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Amazon Fire TV: World domination through video games

Last to arrive to the streaming party, Fire TV has powerful insides, a controller, and the backing of an in-house game studio. But is that enough to set it apart?

Sarah Tew/CNET

When Amazon unveiled its Fire TV streaming-media box Wednesday, it saved the best for last.

After a roll call of the same video-streaming features that Apple TV, Roku, and Chromecast all deliver in varying measures -- and the unveiling of a few unique features like voice search and instantaneous play -- Amazon presented what really sets Fire TV apart from the rest of its class: gaming.

Far from being a peripheral bonus feature, Amazon's game initiative is trying to deliver low-cost casual titles to the people who can't or won't shell out $500 for a console, but crave a bigger gaming experience than their smartphones and tablets provide. The uncertainties, however, are how many of those people actually exist, and whether Amazon's platform will be good enough to make that sell.

With a dedicated $40 game controller and thousands of titles -- some of which are being developed by the company's new in-house studio -- on their way, the online retailer was clear that the one thing it thinks it can deliver that Apple or Roku or Chromecast can't -- yet -- is an Android-centric gaming experience that will grow over time, not stagnate, with some careful nurturing.

"When they got into the gaming stuff, that's really when they started talking about the Fire TV as a differentiator," NPD analyst Ben Arnold told CNET, calling the dedicated controller the clearest evidence of the push. "For me, that says that they are serious about the device being used for gaming and that it's central to its use."

However, Amazon is venturing into territory where others have failed. One-time Kickstarter darling Ouya promised to revolutionize gaming until a lackluster library and poor unit sales pushed it out of the hardware market entirely, effectively killing the dream of a low-cost console-killer. In addition, Amazon is attempting to attract non-gamers to streaming features that are available not only on lower-cost devices like Chromecast, but also higher-end game consoles that may already have a space under the living-room TV.

To that end, Amazon will rely on its aggressive marketing -- a tried-and-true approach from the Kindle unit that takes advantage of the site's home page -- to convince people to buy into its vision of a streaming device that delivers more than you're used to, even if we aren't quite sure where to draw the line between needed and unnecessary.

Fire TV is already leading Amazon's electronics best-seller list, right behind Google's Chromecast. How long it stays will have a lot to do with how Amazon expands the streaming market with games, and just how good those games can possibly get.

Why Fire TV needed to pack a punch

Amazon wants to signal that Fire TV is not just for existing Kindle evangelists or Amazon Instant Video junkies, but is a box meant to compete on all fronts. Playing catchup against Roku and Apple TV is a daunting task, and Amazon needs all the firepower it can muster.

That's precisely why Fire TV is not only priced competitively at $99, but comes with 2GB of memory, 8GB of storage, and a Qualcomm Snapdragon quad-core processor.

Why pack so powerful a punch for something you hope most consumers will kick back and stream Netflix from? It beats the already far-along competition -- meaning it looks good in comparison charts -- but more importantly it can power a far wider variety of games.

The Roku 3, the next-most-powerful streaming box, has only a dual-core processor with less than 100 games and its only real visible port being Angry Birds. Chromecast and Apple TV hardware can't handle standalone gaming at all, relying on mirroring from tablets and smartphones instead.

In other words, Amazon gets a two-fold benefit from packing powerful innards into Fire TV. On one hand, it makes a strong argument for choosing Amazon's box over others. It hopes you'll be far less likely to buy a streaming device -- if you don't already own one -- with limited to zero gaming functionality and potential than one with all the same bells and whistles, but more power under the hood.

The second benefit is less superficial. Amazon knows full well that people don't want to play games like Solitaire or worn-out classics with a graphical ceiling dating back to the Super Nintendo. With that kind of processing power and memory, Amazon can cover the whole spectrum of mobile gaming -- from indie gems and updated ports that have become the hallmarks of mobile to the games it develops itself. The hardware places some wiggle room at the high end, too.

Plus, it knows we'll be using big screens and maybe its controller, which rolls up alternatives like Nvidia's Shield handheld and AirPlay into one expansive, native experience that can actually meet the needs of a mobile-console hybrid.

That all looks great on paper. But Amazon needs games, good ones and fast. Without a strong library, not only will it not sell its pricey controller, but it will be taking the efforts of an increasingly large mound of resources and putting it before a tiny audience that will get bored fast and move back to their touch screens.

Hardcore games first, with free-to-play to follow

Minecraft Pocket Edition on Amazon's Fire TV. Sarah Tew/CNET

Lapsed gamers was the term Mike Farzzini, Amazon's VP of games, used when explaining in an interview with CNET who exactly Amazon thinks it's targeting with Fire TV games.

It's a reference to people that used to love games or still do, but don't have the time, money, or commitment necessary to warrant the purchase of an Xbox One and Titanfall. Those gamers, Farzzini said, now look to free-to-play games and casual experiences for their fix, like what one gets with mobile hits Candy Crush and Clash of Clans alongside the occasional splurge on a graphically-intensive game like Infinity Blade III or XCOM: Enemy Unknown for iOS.

In this case, Amazon is offering, at launch, games like ports of mobile favorites Minecraft Pocket Edition and Asphault 8, while a version of Sev Zero -- a Kindle shooter-tower defense game -- built from the ground up for Fire TV will come free with a controller purchase. Otherwise, it'll be $6.99. It also has the first season of Telltale Games' successful episodic title, The Waking Dead, which the developer only started working on for Fire TV in January.

While the average price of a paid game for the platform will be $1.89, Amazon will be offering more than a thousand free-to-play titles down the line, where it hopes to create lucrative titles with more extended lifespans. The company's acquisition strategy is following that blend to a tee.

In February, Amazon purchased Double Helix, maker of free-to-play Xbox One title Killer Instinct. Alongside the Fire TV announcement yesterday, Amazon revealed that it hired Portal designer Kim Swift and FarCry 2 designer Clint Hocking. Those additions will be pushing that mix of development strategy under the same roof.

Sev Zero, the popular Kindle shooter, is one of the first higher-end Kindle ports coming to Fire TV. Amazon

Despite that substantial commitment, there's still no way of knowing if there is enough overlap between streaming device owners and "lapsed gamers" to make this a viable strategy.

Amazon is going to have a hard time convincing traditional gamers and developers that Fire TV -- which it avoids calling a game console -- will be worth shifting money and time away from the gold mine that is mobile. Part of the appeal of mobile, after all, is that you can access it anywhere.

Amazon Game Studios can't do all the work itself in making that argument.

"If first-party exclusives are lacking or are slow-to-market, gamers and third-party developers may stay away, much as they have with Nintendo's disappointing Wii U," wrote Michael Pachter, a Wedbush Securities analyst, after the announcements.

The controller, at $40, will be another hurdle that could stunt the popularity of the platform, a Catch 22 of sorts that will keep people from purchasing it if there aren't good games, which would stunt development of games because no one is there to play them.

"It is unclear how much demand there will be for a $40 controller for relatively casual games," Macquarie Capital analyst Ben Schachter said in a note describing Fire TV as underwhelming. He also expects Apple TV -- also priced at $99 -- to include gaming in its next iteration, a product that could leapfrog Fire TV relatively soon in other respects too.

But it would be a mistake to completely write off Amazon's gaming ambitions. This is a company, after all, that's not afraid to make big bets to get into entirely new businesses. And if it sells more Amazon content along the way, it has no reason to slow down until it gets gaming right.

Joan Solsman contributed to this report.