Amazon Game Studios’ Data-driven Trap

This week games journalist Jason Schreier published a fantastic article over at Bloomberg about the numerous struggles happening over at Amazon Game Studios. In that article he describes the studio as being “driven by data”.

Earlier this week I watched a three-part documentary on YouTube called The Trap. Originally broadcast on the BBC in 2007, the filmmaker Adam Curtis sets out in the first two episodes of the program to show how, in the mid-20th century, a collective of scientists and mathematicians believed that by handing over the reigns of control from governments to data models, the world would be led into a utopian age.

These thinkers posited that human behaviour could be reduced to relatively simplistic mathematical models, capable of determining how all people thought and acted. The problem, as the liberal governments of the western world would come to discover through the course of the latter half of the century, was that they were modelled in the belief that all humans acted rationally at all times.

Despite the obvious flaws in such a way of thinking, we still find ourselves living in a data driven world. The utopia that the economists envisioned however has obviously not come to pass. Except perhaps for those who have been able to ride the data-driven world markets to the heights of the 1%.

One of these men is Jeff Bezos. His belief in business being “driven by data” has clearly worked well for him. As Schreier’s article makes evident however, Amazon’s foray into the videogame market has so far been a colossal failure.

Data-driven success may have worked when it comes to the business of selling products, but the act of creation is something which is quite different. A fact which Bezos and the rest of the ‘Amazon lifers’ seem not to have realised. To such data worshipping folks as they, the idea that artistic creation cannot be boiled down to hard numbers and formulas must seem laughably romantic. But, in their quest to crack the games market, the only statistic that matters is that, to date, the studio’s efforts have a failure rate of 100%.

Beyond a few yet-to-be formally announced projects at the studio, all hopes currently rest on the shoulders of their troubled MMO New World. Is anybody truly excited about this game however? And more so, does anybody actually expect it to be good? (And Amazon don’t just want the game to be good, they want it to be an industry shaker).

Make no mistake, I want this game to be a huge success both in commercial and critical terms. AAA MMO’s are effectively a thing of the past it seems, so of course there is more riding on New World than Amazon Game Studios’ future alone. MMO’s are games about community though, and so far the marketing of this game seems focused on reassuring people that the studio is creating a rock-solid product.

That’s not a bad thing, but it has to go hand in hand with some sort of human element. Instead, the articles on the game’s official website seem to comprise wholly of ‘visions’ and ‘concepts’. It all seems so focus-grouped – a game designed by committee to be ‘perfect’. The data-driven nature of the studio shines through in everything and it leaves the reader (and potential player) feeling utterly indifferent. Of course it’s never going to feel as personal as a crowdfunded MMO, but surely there are people working on this game who have a genuine passion for what they are creating – let us see it!

Ultimately the prospect of creating a game based on data is a fool’s errand. Yes there are games franchises out there which were seemingly sure hits from the moment they hit paper. But for every Halo or Assassin’s Creed there are a hundred Haze‘s or Too Human‘s. Now more than ever it seems that the online gaming space is totally unpredictable. Nobody suspected that Fortnite would dominate the industry the way it has, let alone more recent successes such as Fall Guys and Among Us.

Those games, with much more humble origins, accomplished Amazon Games Studios’ goal of creating something which was excitingly original. They may not interest everyone (include me in this camp), but you can’t ignore their impact. Even if New World is a decent success, the statistically driven studio should be able to see that the world domination they have planned in the gaming industry is a highly unlikely thing.

If the game does not measure up to the impossibly high bar for which the studio has set for it, the question becomes a case of “Where does Amazon go next?” Will they throw heaps more money at another project born out of a focus group? Or will Amazon Game Studios take a seat next to the Fire Phone in Amazon’s admittedly small, but very public line of failed projects? For some reason I suspect that either of those two options is more likely than what is probably the right answer to AGS’ problems: to find and nurture creative projects from the minds of people rather than assemblages of data.

I played New World for a short while during its first period of alpha access. It was a mess. I’ve no doubt the game has come on leaps and bounds since then and I’ll definitely be trying it out again when it launches later this year. As for the documentary maker Adam Curtis, his new six-part series Can’t Get You Out Of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World is being release in the UK on the BBC iPlayer next month.

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