Amazon Web Services (AWS) have recently released Amazon Lumberyard, a free, studio quality, game engine and development environment tuned for use with the AWS Cloud. Whilst at first glance Amazon might seem an unlikely new contender in the games development marketplace, Amazon have very cleverly bought into the market by delivering a product by licencing Crytek’s CryEngine, making it easier for game developers to bring a game to market using inexpensive and scalable cloud resources.
It’s reasonable to ask ‘why now?’ when game engines such as Unreal Engine, Unity3D and CryEngine have been on the market for sometime. To answer this you must dig back in time a little. The games industry has changed over the last five years; large games studios used to dominate the industry, hitting the £50 price point on console games effectively broke their business model with the average gamer seeing a £55 game as too expensive whilst a £49.99 game was not. As a result the big studios became unsustainable as the increase in expenses required to keep pace with customers expectations of smoother, more spectacular graphics could not be maintained without raising the box price. This, coupled with the constant march towards bigger and better multiplayer options, spelled the end for the big name game studios.
As a result, the largest games studios made great swathes of their worldwide headcount redundant, leaving this talent with both time and money on their hands. Many of these former employees pooled their resources together and created small boutique games companies who, over the course of a couple of years, have managed to grow the indie and boutique games market from a small inconsequential arena to a multi-billion dollar business.
Licencing costs for a single developer have always been a limiting factor for such start-up companies. If you wanted to setup a game studio of six people, you would have to shell out a sizable chunk of your start-up capital to employ each developer, designer, modeller and 3D Artist, particularly if your team is multi-talented taking on more than one role on a day-to-day basis. This is where Amazon Lumberyard comes in; by removing some of the licencing costs, it cuts your operational expenditure down to the ground.
As a comparison, Unity3D is free for use as long as your total revenue is less than $100,000 — after that you are paying $75 per month per head. Both CryEngine, on which Amazon Lumberyard is based, and Epic’s Unreal Engine adopted a similar subscription approach in 2014, offering licences for $19 a month. Epic have also chosen to put the boot in by asking for a 5% royalty; this doesn’t sound like much, but will eat into the margins of any games company as the market becomes more competitive.
Amazon’s masterstroke here is not simply enticing developers away from the big three games engines, it’s by offering Lumberyard for free with easy access to very high performing networking code and highly scalable cloud infrastructure. AWS have branded this technology Amazon GameLift. They have protected their investment by adding a clause to their Service Terms preventing developers from using ‘Alternative Web Services’ to host the multi-player components of their games. Possibly more importantly Amazon GameLift overcomes one of the biggest challenges in delivering compelling multi-player experiences in games by taking the responsibility of writing high performance low-level networking code and packaging it up in an ‘as-a-service’ cloud service saving potentially thousands of hours of effort developing and testing a bespoke network stack.
Amazon will get a return on investment by diverting the expenditure away from the dedicated hosting and more specialist games hosting companies straight into Amazon’s wallet. From the perspective of the games developer this will save them money, allowing them to get to market quickly and without worrying about being able to scale the multi-player components of their games when they, hopefully, hit upon the magic formula that gives them success. As it stands GameLift is only available in North Virginia and Oregon, however as with the majority of Amazon services the roll out starts in the US before moving to Europe and APAC.
I would fully expect Amazon to continue to invest heavily in the Lumberyard platform by engineering out components of CryEngine that can be optimized for the cloud. In an industry that has not traditionally embraced the cloud with open arms this promises to herald an exciting future for boutique and independent games developers.