“We’re never doing this again.” It’s comments like this that lead us to believe that Respawn Entertainment understands that it has made a miscalculation. It has made a mistake, but there’s no turning back from it now – all the studio can do at this stage is own it. Because maybe – just maybe – deciding to launch a brand new, AAA quality, free-to-play battle royale game just hours out from the moment it began teasing it wasn’t the wisest of decisions. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it Drew McCoy? “We’re never doing this again,” Apex Legends’ project lead tells us, wearily; Making video games is a tricky business and Respawn just discovered a way to make it a hell of a lot more difficult. “We’re trying to cram together what is essentially an E3-style reveal with the launch day.”
Apex Legends review: "An immaculate battle royale that should only get better"
Put the cork back in the champagne bottle, folks! There will come a time for McCoy to celebrate a successful launch, but right now all he wants is some sleep. The team over at Respawn is acutely aware of how much work it has pulled upon its own shoulders with this ambitious roll-out plan – with Apex Legends as a concept – but McCoy isn’t after your sympathy. In fact, he’s quick to acknowledge that this is actually a chaotic situation of his own design. “I'm the idiot who came with up with this, but I'm still there saying, ‘what idiot came up with this? This is terrible!’ It’s been really difficult...”,
It may have been difficult, but it’s clear that a lot of this self-imposed stress has ultimately been drawn from a good place. Respawn doesn’t want to betray the trust that the players have put into the studio over the past eight years. It has worked far too hard to let that happen. “It's been really difficult but, honestly, it's because we know this game has a sceptical audience.”
Welcome To Apex Legends
Respawn has just unleashed Apex Legends for PC, PS4 and Xbox One – if you aren’t downloading it while you’re reading this feature then you’re doing it all wrong. Apex Legends is a fantastic free-to-play battle royale set in the Titanfall universe, albeit one without many of the touchstones that helped define the core experience in a generation heavy with first-person shooters. First, the bad news: The Titans are out of the game, as too is the weaponised wall-running that once helped Respawn carve out a place for itself in the market. The good news: It’s bloody awesome, with Titanfall’s weighty weapon handling and expressive movement only helping to give Apex Legends an edge over its most immediate competition.
If it sounds like a property that is purpose-built to invite scepticism upon itself then you may be partially correct. Then again, Respawn has dealt with its fair share of sceptics over the years and always come out on top. This is, after all, the studio that rose out of the ashes of Infinity Ward; at its heart, the core team that helped usher in the defining first-person shooter experience of the modern era, Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Cast your mind back, and you may remember that expectation and scepticism couldn’t have been any higher as Respawn worked towards the release of Titanfall in 2014.
Oh, Titanfall. Did you play it? It was this little online-only Microsoft exclusive, built on Valve’s ageing Source engine, that sought to paint the David and Goliath fable across a frenetic sci-fi shooter canvas. It pitted delicate, dancing Pilots against powerful, porcelain Titans; the results were spellbinding. Just two years later, Respawn returned with a sequel and the determination to redefine the FPS landscape all over again as Titanfall shook off the shackles of platform exclusivity. While the multiplayer may have offered just minimal quality of life improvements (not that you’ll find us complaining), the studio did, arguably, deliver the most engaging single-player campaign since Half-Life 2. This is Respawn Entertainment, a studio that feels as if it has been purpose built to answer the baying barks of sceptics with phenomenal energy and impassioned execution.
That all said, Respawn is anticipating a level of scepticism that it is far beyond anything it has experienced in the past. “It's not Titanfall 3, which everyone assumes we're making,” McCoy tells us, although he’s keen to note that fighting back against rampant speculation isn’t the only challenge the team is facing with Legends. “We got bought by EA and we're making a free-to-play game with, essentially, loot boxes. It's all our choice, but the optics of it are challenging.”
It’s all about communication
Look, he isn’t wrong on that front. EA is still fighting back against a tide of toxicity following the much-maligned launches of Star Wars Battlefront 2, Battlefield 5, FIFA 19, C&C Rivals and countless others over just the last few years alone. Put ‘EA’ and ‘loot boxes’ together in the same breath and be still – if you listen closely enough you’ll be able to hear the sound of the outrage machine whirring into action on Twitter Dot Com like a whining whisper on the wind.
