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Interview: Amazon Says Fire TV Isn’t a $500 Games Console, and It Wasn’t Meant to Be

12 minute read

Amazon’s Fire TV was expected in the sense that we’ve all been speculating about the company cutting out middle-player competitors like Apple and Roku for years. In nearly all of those scenarios, there’s also been the presumption that an Amazon set-top would play games. But the grapevine had Amazon’s gaming plans pegged as OnLive-like: a streaming game service that moved everything into the cloud, albeit — given intrinsic latency issues when you’re doing connection-dependent game streaming — at the expense of visual fidelity and hair-trigger responsiveness.

The grapevine turned out to be wrong: Amazon’s Fire TV packs the innards of a Kindle Fire tablet into a multifaceted microconsole capable, if not of squaring off against Sony’s PlayStation 4 or Microsoft’s Xbox One at this point, at least of holding its own against high-end smartphones and tablets.

I spoke with Amazon Games vice president Mike Frazzini about Fire TV as a game device. Here’s what he told me about the company’s game design identity and future plans.

Fire TV was a bit of a surprise from a gaming standpoint. You announced something with respectable local horsepower, you announced an optional gamepad that’s right there in the mainstream, design-wise, and you’re launching Fire TV with a first party Amazon-developed game, Sev Zero. Is this Amazon firing a shot across anyone’s bow?

It’s less about firing shots and more about Fire TV being a great experience for customers. When we look at what Fire TV offers, the expansiveness and just the totality of entertainment that you get for $99, I think it’s unique. There’s no other device that allows you to have the range of entertainment, from TV to movies to photos to music. There’s also Kindle FreeTime that allows parents to determine what content and how much of it their kids watch, and for how long. And then we offer a wide variety of games that are affordably priced.

Who do you see as Fire TV’s competition in gaming-dom? Where do you want gamers to see this box on the spectrum of smartphones, tablets, microconsoles, consoles, computers and so forth?

It’s a hard question to answer because that’s not really how we think about building things. The first thing we do with any endeavor is, we write a press release — before writing any code or doing any product work — and that press release expresses to our hypothetical customer what it is we’re going to build and deliver. We did it for the games piece, the music piece, the TV and video piece. The idea is, we want to be able to identify for ourselves the most important things that we can deliver to customers.

When it comes to other products on the market, we obviously want to be mindful that if we think something’s great and it already exists, what’s the point? But in this case, there’s no other device that offers this range of entertainment for just $99. It just doesn’t exist in another product today.

Another way to look at it is smartphones and tablets. The smartphone was at one point not as good of a gaming device compared to dedicated handheld game consoles. Over time, as developers built better and better content, it became a fantastic place to play games. But it’s also so much more than that. I think it would be a mistake to call a tablet a portable gaming device as much as it’s a tablet.

Gaming happens to be the number one or two activity on phones and TVs, and so lots of customers will buy Fire TV to play games. But lots of them won’t, yet they might wind up playing games anyway. We certainly see a lot of people who buy Kindle Fire tablets to read books and then end up playing a lot of games. It’s the range of content you’re getting for the price point that makes this whole scenario compelling.

Sure, and I think everyone gets the multifaceted thing, but I have to press a little on the gaming angle. You’re the VP of Amazon Games, so you have to have thought about who you’re going after market-wise on the gaming side. Your first-party launch game Sev Zero, for instance, is technically a hybrid shooter and tower defense game, which positions it more in the realm of mainstream gamers.

This is an overgeneralization, but you essentially have two ends of the spectrum in terms of gameplay. On one end of the spectrum, call it the casual end, there’s the metaphorical Match 3 game. They’re great games, they’re a lot of fun, and you have a number of developers building games in this vein, again, metaphorically.

At the other end of the spectrum you have the game studios with hundreds of developers that work for multiple years on games, like the triple-A games, which are almost morphing into quadruple-A games because the costs are getting so high.

We love both ends of the spectrum, but we think there’s this big gap in the middle, this place where there’s an opportunity to create games that are immersive and creative and a lot of fun and that have a lot of soul. And along those dimensions, we think these games can score as high as any other game out there.

Examples of this would include Minecraft. We set out for Sev Zero to be that type of game. Another one that’s available on Fire TV is Asphalt 8. And another one is Ski Safari, which is a game my kids absolutely love and grew up playing on a tablet, and can now play on Fire TV.

So the point is that there’s a vast opportunity for games along the dimensions of fun, creativity, uniqueness, emotional appeal, immersion, and that can score as high as any game that’s made. Along the singular dimension of graphics? That’s not what Fire TV’s about. We want the graphics to be fluid and good, and we want customers to be able to have a great gaming expreince. But it’s not a $500 console, and it wasn’t meant to be.

What sort of development project load is Amazon Game Studios juggling? Do you have an annual release volume number in mind?

