Currently, there are two ways to approach keeping players invested in your battle royale shooter. Apex Legends wants to change this.
First up, there’s the PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds approach, where players get full new maps to play once every few months, as well as the occasional new weapon and balance tweak. Then there’s the Fortnite approach, where one map rules but it’s constantly evolving, and new weapons are thrown in, tested, and sometimes pulled out hours later. The latter feels like a scattergun, guerrilla approach to game development, but it’s proven popular with players. So how will Respawn tackle the ongoing development of Apex Legends?
“We’re well aware of what everyone else is doing and part of the benefit of having all of our prototyping powers, it gives us this bandwidth to try a lot of concepts,” design director Mackey McCandlish explained during a recent VG247 interview. “Right now, we’re focused on the launch, but we will be competing in what happens with maps in the battle royale space. Those are part of the triple-A thing, we’re going to give each of those things… we will do things in our own way that will forward the genre when it comes to maps and weapons
“You know, it’s like the first principles thing. Whatever anybody is doing, we’ll challenge if that’s the right way and we’ll find our own way. But if they’re doing it the right way, we’ll do it the right way. We’ll do what’s right for Apex Legends.”
Because this is a character-focused game where each hero has unique abilities like Overwatch, Respawn is free to iterate there and shake up the meta by making character tweaks as well. The pace of these will come much faster than any map changes, but Respawn says it also has plans and prototypes now that we won’t see until early 2020.
“I think Overwatch, League of Legends… these competitive games that as games-as-service have demonstrated that the consumer expects and deserves characters or mechanics that are continually balanced,” McCandlish said. “If something is wrong with the game and a character is too effective, we’ll react to that. We would not pull a character out of the game; we have a lot of knobs with each character and each weapon to tune it until it’s fair. And we’ll always be doing that.”
You can also expect some new characters as well. Apex Legends feels like a Titanfall game, but it’s currently missing a few key pillars of the franchise – wall-running, smart pistols, and, well, titans – hence that name change. It seems like those aspects of the game could make an appearance with future characters, however. A limited-use Titan could work like D.Va’s mech in Overwatch, while a smart pistol is basically Soldier 76’s ultimate ability.
“It’s sort of funny that Overwatch has a character that wall-runs and a character that calls in a Titan,” McCandlish laughed. “There’s a lot of opportunity for characters. I’m really excited for the game to come and for more of the game to come out.”
Of course, much of the game’s success will come down to how quickly the new content drops, as well as the pace of updates. Fortnite is so successful because its development pipeline allows for new and surprising content on a constant drip – only the other night it had a live concert in-game from EDM DJ Marshmello. Does Respawn’s development pipeline also allow for such swift action?
“That’s a very interesting question,” McCandlish considered. “Our method of development is to prototype a lot of ideas to see what what works and what doesn’t work. Epic’s method of development is to do that with the public – ‘Let’s try a missile launcher and throw it in there. Oh, it’s not working, pull it out’. We’re approaching this… what does it mean to be triple-A, free-to-play games-as-a-service? For us it means try a lot, identify what’s working, ship a polished, thematic character – a whole piece. You are not going to get these characters by putting just a part of them in a live game and then finding that character with the audience.
“We will keep the game fresh, we’re going to have content coming out. We’re going to be holding three-month seasons, multiple characters per season. Big meaty content drops will happen. We’re not trying to try a million things in the live game and see what sticks – this is a measured design, triple-A game.”