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Amazon throws itself into the Crucible of AAA at last

Lou Castle explains how Amazon's hero shooter has evolved to be competitive, streamable, and standout in a crowded field

Crucible was first revealed by Amazon Game Studios in 2016, alongside killed game Breakaway and upcoming MMORPG New World. Back then, it looked very different.

It was a last-person-standing game contested between 12 players, where opponents could team up to fight others, then break alliances to defeat their former comrades. One of its most intriguing aspects was the possibility of a 13th player, a game master who could control the environment and change the stakes of the game as it was being played.

"It's evolved quite a bit since then," says Lou Castle, head of Amazon Game Studios in Seattle. "In 2016, you're talking about a pre-PUBG, pre-everything world. The team had already figured out what they wanted to build for a game as a character-based shooter that was focused on combat and competitive play. It was announced at Twitchcon, and they were pretty close to a game -- they had a prototype running, and [they thought] they could button this thing down and be good to go.

"Rather than ship something that was probably gonna be an also-ran, it would be better to do the hard work of overhauling everything"

"When I joined the company in 2017, we had a big playtest that was coming up in the following summer. And at the playtest, it became really evident that we were onto something really exciting and that customers really wanted. But it was also pretty clear that the way we were going about doing it wasn't going to create the best environment for long-term competitive play -- specifically around networking -- and how far we could push the visual quality based on the current technology base, and how easily we could handle large numbers of players. There were a couple of things that needed some help, but the game concept itself was really strong.

"We decided that rather than ship something that was probably gonna be an also-ran, it would be better for us to go through and do the hard work of just overhauling everything and rebuilding the game from scratch. For almost all of 2017 and partway through 2018, we kept that version alive... adding new characters, new designs, throwing away characters that didn't work, and doing a lot of things that the community let us do because we had hundreds of people in our influencer community that were working on the game behind the scenes with us. So the game evolved dramatically."

At launch, Crucible will feature three game modes and a roster of ten playable characters

At launch, Crucible will feature three game modes and a roster of ten playable characters

As I saw in a demo earlier this month, Crucible is now a very different prospect. It still takes place on the game's titular planet, where players are fighting with one another for control of a resource called Essence. That Essence is drawn from the planet by massive harvesters that players or teams can control, though it's also contained within roaming monsters they can defeat.

Rather than one every-person-for-themselves match, Crucible now has three game modes: in Heart of the Hives, two teams of four battle to be the first to capture the hearts of giant boss monsters that spawn across the battlefield; Harvest Command puts two teams of eight against one another to control the aforementioned Harvesters and gather the most Essence; and Alpha Hunters, the mode that most closely resembles the original concept of the game, has eight pairs of players fighting one another in a single-elimination match, with the last remaining team winning the game.

"If you're going to make something like a sport, it has to come down to the skill of the player -- it can't be random"

Notably, one thing that's missing in all three modes is the "game master" role. Now, similar events are set to occur at certain times and places at the start of each match, so players always know what to expect and strategize for.

"In our testing, and when we were working on the game plan, we just found that the game master has to be somebody who's really, really good at coordinating those kinds of things," Castle says. "If it's somebody who's just kind of troll-ish, it doesn't make for a very good experience... There are dozens of events... It's still there. It's just not run by a person. It's automated.

"Crucible is built for competitive play. We've eliminated almost all of the random elements that are in similar genres or other genres, which tend to get in the way of having a true competitive sport. My analogy is, it wouldn't be much of a golf game if you walked up to the first tee and somebody had to open up a mystery bag and find out what club they had. At the very highest levels of play, if you're going to make something like a sport, it has to come down to the skill of the player -- it can't be random. The game is designed around facilitating that."

Along with competitive play, developer Relentless Studios sees Crucible as a streamer-friendly game -- which makes sense, given Amazon's ownership of Twitch. I ask Castle if there's room for Crucible to take cues from something like Riot Games' streamer partnerships for Valorant, which allowed content creators to give away beta access to their viewers.

"We wanted to prioritize getting the game right before we go too heavy into how we're going to interact with the Twitch streamer communities"

"We're looking to the Twitch experience in much the same way as all the competitors in our space are, which is as a great environment for players to play games and to watch games," Castle says. "And we care about our content creators. I thought Valorant did a very clever job, because [it seems like] they didn't have to do a lot of paid promotion because they had the system that allowed you to get keys to play in the beta and made everybody turn on a bunch of streams. It was really well done.