We have a good collection of games in the works and we just released a sneak peek video of games under development.

That said, I wouldn’t want to commit to any release timeframes at this point, but I’d say what we’re seeing is more and more developers occupying the middle space I mentioned earlier, where you’re seeing teams of five to 30 people and they’re working from six to 18 months on the games they make. And with our game studio at Amazon, we’re very much filling that bottle.

We’re hiring people from the industry who’ve made some of the best games ever released, that have worked on these huge mega-franchises, and they like what we’re doing. They like our sandbox and cloud infrastructure mixed with smaller teams, where individuals on the team have the ability to express themselves creatively and maintain creative autonomy in crafting these games. I think that’s a key point, and it’s allowing us to hire some of the most accomplished people in this industry.

At one point the rumor mill had Amazon pegged for an OnLive-style streaming games service, which turned out not to be true. Is it something you considered? That you’re still considering?

We don’t generally comment on speculation, but there are a couple of things we’ve publicly announced in this area. One was a bigger release. Within AWS [Amazon Web Services] we launched a service called AppStream. It’s a primitive service that allows the content developer via a game or a CAD application or a simulator — anything that’s computationally or graphics or storage intensive — to run within AWS and be streamed to a mass-market, local device. It’s possible for a game developer to build a game, or release their game in AppStream and run it on Fire TV. We don’t have any games that do that today, but it’s possible.

The second thing pertains to rendering in the cloud. There’s two different use cases for what we think of as cloud gaming. One is to take a game that’s already been made and run it from the cloud and stream it entirely. That’s what OnLive did, and that’s compelling.

Another option is to actually think about the cloud from the inception of the game, so that you’re doing things because you have the cloud resources that you otherwise simply wouldn’t be able to do. By way of example, we showed off a prototype that we made, and it’s actually the game in our highlight reel at the very end where you see the titan get hit by a ball of fire. We always had this idea that we’d love to make a game where it’s almost like you’re in The Lord of the Rings, where you have thousands of bad guys attacking you. Just the artificial intelligence alone of trying to render that is very, very computationally complex, and then to have all the graphics and physics associated with that ratchets up the challenge exponentially.

So in the video, you can see we have thousands of bad guys, if you will, attacking your tower. And the way that game’s rendered, is that all the foreground parts around your catapult and the things that you’re controlling are running on your local device, because it’s easy and relatively simple, computationally speaking. All of those thousands of characters that are out in the field, and the physics, and the audio mixing that’s associated with that, and all of those things that are difficult to do, we’re doing through AppStream. And then we stitch it together so that it’s a singular environment and experience for the customer, but it gives you, in that case, an experience that otherwise would not have been possible unless you had a high-end gaming rig.

A hybrid local-cloud experience so you can outsource computation without compromising visual fidelity?

Both runtime environments are engaged at runtime, and it’s combining them so that the experience is consumed and played as a single experience using resources both from the local device as well as the cloud. We’re very excited, by the way, about the prospect of this, and part of what our game studios are doing is pushing toward game experiences we’ve always wanted to create since we’ve started thinking about doing things this way.

You’re offering an optional gamepad that looks more or less like the gamepads you’d use with an Xbox or PlayStation. How’d you settle on a traditional mainstream gamepad design?

We’ve had various versions of Fire TV kicking around in the lab for awhile, and only more recently did we land on the set of features that led to the version you’re seeing. We wanted to make it easy for people, so we came up with the Fire TV remote, which you can use to play a lot of games, like Ski Safari, where all you need is the remote.

But we also wanted to cater to the sort of customer who might want to play tons of games for hours on end. For them, we designed a more comfortable controller. The other aspect of this was familiarity. We wanted customers who’d played games in the past to be able to pick our controller up and go.

We feel really good about what we’ve built. The controller’s $39.99, it comes with 1,000 Amazon Coins, which is $10 in value, so you can buy a bunch of games. And it also comes with Sev Zero, which we built in-house, and that’s a $6.99 game.

Interestingly, and you never know how these things are going to resonate, we sold out of the game controller on the first day.

How insulated is the gaming aspect of Fire TV from lukewarm reception on the gaming side? Is Amazon leveraging its brand power and stuff like Amazon Prime to hedge against potentially slow uptake on the gaming side?

I think the experience we’re offering on day one is very good along all of these dimensions. We’re certainly going to learn and iterate over time, as you would with anything, but in general, the value of the device is in the wide array of entertainment. Lots of customers will buy it just to watch TV and movies and then they’ll wind up playing games. We expect lots of customers to buy it so they can play games, who’ll end up using it to do their photos on the TV and the like. We’ve seen this notion that when you offer customers the option of being able to do a lot of things with a device, it’s worked out very well in the context of smartphones and tablets, and we think that same simple construct will hold true on the TV as well.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

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Write to Matt Peckham at matt.peckham@time.com