After eight years of existence, you might expect Amazon Game Studios to have a wealth of game launches under its belt—especially after hiring famed game-industry veterans to lead some of its teams. But the Amazon Game Studios story has mostly been about delays, cancellations, staff turnover, and lukewarm launches.
Hence, the publisher’s first major free-to-play shooter, Crucible, launches tomorrow, May 20, on Windows PCs (Steam) without much of a neatly laid red carpet. After going hands-on with the game in a preview session, I’m honestly not inspired to shake that up or raise anyone’s expectations.
Instead, I’m using Crucible‘s launch as an opportunity to look back at the history of Amazon Game Studios. This division could have been an industry juggernaut in terms of leveraging Amazon’s cash reserves and tech-industry dominance. Instead, it has limped to its current May 2020 state. What has it made? What has it canceled? And what’s up with Crucible?
Sev Zero: More like Sev 6.5
AGS’ first launch in 2012 was reflective of its era: a Facebook “hidden objects” game titled Living Objects. But it arrived at the moment the Facebook gaming bubble popped, complete with Zynga struggling to retain users and Facebook deemphasizing the obnoxious notifications and nags that its biggest games had previously relied on. AGS quietly shifted away from a Facebook gaming push shortly thereafter.
Two years later, the company’s first Fire TV set-top box, priced at $99 and powered by Android, launched with an emphasis on gaming—thus rivaling the likes of that era’s Ouya. But as I wrote back then, AGS’ premiere game for the device’s launch, the 3D tower-defense game Sev Zero, “left the studio’s reputation for uninspired clones intact.” The developer’s other 2014 games—To-Fu Fury and Tales from Deep Space—were Amazon Appstore exclusives that fared even worse.
Around this time, Amazon began a bullish internal push to make its own high-caliber, console-grade games, complete with a quiet hire of two major game developers: Clint Hocking (Far Cry 2) and Kim Swift (Portal). A Fast Company profile from October 2014 included the two developers’ hints of “excitement” about upcoming unannounced projects. But by July 2015, Hocking had left AGS (and declined to comment to Ars Technica at the time). Shortly after that, Swift left AGS to take a role in Amazon’s “broadcaster success” division, including work on the company’s “Twitch Prime” promotion, before she left the company altogether by the end of 2016. AGS’ two game releases in 2015—Lost Within and Til Morning’s Light—were largely developed by outside studios.
AGS then went silent, and Amazon’s push into living rooms pivoted away from game-controller bundles and toward the small size and small price of its Fire Stick line—not to mention a certain line of talking home assistants.
The TwitchCon three (and a racing disaster)
In 2016, AGS emerged at a major Amazon-affiliated, game-obsessed event: TwitchCon 2016. (Amazon had acquired Twitch two years earlier.) One of its newly announced games, Breakaway, was being built by Double Helix, a game studio that Amazon had also acquired in 2014, and it was advertised with heavy Twitch integration. The game resembled the late-1980s/early-’90s TV series American Gladiators, as it revolved around teams attacking each other while controlling and dunking a “relic” on the opponent’s half of the battlefield.
After its 2016 blowout debut and a 2017 closed alpha test, however, Breakaway vanished. It eventually reemerged in 2019 but only in the form of a cancellation—which came after a “hiatus,” so it had likely been dead for some time. Breakaway‘s development team was hit by a round of layoffs later that year—and this came during the massive Electronic Entertainment Expo, no less, perhaps in an attempt to bury the news beneath a bunch of brand-new game reveals.
Crucible was the second of three games revealed during TwitchCon 2016, while the other—the medieval-themed MMO New World—is still apparently marching toward an eventual retail launch—which was originally slated for this month but has since slipped to August 2020. If you’re keeping score, this is separate from the Lord of the Rings-themed MMO that AGS is co-developing with Hong Kong studio Leyou Technologies. There was also the launch of 2019’s Grand Tour-themed racing game, based on the Amazon Video TV series of the same name, but our car-racing guru Jonathan Gitlin chose not to pile onto its disappointing reviews.
Crucible: Yes, it’s an action-MOBA
AGS has since chosen to rebrand its Seattle-area Crucible game studio as Relentless Studios, and the developer confirmed in an interview with Ars Technica that it chose to delay its game’s launch from March until this week in large part due to complications from shifting the studio to a work-from-home environment. (Amazon was among the earliest American tech companies to shift non-distribution personnel to a remote workplace, owing to Seattle’s centrality in the American COVID-19 outbreak.)
