Monday, 4 Mar 2024

Crucible hands-on preview and interview – when Amazon made a video game

GameCentral talks to the makers of Amazon’s new games as a service title, about why it’s not a battle royale and why they consulted with cosplayers.

When you hear that Amazon is getting into the business of both publishing and developing video games it’s hard to know what to think. As the owners of Twitch, they already have a sizeable toe in the video games hot pool but most people probably don’t realise that and have likely only heard the rumours about them setting up their own cloud gaming service. They have been making mobile games for several years though and released the vaguely okay-ish console game The Grand Tour Game early last year.

They’ve also announced controversial MMO New World and a new Lord of the Rings game, based on the upcoming Amazon Prime show, but their second non-mobile release is Crucible and it launches this month on Wednesday, 20 May. It’s PC only, for now at least, but we played it last week during an online preview event, after which we also spoke to franchise lead Colin Johanson about the almost five year journey it’s taken to get the game into its current state.

Although it features many familiar elements it’s actually a little difficult to describe Crucible accurately, if you only use existing games as a point of reference. Overwatch meets League Of Legends meets battle royale is probably the best attempt, although as a third person shooter with a maximum of 16 players at a time you can see that description is very loose. But that’s good, because if it’s hard to describe that means it also has to be something relatively new.

The Overwatch influence is the most obvious at first, with 10 ‘hunters’ that range from a botanist robot and a kind of female Rocket Racoon to more familiar tropes such as a tank character with a huge gun and a generic everyman whose special ability is that he can aim down sights.

Captain Mendoza is super boring but he is a useful character to start with, as you begin to learn the ropes, with each character having a small suite of special abilities that work on a countdown timer, in this case a flashbang and an airlifted bunker.

Once you get the gist of the controls, which are pretty typical for any third person shooter, you can start to have fun with the more interesting characters, and we especially liked the agreeably cheerful Summer, who has twin flamethrowers that she can also use to jet forward or shoot up into the air for an area of effect attack. Although most interestingly the more she uses her weapons the more powerful they get, but the closer they creep to overheating and shutting down for a precious few seconds.

We also enjoyed Shakirri, who can switch between using a pistol and a sword, and Sazon who has three different weapons to cycle through and has to switch from one to another in order to reload. Meanwhile, Ajonah looks like she’s wandered in from Zora’s Domain but is essentially a sniper class, with all that implies about strengths and weaknesses but also equipped with a grappling hook that can be used either like Batman’s grapnel gun or Spider-Man’s web swings.

The character designs are a little more realistic than Overwatch, so not as immediately striking, but they seem a well-rounded bunch and particularly well suited to team-play, which is what Crucible is all about. Naturally, we were paired with developers who knew exactly what they were doing, but the basics are very straightforward in terms of action, with the game’s major twist being the levelling system, which works like a MOBA such as League Of Legends.

By collecting a substance known as Essence you’re able to level up your character as you play, and while the differences at first seem relatively mild – mostly buffs and additional or quicker usage of existing abilities – by the time you get to level five they make a big difference to your effectiveness. This also helps to mould the flow of gameplay, as you initially avoid direct confrontation by taking on computer-controlled monsters and trying to claim fixed emplacements such as Essence harvesters or randomly generated ability amplifiers.

Exactly how things play out depends on which of the three modes you’re playing though, with Harvester Command being a simple 8v8 mode similar to Conquest, where you’re trying to capture Essence harvesters and become the first team to 100 points. Hearts of the Hives is a smaller 4v4 mode where you have to fight giant enemy bosses and claim their internal organs – with the other team frequently swooping in try and steal the prize.

The most involved game mode is Alpha Hunters, where you have eight teams of two players. Since it’s a last man standing mode this is where the comparison to battle royale comes in, although the game’s much more open-ended than that, as you try to take advantage of roaming enemies, environmental traps, and randomly appearing events.

Sometimes you’re battling multiple teams for the same amplifier or harvester, sometimes you’re purposefully staying out of everyone’s way as you try to use monsters to level up, and sometimes the best idea seems to be to stalk a team and wait until they get into a fight with someone else. The tactical variety in terms of how you use the map, in-game elements, and the abilities of your characters seems to blend together very well, with Crucible even offering the chance of a temporary alliance if your teammate dies, so you don’t suddenly become an easy target.

