As acquisitions go, 75-person games studio Double Helix seems a fair to middling purchase — a company with a catalog of hits and misses, the misses mostly junk movie tie-ins — but then a company like Amazon has its work cut out (and hung from here to the moon) if it wants to make a splash in the games biz, first-party style. And it’s not like anyone can afford Rockstar.
If you’ve never heard of Double Helix games, you’ve probably heard of the fighting series it just rejuvenated on Xbox One, Killer Instinct. That’s a game that probably has you thinking of Nintendo, specifically the Super Nintendo back in 1994, when the series belonged to developer Rare. Microsoft bought Rare in 2002, nabbing Killer Instinct in the process, but sat on the IP for years before handing it to Double Helix (created in 2007 when a movie/TV game-focused development house merged with Dave Perry’s old studio, Shiny Entertainment). Double Helix gave the series a well-received Xbox One-exclusive makeover, so it’s making the leap to Amazon, at least from a public standpoint, on a strong note.
No, Killer Instinct doesn’t go with Double Helix in the bargain, because it was never Double Helix’s IP to leverage (Joystiq reports that Microsoft’s about to announce a new development partner for the series). In fact, most of the games credited to Double Helix over the years belong to someone else. Other than Strider, an upcoming side-scroller for last- and next-gen platforms co-developed with Capcom, and a vampire-hunting game that’s been in limbo for half a decade, I’m seeing nada. Like any creative outfit, the studio doubtless has conceptual stuff kicking around, but it’s anyone’s guess what might have been impressive or interesting enough, from talent to content, for Amazon to pull the trigger on a buy.
Amazon’s not saying much, telling TechCrunch (blankly) that it “acquired Double Helix as part of our ongoing commitment to build innovative games for customers.” If that reads like a confession — that Amazon just copped to designing video games — don’t get too excited: it’s had a games studio wing for awhile now, though its only studio-listed title is a tower defense puzzler for iOS and Android.
If Amazon is building some sort of games console that’s more than another set-top proxy for a slew of casual shmups, platformers, puzzlers, tower defense games and so forth, seeding Amazon-owned talent could be a positive move. After all, content is king, and if you really want to own it, you have to cultivate it. The question is what Jeff Bezos (or whoever he’s listening to — Bezos himself sounds almost dismissive of gaming) wants to be to the games market. A Nintendo-esque, risk-taking, soup-to-nuts innovator? A safe, mainstream, triple-A workhorse? A bit player dishing up relatively cheap, low profile, platform-adjunct games content, Apple- or Roku-style? All of the above?
This Double Helix purchase’s import is opaque, potential-wise. It’s not enough to highlight the studio’s roots and say “Hey, Earthworm Jim!” You have to look at what the studio’s done as the studio it is now, and that means scrutinizing games like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Battleship and Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters — not awful, but not exactly frame-on-your-office-wall boast-worthy, either. If Amazon’s going to throw down with established players — and that’s still a monumental if — it needs something to boast about. And what that might be may still be a mystery to the company, too.