In addition to the April 2nd announcement of the Amazon Fire TV, Amazon announced its own game studio. The cleverly named Amazon Game Studios has released one game as a launch title, Sev Zero, and has given us a sneak peek at what we can expect to see in the near future. In addition to the original titles that are being created, Amazon has been able to port over existing games from the Kindle Fire tablet. Among the bigger selling points from a ported game perspective is Minecraft Pocket Edition, a derivative of arguably the most popular indie game ever. Not to mention that we have gotten a preview of some of the other publishers bringing games to the Fire TV, including Ubisoft, EA, Gameloft and Disney. With these kinds of publishers and upcoming first-party IPs, the Fire TV might just have what it takes to compete in the console wars.
First, let’s take a look at the controller. The layout is very similar to the Xbox One controller with media controls at the bottom (rewind, play/pause, and fast forward). It has a boxier look, but generally the same thing except for the center, where in addition to the menu and back buttons, we have a home button and a strange looking button that, to the Fire TV, means games. When on the home screen, the home button takes you to the Home menu and the games button takes you to the Games menu. When in a game, the home button takes you out of the game and the games button opens up the GameCircle for the game you are playing. I have already racked up several hours of gameplay and have no complaints in regards to comfort. The controller runs $40, but when I bought it, it came with a copy of Sev Zero ($6.99) and 1000 Amazon Coins ($10), so the value was excellent.
**Note** There have been confirmed cases of people pairing the Ouya controller with the Fire TV as well as plugging in the wired USB Xbox 360 controller. Just something to keep in mind if you want to spare the $40.
The easiest way to describe the Amazon GameCircle is that it is essentially the Fire TV’s Xbox Live, its PlayStation Network. It is where you create your profile, track your achievements and place on the leaderboards. There is not exactly a login for this outside of your Amazon login. As of now, your profile consists of a nickname of at least eight characters (which annoys me because my internet-wide username is either six or eight characters depending if they allow parentheses) and an avatar. Maybe Amazon is just in the early stages and has plans to implement it later, but there is no overarching friend system for gameplay. As such, there is no party or private chat, no messaging, and most importantly, no inviting friends to play games. Like mobile gaming, these are all set at an app level and many of them integrate with Facebook.
What I did not expect was the overarching achievement system and even the leaderboards. Most mobile games have in-game achievements now, so integrating those into the GameCircle system from the beginning tells me that they have plans to further develop GameCircle. Hopefully meaning that adding friends will become a thing because then I’ll have somebody to gloat over my achievements.
The leaderboards are an interesting addition as well. Unlike achievements, this is not something bigger players like Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo are doing. This allows you to compare your progress or high scores versus other players worldwide. Each game has its own scoring system behind the leaderboards. For example: Sev Zero, as pictured below, has a leaderboard for game-wide damage dealt per weapon or tower, Asphalt 8: Airborne is based on multiplayer point rank and Reaper is based on your overall single player score per world. Then sometimes there are also cases, like Dead Trigger 2, that simply don’t have a method to score you compared to others.
Ultimately, what puts you in the running in the gaming world is what kind of experience can you offer through your games. A lot of this depends on who will make games for your system, which is one of the struggle points Nintendo has dealt with on the Wii and Wii U. With big players like Ubisoft and EA making games for the Fire TV and the average price per game a low $1.85, there will be no shortage of good content. The problem will be in the storage space available.
The Fire TV launched with 135 game apps available. I actually found it difficult to find a game I wanted to try that I wanted to spend money on. That is a good problem to have until you realize many have in-app purchases. For the most part, the in-app purchases are not overbearing, but there are annoying points to them. The two games I played that I think of when writing about this are Reaper and Dead Trigger 2.
With Reaper, an otherwise free game, the in-app purchases include expanding content to a pay-to-win feature. The free version has a level cap of 10 and one area to explore. It is an annoyance, but at the end of the day, the developers are giving you a free sample of the game to start, so I guess I can’t complain too much with this.
Dead Trigger 2, on the other hand, has a very mobile feel to the game. And I mean that in the worst way possible. There are two ways to progress in this game: wait out the upgrade time once you purchase the upgrade in the game or pay real money for credits to complete the job. In the screenshot below, upgrading the workshop from level 2 to level 3 takes four real-time hours. That is a fantastic way to stagnate your gameplay. Dead Trigger 2 was also not ported from a mobile/tablet app very well and you were required to map out the controls yourself. I had to re-map a few times after playing more of the game.
I mentioned in the Fire TV unboxing blog that purchasing apps was very easy to do. I wound up finding a game I wanted to try that I had to pay for. I already had the 1000 Amazon Coins, so why not? To purchase apps, you pretty much make two clicks. One click says you want it and another click says how you’ll pay.
Gameloft will run into issues that I’ve been mentioning with the Fire TV – storage. I have two Gameloft games: Asphalt 8: Airborne and Modern Combat 4: Zero Hour. Each app is about 15MB to download to your Fire TV, but to play, you have to download another gig of files per app. Your storage problem just got worse. If you can get over the storage concern, the graphics are beautiful and the gameplay is awesome – at least for Asphalt 8. I actually haven’t gotten around to Modern Combat 4 yet.
Finally, the Amazon Game Studios’ first game, Sev Zero. I have written a short Sev Zero review on Amazon, so I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it. It was the first game I played on the Fire TV and so far the best, with Asphalt 8 coming in a close second. Sev Zero is built like a console game. There are no in-app purchases. Then again, it is a $7 game that I happened to get for free, so maybe that’s why there are no in-app purchases. It can also be played locally through the network with tablet players as air support. I don’t have a tablet, so I can’t really speak to that.
Console War Competition
So here we are. We have seen the hardware. We have seen the peripherals. We have seen the game network. And we have seen the games. The question remains – does the Fire TV have a place in the console wars? In its current state, I’d have to vote no. It will not contend with Sony and Microsoft consoles. It lacks the graphics and storage necessary to compete on those levels. It could sap some consumers from the Nintendo console market… maybe. Nintendo captured the casual gamers when they released the Wii in late 2006. Many of the casuals have not migrated to the Wii U and with Nintendo turning off the network for Wii on May 20th, where will the casual gamers go? Non-gaming devices might pick up some of that slack, but I don’t think we’ll see a big migration.
In my opinion, in its current state of gaming, the Fire TV’s biggest competitor is the Ouya. They are both Android-based, have 8GB of storage, and have quad-core processors. The Fire TV has twice the RAM of the Ouya, but the Ouya has a more powerful GPU. Given that the Fire TV has greater capabilities on the non-gaming side as well as relatively large third-party support, we might see the Ouya fall at the hands of Amazon.