent. That’s one of the other important things. They’re veterans from the industry, but we’re also bringing in a mix of people and trying to have diverse teams. We’re making sure we create a great place for people to work. That’s been a priority for us in the past couple of years.

Amazon Games is publishing NCSoft’s Throne & Liberty in the West.

GamesBeat: In this current environment, can you say whether the games team has grown? Will it keep growing?

Anderson: We’ll keep growing. We’re not going to grow at the rate that we have been growing, but we still have projects that we’re building against. We have to do our best to flex our teams around. We’re looking for ways to do that. As most companies are doing in the industry, sometimes you bring in external teams that help to flex the development team as they need to do something, and then you can move them to another project and work with another group.

In the past couple of years we were in exponential growth mode. Now we need to hire people in our studios. We’re hiring in Montreal. We’re hiring in southern California to build the studio teams. But it’s a little bit more cautious, maybe, than it was two years ago.

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