It’s impossible to come to any kind of definitive verdict on a game that is supposed to last years, after only playing it for a few hours, but at this stage Crucible is looking very impressive. It lacks a little in terms of visual identity but that doesn’t seem to be hurting Valorant and this at least tries to be a lot more innovative in terms of gameplay. Of course, being free-to-play you can try it out for yourself here but don’t worry if you miss the launch as we have a feeling Crucible is going to be around for a long time to come.

Formats: PC
Price: Free-to-play
Publisher: Amazon Game Studios
Developer: Relentless Studios
Release Date: 20th May 2020
Age Rating: 12

GC: So who’s idea was Crucible? What were your initial intentions right at the beginning of the project?

CJ: Crucible has shifted in the concept of the game modes and the experience over time, though the core concept of Crucible has not changed. Crucible was born out of the concept of the Hunger Games stories and also the Diplomacy board game. And at the time, Crucible was a last player standing game when it first was concept-ed almost five years ago. And at the time the genre of battle royale really didn’t exist.

There was an ArmA mod, the H1Z1 mod was just starting to take off, but really, there there was no such thing as this last person standing genre that exploded out of nowhere. And in the years that we were working on Crucible we watched PUBG come and Fortnite and Apex Legends and all these others… the Call Of Duty game mode and the Battlefield game mode. And we realised that on its own Crucible could not just be a battle royale, that that alone was not enough anymore. That the genre had kind of evolved past where we had started while we were developing it. And so we focused on what the core of Crucible really was to us.

And that was this concept of competitive PvP with PvE elements brought into it, of creatures to farm and objectives to capture that was inspired both by MOBAs – when you think about the creature experience and leveling, and becoming more powerful and gaining abilities. And then some of the RPG experience of bringing in this concept of having changing objectives every time you play, having a list of different objectives that can occur that change the rules of the game on the fly. As well as taking the concept of more role-based experiences out of the game and focusing more on the gameplay experience on a hero basis.

In hero shooters you tend to see very often – and even in other genres like this – you have tanks, you have DPS, you have healer support, and every character is very rigid in the way that they play. And sometimes it means that you don’t get to play your favourite character because people don’t need you to play that role that day.

And we challenged ourselves to say, what if we made a game, a competitive hero shooter, where that’s not true; where you can play your favourite character and you can kind of customise them in the direction of the way you want to play. And you remove some of the reliance of ‘you have to have a healer’ and instead everyone can heal, to a degree, but characters can spec themselves in support or choose to even use their abilities in a more supportive way or in a more aggressive way, so that you can play the character that you’re most excited about without having to be locked into this role-based experience.

So those were some of the things that we identified as the core of Crucible: the levelling, the PvP with PvE elements, adapting and modifying a hero shooter character. And we applied those and in addition came up with our Alpha Hunters game mode, which is sort of the closest to the original idea of Crucible when we started. As well, Heart of the Hives and Harvester Command were born out of really focusing on what the core of Crucible is and kind of evolving around that and staying away from just being a battle royale.

GC: One thing that interests me about the game is it has elements that remind me of promising multiplayer games that never quite made it. Battleborne had the MOBA style levelling and the PvE element reminded me of Evolve. I doubt those were games you wanted to emulate so I guess you’re all just pulling from the same outside influences?

CJ: We looked at everything. The evolution of Crucible was more a natural evolution of us looking at the game mechanics within the game and, over time, evolving them to match what we thought the right experience would be. And you know, I think we ended up drawing inspiration from a lot of the same places.

GC: It’s always a shame when a game that’s trying something new doesn’t work out, not least because that puts everyone off trying to use the same ideas but maybe following through on them a bit better.

CJ: Yeah, I totally agree with you. I would point to RPGs and MOBAs as two of the most successful genres in all of games, that have mechanics very similar to that in them. There’s, to me, no good reason why shooters can’t have that mechanic. And it’s amazing to me that it hasn’t been experimented with more in the shooter genre.

