There’s a lot to celebrate with Apex Legends as it enters its fifth year in operation. Its launch in 2019 catapulted the free-to-play battle royal to instant success – so much so that even the developers at Respawn were caught by surprise. It’s something of a feat for any live service game to do so well at launch, and an even bigger one to keep it up for so long. One can’t help but wonder just how the developers at Respawn got to this point and what their thoughts are towards taking it beyond.
Recently, we had the chance to sit down with some key developers on the Apex Legends team and chat about all things fifth anniversary, their thoughts on the game’s success, and even how some of their more prolific collaborations have come together.
With all things, five years of continuous success is a huge milestone, so it was important to kick things off by feeling out the general vibes and where the development team is at during this point of anniversary.
“It’s an unbelievable accomplishment that Apex has not just launched as well as it did, but it’s evolved and kept pace over time with other [battle royales] and games that have come through,” explained Game Design Director Mike Renner. “To be where we are is a pretty exciting experience to have it have this kind of longevity and see the path forward to the future.”
Even though it’s been five years, and players have had plenty of time to sink hours and hours into Apex Legends, there’s surely plenty of elements that go into the game that players might not understand or know about, particularly when running a live service game for this long.
“I think the thing that gets overlooked a lot with live service games and being a player that plays day to day and sees the changes that came in and what that cadence feels like – a lot of time has passed before something happens for a particular character or map,” said Renner.
“I think the thing that is often overlooked is how much time and testing changes take place before they’re ready for primetime, and whether it’s something we feel comfortable releasing on a cadence, which is why the seasons are segmented as much. There are certain things that happen when they come up, and they do, but changes to a live-service game have to constantly keep up with the demands of what needs to happen or what needs to keep the game stable going forward.
“But we also have to release new things that are exciting at a frequency that keeps the game going and at a quality level we strive for, and that takes a significant amount of time to get things into a nice state for each season – usually like a year in advance for us at least.”
As with any aspect of game development, these things take time, and it takes time to iron out new content while striving to keep things fresh.
“You absolutely nailed it because the fanbase just wants immediate feedback and immediate changes,” said Lead Game Designer Devan McGuire. “The amount of time and testing on the backend is behind the curtain, you know, and the players don’t necessarily see it.”
While it’s true a lot of game development does rely on things the players never see, there’s often times ideas the team has that they thought would work out but turned out to be kind of infeasible in actual practice, like wall running from Titanfall.
“We tried that in a number of different ways, and it never felt right for Apex," said Renner. "It really promoted degenerate behaviors like bouncing off of weird places that weren’t ever designed for wall running, and never felt right within the course of the game.
“To either have everyone jumping around like bounding beans trying to use whatever edge they can, or to try and prescript it to a particular area that forced you to play in a particular way, we never felt like it’d be a healthy change for Apex.”
“My answer is a little less exciting than wall running,” said McGuire. “It’s more like, what do we have resources for to execute on and to be successful at? Are we setting ourselves up for success and not putting limited resources into something that’s going to come out and fail. I think there’s always those things that we want to try as long as we have the time and effort to succeed at it.”
Since launch, Apex Legends has also cultivated some interesting external content in various ways. These have been through collaborations with properties such as different anime series, Godzilla, and most recently, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth. Final Fantasy in particular is an interesting case, because of how big of a deal it is and because its announcement was so unexpected.
“It was a very difficult process to get right to try and incorporate something that made sense – not just for the event itself that hit all the notes that Square Enix wanted from the product and with the crossover, or what we want from a game design standpoint, but to get things done within a timeline that met up with the release of that particular event,” explained Renner.
“It was a lot of trying to prioritize where certain animation resources needed to go, or weapons focus such as directing things toward the use of the Buster Sword in the event. There was a lot of power towards steering to make the best product we could within that time period, and there were a lot things that we had wanted to do for that event that felt like they could have been even cooler expressions of what Materia meant to the game, or what the sword itself could do that we had to peel off the table and kind of really hone in on what’s the most impactful thing we can get across rather than spreading ourselves too thin.”
Keeping such a collaboration under wraps was no small feat, and the developers at Respawn took a lot of caution when it came to leaks getting out as they tend to do.
“In particular, because of how important that franchise was, it was kept a secret from the team at large for a long period,” said Renner.
“A lot of work went into managing our own team and making sure the right people knew we had to do the work, and that we could keep it as hidden as we could to prevent any sort of leak or spoilage because we know how exciting it would be for that trailer to come out in the middle of the Game Awards. Even after the Post Malone crossover, it was still a highly kept secret.”
Of course, adding something like the FFVII collaboration isn’t as easy as it seems considering the clash in genres. One is a RPG while Apex is a shooter, so making them vibe together was an altogether different challenge entirely.
“Melee is something that isn’t a core part of our shooter game on its own,” said Renner. “So adding something like that to the game, like if this was a permanent thing, this would be under a lot more scrutiny in terms of what it did to the health of our particular product and our game across the board because of the way melee is treated in the game. That’s why we don’t want to really invest a lot of those things as permanent features of the game.
“Melee is there as a supplement for particular moments, and we don’t really focus on that for good design health reasons. But in the case of events, where we’re trying to bring new gameplay, something that shakes things up that’s exciting, and with this opportunity to cross over with one of the most popular franchises in the world that I’m a huge fan of, we can relax those reins of what works well for Apex to give a moment that feels unique and like a breath of fresh air for the player base.”
With Final Fantasy now out and available in Apex Legends as an event, we were curious if the team had any dream collaborations they were interested in – even if they weren’t something that would happen.
“I think being an RPG fan that grew up with all of those games that Final Fantasy VII would have been it, right?” said Renner. “We’ve kind of done that so maybe Chrono Cross for the other side of the equation.”
Collaborations aside, another potential area for Apex Legends to explore is in the user-generated content space.
“I don’t know of any plans to move in that direction,” explained McGuire. “It’s off the table at the moment.”
As for what else Apex Legends will delve into this year, we’ll just have to wait and see. The release of Apex Legends: Breakout is just around the corner on Feb. 13, as well as the game’s fifth anniversary content to round out the season 20 launch.
TechRaptor was invited to preview Apex Legends at an event by the publisher.