Apex Legends interview – SBMM, Titans, story, secrets, Pathfinder nerf, and more

By Dave Aubrey, Wednesday, 3 June 2020 12:05 GMT

Wondering what’s in store for the future of Apex Legends? Read on for our interview.

For Apex Legends lore fans, the sight of Loba – a talented and infamously-proportioned thief – partnering up with the murderous simulacrum that killed her parents is a bit weird. Especially when Revenant, that simulacrum, taunts Loba, reminding her how much he enjoyed said murder, in the middle of a firefight with an enemy team.

This is an odd and unintended side-effect of the lore of Apex Legends. At launch, all we knew was that these battles took place in the same universe as Titanfall. Now the team has filled out this part of the universe and the character inhabiting it, with all of this culminating in Season 5, the most story-heavy season Apex Legends has seen yet. No longer a Titanfall spin-off, Apex Legends has carved out its own community and world, and the developer could’ve never seen it coming.

The latest season has a focus on the new story, but that doesn’t mean the team have forgotten about the core battle royale gameplay that made Apex Legends what it is, with balance changes that have fans both inspired and heartbroken. To dig into season 5 and the future of Apex Legends, we sat down with Jason McCord and Chad Grenier, Respawn Entertainment’s design director and game director respectively. There’s no one in the world that understands Apex Legends like these two men, and their voices crackled through an overseas Zoom call, slowly revealing the logic and secrets of the latest season.

Season five launched a few weeks back and it saw the return of Kings Canyon, which is hiding some brand new secrets. What inspired the drastic changes to the map instead of a potential new map, and when will we be able to get inside those locked hatches?

Jason McCord: Well speaking of a new map, a new map is always and forever bound by how long something like that takes. World’s Edge took a year to make. World’s Edge was started almost around the same time that Kings Canyon was. And so any sort of new map will just take some time. Not saying that we’re making one, but you know! But when we look at the season and we’re like, okay, we want to make some changes to Kings Canyon, season four was World’s Edge, so let’s go back to Kings Canyon.

We’d look at a lot of things. But really the driving goal there is how do we make the biggest impact on the map, where the amount of time that we can put into making a change to the map is going to be felt by players the most when they’re playing it? Because if we just changed one little section and you drop in, and you play that over and over for the first couple days, and then you realise the rest of the map is the same. And our fear there was, especially with Kings Canyon, is what could we change in this map which prevents players a week from after launch from just dropping into Skulltown again.

Skulltown has a draw that just puts our sights on it. We just decided to do an exercise where we just remove Skulltown from the equation, and ask what does the map look like now, where do I want to drop, how do I feel about how I rotate through this map? And that just got the level designers really excited. So, once we started talking about that, it just sort of snowballed into like, ‘okay, how can we make it happen?’ And then someone had a pitch for the story about Loba doing her thing underneath the map, and then everyone just gets excited. And then we’re doing it at that point.

So that explains the hatches.

JM: Well, yeah, the hatches are a fun way to sprinkle changes throughout the map, right? We don’t have to make massive changes everywhere, we can sprinkle these things around. We’re doing something kind of new, where we have some stuff that is there, but is not unlocked yet. And we’re going to unlock it at a certain time, that lines up with some other stuff that we have coming. It also it helps tell the story, right? I think players might assume this, but from the developer side, I think it’s interesting that we actually had to write out the history of Kings Canyon when we were making it back in 2018. And there has always been the concept of hidden things underground, and we just didn’t we didn’t know what those were yet, but we knew that there was lots of facilities and stuff hidden underground. So it was really fun to just start exploring that.

So the hatches are going to tie into a future story event. That actually leads me into my next question, because the story has been a massive focus for season 5, as you’ve introduced the Weekly Hunts and the new Quests. Apex has always had lore for the players to find in trailers and loading screens, but was this more concise approach to storytelling, always a goal for the team?

JM: I think it was probably around season two or three. We’ve got a really creative, really awesome writing team that worked on both Titanfall games, and we’ve made a game with a bunch of legends and they all have their backstories and stuff. So we have this is like a hotbed of inspiration and storytelling that was just trying to find a way to express themselves in the story. So that was sort of bubbling under and we’re trying to launch this game, and they’re just finding ways to inject story. And you start to see that in our trailers right away – it’s kind of the easiest way for us to drop a really cool story beat. And then we see the reaction to that, and we see that people want more of that, so we started making some more concise decisions to double down on story.

