The quick rise, and quicker fall, of Amazon's Crucible

Crucible didn't really make an impact. Provided by Amazon

On May 20, Amazon Game Studios released Crucible, a free-to-play shooting game that mixed elements of other popular gaming titles, set on an alien planet filled with a colorful ensemble cast of intergalactic fighters. Amazon, owners of the most popular streaming website in the west, Twitch, went all-out on Crucible's opening day to make it special, some of the platform's biggest personalities such as Timothy "TimTheTatman" John Betar and Saqib "Lirik" Zahid playing the game on its full release.

Crucible's "First Look" feature of the game amassed over 1 million views on YouTube prior to release. With the promotion of the game on various social media sites and top names playing it on stream, the game peaked at over 120,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch. On Steam, over 10,000 players downloaded and were logged into the game, exploring a world that was carefully crafted and built over a long five-year development period.

A little over two months later, Crucible has an average of fewer than 10 viewers on Twitch, a ghost town where there is often not a single person streaming the game. The same streamers who played it on release day have all but forgotten their few hours playing the game, the only memories of the game left somewhere in their bank account. What began as thousands playing Crucible has dwindled to a handful of still loyal players, the number dropping so low that Amazon had to announce its pulling of the game from the open market and relegating it to closed beta in hopes of revitalizing the game before re-releasing it.

What happened to the game with a supergiant behind it? The company's head honcho, Jeff Bezos, has seen his net worth skyrocket during the current global pandemic, earning billions as Amazon's stocks continue to rise. How did a game with such a backing fail in the blink of an eye, one day with a myriad of positive articles and promotion surrounding it and the next it seemingly forgotten by the general gaming public?

I talked to multiple players, including testers for the game in its early development, to find out how in a two-month period Crucible went from release to cratering down to Earth.

When we talk about Amazon's Crucible, it actually isn't Amazon's Crucible

On the surface, a game under the umbrella of the Bezos empire falling apart so quickly doesn't make much sense. When peeling back the inner workings of Crucible, however, it's easy to see how window dressing masked the complications swelling inside.

While under the Amazon Studios name, the game is created by Relentless Studios under Amazon's banner, a small and shrewd team given the herculean task of bringing Crucible to life. When the game was first being developed and announced during TwitchCon in 2016, the game had only one game mode, Alpha Hunters, which was being tested by the players given early access to the game.

"I heard about Crucible when testing another Amazon title, Breakaway, back in 2016, and did a few pre-alpha tests for Crucible in 2017," Kason "Kalo" Padilla, 23, told ESPN. "At the time it was just the battle royale mode "Alpha Hunters," and while I thought the concept pushed the battle royale genre to new places well, it suffered from poor performance and what felt like clunk from the game's engine, Lumberyard, something that didn't surprise me because Breakaway suffered similarly."

On the outside Crucible might have appeared to be Ferrari, but the engine running the car was anything but, a ragtag, taped-together product with fancy wallpaper.

Wait, where's the chat?

In multi-player games, especially shooting games, voice chat is almost a necessity to coordinate plays and synergize to the highest level. Crucible, looking to buck trends and trail blaze its own path to glory, wanted to try something different in the space. They decided against having a voice chat in their game, believing that if they created an in-game ping system good enough for players to communicate that it could do away with the need of a voice chat, infamous in other games for promoting toxicity.

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They didn't just decide against not having a voice chat, though. The developers decided against a chat system entirely in favor of a ping system. That meant Crucible released without even a text chat function, leaving players who wanted to communicate either needing to use third-party sources to talk or learn how to create virtual smoke signals in-game through the ping system. It was a novel idea that in theory discussed in a boardroom might have sounded like an innovative idea that could make a healthier gaming experience, but like most things with Crucible, it fell on its face when put into action.

"Most player-to-play games on launch have [a chat] feature," Daniel "Jebro" Littleton said, a full-time Twitch streamer and clinical mental health counselor graduate in training. "I'm a strong advocate for mental health, and voice/text chat breeds that behavior. But I realize the strong need for communication. It was clear that after alpha, with new players, communication beyond a ping and [communications] wheel was needed. I feel here again they wanted to attempt something unique, building communities on Discord, including their own. Having rooms of players interacting, but this of course doesn't transfer well to the new player experience."

A grand debut doesn't always mean an overall success

May 20 was the big day for the Crucible development team. It had some semi-positive written reviews about it, and maybe even most importantly, the game had over 100,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch, something only a few games achieve regularly. As part of the Amazon family, Crucible was not only meant to be featured on the platform for its launch day but be a prominent feature on the streaming website.

The game's developers even admitted that they made design choices for the game with Twitch and a possible esport future in mind, wanting it to be as spectator-friendly as possible. The problem was when those big-name streamers first downloaded and booted up Crucible for the first time on stream, presenting it to thousands, they had no idea what they were doing. Unlike other games such as VALORANT from Riot Games where streamers and influencers were able to test the game and learn how to play with it before ultimately deciding if they wanted to showcase the game to their fans, the Twitch streamers playing Crucible came in cold.