GC: League Of Legends has always been in such an odd position. Most console gamers have never heard of it, most developers never talk about it, and yet it’s the biggest game in the world. I don’t know why the rest of the industry always ignores its success.

CJ: Yeah, I don’t know! [laughs] I can say that MOBAs in general definitely… there are things in Crucible that are inspired by the things that work in MOBAs and we look at them a lot. We have a couple of ex-pro League Of Legends players on our team. That definitely plays a part in how we think about it.

GC: When that mechanic was explained to me, I didn’t really know what to expect and then I found out that, okay, it’s mostly buffs and small changes to your abilities. It makes a difference, but I wonder if there was ever a point where you were going to have levelling up cause much bigger changes, like new abilities and that sort of thing?

CJ: You know, over the years… all that changed wildly over time as we experimented and tried different versions to see what felt best. There was a time where your level five upgrade was almost like an ultimate in the sense of it was this massive power jump when you got to that level.

And there’s still a little bit of that in there. In general, the level five upgrades tend to be the most powerful upgrades for all of the characters and can really swing a fight between like a level four and a level five character, for example. But we used to have it be significantly more than that and it just felt like it was too much. We honed in on kind of where we’re at right now as a mix – it adds depth and mastery, and in a team setting it adds significant amounts of depth and mastery.

And then it adds a sense that the game is constantly changing, and so there are fights at level one and when you take that same fight again at level three or level four, level five, you have to adapt and change the way you play based on the upgrades that that person had. And they do change the way that that character plays in a way that you have to understand and adapt your gameplay to… at the higher levels of play anyway.

But it is approachable enough that at the lower levels of play, when you’re just learning the game, it’s not overwhelming. That’s what we’re shooting for. And the right balance for us is the approachability and that it be easy to learn, so that you sit down and play it and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is like a hero shooter. I know what to do and I understand this and it has levelling in it.’

And you don’t have to have this extreme depth of mastery of what happens at every level and all the characters you’re playing against. But if you want to play the game competitively and you want to play in a team setting, you do need to have that. And I think really good competitive games have that. They’re really easy to sit down and learn and the depth is layered and in some ways almost hidden.

You learn it over time and constantly build your skills and you can play the game for a year and feel like you don’t have every component to it mastered. To me that’s the common trend between all good competitive games. And so that’s really what we’re trying to define the right balance with, with the upgrade system. Where no one upgrade just instantly wins you a fight. But to master the game, you need to understand them.

GC: So in terms of battle royale, that genre has taken a surprising path where I think at first everyone assumed we were going to be flooded by a stream of wannabes. There’s been some but, and I hesitate to suggest this as it’s not what the industry is known for, everyone seems to have been quite sensible and not tried to just spam the market with Fortnite clones.

CJ: [laughs]

GC: But why do you think that happened? Publishers not jumping on a bandwagon is extremely rare, especially one that seems so lucrative and relatively easy to develop for, so was there something else preventing them?

CJ: I don’t know. It’s a really interesting question. I think from a Crucible standpoint, that’s the only perspective I can offer, we felt like we should have a mode that is in that space, certainly our origin started with that concept before battle royale was ever a thing. And so our Alpha Hunters game mode is a last team standing mode. It is driven by that concept of fighting to be the last in the space. We went for a very different path because we didn’t want to just have another 100+ person last person standing game. And so the concept of Alpha Hunters, of eight teams of two – so 16 players in total – we felt like there’s very little experimenting in that space.

By comparison to a battle royale, matches in Alpha Hunters are very quick, 15 minutes on average, and one of the common comments that we heard over the years while we were developing that game mode, when people looked at battle royales, is there’s this 20 to 30 minute window in the middle of a battle royale match where nothing happens. Where everyone hides at the edge of the fog or the gas and occasionally somebody dies but it’s a lot of posturing and positioning and there’s a lot of deaths early in the game, there’s a lot of deaths late in the game, and not a lot happens in the middle. And it’s very hard to capture all the action and follow the narrative.

