Respawn Entertainment’s Apex Legends came out of nowhere early this year to be the surprise hit of early 2019. From its rock-solid launch, the battle royale set in the Titanfall universe experienced a meteoric rise, drawing in more than 50 million players in a month and surpassing even Fortnite’s growth trajectory. Now comes the even harder part: Convincing everyone to stick around.
During EA Play this week, Respawn outlined its plans for Season Two, which include adding a new legendary hero to the roster, introducing ranked mode, and improving the battle pass. We spoke with Respawn executive producer Drew McCoy and lead product manager Lee Horn about what fans can expect in the coming months.
How hard is it to go from traditionally developing a game to developing a service game?
Drew McCoy: It has been probably the hardest four or five months of my career. Trying to manage the team that’s trying to develop content that could be coming out in a month or 18 months. And we got 50 million people, and they’re saying a million monkeys on a typewriter are going to write the complete works of Shakespeare eventually. But we had 50 million monkeys finding all the exploits that were impossible for us to find within 30 minutes on a patch coming out. The world has played our game more than we could ever Q&A. It’s crazy. And then having to react to those fires and make sure servers are running. And then suddenly the Eye of Sauron of the world of like, marketing partnerships and EA business things. We were really under the radar during development. No one knew what we were doing within EA so we were just kind of left alone, and now there’s this tidal wave of people who want to help. And they’re trying to elevate the game and do stuff, but that’s just time and effort and thinking process. It’s been a huge change for us. It hasn’t been easy, and we still have a long ways to go before it feels comfortable.
Is it hard to resist the urge to just stay at work 24 hours a day?
DM: That’s one of our biggest tenants of how we’re going to get through this, is we can’t crunch. There was some amount of crunch to get the game shipped. But in post-launch, we keep progressively scoping and scheduling so that people don’t need to work 60, 70, 80 hours a week. Case and point, we had our lead designer, who’s kind of heading up character development, update the whole team about, “Here’s where we are, here’s what we’re working on, here’s timelines for stuff, and here’s how we’re going to try and speed up development.” But the number one requirement is we can’t crunch to get there, so we’ve got to find ways to work smarter, not harder. We’ve got to find the right people to hire to make an impact that changes and not just throw bodies at it, because that just slows you down.
From a toolset standpoint, how agile is your infrastructure to keep servicing demand? Are you able to create content quickly, or has this rapid success made you go back in the lab and build out an infrastructure that can support quick updates?
DM: We definitely had to rethink about how we develop content, where we put our effort, and where we try and make things go quicker. We’ve always been huge on iteration, and trying things, scrapping them, and trying things and scrapping them. It takes a lot of time, and to then get good assets at the end of that process because it’s all blank prototype ugly boxes and stuff. That’s another huge period of time. So we’re trying to figure out how we can layer these things so we can have a really consistent rhythm and pace to how we can deliver content. We’ve got a bazillion openings and hiring is actually one of the hardest parts. There’s a lot of comments like, “You guys make a ton of money, just hire some people.” It doesn’t work that way. We shipped Titanfall with about 70 people, and Titanfall 2 with about 85. And now we’re at about 120. And so it’s taken us about eight years to go from 40 to 120 on our team. And that’s with us constantly hiring. It’s just hard to find the right people.
Are you aggressively hiring people to design cosmetics?
DM: We’re definitely trying to increase the production of cosmetics, for sure.
I know you are trying to ramp up and do a lot of hiring. But when you look at where you want to be, what kind of content frequency is the aspirational goal?
DM: The kind of cop-out answer is you can ever make enough. The bad example is we spend two or three years on a Titanfall game. People finish all of that content that we spend years making in a week or two. It’s literally impossible to make too much content. So we just got to keep finding ways to make cool stuff that people want in a timely manner.
Who are the most used and underused characters so far?
Lee Horn: I think to no one’s surprise Wraith and Pathfinder are our super-played characters. And then Gibraltar and Caustic on the other side. As people have seen throughout the season, we’ve tried to sort of nudge those closer together. For Season Two we will have another set of balance changes that will….we always strive to make our characters pretty even choices. So it’s sort of pick who you want to play who fits your style.
What kind of buffs are we talking about?
LH: I think in general, you got to see the whole package, but we’ll be nudging maybe health here and there, something like that.
DM: In general, what we don’t want to do is nerf kits very much because then the character becomes very bland. So we gotta find other vectors of balance, besides just, you know, knocking down some of the better abilities.
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Let’s talk about the new legend coming to Season Two.
