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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Respawn’s 'Apex Legends' Is Just Getting Started

The minds at Respawn Entertainment are wizards when it comes to the action-adventure genre. Twenty-fourteen’s Titanfall and its criminally underrated followup, 2016’s Titanfall 2, challenged traditional boots-on-the-ground shooters with a heightened sense of scale and verticality, while the more recent Jedi: Fallen Order etched itself as one of the greatest Star Wars narratives told in any medium. The Los Angeles studio’s fixation with exoskeletons, Blade Runner, and visuals that bleed Wachowski and Masamune Shirow’s Ghost In The Shell is nothing new, but they are intertwined with world-building to create headier pockets of science fiction bliss.

The perfect case study of all of this being Apex Legends.

The free-to-play shooter set in the Titanfall universe first launched in February 2019. No media previews. No marketing campaigns. No extended gameplay reveals that cringe out with comms from Chad and the rest of the QA team. Instead, the tiniest leak via Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek led to more hearsay, an unexpected cinematic trailer, and a count of 1 million players in the first eight hours and over 50 million in its first month. And all while relying on microtransactions and the sales of cosmetic items to secure a profit in the same fiscal quarter as The Division 2, Metro Exodus, and BioWare’s Anthem—which launched into early access just 11 days later.

Despite its ties to in-game monetization, Apex found success through its “fun factor.” It flipped the battle-royale genre on its head—melding together the highs of Fortnite, PUBG, Overwatch, Rainbow Six Siege, and Call Of Duty: Blackout (Black Ops 4) to fastball up a hero FPS that thrives on movement and adrenaline. While PlayerUnknown and Epic Games abided by an enthusiasm to copy and paste, Respawn separated itself from its competition by being the first major studio to become fully invested in a free-to-play project of this scope.

All because of a willingness to challenge conformism. In the 25 months since the surprise release of Apex Legends, the team has added eight new characters, six new weapons, two full-sized maps (Olympus, World’s Edge), a ranked-play mode, a Nintendo Switch port, evo shields, crafting stations, social clubs, skydive emotes, gun charms, heirlooms, and over a dozen themed events and collections with their own limited-time modes and cosmetics. The ping system and redeploy beacons have become, and still are, staples of the FPS genre that other developers (like Activision Blizzard, developers of Overwatch) are eager to bring to their own games, and while Respawn's new methods aren’t always practical from the start (see “heat shields”), they’re consistently rewiring the importance of team communication.

But similar to most AAA shooters in the casual-gone-competitive space, Apex Legends fell into a sophomore slump last year. The blinding anticipation for Season 4: Assimilation and its daddy of a killing machine (the then-new playable legend, Revenant) was met with a lukewarm reception, and despite the addition of permanent gear fixes and a higher tier in ranked play, the errors grew in numbers. The servers started crashing. Bugs presented new daily challenges. Skull Town (RIP) was replaced with an offshore rig. Loba mains were down bad (online and offline). Rare cosmetics started receiving limited color ways priced at $17.99. Pathfinder got the Disney Vault treatment. Halloween 2020 was a bust. And for every hacker and death by no audio, there was a rush of toxicity that forced pros and content creators to reevaluate a community that was seemingly falling apart.

And the worst part is it all transpired during a global pandemic.

Yet even with the effects of COVID-19 and viewership numbers that had plateaued since July 2020, Respawn remained committed to a teaser from a previous live event that noted: “All roads lead to Branthium.” With the help of a new offshoot studio located in Vancouver, the team adapted. They recorded voiceovers and facial recognition in closet spaces. transformed ordinary garages into performance capture studios, and collaborated with the Mill to turn unfinished, in-house productions like “Fight Night” into hand-animated featurettes that deserve an Oscar nom. The end result being Season 7: Ascension, a substantial November update that introduced a new legend (Horizon), new Trident hovercrafts, and Olympus—a kaleidoscopic playground laced with gorgeous fauna and chic minimalism reminiscent of Titanfall 2's multiplayer map, Glitch.