Respawn’s plan to combat such rampant negativity? “Our goal for this game is to be open and transparent with our users,” McCoy tells us. He’s quick to note, however, that while this simultaneous launch and reveal may have been tough to pull off, it is ultimately the best way for Respawn to overcome some of the initial grievances and hand-wringing it had anticipated it would encounter. “There's no better way to reduce scepticism than to say, ‘just play it.’”
That’s the reason that you can play Apex Legends – the full release – right this second. Respawn ultimately steered clear of dropping Legends into Early Access because Respawn isn’t interested in making excuses for any of its games – it wants the quality of Apex Legends to speak for itself. “We did have plans to do Early Access last year, but we don't want excuses for why the game isn't doing well – we don't want to have to try and fight that battle,” he continues, adding, “So, here it is; this a proper triple-A game and it's free-to-play. No excuses – just go and play it.”
McCoy tells us that Respawn went into the development of Apex Legends with an open mind and he hopes that players will do the same as they begin to get their hands on it today. This is, after all, a brand new adventure for the studio. “We’ve never built a game like this before,” he admits, but then that’s all a part of the allure of it. The studio knows how the community at large feels about loot boxes, particularly those orchestrated by EA, and it knows how players will feel about yet another battle royale joining the fray, but this isn’t your standard genre game – it’s a battle royale crafted by Respawn. This is uncharted territory for the studio and that’s exciting in and of itself.
Legends is built around squad play, with 20 teams of three dropping down onto one tightly designed and heavily playtested map, battling it out over a smattering of gear and territory in an ever-condensing survivable space. If that’s fairly standard for the genre, its characters are anything but. Each of them are individual creations, personable characters with their own abilities, animations and voice actors – not unlike the heroes you’d expect to find in Overwatch or the Specialists you may have encountered in Black Ops 4.
It’s in these characters, the way they are balanced, and the way they are sold on the marketplace, where Apex Legends will likely live and die in the minds of many would be players. It’s for this exact reason that Respawn “started with the goal of having the fairest systems possible” when designing its free-to-play systems, drawing from a variety of resources and industry examples as it sought to establish its own.
Treating players with respect
“In every aspect, we've asked ourselves, ‘can we legitimately look at ourselves in the mirror and say we're doing the right thing here?’ That may mean that we're leaving money on the table, and that's OK,” he says, adding. “We can't leave all the money on the table, but we're not trying to make $10 billion – we're trying to cultivate a huge and ravenous fan base, and we're going to do that by treating our players with respect.”
“There have been a lot of other games that have done systems well before us, so there are some well-trodden paths for us to investigate and look at,” McCoy adds, noting that the slew of battle royale games on the market aren’t necessarily where the team looked for inspiration. In fact, Respawn looked towards one of the biggest multiplayer success stories of the generation – Rainbow Six Siege and its handling of new Operators – as it tried to figure out the particulars of the free-to-play marketplace it was attempting to build. “A good example would be in the purchasing of characters,” McCoy continues, confirming individual characters will cost $7.50. “The price point is identical to Rainbow Six Siege, and that's a $60 game. They're the same price as in a paid-for game, but we're a free game.”
One thing McCoy is keen to stress is that Respawn has poured a hell of a lot of time into game balance between the characters – the last thing the studio wants is to create an environment that resembles anything close to pay-to-win. “For the sceptics of the world, [purchasing characters] will immediately fire the alarm bell of 'pay for power.’ But we care a tremendous amount about character balance… and you can also earn all of them [in-game], you don't have to buy them,” he says, noting that all additional, playable characters can also be purchased through the accrual of an in-game currency – amassed through the natural course of play – should you be generally opposed to paying for new content.
Game balance as a focus
One of the things that struck us during our time with Apex Legends ahead of launch was how impeccable the game balance between characters was, not to mention how tightly constructed the map appeared to be. It retains the spirit of a classic Titanfall map, complete with long lines-of-sight, extreme verticality and a variety of movement enabling devices such as zip lines connecting points of interest on the map. Playtesting this environment, Outlands as you’ll soon come to know it, has, however, been anything but easy. “The map is so big that the level designer on it needs to play for a week before he can feel if his changes are good. Whereas before he could play a smaller map for an hour and tell us what's good and bad about it. So all the aspects of development have been challenging.”