LH: Wattson is our next defensive character. She has wireline, she sets some traps, some defensive areas, perimeters that it’s hard to get through. Her ultimate is giant, another trap that basically stops all ordinances, so if Gibraltar throws his ultimate at you and shoots down all the bombs and then if someone throws a grenade, it’ll stop that, and it charges up your shield so you can set up a really strong defensive perimeter. If you layer Caustic on top of that, you have a sort of an impenetrable fortress, which is really exciting, and her passive lets her use an ultimate accelerant to completely recharge her ultimate so she can throw out sort of two of those kinds of things… She’ll be live on July 2.
I know cosmetics are the main way battle royale games tend to keep the content drip going. But in terms of introducing legends, do you have a different philosophy about how frequently you want to drop new opponents into the battlefield?
DM: Not currently. We’re making as much as we can, we would like it if we could make more, I bet we would get to a spot where we’re like, “All right, we have a lot and adding more is not adding enough benefit, or it’s making the game too difficult to learn too quickly.” So I’m sure there is a breaking point on characters specifically, but I think we’re a long way away from that.
Grind has been a major community talking point in terms of Battle Pass, progression, and whether the leveling reward ratio should be based on kills or time played. What are you looking to tweak in Season Two?
LH: We redesigned the Battle Pass for Season Two. The big change we’re making is we’ll now have challenges. It’s no longer just play the game and level up, which was where the grind was coming from. Every day, you’ll get a set of daily challenges and weekly challenges, and they’ll be different things like get some kills with shotguns or whatever it might be, but not too extreme, like backflips off towers and 360 headshots. It’s not that, it’s in the essence of what you normally do, but spicy. It gives you variety. So we’ll have that, and then the overall time to level up should be way, way lower. And then we’re increasing the quantity of content across the board. So we’re going to have more legendary skins; we’re adding three. We’re adding Caustic and Octane legendary skins – we showed them earlier. In general, I think the reception was pretty positive. Our skin game is improving. We’re making much cooler themes. Then we’re taking out a lot of the low-value content like stat trackers and badges, and we’re adding three new content types, which we will reveal at the start of the season. We want to keep a little surprise there, but three new content types. So it should be more exciting things, and they’re content types you’ve never seen in the game, so exclusive to Battle Pass for the launch.
Are you changing the reward structure in terms of what you get at the end of the rainbow for Battle Pass?
LH: The end reward is still the same, it’s an evolving skin. So this season, it’ll be the R-301. And it’s sort of a rhino themed molten-forged skin that as you get kills it has the effects that sort of shoot out the side. And that’s pretty cool. And then at one time, there’s sort of a golden version of that gun. Yeah.
Let’s talk about battle royale and map design philosophy. Some choose to introduce brand new play spaces so people can rotate between different settings. Other games morph and evolve their pre-existing map. Where do you fall in that debate? Do you prefer one or the other?
DM: There are incredible benefits to both. It really depends on why you’re doing them. If you’re doing it just to change stuff up, or you’re going to adjust an existing map. If you’re doing it to try to make the game better or trying to find the ultimate version of the map, as opposed to just a constant cycle of change.
So you’re leaving both doors open?
DM: Just not closing them.
Everybody likes to speculate about other elements of the Titanfall universe coming into the game. Everybody wonders about Titans jumping into the mix.
DM: We prototyped it for like nine months during development, and we couldn’t get it to work well. Titans were created back in the day as a power item. As a sense of, “I am now a badass, don’t mess with me.” That fantasy fulfillment is destroyed immediately in battle royale once you’ve balanced them to a point where they don’t ruin battle royale. We could never pull enough levers – how you get it, how strong it is, how fast it is, how big it is, what kind of weapons it has, when do you have it – all that kind of stuff. So I think for now, titans are just not a thing. We’re no longer considering it.
How about dual-wielding?
DM: We have a giant list of things people have asked for in the studio, and it’s definitely on there.
A lot of people are saying they’re having some server lag issues after the most recent update. Are you seeing that on your end as well?
DM: We haven’t seen a spike. We have a lot of metrics running to make sure that stuff is running smoothly, because we do have some server performance issues. We’re constantly trying to pinpoint where those are happening and why. I don’t think we’ve seen that particular spike. Although the day of launch, I know AT&T was having routing issues around both North America and over there in Europe. And it was probably a lot of packet loss. So when you first boot the game, we do a connection test to every data center in the world that we run, and we get both your ping and your packet loss and we take both of those into account and choose which data center to put you on. So if you have really high packet loss even to somewhere close to you, we’re going to be like “That’s not going to work,” and we might have put you somewhere really far away. And so I think that was happening to some players early on.