"But they already have a game [League of Legends] that has a huge esports following -- the biggest in the world -- and people were interested in what they were going to do, so they were going to be big no matter what. I'm not trying to discount what they did. It was very clever. It wouldn't have worked for Crucible, and even if we could roll back the clock and know exactly what they did, I wouldn't have done that, because we're a brand new studio. We're a brand new company. We're unknown in this space.

"There are lots of ways to interact with Twitch that are very powerful for games. We're just a different one. Ours is really focused around making the game experience itself as teachable as possible, as viewable as possible, and that's really the core of our integrations. We have some other things we're planning to do in the future, but we wanted to prioritize getting the game right and getting feedback from the community before we go too heavy into how we're going to interact with the Twitch streamer communities."

Every game mode in Crucible is tied to the characters' desire to extract powerful Essence from within the planet and use it for their own gain

Every game mode in Crucible is tied to the characters' desire to extract powerful Essence from within the planet and use it for their own gain

The transformation of Crucible over the last several years was calculated. Castle says that for its first AAA release, Relentless wanted something that was both competitive and streamable. And for a game to be easy to watch, as the studio hopes Crucible will be, it also had to be very easy to pick up and play. Making Crucible free-to-play -- with a fairly standard battle pass and cosmetic microtransaction model -- was one element key to accomplishing that.

"We have a sense of what it is that makes games fun to watch, and what makes some games a little too complicated to watch where you're just looking at it, and it's just a lot of noise," Castle says. "You can't figure out what's going on. Even if you play the game regularly, it's hard to figure it out. If you're a spectator, it's almost impossible. Games like Fortnite hit on the same idea, which is, if I have something that's easy to understand, then it makes it easier to watch.

"If we were trying to displace a Counter-Strike, then we would be going right into the teeth of the competition"

"You want that accessibility, you want everybody to be able to get it. So that makes it free-to-play, versus something like New World where the business model just makes a lot more sense not to be a free-to-play game."

But Castle also talks about distinguishing the game, and while Crucible has its unique points, there are several mechanics and features that, on paper, sound like things that are already out on the market. It's a free-to-play hero shooter, but it also appears to borrow elements from battle royales and the MOBA genre. And it's launching tomorrow, at a time when Fortnite's next season is imminent, Apex Legends just launched its own new season, and Riot is preparing to drop the already-popular Valorant sometime soon.

How, then, does Crucible intend to distinguish itself?

"If we had happened to have a game that was kind of right on the money, just like Valorant, or if we were trying to displace a Counter-Strike, then we would be going right into the teeth of the competition," he responds. "But we feel we're pretty significantly different, and when people play the game, it feels different. And the more you play it, the more you realize how different it really is. So I'm not as concerned about that, and I think long-term, we're going to find our audience."

Relentless is looking to other hero shooters for cues on how it might give more depth and drop lore for its cast of characters in the future

Relentless is looking to other hero shooters for cues on how it might give more depth and drop lore for its cast of characters in the future

Relentless does plan to support Crucible long-term, and already has several seasons of content planned out in advance. It will open with an unranked pre-season at launch that will include a traditional Battle Pass, plus cosmetic content available either through in-game earned currency or real money microtransactions. One thing it won't have immediately at launch, though, is voice or text chat.

"We had a lot of debates over which features we should put in first, and which features we'd add later... We're going very slowly and carefully into things like text and voice chat because we want to be cautious, and we want to make sure we're doing it in a way that is both respects people's privacy and gives them the ability to have a good time in the game and not feel like their big brother's watching. But at the same time, it gives us the tools we need to properly support moderation and banning and things like that, so that people are encouraged to be good because we designed the game properly."

Castle adds that some form of a communication feature will be added before ranked play is introduced following the pre-season. And while he couldn't get into specifics, he says the team hopes Crucible can avoid situations similar to the ones players have complained about in games like Valorant and Overwatch, where competitive play has gained a reputation for being deeply toxic.

"A lot of people asked us why we didn't go out with a full feature that's similar to Discord," he continues. "Well, Discord does a pretty good job of that right now, and for a new game that's coming out, it's much safer to lean into people's existing social networks and let them get to know the game and just take our baby steps. I can't promise that we can avoid toxicity in environments when we open up communication channels like that. That's just an impossible thing to stop. But we're doing everything we can to minimize it."

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Amazon Game Studios' parent company Amazon has a stock market capitalization of $1.2 trillion and cash pile of $48 billion- its the biggest in E-Commerce and Cloud Computing, AGS can grow through acquisitions of game studios, buyout CD Projekt or even Embracer Group.
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