“We were actually at the mocap stage when the world caught on fire,” noted principal animator Moy Parra in an interview with IGN’s Stella Chung in December. “We started to rethink a few things in terms of how much we can afford to hand key stuff and how much we can allocate for … but we got a good tip from Vancouver who were using this new tech. It’s a suit you can put on and set up in your home where you can do motion capture from basically your living room. And that is literally what we did. Our animation lead Shawn volunteered to be a space monkey on this and he suited up and we joined a Zoom call, and it was just kind of mind-blowing to be able to do mocap from someone’s backyard.”

Despite their limitations at home, the Respawn team endured and found ways to improve. They gave their security analyst “Hideouts” (fka Conor Ford) a bigger ban hammer, opted to be more transparent about new map rotations and their ever-evolving character meta, and partially dedicated their work-from-home routines to improving accessibility with a damage tracker and adjustments to airdrop clarity, colorblind rules, and in-game challenges. In the weeks leading to Black History Month, the teams even designed a Black Lives Matter badge to raise awareness about why we must always stand in solidarity in “the fight against racism and social injustice.”

One of Apex Legends’ greatest attributes is that it remains a voice for inclusion and social equality. In a subgenre that is stereotypically predominated by Alpha Sigmas and Halo 3: ODST fans, a majority of the cast were conceptualized with representation in mind and the idea that diversity unlocks entirely new ways of thinking. There’s the nonbinary tracker with no canonical gender (Bloodhound); the LGBTQ+ “brickhouse” of Maori descent (Gibraltar); the Korean recon specialist who was raised in foster care in the city of Suotamo (Crypto); the Latino paraplegic who blew his legs off with a grenade during a Gauntlet run (Octane); and the French engineering genius who is proud of being on the autism spectrum (Wattson). Not to mention the ex-soldier for the IMC Armed Forces (Bangalore) and the combat medic who is fluent in Jamaican creole (Lifeline), two dignified Black women who—unlike other minorities in beloved series such as Black Ops and Modern Warfare—are not individually defined by the color of their skin.

That sort of commitment to inclusivity isn’t going away either. With Apex Legends finally being a cheat sheet on “how to run a successful live service game,” Respawn has shifted its attention to the future with an intent to create a digital avenue where artists, streamers, and viewers can actually express themselves. Whether it’s through the perpetual bullet storm known as the Apex Legends Global Series and its hyper-competitive esports circuit or via experiential partnerships such as LuluLuvely’s Lulu Throwdown, Dazs“Best Fuse Guide,” and Daltoosh and NiceWigg’s ALGS Playoffs Watch Party. All of which contributed to weekly increases in average viewership on Twitch and a recent peak of 208,798 viewers during the Winter Circuit Playoffs (March 28).

And for what it’s worth, pour one out for the everyday streamers. Creators such as ImperialHal, Rogue, Albralelie, knoqd, Mande, Janey, Ninjayla, zachmazer, and claraatwork all share one common goal: to entertain and educate. Their uploads and livestreams are continuous highlight reels, and behind every toe-curling “wall bounce to no scope” is a pep talk, an honest debate on Apex and its current state, or a more personal conversation about mental health, separation anxiety, and pushing aside self esteem issues to become something greater.

In other words, Apex Legends is in a comfortable spot. There is still a lot that it can achieve to improve the ecosystem that Respawn built—like outsourcing community designs, revamping the entire item store, inserting older versions of maps into weekend LTEs (limited-time events), and using a ranked split to improve server health and find a competent wingman for “Hideouts”—but it’s all a matter of time. As 2020 indicated, video games require more patience than we think, partially due to limited resources and the glaring reality that creative visionaries spend every waking hour of their existence in pre-production. Luckily for science fiction heads and anyone reading this, the teasers have already begun for Apex’s ninth season (coming May 4), and as Respawn stated at the beginning of the year: “You’re going to see some major things that you did not expect.”

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