Today Respawn revealed and released its foray into battle royale, Apex Legends, a game set 30 years after Titanfall 2. We played hours of the game behind closed doors and chatted with Respawn executive producer Drew McCoy about Legends’ development and combatting free-to-play skepticism. We also talked about Respawn’s company culture under EA and what we can expect from the Apex Legends and the Titanfall universe in the months ahead.
How long have you guys been working on Apex Legends?
Since the spring of 2017.
Why the surprise release?
Our goal for this game and our community is to be very transparent with them. To be completely honest, we know this game has skepticism around it. It’s not Titanfall 3. It’s a very different game than everyone excepted. It’s battle royale, which for some people is a fad right now. Instead of trying to convince a skeptical audience over a period of time with marketing and interviews, why not just let the game speak for itself? The best antidote for any skepticism is to see and hopefully believe.
How do you respond to players who say that EA is making you put loot boxes in your game or forcing you to be trend chasers?
The response is play the game, check it out, and form your own opinion. But also, we decided to make this game. Not to be throwing EA under the bus, but this wasn’t the game they were expecting. I had to go to executives, show it to them, and explain it and…not convince but more, “Hey, trust us! This is the thing you want out of us.”
As a corporation, they can only quantify based on past data and they’ve never done anything like this before. There’s a giant rainbow question mark over revenue projections for this game. They’re like, “We don’t know! We can’t predict.” This is a game where we had to say, “This is what we want to do. Help us get there.”
They had no hand in development or anything about this game.
One of the goals for Apex Legends is to flesh out Titanfall’s universe. Just how much are you fleshing it out within the context of this game?
We have at least a year in plans right now for development. Like I said, we’re going to be doing both in-game and out of game [storytelling]. Not that I think we could match them in any stretch of the imagination since they have a lot of experience in doing it, but the Overwatch CG videos are a good example of storytelling and deepening of the world outside of the game. For us, it’s the start of telling more stories in this world. There’s a lot we’re going to do with it. Apex Legends is a battle royale game but that’s the start.
I think a lot of players are going to greet the news that there are no titans in Apex Legends with surprise. Can you talk about that decision a little bit?
We started with the base of Titanfall 2, so the very first prototypes were Titanfall pilots and titans coming in and stuff. But when we sat down to figure out the goals for this game from a design and mechanical standpoint, it was really simple. We wanted a masterful, deep, and strategic team game. That’s the lens for which we were looking through for all the things [in Apex Legends] we were making. Stuff like pilot mobility and wall-running, double-jumping ended up being incomprehensible, which made it not strategic or learnable. It’s really fun when you’re the one doing it but when you die to someone who’s going a thousand miles a minute and you didn’t see them, that’s not a learnable moment. You can’t master that. That’s someone else affecting you and you have no control over, so that’s why that stuff got cut.
As for the titans themselves, they were just an incredibly unbalancing force on the game. We tried a thousand iterations on them and that really speaks to what Titanfall and Titanfall 2 were trying to do. They were just power fantasies where you get to power up and stomp around and squish guys and go back to being a pilot — and those are just sort of opposed goals to this game. Just because it’s cool in that game and they’re both in the same universe doesn’t mean that element fits here. When we were prototyping it all, we tried a bunch of versions where the titans were weaker or harder to get or there’s only one on the map. The problem with that is once you get them balance and they’re not destroying the integrity of the of game, they’re no fun. You don’t get that power fantasy. You’re driving around in a papier-mâché titan. What’s the point of that? That was actually a really big contentious point of development early on. We try not to be beholden to any preconceived notions about what we should be making. We let ourselves find the fun and that’s where a lot of our decisions come from.
How long did it take to develop the characters you can play as in Apex Legends?
We’ve been playing with these guys for about a year and a half now in various forms. We playtest every day for an hour or two, which is a huge time investment. That’s an hour or two across a hundred people — you could be developing during that time. However, playtesting is probably the most important part of development. It’s crucial. The reality is that we didn’t just say, “These are the eight characters we want. This is them.” We prototyped two dozen or something. Sometimes this character was broken in one way but their ability was really cool so we’d put it with another character [and so on]. This is all before we had character names or personalities or even visuals. It’s just figuring it out, basically.
We’ve got incredibly talented designers who can think about the game in terms of player mentalities so it’s not just “is this mechanic cool?” But it starts before that, with the mentality of a player who wants to be like…a monster in the fog. That’s where [the character] Caustic comes from. It doesn’t just have an impact on their abilities but also on their personality and their voice actor and the dialogue we write for them and all these things because it’s the mindset of, “I want to be the scary guy setting traps.” So that character is not just a villain. He’s deliciously evil.
That’s where a lot of it comes from. It’s not from any one department or person. These characters are the star of the show and we treat them the way we would treat a Titanfall 2 single-player level. They get that much effort and care and iteration from all the departments from within the team.
Apex Legends is team-focused. Other battle royale games have solo modes for those who want to test their mettle alone against other players. Does the team have any plans for modes that cater to that sort of solo experience?