Because people are really eating it up, and that’s not something that other multiplayer games like… other online battle royale games are doing. But you can also see that’s a really hard problem, right? How do you tell a story in a multiplayer battle royale? So you can see us taking stabs at different places to get people to experience it, in trailers, through teases before a season launches, the loading screens, and now we’re experimenting with Hunts. The Quest partially came out of trying to find a way to deliver story in an interesting way this season. It’s definitely a big pillar for us to tell a story.

The new storylines are causing division between some of the legends with some of them taking sides, and I have to admit, it’s a little bit odd to have Loba and Revenant hanging out and fighting together, especially when Revenant has those really, really haunting dialogue taunts, to be honest…

JM: He’s nasty, right?

Oh my God, tell me about it. So when you were pairing the more filled out storyline of Apex and its legends with the gameplay, were there ever any reservations about putting a pairing like this together? Did you perhaps think; ‘perhaps we should only allow one of those characters per team?’

JM: I think those conversations came up for sure. But we’re testing the game with those characters long before their stories are super fleshed out. Eventually their backstories got fleshed out and we started realising that they’re mortal enemies, and that’s when it really started to feel weird that they would be on the same team, especially saying ‘thank you’ and things like that to each other. That was a fun problem that presented itself to us, and our current solution is the dialogue between them, and that was a significant effort to have all these actors come in and record all this special dialogue and all the scripting that goes into making sure that if character A talks to character B, they say very specific things.

I think we probably talked about not allowing players to have Lobo play with Revenant, but I think there’s actually more interest in what they might say to each other as opposed to not letting them play together. Plus, you know, it makes you think of a World of Warcraft faction, a Horde and Alliance situation where people can’t play with each other, and while interesting, it seems like a very hard problem that I’m not sure that we’re looking at solving right now.

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Since the lore has become a focus of the recent seasons, I have to ask, what extra judicial legal powers do the hosts of the Apex games have that allow them to have wanted cyber criminals and serial killers in their ranks?

JM: [laughs] I think writers can probably answer that better than me, but I do know that the Apex games take place in the Outlands of the Frontier, and the Frontier in Titanfall has always been the Wild West, and now the Outlands is like the Wild West of the Wild West. The way I see it, is it’s a mix between an underground boxing ring and the Super Bowl.

Yeah, that totally makes sense. I’m just going to pretend it’s a metaphor for space capitalism.

JM: There you go.

Season five has had a whole bunch of balance changes across the board, such as Mirage, and Pathfinder, and I have to ask, as a Pathfinder main, did you know that you were breaking my heart?

JM: Yes. The answer is yes.

It’s devastating.

JM: Yeah, I play a lot of Pathfinder too. So I feel the pain.

Yeah. That’s understandable though, because he was maybe, maybe a little bit strong.

JM: Yeah, we have data, and we have player sentiment, and we have our own feelings on things. So when we make a change like that… I mean, it was hotly contested, you know? It’s similar to the question of should we move Skulltown, and everyone goes like, ‘yeah, that sounds awesome.’ And then when we ask about nerfing Pathfinder, everyone recoils. But we talk about a lot of ways to bring our top-tier legends back towards the middle. And, there’s lots of ways to do it. We try to bring our lower characters up, and our upper characters down. We’re just continually trying to balance everybody out. When you look at Pathfinder’s ability to just constantly reshape a fight… he’s super fun because he is also incredibly overpowered.

That may have won me a couple of games once or twice. So, skill-based matchmaking, I’m sorry I had to say those words.

JM: [sighs]

Skill-based matchmaking has been a hot topic in the community since its introduction. I’m sure you’ve been continuing to assess fan feedback weighed against retention data, and I’ve seen that season 5 has some of the best retention for any season thus far. How are you continuing to look at this and weigh up fan feedback?

Chad Grenier: You want me to answer this one?

JM: Sure.

CG: The funny thing is that we actually have always had skill-based matchmaking in the game since launch. I know a lot of people don’t realise that, but we’ve always had skill-based matchmaking, and it wasn’t until more recently that people started talking about it. We’ve done tests where we change the skill-based matchmaking rules, or turn it off in certain areas, certain data centres for a period of time and we collect data, and there’s concrete evidence that having skill-based matchmaking in our game makes players play longer, play more, increases retention, increases play hours…

JM: Keeps new players.

