Amazon Web Services' Eric Morales on Enabling Creativity Through the Cloud

In recent years Amazon has continued to expand its Game Tech offering, providing numerous tools and services from within the cloud, covering back-end services, analytics, monetisation and game development itself.

And according to Eric Morales, Games Industry Segment Leader, EMEA for Game Tech, which sits within the Amazon Web Services (AWS) division, it's part of a movement that could change the way people make games, letting them swap process for creativity.

As such TheGamingEconomy caught up with Morales to get a sense of where AWS Game Tech is heading, and how it fits into a broader shift in the game making ecosytem where cloud, AI and machine learning are set to become increasingly everyday tools.

The Amazon Game Tech offering AWS provides to game developers has grown fairly significant and varied in recent years. Is there a single goal or approach that unifies your effort to serve game makers?

If we look at the game development ecosystem broadly, the average profile of a game developer looks significantly different than a traditional software developer. Right? Most game developers, I think, bring a hardy blend of technical components, but also there’s a big injection of creativity and artistic components. And now there's an entire world of back-end infrastructure knowledge impacting that side of the industry - technology that many of these kinds of developers have never had to work with before. That presents a big challenge for a company like AWS.

But it’s also big opportunity for us because the fact is if we can work with a company like a Nintendo, an EA, an Activision or another large global publisher and work to help them shut down data centres, and we can work with indies and individual developers to make sure that they build really great games that never have to sit in a data centre. So we can make a big difference. And that is kind of what our long-term goal is in terms of games at AWS.

And it goes beyond AWS to things happening at many other Amazon companies like Twitch, Amazon.com and Amazon Game Studios. We can all see that the target audience of games in general is changing, right? Or its expanding its reach. It used to be that the only targeted consumer that a game developer would think about was the person whose hands are on a controller or on a mouse and a keyboard. But now we live in a world where spectators are so important to what games are, where so many different people play different types of games on different platforms, and where the distribution and maintenance of games is so much more diverse now.

So if you are making a game like Untitled Goose Game, your players are playing as a chaotic, possibly evil goose, causing all kinds of wacky stuff. That’s a case where the devs will very likely have been building that type of experience for both the spectator audience and the playing audience. You can see how the devs could be trying to encourage players to play the game in their own way, and find creative ways that would make for interesting content. So you're effectively creating new pop culture experiences, and the back-end infrastructure is part of delivering that. That’s two things that a lot of people don't necessarily think about when they fire up Unity or Unreal for the first time. Let’s say I want to build a super chaotic ‘Untitled Goose Game Battle Royale’, just as an example, what would it take to actually do that? Answering that question; that's where we think there's an opportunity for AWS to come in and help deliver that idea.

And how are you helping developers do that?

So we have a bunch of different services, of course, and we recognise that a lot of developers need help making that first step into learning to use those services. And so that's the kind of the commitment and the goal behind AWS and Amazon Game Tech, right? This new initiative we have where we're trying to teach a brand new generation of game developers to build really fun game experiences in the cloud using AWS. And that includes the hosting components of it, right? Things like the actual game servers that people log on to in a battle royale game to play against one another. Our platform can also provide the logic that matches players based on skill, or based on latency with each other. We can also give them tools to analyse data, to find anomalies and identify cheaters and fixed bugs. We can help with stuff like the QA process. So it really touches on all of those key components.

Anyone who has attended game industry conferences in recent years won't have missed Amazon's growing presence at such events.

And you referred earlier to larger game companies closing their own data-centres. Why is that a productive move?

We firmly believe that nobody in their right mind - unless they're specifically in the data centre business - should open a data centre. And so the goal of our company broadly is to get people out of that hardware business period. And a big piece of this is all also involves education. We launched the AWS Academy and AWS re/Start, which are kind of two separate initiatives. The Academy literally works with technical university programs. We help them build and inform their syllabi and their actual coursework to incorporate generic cloud concepts. And, yes, AWS is an offering there, but a lot of the skill being implemented are transferable regardless of the cloud service you're talking about. This kind of thinking is really about education around designing for horizontal scaling and designing for audiences. Part of this is about a deliberate effort to work with educational institutions to make computer science in general a cloud-specific conversation.