A while back we nailed down that we wanted this to be a team game. We’ve actually struggled with that internally because we have a lot of people in the office who have played hundreds of hours in PUBG, Fornite, and Blackout and they never play in parties. And yeah, I mean, we have to make choices to go deep, and if you’re making both a solo and a squad game, you’re not going to do things like the ping system or the jumpmaster system or even characters the way they are. Because we would make them singularly more powerful. Certain characters would be completely useless in a solo game.
We hear that players want that stuff and we’re not shutting the door for all of eternity on that kind of experience, but at the same time it’s like, “Why isn’t there a 1v1 mode in Rainbow Six Siege?” Because it’s a team game and that’s what all the mechanics are designed around.
Speaking of Rainbow Six Siege, you have characters locked behind progression walls in a similar fashion. Why’s that?
That speaks to both the free-to-play nature of the game and progression. Since we’re releasing Legends as a live service, that’s going to be one of those things for people to chase. That’s part of the progress as a player because once you get that character, it’s a new thing to master. It’s a new progression avenue for skins and banner cards and such. For us, it’s not entirely a business decision. There are design decisions in play there.
What’s ahead content-wise for Apex Legends?
I can’t talk about much. I can say that in March we’re starting our first season, so that’s going to include new weapons, legends, and functional things as well as new cosmetics. We have a lot planned for the next year that you won’t be seeing for months and months and months. We don’t have the same mindset as Fortnite, with Epic doing big things and little things. We care a lot about the competitive integrity of the game so we wouldn’t put something in that’s incredibly unbalanced just because it’s cool. It has to bake in the oven for a long time and be balanced.
It feels like these games live or die by the service that comes after their release. Are you worried that without the constant little changes that people will drop out?
We do plan on having constant updates to the game, but not in the sense of “Here’s a new gun that does double damage” or something like that. I think Rainbow Six Siege is an example of a game that had a great foundation at launch but everything was broken around it and it had this core group of players who were like “You have something magical here. Fix it.” The game continues to grow today. I don’t think we have to make giant, meaningful changes to the game every week. Honestly, that’d be ideal but this is our first live game. We’re going to be learning for the first six months on how to do it right and we’ve put an enormous amount of planning for our first year of post-launch content.
Are you worried about server issues at launch?
With Anthem’s demo last weekend, that’s definitely been on our minds and we’ve been digging into that. A certain set of core EA tech is in all their games like telemetry, authentication, purchasing. Those were the systems that were falling down during that demo as far as I’m aware, so we’ve been doing investigations into whether or not it was Anthem’s limitation of that telemetry feature or is it the limitation of the Frostbite engine. Since we’re not on Frostbite we have to do things differently. We’ve been trying to figure out in why that was falling over and how confident are we. We’ve done a lot of load-testing because with a game like this there’s no way to tell how many people will show up. Could be a thousand people. Could be five million. So we’ve had to prepare for wor…well, best case scenario, which would be millions of players. Titanfall 1 and 2 launched with barely any hiccups. We don’t expect any road bumps next week.
Is Apex Legends running on a modified version of Source still?
Yeah, it’s an evolution of what we used on Titanfall 1 and 2.
Are you worried about competing with other battle royale games?
There’s a common Reddit mentality that the world is filled with battle royale games. I don’t think that’s actually true. There’s been a lot of games that have tried and died unfortunately but there’s really only three: Blackout, PUBG, and Fortnite. I’ve lived through a lot of eras of games in my time when there were a lot more than three that were active at one time. It doesn’t feel like battle royale is oversaturated at this time.
We have put such firepower behind this game. This is the biggest team we’ve ever had. Titanfall 2 had 85 developers, now we’re about 115. Aside from Fortnite, there is no AAA battle royale game. They’re all modes. They’re all side-dishes or they’ve died. Our goals for this game are very different than a Fortnite and how we’re trying to achieve them is very different from a PUBG or Fortnite. We’ve had a lot of people in the office who have played hundreds of hours of Blackout. I’ll ask ’em, “Are you going to stop playing Blackout when Apex Legends comes out” and they’re all, “No, I’ll just split my time between the two. They scratch different itches.”
I think going back to your question about surprising everyone, that’s one of those things. If you hear this is a battle royale game, you’ll just shut your mind off to it completely. But if you hear it’s free-to-play and then you’ll find it compliments what you’re already playing or it’s not for you, and that’s a big reason for free-to-play.
Is Apex Legends indicative of a new approach to Titanfall? Will we see other Titanfall games in different genres?
There have been an untold number of pitches for other types of games in the Titanfall universe. We operate in a way that’s different from most studios in that we do just go, “What’s striking our fancy right now?” After we started Respawn, people were clamoring for another Modern Warfare-killer. We showed up with a multiplayer-only, with story in multiplayer game, with giant robots. No one expected that because that’s where our noses led us to. Same thing with this game. Could have gone in any number of directions. We prototyped a ton of random stuff. This was the most popular.
For more on Apex Legends, check out our tips and impressions of the game.