Though Crucible was originally teased in 2016 as a battle royale-like game, it has since evolved to a surprising genre in 2020: the “action-MOBA.” It loudly resembles the games-as-a-service likes of Paragon (launched by Epic in 2016, then canceled in 2018) and Battleborn (launched by Gearbox in 2016, then put on “end of life” in 2020). Though objectives vary, the game consistently pits two teams of “hero” characters against each other in a battlefield, where they must capture objectives while amassing “experience points” to level up and get stronger. Those points can be accrued either by killing opponents or destroying weaker, computer-controlled foes (“creeps”) on the battlefield.
In short, action-MOBA games translate the strategic battling of Dota 2 and League of Legends to a boots-on-the-ground perspective and thus emphasize more precise, aiming-based combat. Where Crucible differs largest from the others is in punting the predictable elements of other MOBAs, including regularly spawning creeps and, in some modes, defined objective points. Meaning, you can’t jump into a match and necessarily plan your battling based on known “top, mid, and bottom” lane paths.
Our brief Crucible test earlier this month included the same content launching entirely for free this week: 10 hero characters, all available for free, and three modes of online versus combat. Like many other popular free-to-play online shooters, Crucible’s current monetary model revolves around cosmetics, which players can either buy a la carte or unlock via a paid “battle pass” system.
Over/under on Overwatch?
Our two-hour testing period lacked the thriving online player population and repeat encounters that we’d need to concretely review a game of this sort. It would be foolhardy for me to offer a Dota 2 review after only two hours of play, for example, owing to how its strategies and gameplay evolve with greater understanding of how each character combination might turn out.
But even that assessment alone should be indicative of what to expect. Unlike a free-to-play shooter like Apex Legends, which immediately impressed during its launch week thanks to speed, mechanical depth, and satisfying combat, Crucible lands as a more methodical and less thrilling free-to-play option. For example, you may see the colorful cast and compare these characters to Blizzard’s Overwatch, whose cast shines with distinctive, butt-kicking superpowers. Crucible doesn’t quite have these. The audiovisual and damage impact for guns, lasers, and traps feels pretty weak—an intentional move to increase the “time to kill” metric and thus require more teamwork to take down foes. And characters don’t come equipped with tide-turning “ultimate” superpowers, the kinds that take minutes to recharge in other games.
Relentless chose not to add ultimate moves to Crucible because they were concerned such powers would wreak havoc on the balance of the game’s optional battle royale mode—which pits eight teams of two against each other. But this is the mode that members of the press got the least time to try out, and in my sole test, my duo—two of the standard-issue machine-gun bearers—chewed through the competition in seemingly imbalanced fashion. Other duos’ wackier boosts, speed-minded moves, and special buffs didn’t stand a chance against boring, generic firepower.
Meanwhile, Crucible’s standard objective-based modes were tough to make sense of on the fly, owing in part to a painfully generic default arena. The low-poly fantasy-forest world, and its repeating geometry and blue-green-purple aesthetic, blurred together in my two hours of play with little in the way of obvious landmarks to call out. A few more hours with the game could help to that aim, but an action MOBA lives and dies by players’ abilities to shout out landmarks and regroup accordingly—and that goes doubly for Crucible. Damage and health boosts sometimes emerge randomly on the map, and their team-wide effects can give a losing team a good reason to change up strategies and head to a different end of the map.
And that’s not even counting the technical difficulties I faced in my test, particularly a nasty four-second delay every time I pressed a button to keep at the game’s map overlay. Whether Crucible’s bugs will be polished in time for tomorrow’s launch remains to be seen.
Fingers crossed that we’re wrong
Though Relentless advertised its plans to roll out regular content updates over time, including new heroes and modes, its pronouncements about the game lacked anything in the way of convincing bullet points about how this game is special or stands out. The heroes are pretty boilerplate, and their abilities—teleporting, going invisible, laying down waves of damage, blinding foes, etc., etc.—feel like they’ve been randomly ripped from solid games that have come before. Some sort of plot hovers over all of this battling, but nothing in the single arena I fought in or the voiced chatter shared between characters during a match grabbed me with a sense of unified purpose.
I’d love for this article to age poorly, because I got glimmers of Relentless’ subtle sales pitch through the successes and failures of my rounds of combat. A unified four-person squad gets quite a few strategic options as they romp through a 15-minute Crucible battle, and I’m a fan of that strategic depth paired with a streamlined, action-focused twist on standard MOBAs. The team also has interesting ideas about “damage over time” as a constant factor: nearly every time you take damage, you get a brief window to stem the bleeding (or a clear “only five seconds left” to lash out one last time before dying and waiting for a respawn).
But that kind of good-news story is going to require dedication on AGS’ part—to continue supporting this game as players discover it, share it, and offer their feedback. And if massive, established studios like Epic and Gearbox couldn’t do that for their action-MOBA attempts, I have to wonder how AGS’ lesser track record will hold up in comparison.