Game streaming is a major conversation topic in the industry right now, with Stadia jumping into the game and Microsoft prepping xCloud for launch. Have you tested your games for streaming and do you feel like the performance is where you want it to be?
DM: We tested a lot of streaming solutions in the last five or six years. For the kinds of games we make, I don’t think they’re well suited. We’re already fighting TV manufacturers and their image processing that’s turned on when they pull it out of the box and everything and that adds like 80 milliseconds of input latency. And just because light moves at the speed of light, and not faster, it’s only adding more. We put an enormous amount of effort on the engineering side to reduce the amount of input processing we do in the engine and so that it’s only a couple frames behind what you’re actually doing. There’s no way to have it on the same frame. So things like streaming only exacerbates problems that we work really hard to eliminate, and it’s really tough having those problems being taken out of our hands. We can’t make whoever’s streaming service better. We want to make our game better and the more reliant on them and a user’s internet connection and how many hops they’re going through and what kind of crappy Wi-Fi router they got from their internet provider eight years ago – there are so many problems.
I think for some games, it’s gonna be fine, but the really fast-paced precision games, it’s not going to be great for them. That’s only for the people who can feel it, there’s going to be a ton of people who are fine, and that’s okay, but it’s not like we want to target fast-paced FPS for streaming.
What are your feelings on crossplay between platforms?
DM: That it’s awesome. If it wasn’t a ginormous amount of effort and work, we’d probably already be doing something there. It’s just one of those things where we’re still a fairly small team so we have to pick and choose our battles.
Let’s talk about the inclusion of ranked mode in Season Two.
DM: When we designed Apex, it was trying to be a really competitive game. Not like esports all the time, because competitive to some people means, “Oh, if I’m not gonna play an arena, I’m not gonna play that game.” But with the NBA, they can also go down the street, find a hoop, and play with friends. It’s still a competitive experience and it’s based in the real sport. So we look at Apex in that same way. At every level, it should feel like a very deep, masterable, non-random experience. It’s on you and your team still to win. So ranked is our first big step. We had a top-five elite queue this week, a nice little baby step. It’s interesting because while developing the game, you know getting 60 players into a match is a lot for a small team, and you so we all hated dying because we didn’t want to sit and wait for the match to end if you died early on. So when we were developing the game, the pace was very different than in the live game. Because in the live game, sure, I’ll hot drop into Skull Town, die in three seconds, “Cool, I got two kills, I’m re-matchmaking.” And so the game is way too hot. People are playing it really intensely. Top Five is giving purpose to not dying, and I think it’s doing really healthy things for the game for the most part. Ranked is going to continue with that because it’s going to progress to different tiers with matchmaking at each tier, visual rewards that show how good you are, and always have good matchmaking.
LH: I think the skill-based matchmaking is really important for that. Because, you know, with Top Five, right now you’re in with any top five. So that could be the best top-fiver ever, or a so-so top-fiver like myself. Ranked will [look at] like-for-like skill, which is really important, because then sort of the silver hairs of the world can play in a healthy environment where they have a chance to win and it can be challenging without just being stomped. It should basically reduce stomps as a whole, which will be nice.
DM: We’ll finally see what it looks like when 60 of the best players in the world play the game, which I’m really excited for, because I feel like most of the time when really good streamers are playing the game, they’re jump pub-stomping, and they’re really good at playing the game. But it all comes down to their situational awareness and aim, and not so much on team composition, strategy, and tactics. For ranked, when you started watching Platinum or Apex Predator tier players, it’s going to be really exciting.
That’s where you feel like the esports potential of the game will be realized?
DM: That’s when the game is going to reveal itself to us, and we’re going to finally get to see, “Okay, now this is what Apex competitive is.”
LH: And along with that we’re also adding a stats page so people can finally see their lifetime global stats, which are, you know, we’re trying this season to identify skill, trying to find who really is good. So little tools like sorted stats that sort of say, “I am the best.”
Do you feel like your community cadence is where it needs to be? Or is that something that’s still work in progress?
DM: No, I mean, communities are always going to have issues, and it’s usually coming from a place of a lot of passion and love, so you can’t get too angry at it. It’s like, content – you’re never going to be enough. That doesn’t mean you should stop. We’ve got a lot of things we’re working on to try and have a more open and positive relationship with our community.