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Amazon's first big-budget game Crucible saw a Low launch, but can a slow-burner succeed in a market of record-breaking peaks and multi-million-dollar influencer campaigns?

by Louise Shorthouse on 06/01/20 10:22:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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Crucible is a free-to-play sci-fi hero shooter/multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA hybrid developed by Amazon subsidiary studio Relentless. Originally announced as a battle royale title in 2016, its premise has evolved over several years based on feedback from Twitch streamers, who were heavily involved in the development process. The game was launched on PC via Steam on May 20th.

As in market-leading MOBAs Dota 2 and League of Legends, players obtain new abilities through levelling up, and must fight neutral AI enemies as well as enemy players. At the same time, Crucible will have a seasonal battle pass akin to Fortnite and Apex Legends, and microtransactions will be limited to character and weapon skins and cosmetics. There are 10 playable Hunters to choose from, and three game modes: Harvest Command, Alpha Hunters and Heart of Hives which feature elements of capture-the-flag, battle royale, and PvPvE respectively.

Concurrent players on Crucible peaked at just over 10,000 in the seven days since launch, which is compared here with Steam’s biggest titles. This number is dwarfed by the market leaders. Just 72 hours after launch, EA’s Apex Legends breached 1 million concurrent players.

Teething problems and absent communication features limit early potential

On launch day, many players ran into connectivity and queue issues as the servers struggled to cope with demand. The release ended up being staggered across the globe. What’s more, in-game communication is currently limited to a ping system, with no integrated voice chat or text chat features. This is unprecedented for a competitive shooter; especially one with a heavier emphasis on team strategy, and has proven to be a contentious issue for players.

A senior combat designer for Crucible has suggested that this lack of communication channels is driven by a desire to prevent toxicity taking root in the community before antiharassment systems are robust. Given there are currently no indications of an imminent console release, use of a neutral, third-party voice chat platform like Discord does make sense: PC gamers typically prefer to consolidate their voice communications due to the open nature of the platform. Newcomers to PC gaming, though, and users who are not playing with friends will likely find the lack of integrated voice chat undermines any attempt to play competitively and strategically. Plus, use of third-party software would surely diminish the walled garden approach of Amazon.

Low entry barrier and high skill ceiling a boon for esports strategy

Unlike Activision’s Call of Duty: Warzone, the time spent playing the game does not afford any competitive advantage, except for simply growing familiar with the in-game mechanics. In Warzone, players can purchase weapons or unlock weapon enhancements using experience gained over time, but this is not the case in Crucible, where there are no purchasable items.

As a result, there is a greater emphasis on teamwork and strategy. This is further emphasised by the MOBA aspects of the title: as players level up during a game, they must choose from a selection of Hunter-specific abilities. In this way, players on the opposition team can never know in advance which abilities a Hunter has selected, adding an element of unpredictability and increasing the importance of reactive rather than pre-emptive play, and communication – features which will be appealing to viewers.

Low Twitch viewership suggests a missed opportunity

Twitch is a crucial platform for showcasing and building interest in emerging, competitive games. This was demonstrated by the record-breaking Twitch viewership numbers generated by EA’s Apex Legends last year, as well as Riot Games’ recent Valorant beta which saw streamers handing out elusive beta access keys to lucky viewers.

It seems unusual, considering this is Amazon’s first AAA offering, that Crucible was not given a large-scale, flashy launch on Twitch beyond partnering with a handful of content creators for casual launch-day streams. Given Amazon owns the streaming platform, this could have been used to its advantage. However, developer Relentless has admitted to taking a more measured approach, and choosing not to capitalise on Amazon’s marketing capabilities.

In many ways, Crucible plays it safe. Its combining of several different game genres may fail to fully intrigue fans of any one of them and its muted launch perhaps belies a reluctance to take the risk of plunging head-first into the competitive online gaming fray, with all guns blazing. Crucible’s currently flagging market presence underlines the importance of a strong launch in order to put a game on the map – even negative commentary is often a better outcome than relative silence.

Can Crucible succeed where others have failed?

Crucible is similar in style to Epic Games’ Paragon and 2K Games’ Battleborn; both of which failed to find and maintain an audience. Paragon servers were closed down in 2018, whilst Battleborn, which was hugely overshadowed by the launch of Blizzard’s Overwatch, is currently in the midst of a year-long phased shutdown. Like Amazon, these are well-established companies with deep pockets, and the failure of these titles to take root in the PC gaming scene is perhaps indicative of a wider issue around their make-up. The failure to commit to a single, recognisable genre may be alienating the players. Many highly successful games, including Fortnite and Warzone, have simply tweaked a familiar genre (battle royale) to add extra layers of interest, and to differentiate themselves from the competition. However, the core premise remains the same.

Paragon and Battleborn have retained small groups of devoted fans, but without broader appeal, the continuation of an online multiplayer title is unfeasible. Vast numbers of players are needed to streamline the experience for everyone involved: enabling shorter queue times and engaging matches. As player numbers dwindle, the experience becomes less consumer-friendly, and so fewer players continue to log in, and the cycle repeats itself.

Although refusing to rely on Twitch and a splashy launch is admirable for a relatively unknown developer who wants to be recognised for its own merit, this decision has so far not worked in its favour. The complete lack of buzz around Crucible’s launch has led the game to fade, and this is from already-modest player numbers. Crucible typically has fewer than 500 concurrent viewers on Twitch.

The decision not to seize upon the marketing capital and capacity of Amazon and Twitch means that the conversation around Crucible never really began. It may be a slow-burner, but it remains to be seen whether that will be enough in today’s competitive gaming landscape.

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