This resulted in many of the streamers not really having a good understanding of what they were playing, the lack of a strong tutorial leaving the players befuddled at what they were actually accomplishing outside of running around with a gun, aimlessly shooting at what they believed to be enemies. "On launch day, I had a bit of a mixed reaction with some of the bigger streamers getting their hands on the game for advertisement reasons," Eric "Emperic" Medeiros, a competitive gamer who first played Crucible in 2017, told ESPN about the game's release. "I think with the lack of playtime and not a great understanding of Crucible kind of set a different attitude than what I wish it did with streamers. Unfortunately, the launch state of Crucible wasn't great, for lack of a better term, and I do think because of that it turned some viewers, and even streamers away."

Though the numbers looked impressive for Crucible, it was all a facade of sorts. The viewers watching their favorite streamer knew they weren't enjoying the experience, fumbling around with the controls and navigating the game as if they had an hourglass counting down to when they could stop playing the game for the first and final time. There were some organic enjoyment created from Crucible's launch, but almost none of it came from the top streamers showcasing the game; the vast majority watched the biggest names on Twitch grimace through their experience as if they were doing a household chore for their weekly allowance.

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"There was a real focus on creators that wouldn't be, in all honesty, very conducive to building a community," Littleton said. "We saw the tweets of the bags and goodies creators received, yet they played for one stream and weren't interested anymore. This unfortunately is just part and parcel of Twitch and creator culture. Everyone wants a piece of the pie, and its always been that way. Day one, sponsored streams, massive intake of viewership. We see it every day on Twitch. I feel they have a real opportunity to do something unique, especially with Amazon behind them. I don't feel like this is about making a game that makes a ton of money. It's about putting Amazon on the map, making a quality product. I believe Crucible has a great chance of doing that."

Jack of (some) trades, master of (absolutely) none

From talking to players of the game on why the game plummeted it the way it did -- aside from the obvious like, you know, a way of chatting with people inside the game or a simple minimap -- the common answer was that the developers didn't really know what they wanted Crucible to be. It wanted to be everything to everyone. It wanted to appeal to the Twitch audience. It wanted to be something casuals could play along with the esports-focused crowd that loves competitive over also else. Crucible was a game that took bits and pieces of other popular gaming titles to create a Frankenstein of a game, where there were small parts everyone could enjoy but an overall product that only a select few could truly love.

This was apparent by the development team's ambitious decision to launch the game with three different game modes, each hoping to reel in a different kind of player looking for their favorite gaming experience. There was Alpha Hunters, the most traditional game mode, that would attract fans of straightforward battle royale games like Fortnite or Apex Legends, where the goal is simple -- along with your teammate, be the last surviving team on the map in an all-out fight to the death. If that wasn't what you were fancying, they had Heart of the Hives, where the game took on more of a boss battle scenario you might see in a roleplaying game where two teams of four raced against each other to take down gigantic alien opponents shaped like mushrooms. Oh, so you're not looking for a battle royale game or a generic boss battle fight? How about Harvester Command, where two teams of eight try to control objective points like it's a sci-fi version of Call of Duty?

It was a smorgasbord of game modes, with each having its own charm but none being executed to perfection. The three game modes were a microcosm of the overarching issue of the game trying to go a million different directions without really knowing, at its core, what the game was supposed to be and who it was actually for. So, as the numbers began to dwindle and the Twitch numbers vanished overnight with only the diehards still promoting the game, the development team announced only three weeks following the game's release that they would be removing two of the game modes to focus on Heart of the Hives, the most popular of the trio in hopes of salvaging Crucible as a whole.

Another three weeks after proclaiming their focus on Heart of the Hives, the development team revealed the game was being removed from the public and moving into closed beta.

The future (or lack thereof) of Crucible

As we sit now, Crucible is in its closed beta phase and the numbers have only continued to nosedive. While there is still a niche community that supports the game, Crucible now sits in an awkward limbo where regardless of how much the hard-working development team works in making the game better, their first impression has already been set. It's hard enough to gain a player base in a cutthroat video game market, but add on that the general public has already seen the game flop, it's even tougher to imagine Crucible overcoming its botched entrance to recover.

"Frankly, I don't think it was the developers who made the decision to launch the game," Padilla said. "Whatever corporate suit pushed them to get it out there so quickly simply doesn't understand how game development should work. It's those kinds of studio-corporate disconnects that the public doesn't get to be clued into."

The gaming world moves fast. Since Crucible's release and unrelease, similar shooting games trying to grab a piece of the pie have had similar ideas about using Twitch to breach the market, such as Rogue Company, Rocket Arena and Ubisoft's Hyper Scape. As Crucible attempts to rebuild what they had already spent half a decade working on, rival companies will release their attempt at being the next Fortnite or League of Legends, an endless line of hopeful innovators thinking that they have the right formula to cause a paradigm shift in video games.

The road of every Fortnite-level success is lined with the corpses of games like Crucible.

One in a million will succeed, breaking the mold and captivating the globe, turning the lucky winning company into a billion-dollar corporation. The others, as it is likely with Crucible, will become artifacts of the past, footnotes in history brought up only in simple passing when discussing zealous projects that ultimately were deemed failures.