Amazon Fire TV as game console: will it succeed where others failed?

Amazon's move into living-room gaming could be a big moment, or just an afterthought. Which path depends on whether Fire TV will dodge the mistakes of console alternatives of the past.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Ouya. That's the name of the last failed attempt to put Android games on your TV. Amazon is a far, far different company, and is taking a very different tack. But the question remains: can the TV-connected world of games that aren't dedicated consoles be cracked?

Apple TV has dabbled in TV-ready gaming, with AirPlay-connected games on iPhones and iPads. None of them work all that intuitively, although some like You Don't Know Jack show the potential. Ouya only played games, and a limited supply at that.

Amazon's streaming Fire TV is about media first: it also happens to play games, which are being called a "bonus." But that bonus will mean 100+ games out of the box, and "thousands" more by next month, according to Amazon at its New York press event on Wednesday.

And, there's a dedicated game controller, too.

It certainly looks like Amazon is serious about games: there's a separate gaming division within Amazon focused on making unique properties like the first-person shooter Sev Zero, and the arrival of Minecraft on the Fire TV amounts to the biggest killer app this side of Angry Birds...or even more so.

But what comes next? Here are some keys.

Be cheap and plentiful

Amazon touted an average price of $1.85 for the typical Amazon downloaded game. It's hard to beat free or nearly free. That's how the App Store and Google Play rode to success, and even how Amazon snapped up the e-book market. It's hard to make great games on a little streaming box, even one with a quad-core Snapdragon processor like Amazon's Fire TV. It's easier to be cheap and plentiful.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Be kid-friendly

Nintendo's Wii decline has left a gaping hole in the kid-entertainment market. Amazon's Free Time Unlimited, available on Kindle Fire tablets, is also on Fire TV. At $2.99 a month for Amazon Prime members, it offers a ton of apps. And, it supports gaming, too.

Hard-core gamers may roll their eyes, but kids are the key. If you want a serious game experience, there are many consoles to choose from. Why should Amazon compete with that?

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Focus on the modern classics

Announcing Minecraft for the Fire TV, a game that pulled support for Oculus Rift once Facebook acquired it, is a smart move. Minecraft doesn't play wonderfully on phones with touch controls, and having a real controller would make a difference. Casual games, and the "new" hits of this freemium age, are our Pac-Man and Super Mario. It's true. That doesn't mean these games are all great, but they are instantly recognizable and played by millions. That helps Amazon.

Start making really great games, too

But that's not enough in the long term. If Amazon Game Studios can start making legitimately excellent exclusive content, that could be Fire TV's gaming salvation. Netflix and Amazon are already getting acclaim for exclusive TV content. Gaming's that logical next frontier. These games don't need to graphical powerhouses.

Be an indie darling

In fact, indie games have proven you can do it other ways: Spelunky, Luftrausers, Fez, and many others could easily make a quick transition to the Fire TV. And these are games that have already gotten great reviews. Amazon could extend an extra hand to indies in an attempt to snatch up hot properties. That was the Ouya strategy, but Ouya didn't have a big install base. Amazon will.

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Sarah Tew

Work well

Another problem that TV console wanna-bes have suffered is a simple one: they haven't been great to use. OnLive had potential way back, but didn't work all the time (and there were other problems, too). Ouya didn't feel great to play with. The Apple TV's AirPlay-for-gaming solution is riddled with lag most of the time.

If games feel fun and responsive on Fire TV, then Fire TV will be compelling. That may sound idiotically simple, but it's true. That's why the Wii worked. That's why many mobile games are fun. Fire TV needs to play games dynamically, versus feeling like a cheap knock-off or some installed-in-your-seat-back in-flight gaming rig. Amazon's making big promises on the gaming front, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it'll be worth playing on.

About the author

Scott Stein is a senior editor covering iOS and laptop reviews, mobile computing, video games, and tech culture. He has previously written for both mainstream and technology enthusiast publications including Wired, Esquire.com, Men's Journal, and Maxim, and regularly appears on TV and radio talking tech trends.

 

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