Sunday, 26 May 2024

Apex Legends Cover Story – Living Legends (JP)

Thank You, Japanese Readers and Apex Legends Fans!

We extend our heartfelt gratitude to our Japanese readers and Apex Legends fans who have played a significant role in the game’s resounding success. Game Informer collaborated with Respawn to bring you this translated Japanese version of our latest cover story on the game. We hope you enjoy it!

Immerse Yourself in the Battle-Scarred Streets

Picture a war-ravaged street enveloped in smoke grenades. Your squad mates have been wiped out, and your health is dangerously low. To escape the gunfire, you launch your teleportation bracelet towards a distant building. Inside the building, you press your body against the front door, using a Phoenix Kit to slowly recover your health. But just as you’re making progress, Crypto’s micro drone scanner appears from the other side of the wall, interrupting the healing process. As enemies close in, your ultimate ability gauge finally fills up. Desperately, you embed a device into the concrete to steal their items, equip the Shield Core, and raise your Peacekeeper shotgun. As Bangalore’s steel-toed boots kick down the door, shattering it into shards of glass and metal, you stand your ground. Your shots unleash chaos, and…

Boom!

A Clash of Titans

The impact of the battle royale genre on first-person shooters cannot be denied. Games like Daybreak’s “H1Z1” paved the way. Although its three-year early access phase may seem outdated by today’s standards, Brendan Greene, also known as “PlayerUnknown,” used it as a stepping stone to create “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” (PUBG), which in turn inspired “Fortnite.” Treyarch then continued the trend with the “Blackout” mode in “Call of Duty: Black Ops 4” (now known as Warzone). Later, Respawn Entertainment joined the fray.

For almost two years leading up to 2019, Respawn had been working behind the scenes. While their 2016 release, “Titanfall 2,” garnered critical acclaim for its fluid gameplay and intense mechanical battles, sales fell short of expectations. Following the release of several downloadable content packs in 2017, which satisfied passionate fans, 2018 became a year of silence. This silence was due to the team working on their next major project. On February 4, 2019, Respawn launched “Apex Legends.” Referring to the secrecy and surprise release, Executive Producer Drew McCoy emphasized the importance of transparency. It may seem contradictory, but according to McCoy, there was a powerful rationale behind it.

McCoy explained, “We know there’s skepticism about the game. It’s not ‘Titanfall 3;’ it’s a battle royale game, which is popular right now. Instead of trying to convince skeptical players through marketing and interviews, why not show them the game itself? It’s the most effective way to address skepticism – for players to see it for themselves and, if possible, gain confidence in it.”

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

“Apex Legends” embodies the phrase “seeing is believing.” This battle royale, themed around the “Titanfall” universe, boasted free-to-play access, fast-paced gunplay, physics based on the upgraded Source engine, and a diverse range of playable characters tailored to a growing player base. Innovative mechanisms like the non-verbal ping system and respawn beacons changed the concept of in-game communication, while also reconstructing the “one life per match” rule that both excited and stressed players in this genre. This hero shooter captivated over a million unique players within eight hours. By the end of February, it surpassed 50 million players (and recorded an astounding $92 million in in-game transactions). It even outperformed the phenomenal growth trajectory of “Fortnite” at the time. Being imitated is the highest form of flattery. Apex’s unique elements infiltrated other popular battle royales, and the awards season at the end of the year brought further joy.

Welcome to the Apex Games

From Christmas-themed locations to constantly evolving maps and reevaluated roles for legends, Respawn continuously redefines the approach to battle royale. Five years later, the team aims to make significant changes with “Season 20: Breakout.” We visited the development studio in Vancouver to play the new content for several hours, meeting with top executives, game designers, art designers, and story designers to discuss design principles, Apex’s evolution, and major upcoming updates.

On-Site Report

In the spacious second-floor office of beautiful Vancouver, meticulously crafted Apex art adorns the walls, and a stunning timberwood staircase leads to the workspace. Beyond the expansive windows, cold mist envelops the horizon. Despite the harsh cold and overcast skies, an air of excitement pervades the few scattered developers in the communal space. It was the day of Season 20 playtesting.

