Amazon’s new game Breakaway is being designed with Twitch streaming in mind
Patrick Gilmore, the studio head at Amazon Game Studios Orange County, has a unique view from his office. It’s not some picturesque Southern California landscape, filled with swaying trees or sandy beaches. Instead, when Gilmore peers down the hallway, he sees an e-sports broadcast booth, where once a week the studio live-streams its next game, Breakaway. The new game initially looks a lot like other competitive multiplayer games, with its combination of mythological heroes and back-and-forth team-based action. But what makes Breakaway potentially different is how Amazon Game Studios is approaching development.
Breakaway is a game built from the ground up with streaming in mind, with virtually every element — from the size of the play field to the structure of the matches — designed in part to make the experience more watchable, while still ensuring it’s fun to play. Gilmore felt so strongly about this that when the team moved into its new studio space a few years back, he had the broadcasting booth built as a central focus of the office. “We were so committed to opening up our development to broadcasters and viewers that we tried to integrate the idea of broadcasting into our day-to-day lives,” he explains.
Amazon Game Studios Orange County is the relatively new name of Double Helix, the game studio Amazon acquired back in 2014. At the time of the acquisition, the developer was best-known for its revival of Killer Instinct, turning the arcade fighter into a tournament-based, online-focused game. That experience of building Killer Instinct led the team to want to explore the competitive online space even further, and that desire only grew later on in 2014, when Amazon acquired game streaming powerhouse Twitch. The studio already had an idea for a game — a sort of team-based, treasure-stealing action experience — and now they would have the added benefit of being able to tap into the know-how of the biggest name in video game broadcasting.
According to Gilmore, once the studio started showing the game to Twitch, “there was a huge wave of feedback.” What Breakway was originally envisioned as quickly evolved, with key elements of the design changing to better fit the broadcasting focus. For instance, the levels were made smaller so that viewers could see all of the action on a single screen. And where the original concept had teams raiding each other for stolen treasure, the current version has a single relic that teams attempt to capture and score with. The idea is to give the game a central focus, much like a ball in basketball or football. Gilmore says that the key to making an online game watchable is making it easy to understand at a glance, which in turn makes it easier to anticipate what could happen next. In a close match of Breakaway, when the relic crosses over between the two teams multiple times as the clock winds down, it’s hard to look away before you find out who ends up scoring.
“You want the viewers to get to the edge of their seat.”
“When you’re watching a competitive match of any kind, you want the viewers to get to the edge of their seat because a turning point is coming,” Gilmore explains. “A player is close to scoring, or a reverse is close to happening. And so we thought a lot about that type of thing. That’s a reason why the relic became a center of focus. Because the closer the relic is to the goal, clearly the closer you are to a scoring opportunity.” Kathy Astromoff, Twitch’s VP of developer success, adds, “In that first glance at the screen, I should be able to know exactly what’s going on in that game, in the same way you would with football. ‘Oh, they’re about to score now, so I should keep watching for the next three minutes.’” It’s part of the reason Rocket League has become such a breakout hit on Twitch. Since it largely follows the rules of soccer, it’s pretty easy to understand what’s going on, even if you’ve never actually played the game before.
Breakaway also has a round-based structure similar to a sport like football, where there’s periodic downtime between its four-minute-long periods. It’s a setup that mirrors traditional sports pretty closely, though Gilmore says it was designed in large part because of streaming. The idea is that in between rounds the teams will have some time to huddle and strategize, while the broadcasters can catch their breath and explain to the audience what just went down. “We really liked those alternating spikes of intensity,” he says.
Astromoff claims that, despite being under the same corporate umbrella, Amazon Game Studios doesn’t get any insider tools or information from Twitch, though a number of features are being utilized first in Breakaway, including a new form of in-game currency and a much-requested tool that lets broadcasters create tournaments for their viewers. Twitch says that this kind of access is due largely to how early in development the collaboration started. “In a way, it’s the ideal partnership, because we have Amazon Game Studios coming to us and saying ‘I’m about to start a game. What should I be thinking about?’” she says. “We wish all developers would come to us that early.” The idea is that internally developed Amazon games like Breakaway could serve as a sort of proof-of-concept for big new Twitch features, before other studios decided to utilize them.
“If you’re game isn’t fun, Twitch can’t help you.”
Of course, Breakaway is far from the first game to try to break into this space. With the massive popularity of games like League of Legends and Dota 2, which feature millions of players and tournaments with multimillion-dollar prize pools, team-based online games are becoming a very competitive space. But as the surprise success of a game like Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds has shown, it can be hard to predict what kinds of experiences will blow up on Twitch or YouTube. For Breakaway, which is currently still in a closed alpha state, the hope is that by balancing making a game that’s both watchable and enjoyable to play, it’ll have a better chance of reaching an audience. But there’s only so much the advice of Twitch can do.
“At the baseline, the game absolutely has to be fun,” says Astromoff. “If you’re game isn’t fun, Twitch can’t help you.”