Titanfall creator Respawn Entertainment became the latest developer to take on Fortnite, with today’s announcement and surprise launch of Apex Legends. It’s a new free-to-play shooter set in the Titanfall universe, and it’s a bold attempt at venturing into the increasingly crowded battle royale space. Perhaps even more interesting than the game itself, though, is Respawn’s release strategy, which amounts to a radical rethinking of how big-budget game studios put out new products.
As a subsidiary of gigantic game publisher Electronic Arts, Respawn had to dramatically alter how it develops, launches, and then supports a new game going forward. Even harder was convincing a company as conservative and slow-moving as EA that the studio could pull this off, and that it could earn back its budget and even turn a profit on an unproven, free-to-play game.
“As for getting EA to go along with this, it’s been interesting,” Drew McCoy, executive producer on Apex Legends, says with a laugh. “They’re really good at operating based off previous experience,” he adds, which is a nice way of saying EA, as a corporation, is absolutely terrified of risk. “But they’ve never done anything like this before. There’s no playbook and we’re helping EA write it.”
EA typically follows a fairly standard approach when it comes to new releases. Its games are developed in semi-secrecy over the course of years and then aggressively marketed with enormous, multimillion-dollar advertising budgets that attempt to juice preorders and generate hype. There’s typically a drip feed of trailers, press interviews, and gameplay reveals all designed to get you to buy a game before you get to try it. Once the game is out the door, a publisher will typically try to maximize sales by running retail promotions and commercials before the game is considered played out, and it’s then relegated indefinitely to the discount bin.
Just take a look at Anthem, BioWare’s new online-only, open-world shooter that comes out later this month. Development on Anthem began in 2012, and it was first announced to the public in 2014. Since then, there’s been countless promotional tours to support its eventual launch and build a narrative around what BioWare wants the game to be and what it promises to deliver.
Apex Legends is the complete opposite of that. No one outside the EA and Respawn spheres even knew the game existed until last week, when it was first shown to a group of press. On top of that, Respawn plans to make money on the free-to-play title entirely through microtransactions, including sales of cosmetic items and loot boxes, the latter being a controversial in-game purchase likened to gambling.
For Apex Legends to become a success, it needs to capture an enormous base of players, with the hope that at least some of them will spend a sizable amount of real money. There are no preorders, no sales, and no discounting. The game will be advertised — McCoy tells me it has a comparable marketing budget to a standard major studio title — but the only meaningful factor that will help the game truly take off is its fun factor.
Apex Legends was surprise-launched this afternoon specifically because Respawn understands and recognizes the optics involved. We’re talking about a studio that made two of the most innovative shooters of the last decade, only to have those games fail to garner a large audience. And not only that, but the studio was then acquired by EA in 2017, a company often vilified by gaming fans for its approach to monetization and its penchant for spoiling expensive licenses to properties as beloved as Star Wars.
Now, “we have a free-to-play game with loot boxes,” McCoy says matter-of-factly, adding that he knows how that looks and what it sounds like on the surface. But that’s precisely why Respawn is getting the game out the door immediately, so players can try it and form their opinions instead of doing so in a Reddit thread or a YouTube comment section.
Of course, none of this would be possible without Fortnite, something McCoy also cops to. Epic showed the industry a different approach to building, releasing, and supporting online games as services that had not been seen before. “I think the writing has been on the wall for a while and people were waiting for someone to do that and it was Fortnite,” he says.
While Epic had no idea how big of a success its game would become, the developer has inadvertently written the book on how to turn a multiplatform, free-to-play game into a moneymaking machine that can exist as a live service for years. Fortnite pioneered the battle pass concept, and it also was one of the first games to deploy a direct-sale storefront, which let players spend money directly on in-game cosmetics and other items. Apex Legends has both of those features. And by constantly featuring new game modes and an ever-evolving game world, Fortnite will never need a sequel.
“I don’t think every game can or should go free-to-play,” McCoy says. “But it’s a no-brainer for games that are trying to build communities and live on for years. We don’t want to make an Apex Legends 2. We have no plans to and it would go counter to everything we’re trying to do.”
Apex Legends is drawing on more than just Fortnite. Every innovative shooter of the last half-decade has contributed something critical to the genre. Bungie’s Destiny showed how sticky a game can become when you marry the shooter design of console king Halo with the loot-chasing progression system of World of Warcraft. Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six Siege illustrated how a competitive shooter based around a dead-simple formula could be wildly dynamic by constantly adding subclasses with game-changing abilities. And Blizzard’s Overwatch took the approach to “heroes,” unique characters with special skill sets, to a whole new level by crossing Pixar-quality character design with a tight and balanced approach to team-based objective play.
Combine all of that alongside Fortnite and you end up with something like Apex Legends, which features subclasses, squad-only team play, and a leveling system borrowed from role-playing games. “We are ravenous consumers of games,” McCoy says. “Sometimes our inspiration is on our sleeve: Overwatch and Siege and League of Legends and Fortnite and Blackout. And while we think we make really, really good games, there are people out there making better stuff in some ways.”
In many ways, the battle royale genre was born from a willingness to copy. Fortnite would never have happened if not for PUBG, and PUBG would never have happened if not for H1Z1 and the other survival shooter mods before it. But Apex Legends is unique because it’s the first big leap into this genre from a major studio that’s putting its full weight behind the project. What happens here would very well influence how publishers and developers handle online games of all varieties in the future.
“I’m hoping we can set the path for other games to do this,” McCoy says. “It’s exciting, but also calming.” Respawn knows it has to support Apex Legends vigorously for it to succeed, and not having to wind down development and start all over from scratch is, in ways, a luxury for a studio like Respawn. But, McCoy adds, there is still a lot of uncertainty. “We’re putting a lot on the line.”