Game Director Steven Ferreira and Design Director Evan Nikolich settled down eagerly on the L-shaped couch in front of me. When asked about their journey over the past 12 years in live service games, they emphasized the importance of player feedback and adaptability. Live service games have a fast-paced and sometimes ruthlessly demanding workflow, but both directors seem to enjoy the challenges of this content-rich format.

“I’ve been working on live service games for 12 years,” says Nikolich. “What I love about it is the direct connection with the players. We’re making the game, not just for ourselves, but with the players, for the players.”

Ferreira and Nikolich believe that Season 20 will address the growing dissatisfaction with the difficulty level of matches. While being instantly ambushed by a pre-made squad of Apex Predators with rare badges is frustrating, they have implemented countermeasures to address this issue. From reviewing match summaries to optimizing matchmaking to improve waiting times, they have delved into various matchmaking combinations to classify players. However, the core of Season 20 is to level the playing field in combat situations.

“Apex is difficult,” admits Ferreira. “Looking back, as we added features and the community improved along with the game, the difficulty continued to rise. We know there are many players who are not competing at a high level. We want them to have fun and play as passionately as we do with Apex.”

With the introduction of features like a 120Hz performance setting and haptics for the PlayStation 5 controller, two major updates are prepared to enhance the player experience at all levels. One focuses on the Legend-specific upgrade system, while the other accelerates the battle royale formula with a new limited-time mode. Both directors assert that the latest season will bring exciting new developments. As Drew McCoy stated in 2019, design transparency remains a priority. They will revisit the match summary (post-game report screen), unveil the behind-the-scenes score system in ranked matches, and inform players of the reasons for their victories or defeats. The new tournament feature, set to be released in the second half of the year, will provide opportunities for players to compete at various skill levels. Transparency, for Respawn, also means approachability.

Power Trip: Evolving Legends through Upgrades

The metagame of popular shooters is always in flux, and “Apex Legends” is no exception. The proliferation of characters, weapons, and strategic combinations underscores the depth and experimental nature of its mechanics. Lead Legend Designer Devan McGuire and Game Designer John Larson shed light on the philosophy behind the latest features of Apex. It reminded me of Nikolich’s earlier statement about “designing with players.”

Since launch, Respawn has actively played a role in changing the metagame by removing popular weapons like the R-301 Carbine and Wingman revolver from the base items, instead placing them in rare care packages or replicators (crafting machines). This encouraged players to use other overlooked firearms and helped diversify battles and introduce more variety. However, some changes were more extreme than others. The appearance of the Legend “Revenant” in Season 18 underwent significant modifications, leading to a surge in selection rates of over 90%. Balancing adjustments are not unique to “Apex Legends,” but this season seems to bring disruptive changes in an unconventional manner.

McGuire explains how the major class upgrade update in Season 16 laid the foundation for the new progression system in Season 20. Legends are classified into five different classes: Assault, Skirmisher, Recon, Controller, and Support. Each class has specific perks that expand and enhance the abilities of legends within their respective categories. For example, the Recon class can use survey beacons scattered across the map to reveal enemy positions for 30 seconds. On the other hand, the Support category has two distinct elements. Legends like Gibraltar or Lifeline can open hidden compartments in blue supply bins to provide additional healing items to their teammates during a pinch. Additionally, utilizing the valuable ability to craft a respawn banner, they increase the potential for a comeback in the final stages of the game. Season 20 will introduce a skill tree based on these concepts.

“The class upgrades reinvigorated the metagame and changed the way players think about the game’s tactics,” McGuire shares. “We wanted players to have a deeper understanding of the characters and what builds are possible. Larson emphasizes that the team wanted to address this, stating, “Legends don’t change much throughout the fluctuation of a battle royale match. Choosing a legend at the beginning of a match remains consistent. So, we wanted to embrace that and give players the opportunity to express themselves through specific legends and have their own playstyles. It felt necessary and worth pursuing.”

Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon

Picture Skul Town, Capital City, Bonsai Plaza, and The Pylon—places that are constant battlegrounds filled with death boxes. While all locations are designed with combat in mind, some of them evoke fear. The Season 15’s newly introduced location, “Promenade,” in the event called “Broken Moon,” splits the map in two. It is an incredibly enjoyable and genuinely deadly trap. Stayer describes the purpose behind creating essential Points of Interest (POIs) like Promenade: to instill a sense of fear when moving towards the center of the map. They wanted players to face a challenge they needed to overcome. Should they go forward, risking their lives? Or should they take a detour if they have the time? These were the conscious choices players needed to make. In that sense, they succeeded.

Broken Moon itself is an environment with pink psychedelic clouds resembling seashells and a sky filled with natural erosion and industrial facilities. A once glamorous resort with beautiful gardens, remnants of civilization, transforms into an arena for all-out war. Stayer explains that each map starts with small threads, saying, “Broken Moon had various threads, such as cosmic disasters, heaven and hell, Monet’s paintings, British garden vibes, zip lines for movement, and even low-gravity mechanics in its concept stage. Some of those motifs were eliminated during development, but from an artistic standpoint, Broken Moon is visually captivating. Fortunately, subtle visual cues manage to keep players focused on their immediate tasks.”

Agostini agrees and sheds light on the challenges of design, acknowledging the difficulty of making each map unique and filled with excitement as the team moves beyond the life cycle of battle royale. He says, “I want to find something players can relate to while creating a surreal world like science fiction. I’m always thinking about that balance.”

Their efforts have paid off. During playtesting, I dove into the game as Wattson, gliding to the new map’s block-like structures to see what treasures (and brawls) awaited. After picking up an “RE-45” auto pistol from a nearby box, I heard Lifeline’s footsteps and tracked this pesky medic to a nearby pyramid while taking damage from her shotgun. I managed to attack by crouching multiple times, unleashing bursts of automatic fire, and found myself standing on top of her death box. Suddenly, I received a notification saying, “Level Up!” with a flashing screen, revealing two enticing upgrades. Beaming with joy, I realized I could only choose one. After barely winning a tense battle, a new skill level appeared on my HUD. With a few clicks (and heavy ammo shots), my Wattson was transformed into a formidable soldier with an Interceptor Pylon and the ability to deploy Arc Star grenades, equipped with two shields and full health. Having spent a significant amount of time in gunfights throughout my extensive 10,000+ battles, these new upgrades make combat and the Legends feel fresh again.

“The fact that characters don’t remain the same means that we can unleash the abilities that can be upgraded at the first level and let them fight” says McGuire. “Next, we consider their position on the map, who their teammates are, and what upgrades they want for the endgame. This significantly affects how battles play out and how teams fight in specific situations, ultimately having a big impact on the metagame.”

Rise to the Challenge

Much more than simply defeating enemies, players can now earn XP by engaging in various in-game activities such as scanning care packages, using beacons, or opening boxes, making the leveling process of Legends more user-friendly. Squads with modest gear (lower-tier armor) receive a comeback bonus when defeating squads with superior equipment. Both McGuire and Larson are confident that these designs will reduce the intuitive load and prioritize clarity, making it easier for casual players to join the gameplay.

Fast & Furious: Blitz Through Limited-Time Modes

Experimental limited-time modes (LTMs) like “Straight Shot,” reminiscent of a large-scale public playtest, not only push the boundaries of battle royale mechanics, but also provide an opportunity to break free from consecutive losses in the main game. Joshua Mohan, the lead Battle Royale designer, reveals that the new mode in Season 20, called “Straight Shot” internally, has a codename “Nitro.” There’s a reason for it.

“We’re always playtesting, but sometimes, we don’t get a full group of 60 players,” explains Mohan. “So, we had the design team launch a mode called Nitro. We started with small rings and a small number of players randomly dropped on the ground to initiate the battle. After doing this for years, we wondered, ‘What if we offered this experience to players? Maybe it’s fun to play, and players might enjoy it.’ So, we added dropships to make it easier to understand where you are in the world. You can run instead of spending time attaching attachments, and immediately pick up weapons that come pre-attached. So, you still get that feeling of progression here. Then we ramped up the speed and added various elements to focus on more enjoyable gameplay.”