CG: Keeps new players, right, when we turn skill-based matchmaking off, we see new players come into the game and they turn away much sooner, because they’re getting matched with high-tier players and they’re getting stomped. So we have concrete evidence that skill-based matchmaking is good for the overall health of the game. That’s why we haven’t addressed it. It’s clearly good for the game. I know that we get backlash from certain key players who want to go pubstomp people, but for every person pubstomping, there’s many victims that have the opposite experience, where they’re getting smacked. We need skill-based matchmaking. I think every game out there has some version of skill-based matchmaking. Obviously, not every game handles it the same way. But we feel like it’s really healthy for our game.

JM: I’ll just add, there’s a system that we’ve created for how to match people together of similar skill, but there’s also all these other variables to take into account which decide how good a game is going to be at any given time. I’m on Twitter, I get lots of people talking to me and I try to engage as much as I can, and when somebody says; ‘Hey, I had this really bad game, I’m in Platinum, and I had a bunch of Apex Predators drop on me,’ and I say; ‘Okay, where do you live, and when do you play?’ And they tell me; ‘oh, I live in Iowa and I play at 2am.’ I get that you expect a perfect match, I really do, I’m not being sarcastic, but there’s only so many people playing in Iowa at 2am. And the options are, we either expand you out and you have a bad ping, you could matchmake with Tokyo or whatever, but you won’t have a good game. Or we can let you sit forever, and then you will never play. Or we can just start creating games eventually, and at that point you’re gonna have to play with who’s playing. So there are those types of variables that people aren’t really aware of, and when the system is humming along at like core hours it really works well. And then it gets a little harder at different times of the day, and stuff like that.

Yeah, I had a feeling that question would destroy you both inside but I had to ask anyway. I’m sorry.

JM: We’re very mentally steeled against that question, I think.

CG: I have a kind of a funny thing that we joke about in the office, when we’re talking about things like the Pathfinder nerf, we use SBMM as a scale, like; ‘how upset are people gonna be, SBMM angry, or…?’ [laughs]

That’s good, I like it. Moving away from that, the Prowlers, and I mean the alien monsters not the guns, have made for an interesting addition to the gameplay. I really like the PvE aspect. Do you have any other plans in the future for PvE modes or anything else?

JM: The PvE portion of the quest is not the driving factor of the quest. We really wanted to tell some story, we had a daily login reward system with the treasure packs that we were working on, and the PvE part was to be a carrot on a stick – wait, carrot on a stick? Yeah, that’s the right analogy – to give you a nice reward for participating in all of it, and it was an interesting way to tell some story, so I think when it comes to PvE we’re looking at what players want, what players like, and what we’re able to deliver at a good quality too. I don’t think we want to try and promise anything going forward, but we’re excited to see what people think.

Excellent. And what about Titans…

JM: Oh, see that’s the word that we don’t like!

I see… So zero plans for those then?

CG: We all love Titans, just from a fantasy fulfilment perspective, but trying to balance a game that has pilots and Titans was always a huge challenge. We actually had a version of Apex early on that had Titans, that had pilots with the wall running and all that in there, and we were facing the same challenges that we were trying to solve in Titanfall for a long time. And how do you design a map that supports both big and small? How do you balance a game where you have Titans and squishy pilots? How do you have a competitive game where everyone can move around the map at a high rate of speed with the wall running? And once we did some play tests slowing the game down a bit by taking out wall running, taking out the Titans, I think we all realised that we had a much more competitive, predictable, fun game to play that you could really invest a lot of time in and get really good at, from a competitive point of view. So I think we’ve actually felt pretty freed to not have to worry about Titan balancing and all those problems. We do love Titans, they’re in the universe, the Apex arena is in the Outlands, separate from Titans and they’re against the rules at this point in time. It’s an interesting thing to think about, but with those thoughts come flashbacks of all the challenges that come with them.

Are there any limited time modes you can talk about or anything you’ve got planned for the near future? I know for a fact every time I’m getting bored of the game, a limited time mode comes out and suddenly I’m playing it regularly again.

JM: Yeah, we’ve got stuff coming out. We’re working on a handful of things right now.

Ha! Fine. What about molotov cocktails? Because the Pathfinder Edition trailer had a little molotov charm. And when he was beating up on Revenant I saw some flames in the background and it had me scratching my chin. Will we see anything like that in the future?

JM: In the future, who knows? I’ll just say that the universe has endless possibilities, but we actually had tried molotovs in the past, but I think the trailer stuff and the gun charm are strictly coming from the Rambo fantasy that that skin is evoking more than anything that we’re trying to tease. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes the people making content and trailers and stuff get really excited about selling the fantasy of the thing, and we see something in the trailer, and we’re like; ‘you can’t actually do that…’ But it works towards selling the fantasy of it, so it’s not too bad.

