Luna—no, not the surprisingly delicious protein bars—is Amazon’s upcoming foray into the world of cloud gaming. Some of us probably rolled our eyes at the announcement and thought, “Ugh, why does Amazon need to have its greedy little paws in everything?” When you dig into the announcement and see what its service will offer at launch, there’s nothing mind-blowing about it. Arguably even less so compared to Stadia’s launch nearly a year ago, and Luna is going to be in the same spot Stadia was and still is. There are big problems with cloud gaming and Luna so far isn’t poised to solve any of them.
Exclusives are the most immediate problem that Amazon seems to be struggling with. “It’s a real question whether or not Amazon can pull this off,” said Joost van Dreunen, co-founder and former CEO of Superdata and now a professor at NYU Stern and author of the gaming newsletter SuperJoost Playlist. That’s because the only thing Luna currently has over Stadia at this point is its partnership with Ubisoft. Ubisoft will have its own games channel on Luna at launch, where future users will find Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and Far Cry 6 released on the same day they’re released on other platforms. Those games will not be Luna exclusives, however. As of now, Amazon has no major exclusives.
By comparison, Google has had timed exclusives and signed more exclusive deals with developers to bring their new games to Stadia next year. And when Stadia was still in its testing phase, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey was the game beta testers played. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla will be on Stadia at release, too. Sure, Stadia doesn’t have a dedicated Ubisoft channel like Amazon’s Luna, but you can still play Assassin’s Creed and other Ubisoft games on nearly every platform, even GeForce Now. “What we saw [with Stadia] is that streaming is going to [be big]. We want to have games that are easy to access and can be played by everyone,” said Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot in a June 2019 interview with VentureBeat.
When you take all that into consideration, Ubisoft was most likely an easy company for Amazon to approach because it was the one most likely to say yes. Ubisoft has its own channel on Luna, but are game developers raving about the tools they can use to make games? Not right now, and who knows if or when they will.
Amazon does own Lumberyard, a game engine that integrates with Amazon Web Services, so it’s possible they could get a small game exclusive or two to start like Stadia did with the game Gylt. But it doesn’t look like Amazon has spent any of its billions on snagging exclusives. Amazon could have made a bigger splash with its announcement if it had a flashy, in-house exclusive to launch with Luna. That may have been the original plan, but its first major game launch, Crucible, went back to a closed beta after its release. That’s not a normal occurrence in the videogame world, and the developer made the decision after the game received a preverbal truckload of negative feedback.
Games are not one of Amazon’s strengths anymore than games are one of Stadia’s, or even Apple’s, strengths. What Amazon has done well is create platforms and devices for content distribution. Amazon has its Kindle. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, an Emmy award-winning show, is a Prime Video Exclusive. But videogames are different.
And Amazon has kind of tried this before and failed. In 2009, it launched a digital game store that was mostly filled with casual games, but it grew to incorporate games from major publishers and developers. However, at that point you could already buy games from the PlayStation and Xbox digital stores. Steam, too. There wasn’t a need to buy games from Amazon unless it was a casual game, and even then Google Play and Apple’s App Store were already around. It was easier to buy a game directly from the source instead of buying a game code from Amazon you had to then input elsewhere. You could buy a physical copy of the game, but the industry was moving away from that. Fast.
Strains of the old store still remain, where digital copies of games can be purchased from the developers’ and publishers’ storefronts hosted on the Amazon marketplace. But Amazon’s game marketplace itself is mostly gift cards loaded with in-game currencies.
Like Amazon’s 2009 gaming storefront, Luna feels like an afterthought too. “Gaming in the larger, internal Amazon universe is sort of an oddball effort that doesn’t necessarily sit well with whatever else it’s doing,” said van Dreunen. One of its big appeals seems to be the way it can leverage Amazon Web Services (AWG) to integrate some features with Twitch, which the tech giant also owns. But again, that’s not creating original content. That’s just distribution, and it’s more complicated with games than just making a few deals with Hollywood to put shows on your streaming service. “Building an ecosystem with third-party content providers, building an audience that likes the live operations of your game, that logs in and engages with your content, that’s a very different effort,” said van Dreunen.
According to van Dreunen, unless Amazon is willing to spend $5 to $10 billion over the next two years to acquire exclusive content it could take Luna several years to catch on as a gaming platform. Perhaps even slower than Stadia.
“Whether it’s Apple, Facebook, Google, or Amazon, big tech has a really hard time understanding that content is king. They don’t give a crap about content creators in the same way that that, say, Microsoft and Sony have been doing with their consoles,” said van Dreunen. “So that difference in ability to value content that highly [...] Amazon has got a long way ahead of itself. It doesn’t have the content, it doesn’t have the sensibility to come up with the content.”
And he’s right. Luna doesn’t have anything special to offer that isn’t already offered by Stadia or another gaming platform right now. Does that mean Amazon won’t give up like it gave up on its videogame digital storefront? Does that mean Amazon won’t become a big player in the gaming industry? Victor Kao, partner and technology senior analyst at RSM US LLP, doesn’t think so.
“The scary thing about Amazon? If there’s something that they’re interested in, they will throw money at it. If you look at the grocery and retail sector, they just completely threw money at it.”
Cloud gaming won’t go away. Too many big companies have invested heavily in it, and it’s really just the next step in the evolution of games. As Kao points out, cartridges turned into CDs, CDs turned into digital downloads, and now we’re in the process of moving away from digital downloads to games that are stored and played entirely on the cloud.
“You’ve got all the big players that are starting to get involved in cloud gaming. You got Microsoft. You got Google. You got Amazon. You got Nvidia,” said Kao. “Amazon is certainly is a big threat into the overall gaming environment. It doesn’t typically pull out of investments such as these.”
But ultimately, Luna’s success won’t be determined by how well its controller works, how many platforms support it, or even how many games it has. To some extent, the number of games matters only if there are a lot of major and diverse titles, but cloud gaming as it’s envisioned can only take off if we have the infrastructure for it. And if the times spent fighting over net neutrality and expanding affordable, reliable internal to urban and rural locations haven’t been telling enough, it’s going to be a long time before we have the infrastructure for cloud gaming to become a major platform.
“It’s baby steps right now, but I think this is gonna become bigger when you think about 5G. When you think about Gigabit fiber connections in everyone’s home. All of that is eventually going to get there,” said Kao.
And when it does get there, it could have latency speeds equivalent to, or faster than, gaming on a local machine. For anyone who doesn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a console, or even thousands on a PC, cloud gaming is the way to go, especially as more games, major and indie alike, find homes on these platforms. But until lawmakers and ISPs get their shit together and actually provide equitable internet access across the entire country, cloud gaming will remain out of reach for a massive chunk of the country. Microsoft claims over 157 million Americans don’t use broadband.
So while cloud gaming remains out of reach for many, Amazon has to bring something new to the table to make Luna seem exciting. Stadia has the dev tools and exclusives, Microsoft has its Xbox Game Pass, Nvidia’s GeForce Now works on ChromeOS. Luna...Luna is trying very hard to copy everything else.