Legends Are Made, Not Born

If combat is the heart of Respawn’s frenetic shooter, then the Legends are its soul. They radiate through customized kits, animations (remember the pre-change Wraith’s Naruto run?), cosmetic items, and voice lines. Lead Legend Designer Devan McGuire, Stream Director Amanda Doiron, and Lead Character Concept Artist Brett Marting reveal that it takes years to go from the prototype (a humanoid dummy in the firing range) to the final version of each legend. Although no two characters are alike, their design process involves the same trial and error approach.

“There are three pillars,” says McGuire. “First, Apex is a gun-first game and a squad-based game. Then, battle royale is at the core. So, we won’t give abilities that break the battle royale foundation by manipulating the ring or affecting items that other players acquire. We don’t need abilities that serve only to deal damage. Weapons are key. Moreover, no single character can solve everything.”

Doiron agrees and emphasizes the importance of a storytelling approach that prioritizes characters. “We focus more on character-driven storytelling rather than story-driven. That’s why such deep characters appear. Regarding authenticity, we have many checks and adjustments with experts. We also have an authenticity editor. Unless we create a sense of familiarity and humanity, we can’t create legends that players can feel at ease with.”

As the number of characters grows, fans should be able to project themselves onto the characters and feel a sense of familiarity with their favorite legends. However, the special connection with legends is something that everyone at Respawn strongly feels. “Seeing yourself in the character is the embodiment of what we have been striving for—bringing fantasies to life,” says Marting. “That’s what we have been working towards. It’s not necessarily about who the character is. It’s about playing the game and feeling a little bit like a legend. Then our job is a great success.”

For Apex, it’s all about emphasizing strategic movement and combat, stripping away the extraneous. It may seem like a step back, but according to Mohan, “Straight Shot” is a more streamlined way to play. For casual players, finding enjoyment and learning what helps in the main battle royale mode becomes more accessible within the Legends Upgrade System.

As I watched the shadows grow longer in the empty space filled with desks, the end of the workday approached, and people began leaving the office slowly. Sitting on the L-shaped couch, the leader shared the highlights of Season 20 and the future outlook.

“Every season, we continue to challenge what we believe is at the core of this game,” says Nikolich. “Our focus is on making Apex an excellent competitive shooter. That’s what defines us in every sense of our identity.”

Remarkably, ImperialHal, the most renowned shot-caller in the Apex Games, couldn’t have predicted his team would hold the Championship trophy on the final day of the Apex Legends Global Series (ALGS). Jasmine Chiang, Senior Brand Marketing Manager, fondly recalls being among a thrilled crowd as TSM leaped from 15th place to the top. The record-breaking ALGS Year 3 Tournament, with a total watch time of 47.9 million hours, concluded with confetti and fireworks. These numbers are astonishing, but Commissioner John Nelson says they knew Apex would succeed as an esports tournament from the testing phase. By introducing match-point systems early on, they achieved significant differentiation in the esports space.

In addition to hosting inclusion initiatives like amateur tournaments to provide opportunities for up-and-coming players, the team has increased prize money in preparation for the fourth year. Chiang talks about providing financial rewards and exposure opportunities to partnered professional teams, strengthening the competitive ecosystem while providing stability for players. Nelson highlights significant changes to the ALGS format, such as extra credits for teams that demonstrated exceptional performance. In closing, Chiang promises to continually raise the bar for players and fans.

Who Will Be the Last One Standing?

As the sun dips low, casting long shadows, people slowly leave the office space with empty desks. Sitting on the L-shaped couch, the leader shares the highlights and future prospects of Season 20.

“Season after season, we believe in challenging the core of this game,” says Nikolich. “Our focus is on preserving Apex’s essence while evolving its core systems. Our goal for the next year is to bring in new players who will activate the game. However, we also value longtime players who have been with us since Season 0. They are the true champions of this game.”

Taking risks and making meaningful changes, Nikolich states there is no sacred territory. As I catch a glimpse of the next legend, “Scaramisher,” or new map during playtests, I can’t help but wonder how this conviction will be reflected in future content added to Respawn’s ever-growing lineup. Agostini adds, “Apex’s world is still young. We’ve only just begun.”