There’s something really cool about playing in this massive game with a hundred people, but there’s an experience there on the other end that we felt like not a lot of people had really played with, of what would it feel like to have this experience with a smaller group of people that’s more intimate, that’s faster paced, and if you lose you just jump right back into a game again and you don’t have this long wait in the middle with very little action.

We also wanted to play with the idea of having this constant pressure that you have to keep playing. I think generally almost all battle royale games have the concept of you land in the world with nothing, you loot to find all of your weapons and abilities and become powerful enough that once you reach your power plateau, you’re good to go for the rest of the game.

And in Crucible you start with your weapons, you start with your abilities, and it’s about if you’re not constantly farming creatures, capturing objectives, and staying up with the other players who are in the match you’re going to get left behind in levels. And so when you do get to the end you are going to have a significant disadvantage when you do fight against other people. And so you have to take chances, you have to expose yourself.

You always have to keep playing if you wanna maintain your best chance for winning at the end of the match. And we felt like that pacing was another thing that wasn’t entirely there in the genre. And by having this limitless level system where you always have to keep leveling to keep up, it means that you always have this sense in the back of your head of if you’re being too passive you’re not gonna to win.

So you always have to keep actively moving. It doesn’t mean you have to engage in fights with other players all the time, but you do need to keep playing the game, capturing objectives, farming creatures to keep up. One of the things that we did, that having the level system opened the door for, is we have this thing, the Essence terminal that when the game gets to the last remaining players the Essence terminal appears and every 20 seconds it drops a level’s worth of Essence under it. And we experimented with a lot of different ways to solve the stalemate that happens at the end of a last person standing match, where everybody kind of sits and hides and no one wants to be the one to come out and engage.

We tried a lot of different solutions to this [laughs] the Essence terminal ended up being the most successful one for us, because if you were holding that thing or you’re near it and you’re constantly getting a level every 20 seconds the other people who are there in that final little battle, you’re going to get a massive advantage over them with every level that you keep getting. And so you get these little fights that break out over the Essence terminal and it forces the battle at the end and removes some of the stalemate and adds the depth of strategy to the end of the experience.

You asked earlier about innovation in that space and trying different things, those are the things that we’ve done to try to make Crucible a little bit different. And then obviously the very last one is this concept of if you lose your teammate, you can form a temporary alliance with another solo player. So that you don’t end up in this position where you’re solo-fighting teams of two for the entire rest of the game and you just don’t have much of a chance.

There’s always a chance that somebody could make a comeback, find a teammate, battle their way to the end. And then when they get to the final three players and all alliances break, at that point they could still have a chance of winning the match and having this cool underdog story of making a comeback.

GC: Knowing gamers though, the first thing they’ll do when presented with a new concept is immediately demand you turn it into something they’re more familiar with. Are you adamant that there won’t be a battle royale mode in Crucible, in the traditional hundred-player sense?

CJ: [lauhgs] Yeah, that’s really not what Crucible is about. I think, to your point earlier, those games exist. There’s enough of them. We want to focus on what we do really well. And I think it is extremely unlikely that we would ever go build that mode in this game. Our game is really meant more for smaller battles and smaller sized teams.

GC: I assume you’d describe Crucible as a games as a service title, but that’s another things that’s evolved in an unexpected way. For a start it’s not immediately become a pejorative term and again most publishers seem to have realised that you can’t have a 100 games as a service titles out there, all demanding you play them three hours a day to get anywhere. I’m sure that’s something you were aware of while designing Crucible.

CJ: Yeah. My background is working in MMOs and long ago in shooters on the SOCOM series. So that’s something I’m keenly familiar with, working on the Guild Wars franchise in particular. People make an investment when they play in a game like this and the benefit to a competitive shooter like Crucible is it’s definitely significantly easier to drop into and just play a few matches than an MMO is. So from that standpoint it is significantly more approachable as a games as a service than what I’m used to building.

So in some ways I feel like this is awesome how I’ve got 30 minutes free, I can go jump in and play a couple of matches and I can really make an impact. This is not the type of game that I have to set aside hours to make a difference.

