The quest to make gaming a spectator sport was completed years ago. It’s been big business for the past few years now, so much so that a number of developers are pitching and making their games with spectatorship as an integral design pillar. Think the gaming equivalent of Usain Bolt in an FC Barcelona jersey, skipping past dirt bike-riding linebackers before leaping into the air and slam dunking the sports ball to win his team the Triwizard Cup. Or something along those lines.
Related: check out the best PC games for something to play rather than watch.
The Rocket League-esque Breakaway - one of the three Amazon Game Studios titles announced at TwitchCon 2016 - is hoping to be the next big Twitch game, and doing that is about much more than branding your game an eSport and hosting big tournaments with enormous prize pots. According to Amazon’s vice president of games Michael Frazzini )pictured below), it’s not all about big features. “It’s the little things, for example in Breakaway, there are rounds. So it’s best of five to win the game, and the notion of having rounds is [that] there’s a little bit of downtime between rounds to give the broadcaster an opportunity to talk about what happened, they can kind of relay it to the fans. At the same time the player is thinking about how to build out their character for the next round. The player has something to do, like in a football game, where you have a huddle. They’re actually talking about what they’re going to do next.”
Rounds aren’t anything new for gaming, but realising what they offer from a spectator’s standpoint is part of what makes Breakaway’s development unique. By splitting every game up, there are clear and definable periods of play where the who’s winning and what’s going on is made binary: one team wins, one loses. By extension, everything that happens in those rounds can be attributed to the result, making the action immediately readable while lengthy matches with shifting ebbs and flows take considerably longer to digest.
However, making a game bite size doesn’t compromise its complexity, which is something Frazzini considers vital to Twitch. “When you think of Twitch, really you’re looking for a broadcast in order to sort of learn and understand. So if you can build games that have a really deep meta then the broadcaster is in the game design from moment one, not as something to add on later, but from moment one. I really think that’s a compelling way to think about it and it’s certainly a big part of the inspiration we had.”
Amazon vice president of games, Michael Frazzini
Inspirations appear to have been drawn from the likes of Rocket League, Overwatch and Smite, and as a result of juggling key characteristics of all three games it escapes easy definition. For the most part it’s a sports game: each team fights over a relic that they’re trying to place in each other’s goal. But that’s not the only way to win a round, teams can simply wipe their counterparts out to claim the win, or run the clock down while the ball’s in their opposing team’s half.
On top of that, there are MOBA-esque heroes to choose from, each with their own special abilities that serve to make them either better at playing the relic, or just superior at beating other heroes into a pulp. Arena elements make an appearance too, with buildable structures (literally called ‘Buildables’) that add even more meta components to the game like healing wells, mirrors that reflect damaging beams of light across the map and something called a Thumper, which basically stuns anything that passes too close to it. Despite these elements all sharing DNA with eSports mainstays like those mentioned above, Frazzini refuses to use the e-word when referring to Breakaway. “We’re very customer-centric. We have huge ambitions, but if you’re customer-centric that means they’re going to decide. We can’t decide if our game’s going to be competitive or not. The only people who can decide that is the community. So we want to offer a game that has that potential, but ultimately it’s only going to achieve that potential if it resonated with the customers. And if it doesn’t we have to work our butts off to make it better.”
All of these features feed back into Amazon’s aim to make the broadcaster, and therefore services like Twitch, integral to Breakaway. But Frazzini doesn’t mean broadcaster in the professional sense, he means making a game where the customer is the broadcaster. “If you think of broadcasters as customers… All of a sudden you’re like, ‘How do I help them get discovered? How do I help them be more popular? How do I help them make more money? How do I help them get more viewers and sustain that viewership?’
“And so you’re thinking about those deep things and if you can achieve those things, that means you’re also achieving something amazing for viewers. So you have these interesting experiences where you have a player, a broadcaster and a viewer all sharing in this entertainment experience that’s created by one game.”
It’s ambitious to say the least, but with so many of Amazon’s systems and services potentially stacking together, who’s to say that - provided the game’s any good - it can’t capture a sizeable market of its own?