And I think it’s important we make note of what a big accomplishment it is for a Battle Royale game to simply exist in a space it has to share with both PUBG and mother effin’ Fortnite: this was the same genre that swallowed Boss Keys and their desperately bad Radical Heights, and caused Xaviant to completely scrap The Culling 2, which was of a similar vein. Countless games, from Paladins to Call of Duty to Battlerite, have explored the Battle Royale concept, and at best they’re praised but ignored and at worst they bring the whole company down. There hasn’t been a single game to actually succeed in this space, in this genre, since friggen’ Fortnite itself when it wrestled the crown kicking and screaming from PUBG.
But wait: there’s more. It’s not just that Apex Legends is thriving where others starved. It’s also important to remember this is a free-to-play, micro transaction-based game from friggen’ EA, the most hated company in the entire games industry. There’s not a single reason this game should have succeeded, or even been given a chance, and yet, it’s kicking ass and taking names.
The question is… why is that? And what does it mean for the future?
Well, let’s give that a serious look:
How did Apex Legends succeed?
I work in marketing as a day job. And let me tell you, I’ve never seen a more brilliant marketing strategy than I’ve seen from EA, Respawn, and Apex Legends. And I think that was the first, most critical step to their early success: the secret of shutting up.
So much of the games industry is built around hype. We see epic, sweeping trailers for games years before they’re released. Developers pack on bonus content and sweet features to entice as many pre-orders as humanly possible. All of our major conferences, from EA to Gamescon to the Tokyo Game Show, exist primarily as hype machines, introducing people to new games and building the hype of existing ones. The games industry works hard to make sure as much of the world knows about their games as possible, and to tease them with as much content as possible to make customers desperate to get their hands on the controller.
Apex Legends, obviously, did the exact opposite: outside a leak to Kotaku (which only gave people a two day heads up), it dropped on us completely unexpectedly with no hype, no warning, and not even a trailer. It bucks every conventional trend and shred of wisdom the industry has ever produced, and it’s managed enormous success not in spite of that decision, but because of it.
This was a very intentional decision, and I’ll let the folks at Respawn explain it:
“The world thinks we’re making Titanfall 3 and we’re not - this is what we’re making. To try and convince a skeptical audience for months with trailers and hands-on articles, we’re just like, ‘Let the game speak for itself’ - it’s the most powerful antidote to potential problems. We’re doing a free to play game, with essentially loot boxes, after we were bought by EA, and it’s not Titanfall 3. It’s the perfect recipe for a marketing plan to go awry, so why have that - let’s just ship the game and let players play.”
EA, despite everything they do that would suggest the contrary, are not idiots. They know they have a bad reputation and they know that the mere phrase “free to play” and “loot box” comes with an enormous amount of baggage and negative connotations. Combine that with what EA is best known for, unadulterated greed, and you have a toxic concoction that would have done way more harm than whatever good it could have possibly produced. Trailers that would have shown off the game would have instead dulled people’s excitement for the product. Screenshots would have looked boring and uninspired. People wouldn’t have even given the game a chance because they’d see what was on display, assume that they’ve already played this game in some form or another, and give it a hard pass. People would have mocked them, jeered at them, and done the same song-and-dance that Blizzard fans did when they announced Diablo Immortal: another game that could have probably benefited from a surprise launch.
So what EA and Respawn did was they took away players ability to do that. They just said “Hey, here’s Apex Legends, and if you want to learn about it, play it”. People did. And the rest is history.
But using curiosity and surprise to get people to play the game was only the first step. The second step, and the far more important one, is simply that Respawn has made a damn good game.
Here’s the thing, I haven’t been able to play much Apex Legends. My computer just straight-up isn’t good enough to run it. But from what little I have played (and did terribly at – sorry about that, team), it is a really, really good game. For one, it has a whole lot of optimizations for communication and coordination that other Battle Royale games just lack. Their easy-to-use ping system makes it easy to plan an attack or warn even muted strangers, and your ability to drop, pick up, and even thank your team at the click of a button makes it the only battle royale game I’ve played where it’s enjoyable to play with strangers. The map is interesting and dynamic, I love the kill leader and bounty systems – even if they’re meaningless, as it’s not possible to hunt specific players down, it adds a lot of interesting flavor. I love the bounty mechanic. I love just straight-up moving, sprinting and sliding are a blast in this game: and it’s important that moving feels good and fun because 99% of the time that’s all you’ll be doing, running from spot to spot… the fact that, alone, can be fun is an enormous plus for the game. And I love the Overwatch-style hero selection, giving you the ability to assist your team with unique abilities (even if everyone exclusively plays the soldier and the ninja lady).
It is a damn, damn solid game, and it learned a lesson both The Culling 2 and Radical Heights failed to grasp: that you can’t just promise a great game in the future and expect keep players. You have to deliver something now, and boy howdy, did they.
It also learned a lesson that both Battlefield and Call of Duty have failed to grasp: if you’re going to compete with Fortnite, you need to adopt the same free-to-play system. Because nobody, not a single damn person, is going to give up their free-to-play game to pick up a 60 dollar version of the same experience. That might have worked when PUBG was still in and there was demand for a better-running Battle Royale, but with Fortnite running smoother than a buttered baby’s butt, it won’t fly anymore. The only people who are going to play the Call of Duty or Battlefield Battle Royales are the people who were going to play those games anyway – the dedicated yearly players who have been with the series this long already. Fortnite players already had Fortnite, and they weren’t going to play triple-A prices to try it again with a new coat of paint.
But while I would never call Apex Legends a Fortnite killer (time-loss fallacy is a thing, nothing will kill Fortnite until the entire genre stops being popular – just ask World of Warcraft), it’s certainly a proper Fortnite competitor. Not only is it a Battle Royale game, it’s one that’s distinct and different enough from Fortnite, while also being polished and well-made and easily accessible, meaning that prospective fans might have to decide any given day which of the two they’d rather play. Fortnite is slower and cartoonier with over-the-top items, crazy cosmetics, whacky weapons, and a deconstruction/reconstruction mechanic that can leave the map wildly transformed from game to game. Apex Legends is squad-based with fast movement, uninspired but powerful feeling weapons, more strategic depth with the different hero abilities, and even something resembling a story with light character banter that can happen between the members of your squad.
As for what it means for the future? I think right now all eyes are on Bioware and the upcoming Destiny clone, Anthem. EA had been putting all its resources behind making that franchise a success, but right now, early reviews have been “meh” while Apex Legends has been stealing the show. It’s great that Rewspawn, a developer that always deserved better than what it got, is finally enjoying some time in the spotlight. But right now, I think there’s a reasonable fear that the spotlight just straight-up isn’t big enough for both Bioware and Respawn. EA should know there’s only enough space in people’s lives for one time-consuming game as a service.
And right now at least, Apex Legends is soundly winning that battle.