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Three years into ‘Apex Legends,’ the team at Respawn still trusts their ‘gut instincts’

Apex Legends (Washington Post illustration; EA)
11 min

It’s been three years since the release of “Apex Legends,” Respawn Entertainment’s battle royale based in the Titanfall series universe. Since the game’s stealth launch in February 2019, “Apex” has quickly established itself within the battle royale space.

A game that started as an underdog to more established contenders in the genre such as “Fortnite” soon grew into a cultural touchstone of its own. It hit 100 million players globally in April 2021, and shows no signs of slowing down, having added another 28 million new players over the last fiscal year. The game is anticipated to make close to a billion dollars in revenue this year, making it one of the biggest games in the world.

The game’s 12th season will be released Feb. 8, debuting a new nine vs. nine game mode called “Control” and a new character, Mad Maggie, a 55-year-old freedom fighter. Despite the game’s runaway success, its developers have maintained the mentality of a small team, relying on experimentation and trusting their instincts to continue building the kind of game they love to play. The Washington Post spoke with Respawn Entertainment’s Game Director Steven Ferreira and Senior Design Director Evan Nikolich to take stock of the team’s achievements and look at what the future of “Apex” might hold.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Launcher: Three years into the game, what have you learned in the development process, and what’s next for “Apex”?

Ferreira: I think as the game has grown and we’ve had more and more players, there’s a broader range of players that are coming to “Apex” to check it out. “Apex” as a game has started to mature and players who have been around since day one have started to establish different things that they care about — and things that they don’t.

The way that we have always worked on “Apex” from the beginning has been very experimental in nature. We’re not scared to try new things and mess with things that are ingrained. You saw that in some of the earlier seasons when we did things like nuke Skull Town from Kings Canyon. That was an experiment in terms of trying to see how that would impact player behavior — would that be better for the game in the long run?

So there wasn’t a definite 10-year blueprint when this all started?

Ferreira: No, I mean, when the game launched, it was fingers crossed that it would work and people would like it. Luckily, we found out real fast what the answer to that question was. Maybe too fast. We were trying to play catch up for the first year or two, to be honest.

Maybe that was actually one of our biggest lessons: how we structure ourselves and how we work within a live service, as opposed to developing a game the way we’ve done in the past, where you spend a couple of years building a game, you launch it, then you go back to the drawing board and start building for another two and a half years. We’re launching [a new season] every three months, and so the way that we iterate has changed, but for the better because there’s a constant feedback loop with the players about what’s working and what’s not.

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What’s your approach to balancing the game? Is it for the higher echelons of skill or the more casual player base?

Nikolich: I think the way we have to look at it is that it’s a game that can be played at a high level of skill, but also be accessible to people who are just coming in. I look at it very much like a sport. I played a lot of basketball growing up. And basketball is played at a super high level at the NBA, but there’s people playing pickup leagues and church leagues and things like that. But they’re still playing the same sport. It’s providing that skill ceiling for players and still making it accessible for people who are just getting in and keeping them excited when they’re playing at that lower end of the skill band.

Some of the competition that you had maybe a year ago has either lost steam or flamed out. What is Respawn doing better or differently than other big live-service games?

Ferreira: I don’t know if we intentionally try to do anything differently or better. We just try to remain true to the way we’ve always built games. We don’t have a business plan that says, “These are the business goals that we want to achieve. And this is how we’re going to choose to achieve them and they reach out 10 years” — that is very rigid. You don’t want to be chasing trends, right? We’ve always just focused on what we like. And at the end of the day, as much as we are data driven, it all comes back down to what the team is passionate about.

I’m a firm believer that people will do their best work when they love what they’re doing. And so I or Evan could put a design or a plan in play in front of people, and if it’s not what they love and what they want the game to be, then it’s never going to work, right? And so we really leverage the passion of the team. It’s all coming from the team’s gut instinct. The game is just made by a bunch of passionate game developers who like what they’re building and think this is the new cool thing that hopefully other people will like. And more often than not, it is. I think there’s a large portion of the team that will spend the entire day making the game and then go and relax by playing the game for a few hours to unwind. And I think that passion is what you’re seeing as a successful business plan.