Respawn just opened up Vancouver studio, and it’s going to be Apex legends focused. What can you tell us about the new studio and how it’ll affect development going forward?

CG: Last week we announced the opening of Respawn Vancouver. We’ve been working with them for, shoot, it’s been well over a year now, building that team out, we just had the official announcement. There’s 60 devs up there, with 80 or 85 as their target. And it’s just a group of really passionate developers out of the EA Vancouver studio who have carved out a space to become Respawn Vancouver and work on Apex. They’ve got a lot of content under development right now, we work very closely with them, so before before COVID we were flying up there and spending multiple days with them at a time, and they were coming down to Respawn in Southern California. It was a long interview process, they’re not this studio of strangers that were thrown onto Apex, they are a bunch of developers who were vetted in the same way that we would with anyone we bring on board to our SoCal Respawn studio.

We’re just cranking away on a lot of great content, and part of Respawn’s way of doing live service is to do it in a healthy way and not crunch the development team, we don’t work long hours, we don’t work weekends, we would love to deliver as much content as possible to the fans, but not at the cost of our lives. So opening Respawn Vancouver is not only a great way to bring more good content to the game in a healthy way for the devs, but also it’s a whole other group of diverse people with different backgrounds and histories of what kinds of games they’ve worked on. So I’m seeing them bring a whole new creative mindset to the game and introducing some really cool stuff to the game that maybe we wouldn’t have thought of.

That’s pretty great to hear. Sounds like a lot of great stuff coming in the future. I’m sure it was difficult keeping a live service game running all this time just in the one studio which had multiple projects.

CG: Yeah, we have multiple projects, but they’re completely separate. So the Apex team is separate from the Jedi Fallen Order team, which is separate from our Medal of Honor VR project. So we do have multiple projects at Respawn, but they’re pretty separate.

Apex Legends Season 3

I know that Respawn loves to hide a few easter eggs and secrets in Apex Legends, and this is the first time I haven’t noticed an obvious tease for an upcoming legend. Is there anything hidden in the game right now that fans seem to be unaware of?

JM: Um, let’s see… I think… I think so. Yeah.

Okay. You’re not willing to give me any hints this time?

JM: Well, the things that we normally do when we really start like teasing stuff is when we start ramping up for a new season, at the beginning of a new season most of our cards are on the table. But we love doing that stuff. We’re gonna keep doing it.

CG: I think when you looked at when Revenant came into the game, I think that look that young Loba gave you at the end of the trailer was maybe an indicator that she would become a legend someday. We don’t have that this time, we’re closing in on the Loba story at the start of the season. But there might be some small things in the game, we definitely have a lot planned to be teasing our next legend.

That’s good to know. Do you have any regrets surrounding Apex Legends since it launched, such as communication with the fanbase, or the way events have been received? Obviously it’s been a massive success, but has there been anything that you wish you’d done differently?

CG: I’m not one to have many regrets. I think there’s things that happen that you can learn from. And a lot of times that’s more valuable than if you could just turn back time and not do it. You take the lessons learned, and you get better. I think the success of the game caught us a bit by surprise, we weren’t expecting the game to blow up and hit 50 million players so quickly and break all these records. We knew we had a really great game, we just didn’t know how fast it was going to take off. I think we had some goals aiming for where we’d be in a year or two years and slowly building this game, and it really blew up right away. So that caught us a bit off guard, and I think, maybe a little bit underprepared.

If you look at season one, or season two, and our seasons keep getting better and better. That’s just us learning and ramping up to be able to accommodate the success of the game. So that’s not really a regret. I think we learned a lot during those first couple of seasons. You mentioned communication with the community, again, there have been some heated topics and whatnot. We learn from it. By going back, you don’t learn those lessons. I don’t think we’d change anything going back. We had the Iron Crown conversation come up, and what came of that is better communication, more ways to get the content, we added crafting metals and direct purchase to those items. And that’s great. If we had never talked to the fans about those sorts of things, the game would be in a worse place. We would still be doing events the same way, we wouldn’t have a lot of the content we have in the game, so those are all avenues for learning about what our players want, and we can use that information to make our game better.

I guess I’ll finish off with just one last question, and that is, when can we expect to see more of Apex Legends Mobile?

CG: That would be awesome. [laughs]

JM: [laughs] Record scratch.

Okay. Fair enough.

CG: Yeah, nothing to add there.

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