To try and combat this, Respawn has had an entire QA team in Baton Rouge working diligently to iron out the kinks, not only on the design and polish of the sole map but in the balance of the varying characters too. “Oh, it's really difficult, it has been a challenge,” McCoy tells us as we openly ponder the nightmare it must have been to get these characters feeling distinct yet equally balanced. “We've always playtested a lot – even back on Call of Duty – but we're up to about two or three hours of playtesting a day now. It's been an enormous development cost because that many players is hard to get into matches, so we have an entire QA team in Baton Rouge who just joins us for bodies. It reduces development time because we're playtesting more, but it's necessary. We need to feel it, we need to be in it.”
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The result of that, well, you’ll be able to experience it for yourself soon enough. What McCoy is keen to stress, however, is just how much time, effort and energy into ensuring that each of these characters, the Legends, are more than a set of mechanics but actual heroes that work to particular playstyles that support their own personalities. “We don't just think of our characters as a set of mechanics, we think of them as a player type. But not just 'that's an aggressive player,' but... with Caustic, it's what about the player who wants to be the monster in the fog who sets traps for his prey. So it's not just the mechanic, it's what's the mindset of that player? What's going to feel good to them? So his deliciously evil personality and his vocal lines all come together to try and appeal to that player type.”
That process, we’re told, hasn’t been easy – because why would Respawn make anything easy for itself. “They've all been getting constantly iterated on and polished until the very last minute – that’s when I have to pry people off their computers,” laughs McCoy. “Gibraltar was the earliest [to come together]. He's pretty simplistic from a mechanics point of view, but his personality was figured out first – he was the first to get modelled and animated.”
“Truth be told,” McCoy continues, “none of the characters had the green checkbox next to them as ‘Done!’ until really recently. Even Gibraltar, who we've been playing with for over a year; it's because we had to do all their cosmetics, we had to get all their facial animation in, all their banner card poses... Saying it's a character game does not really tell you everything that goes into making that character.”
Preparing for launch
Respawn is now waiting to see whether all of its hard work is going to pay off. We get the sense that Respawn believes that its attempts to pack an E3 style reveal in with a simultaneous launch is more trouble than it’s worth but, ultimately, it’s an important first step towards building a relationship with the community that it hopes will form around this game.
It knows that this is the first step too. We asked McCoy whether Respawn has been watching other live service games – Fortnite, PUBG, and Destiny 2 – and been noting the ways in which these games have succeeded and failed in their attempts to keep each of their communities satisfied. He assures us that Respawn has been paying close attention as it developed Apex Legends, and the studio is ready to do the work necessary to build a healthy and respectful community around its latest project. “I think being aware and communicative is kind of the cure-all for a lot of that stuff; Toxicity is a big problem in games, but I try to look at it with a very positive attitude,” McCoy tells us. “It's not negative at its core, it's usually coming from a place of passion and excitement and energy – it is misdirected because it's given power. You strip it of its power if you're honest and you bring people along on the journey with you. I hope we do it well, but that's our goal.”
So, what now? Respawn is currently holed up in a command centre of sorts. It’s preparing for the influx of players that are about to crash against its servers and apply a level of scrutiny to its map, characters, and balance that it could never hope to do – no amount of playtesting can prepare a studio for the launch of a live service game, let alone one that’s free to play with the weight of one of the most revered developers and largest publishers behind it. But Respawn is ready – at least it thinks it is. The core of the tech powering Apex Legends – as well as the servers and matchmaking toolsets behind the scenes – is the same of that behind Titanfall 2, so the studio is confident that this launch will go as smoothly as its others. And if it doesn’t, it’ll see it all from its command centre, where Respawn will be watching and waiting to see if its huge free-to-play, battle royale gamble will ultimately pay off.
“We have two rooms set up. A big room, with ten TVs, giant screens and a projector so we can watch all the graphs, watch people playing the game, watching the streamers, and making sure all our services are good. Then we've got a smaller room for if there are problems, and that's just engineers,” McCoy tells us, before then detailing some of the lengths Respawn has gone to in an effort to get services running smoothly from the moment it hits that fabled ‘Launch’ button. “We've load tested significantly – for millions of players – but we have no idea who is going to show up. It could be a thousand people or it could be a million, we just don't know... but we've prepared for the best and worst.”
Of course they have; not that we would ever expect anything less from a studio as dedicated and passionate as Respawn. Will Apex Legends be worth all of the trouble? You can answer that question for yourself right now – it's available to download for free on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
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