Nikolich: A big power we have is that we really know what our IP is and where we’re taking it. It’s also that “Apex” is inclusive. You look at our roster of Legends: They come from all walks of life. Ideally, everyone who plays “Apex” can see some form of them represented in the game, and that’s something we’re going to keep holding true to. I think when a game knows what they are and what they want, they can stand out from the rest.

What about the cross-pollination of ideas? How do you feel about mechanics from “Apex” making it into other battle royales, like the influence of the “Titanfall” slide going into other games, for example?

Nikolich: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, which is great. It also makes our game potentially more inviting to other players who want to cross-pollinate to our game. They see it in a new game, they’ve heard “Apex” did that thing but maybe differently, and it brings them in.

I want to take the collaboration you guys did with Market a while back [that brought skins designed by the LA-based streetwear brand to “Apex”] as a starting point to ask whether you ever envision “Apex” opening up its IP further.

Ferreira: One of the things that’s grown over the last three years has been the universe that we’ve created. And one of the things that probably surprised us that we’ve leaned into since the launch of the game has been how much players care about the universe and the stories we tell.

So finding more ways to expand on that is always going to be the primary concern: building on top of our own universe and exploring that further. But when we have our midseason events and things like that, we treat it as a costume party where we can kind of break away from the core fantasies that we’ve been developing for a Legend, and we like that freedom because it’s both a way to freshen things up for the players, but also for the team. I think there are opportunities for how we can do that in terms of crossovers with other universes in some way. So I think you’ll see some of that coming down the pipe, and you’ll see some things continue to expand in terms of our partnerships on that side.

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There was a recent discussion in the “Halo Infinite” community about its Twitch viewership dropping off, and that shooters were moving away from arena-style modes. If modes like battle royale and round-based economy shooters are going to keep gaining traction, what is the rationale behind adding the new Control mode, a nine vs. nine?

Ferreira: We’ve always been a proponent of experimenting with things and not being stuck to what our plan is. You asked earlier about that balance between having a really accessible game, but also catering to the competitive end of the spectrum. And I think Control is a way for us to fill the gap. Everybody aspires to be like a pro player, and they watch those Twitch streams and they’re like, “Oh, this is amazing and intense and I wish I could do that.” But the reality is that most of us can’t. I can’t, for sure. And so we want to find ways to develop player’s skill sets and allow them to practice the core fundamentals of “Apex” in different ways.

Nikolich: We’re gonna learn some things — see what’s sticking, see what isn’t sticking — and then apply it back into the battle royale experience. I think the battle royale is super entertaining to watch just because of the high-stakes nature of it. That said, Twitch viewership does not always equate to helping players get onboarded.

Ferreira: And that’s really where Control comes in. You don’t have to worry about your rank progression or anything like that. You can just jump into Control. You die, you respawn right away. You can try lots of different weapons and loadouts. You don’t have to go through the looting cycle of the game. The way it’s designed, everything is a lot more casual-oriented and still a fun, intense competitive experience.

Does “Apex” have an ending? Is there a sequel in the works?

Ferreira: We don’t think of an endgame. That’s one of the coolest things about working on “Apex” is the fact that it is live service. We don’t see any reason to reboot the franchise or put out a sequel. We want to continue to have “Apex” grow perpetually. We think that there’s a lot of runway in terms of the creative space within the universe that we’ve developed.

There’s way more still out there that we want to try than we can actually plot out and think of on a calendar. So right now, there’s no plans to sequel it. And there’s no plans to sunset it either. We’ve just got more and more good ideas — hopefully good ideas — that we’re excited to try.

Will we ever see mech-style Titans come to “Apex”?

Ferreira: To be honest, we have tried Titans. The team is the Titanfall team, and so the universe is very near and dear to us. We’ll have different weapons come or the lore will be anchored in it, or you’ll see different mechanics or abilities that originated in Titanfall. And we’ve actually tried Titans multiple times internally. We’ve had some ideas around how we could bring those to our world. We’re not ruling it out.

Nikolich: Never say never. As the game evolves over time, and I think you’ll look back from this day, you know, three or four years from now, and maybe “Apex” will be a totally different game than it is even now.

Ethan Davison is a freelance writer covering games, books, and culture. He’s on Twitter @eadavison_, and also writes a weekly newsletter about Apex Legends.