That said, I think for any game that’s like this we intend it to be a game that constantly gets better over time, that we’re constantly improving and making updates to and evolving. The thing that players look for in these types of games is, who has a great relationship with their community? Who has an open and honest level of transparent communication?

In a games as a service title we’re all gonna make mistakes, who owns it and is honest and forthright and reacts accordingly? Who gives a light at the end of the tunnel for their players, where it feels like the investment they make is worthwhile? And six months later, a year later, 10 years later, the game will still be there and will be better than it was today.

Those are the things I think people look for when they play any of these types of games as a service style games. And we look a lot at games like Path Of Exile and Rainbow Six Siege and Warframe, as a really good model for that.

We can be successful at day one, but if we don’t deliver that constantly afterwards it doesn’t matter. And so we spend a lot of time focusing on how do we make that live experience amazing and how do we make sure our players are a part of that experience with us the entire way.

GC: So, just to finish, the other very modern consideration is that you’ve now got to ensure that every new online game is just as much fun to watch as to play. Which can’t be easy. There’s currently great debate over whether Valorant has achieved that or not, so how do you go about designing for such criteria?

CJ: You know, I’m really glad you asked that. This has been very important to us from the earliest days of development for Crucible. Last week we talked about how we started a partner program where we brought in Twitch streamers and content creators from YouTube, and cosplayers very early in the development process. We really gave them unprecedented access to the game development process with our team. We brought them in and they sat next to us, we did summits where they gave us feedback on the game.

GC: What was the cosplayer telling you?!

CJ: We showed them our entire character lineup in concept art before we actually built the model. And we talked about how would you cosplay this character?

GC: [laughs]

CJ: [laughs] What parts of the costume would be easy to build? What issues are there here from a cosplay standpoint that we should be considerate of? Is there anything about this character that might be a challenge or offensive, that we should be considering? We showed them all our character skins, ’cause that’s a place that cosplayers really love to go to town. And we got a lot of feedback on the skins that we’re going to have in our battle pass in our store. So that was fascinating. [laughs]

The number of different groups that we brought in to give feedback on the game over the years has been really fun, a very wide array of different people in the industry. The streamers in particular though, I think to get back to your root question, we played tournaments internally that we would have them play with us. We would have them come in and play the game and stream to our dev team and we would just hang out and watch the streams and take notes on what worked and what didn’t work.

And that really helped us a lot. We constantly thought about, from the earliest days of developing the game, not just playing the game but watching the game. And we constantly reinforce that to our entire development team, almost subconsciously by putting the watchable version of the game in front of them all the time as well.

We made a lot of design decisions that help with the watchability experience. So, for example, there are no hitscan weapons in Crucible. Every weapon that’s firing, you can see the bullets, you can see where it’s traveling. And so if you’re a viewer, you’re getting the exact same experience that the player who’s playing is. And you can see everything that’s happening in real-time. Where characters are facing in our world is actually a part of the network experience, so you can see where they are facing and that is really where they’re facing in the game and on stream, which is not common in most games.

I think one of the reasons that people watch games on any viewing platform, is they want to learn to increase their own mastery. And so what we’ve tried to do is bring all of the learning into the viewable experience. So you can see the hunter, you can see the hunter they’re fighting against. You can see all of the abilities they’re using and you can understand what they’re doing and learn from that by watching and have everything play out on screen in front of you.

And that’s been really important to us. The telegraphing of things that are gonna happen in the world, like the planetary events that can happen each match that change the rules of the game on the fly. They count down in the top left corner showing you how long until they’re going to happen.

So not only is the player aware they’re coming but we’re also broadcasting that to the viewer and telling them this thing is coming. It’s going to happen in 30 seconds, 10 seconds… here it is! And so as a viewer you’re along for the ride and you have visibility into everything that’s happening in the world.

And our hope is that that plays into a really fantastic, watchable experience where, as a viewer, it’s hopefully as fun to watch as it is to play – or darn close! That was one of the pillars we set out with from the beginning and we tried really hard to bring that into the experience the whole time.

GC: Great, well thanks a lot for your time. I really enjoyed the game too.

CJ: Awesome, thank you. Those were fantastic questions. Thank you. You made me really think for some of those!

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