Amazon is a giant. Of course. And that is why the company is being careful, says the game industry veteran overseeing the launch of the company’s first major video game, to not look as if it is wielding all of its might.
Crucible, available Wednesday for PCs, is a free-to-play, competitive, team-based online shooter, one that wants to endear itself to players with approachable tweaks to the familiar rather than a full upending of any genre. It’s entering a landscape dominated by the likes of Fortnite, Overwatch and Apex Legends, and intermixes the shooter-based gameplay of the battle royale genre, playing with more strategic, character-leveling elements found in multiplayer online battle arenas such as League of Legends.
“The kind of game that we’re making is a gamer’s game, for sure,” says Louis Castle, who leads Amazon’s Relentless Studios in Seattle and is a longtime game designer/executive whose credits range from interactive adaptations of Disney’s “The Lion King” to the Command & Conquer series.
Castle knows that anything that carries the Amazon name won’t exactly be a little word-of-mouth entry. The company, a powerhouse in providing back-end game server tech, also owns streaming service Twitch. And while Castle stresses that making Crucible “watchable” was a paramount goal, he says Amazon is not making an immediate push for the sci-fi game to enter, for instance, the esport arena.
“We’re very cognizant of the fact that we’re new to the space and we’re new to the category. We’ve done our best and we’ve made a nice game. We think it’s good and we expect it to change and grow … I’m always fond of the saying that ‘you can’t push a rope.’ It’s the community that pushes you into the esport arena,” says Castle. “That’s not something we can engineer. There are many people in our alpha [testing] group who are excited by its potential, so I don’t want to say that we wouldn’t support it, but that’s not something we’re going to go out and claim.”
Many have been watching Amazon’s quest to enter the consumer-facing game-playing space. When Castle joined the company in 2017, Crucible was already in development. In that time, an announced brawler called Breakaway was killed, and a companion game to The Grand Tour series was met with a tepid response. After Crucible, in August Amazon will release New World, an online role-playing game.
“Both teams have been working for a long time on these games,” says Castle. “I imagine there will be expectations set because this is the first one, but they will be quickly changed because New World is nothing like Crucible.”
Castle isn’t trying to pretend that Crucible is some family-friendly, game-for-everyone that can speak to the increased focus on the medium’s ability to connect during this pandemic moment. So while Crucible has an anthropomorphic rodent — Tosca is her name, and she’s a master at sarcasm and shooting an acid gun — as well a chipper robot with an interest in botany and mayhem, Crucible is designed to be a game whose characters have deep skill sets that will require time to master.
While Relentless Studios didn’t set out to make a game that would require the highest of the high-end PCs to run, it will still need a relatively decent machine to play. This pays off somewhat in the game’s style, says Castle.
The team wanted a game that was bright and detailed, and one that showed off the personality of its diverse, animated character roster, which features a broad mix of genders, species and races. Its 10 core playable characters at launch range from Ajonah, a blue-toned, Avatar-influenced sharpshooting alien with connections to nature, to the flame-throwing female warrior Summer to the more jovial Rahi, whose robot sidekick seems to always bring a smile to Rahi’s face.
“We did push the bar to make sure it was something that was really pretty,” says Castle. “That means you have to have a reasonably good machine, something within the last couple years, to play this well. We didn’t go for an oversimplified art style to make the audience much wider. We felt in the free-to-play space a lot of games just hadn’t stepped up when it came to their visual style. That’s not a blanket statement, but the art style is a little more whimsical.”
There will be three separate game modes at launch, and Castle expects the studio to spend about two months before starting Crucible’s first proper season, which, like competitors in the space, gives players access to limited time rewards. The game will, like Fortnite, take a cosmetic, character-skin approach to monetization, in adding to selling its season passes (950 in-game credits, which equals $9.50).
All of the matches, whether focusing on taking out other teams or capturing the “hearts” of an alien life-form called Hives, can shift as players acquire what the game calls “Essence.” The latter is accrued from completing objectives or battling the environment, allowing players to advance the skill set of the characters.
So while “Crucible’s” modes range from teams of two competing against seven other pairs to be the last group standing to an eight-person versus eight-person match centered on capture and defense, all ask the players to do a mix of environmental exploration. Taking down computer-controlled characters and aliens can be just as vital as harvesting the planet or engaging other players on the opposing team, as Essence will be key to the matches.
“You’re dropped into the game fully armed and with all your abilities so you don’t start in some way where you have run around frantically looking for a pistol or knife,” Castle says. “You start out fully capable, and your character grows during their match. You level up. There are different emergent strategies that happen while you’re playing. It rewards the player who has knowledge and is thinking strategically about play.”