New hire suggests Amazon to expand in gaming

Andre "Ozymandias" Vrignaud, Microsoft’s director of game platform strategy recently announced via his personal blog that he was leaving Microsoft for a new position at Amazon. Considering his background in game platforms, it’s unclear why Amazon would have an interest in him. Could this mean that Amazon is expanding its gaming presence beyond being a mere retailer?

He brought Xbox Live to Windows Phone 7: what will he bring Amazon?

The post on Vrignaud’s personal blog is—perhaps appropriately—quite vague. He begins by saying that: “I guess I’ll just cut to the chase and say that I’m moving on from Microsoft to take a new role at Amazon. Can’t really talk about details at this point, but it’ll become pretty evident soon enough… and you all know where my passions lie.” It’s the line ‘you all know where my passions lie’ that has everyone wondering.

Vrignaud’s entire recent background is with Microsoft—he points out that he’s been with the company since the very nascent beginning of the service. Though Xbox Live is now an incredibly robust digital platform—and will span more than just consoles when Windows Phone 7 launches later this year—he points out that “Not many people remember now, but there was a time when even the idea of Xbox LIVE was extremely controversial.” Indeed, Xbox Live not only brought broadly adopted online multi-player video gaming to the console market (before online play had been solely the domain of the PC), but it is a service good enough that millions pay to access its premium level.

What does this mean for Amazon? Speculation around the Internet seems to split into two camps. One camp links his background with XBL for Windows Phone 7 and thinks that Amazon may finally be coming out with an app store for Kindle—one that’s been rumored since the beginning of 2010. I, for one, find it hard to believe that a man who is self-described as passionate about gaming would try to bring games to a grey-scale device with an incredibly slow screen refresh rate. The Kindle is a decent e-reader but a gaming platform it is not.

More likely—and potentially more interesting—is that Amazon is ready to expand its digital game distribution business. Since acquiring casual game portal Reflexive in 2008, Amazon has had a department labeled as “Game Downloads”, a section still listed as being in ‘beta’. A quick perusal of Amazon’s offerings strikes me as a mixture of outdated—and sparse.

Physical media, however, are slowly disappearing at market—especially in the PC sector—and digital distribution also typically involves a much higher profit margin. Amazon may be merely poaching talent while it continues to test new strategies for game retail, but a vastly more interesting development would be if they are shooting at digital gaming platform giants like Steam or Direct2Drive.

This theory is bolstered by a news report from earlier this year by Gamasutra, noting several interesting job postings on Amazon’s employment website. The most relevant was for a ‘Software Development Engineer, Digital Software and Video Games’ to be involved in: “the design and construction of next generation, breakthrough online video game and software distribution technology.”

We’ll have to wait on Amazon and Vrignaud to find out what they’re up to, but as someone who personally spends a lot of money with Amazon and is an avid gamer, I find this development quite interesting.

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