And then as we dig into the game specific space, these are initiatives that we're looking to work on, both now and in the future. So we have AWS Game Tech, which is a collection of services from AWS. We are also partnering closely Twitch and with Alexa to provide tools to developers to incorporate all of those different elements, whether it's spectator relevance from Twitch or voice command elements from Alexa  - so they can put those things into their games. Then we have Amazon Lumberyard, which is our game engine, and AWS is built into the back-end of that software. And now we're also working on some on some very specific and acute education initiatives underway.

And it’s not just about using the cloud in the ways people first think of. We’re very committed to helping with things like developer productivity too.

Do you have any examples of that effort, where distinct cloud technologies are reshaping the dev process, or the conventions of game development?

One specific example is IO Interactive. They're the Danish studio famous for the Hitman series, of course.

You can look at the more recent episodic Hitman games as providing individual puzzles, almost. There’s a very acute endpoint in those episodes, but it's within little bit of a sandbox environment, where you have a bunch of different ways to potentially kill your target. So a big part of the Hitman experience is creating these little miniature narrative worlds where you get hints just by kind of walking around and scoping out the scene; it’s not linear or direct, really. That does mean something as ‘simple’ as like the NPC dialogue is actually really hard to implement when you think about it.

That’s because you have to script all that out. You have to make sure that it plugs into one of the various paths that a player takes to achieve their goal in that level. And so IO interactive decided to -  instead of starting developing the levels, instead of drafting all of these scripts, instead of hiring a bunch of voice actors to voice the scripts aloud before they've even started development of the levels - use one of our services called Amazon Polly, where they literally just draft the script in real time, right? So literally that morning when they're getting together for coffee, they think, ‘you know, it'd be really cool if we had this grounds keeper curse at this person in a window, which gives them a hint that maybe they should go up into that room’.

They can actually draft that script out, upload it in Polly, and they can have a text-to-speech in the actual game engine and the build of the level that they're working on, and have their NPCs say that new content out loud. They can even tweak the volume levels, tweak whether or not the cadence is right and so on. And they can do that before they even get to the point of hiring actors. That’s a case of harnessing our AWS technology improves the actual productivity of the people working on the creative side of the game. It's quite a shift in the process, and it's not purely about just the infrastructure side of running or maintain a game, and that's what's what we think the cloud can bring to here.

So there’s an opportunity to open the minds and capacity of more developers to embrace back-end technologies to serve an effort beyond core creativity, and at the same time in doing that, these approaches can enable them to focus more on the creative part?

You hit the nail on the head. I mean, look, think about QA. The QA process can be brutal because that's often the entry point for a lot of people enter the industry. Because people love games, they want to work in the games space and so they'll still step into a QA role and eventually work their way up into production and all that other stuff, right? But the process of contributing effectively to QA for a game; that can be really mind numbing, right? I mean, you're talking about paying people to to press up on a joystick for eight hours so they can run their character in a wall just to make sure there are no clipping errors. Now, of course, machine learning can address that. You can actually train a machine to press up on an arrow and run into a wall. You can take that same QA talent - the people who love what you do and have a passion for what they do - and instead harness their subjective opinions to be able to decide if something is fun or not. They can do more creative QA that contributes to the game in a different way.

There’s long been a sense that technology will ‘take our jobs’. Nowadays the concern is directed to AI, machine learning and automation. But an alternative perspective us that those technologies actually augment our abilities.

Absolutely. And that's what developers need. Imagine if every [human] QA can be freed up to focus on helping to decide whether a game was fun as opposed to whether a game worked. So these technologies can help solve huge business problems, while enabling developers to focus on the creativity - the pleasure part. In the case of QA it helps to prevent or potentially mitigate day one patches, and things that break earlier on in the process.

I don't think that there's a matrix or Skynet emerging that is going to destroy the games industry. I think actually artificial intelligence is going to make people who work in the games industry have a better time, and a more creative, rewarding and varied role.