Deconstructing Respawn’s Battle Royale: Apex Legends

KEY FACTS:
Launch Date
: 4 February 2019
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Status: Worldwide
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One and Windows
Plus Switch (confirmed) and mobile (rumoured)
Genre: FPS
Similar to: PUBG, Fortnite and Call of Duty: Warzone

Most significantly, Apex Legends marks Electronic Arts’ move on the battle royale space dominated and defined by Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (commonly, ‘PUBG’). Developed by EA’s Respawn studio, the game endeavours to address some of the common design failings of the battle royale form, while innovating through the introduction of elements of the hero shooter genre. Apex Legends has met with considerable success, becoming a staple among the current roster of competitive shooters. And yet, at the same time, its per-player monetisation is below the competition some 18 months after launch. While publicly available data is limited, the numbers we have seen clearly point to the title’s per player monetisation falling well behind most other battle royale games.

Why Is It Important?

Apex Legends is one of the few battle royale shooters to succeed in establishing itself as a meaningful rival to Fortnite and PUBG. While it may not yet enjoy the sensational revenues of its main competitors, it has been critically celebrated, is considered to be an authentic and worthy online shooter by hardcore genre devotees, and makes a meaningful effort to serve more casually-minded players through the likes of quality of life improvements. It demonstrates that there is space for another battle royale game in the market, and room for innovation in a genre where so many have rushed to closely replicate the approaches of Fortnite and PUBG.

Apex Legends’ attempt to pursue an audience beyond the vast groups Fortnite and PUBG cater for is as evident in its tone and aesthetic as it is in its game systems. Respawn’s creation borrows a little of Fortnite’s bold, cartoonish aesthetic and personality, and some of PUBG’s leaning towards stern realism. That blend positions the game as a title that can appeal to an audience likely older than the Fortnite userbase, as well as those that are less hardcore than the PUBG player community — two very sizable groups. While the influence of Fortnite and PUBG is evident, at a glance it is clear that Apex Legends has been built to attract new and broad audiences to the already phenomenally popular battle royale form.

Apex Legends equally remains fascinating because it hasn’t translated its quality into towering revenues. There are lessons to be learned from its failures as well as its distinct approach. As such, to understand Apex Legends is important in understanding the battle royale phenomenon broadly, and the potential therein.

Apex Legends gets a lot right; it is very well polished compared to the likes of PUBG, and introduces a carefully considered tone.

How Does It Play?

Fundamentally, Apex Legends is a relatively conventional battle royale game. It sees 60 players compete to be the last standing in a shooting battle that rages over an island setting. The game launched with an exclusive focus on playing in teams of three (‘Trio’ mode), but since support for battles between teams of two (‘Duo’ mode) has been added, and the developer has experimented with — and moved away from — offering clashes between lone players. Those revisions — and the reasoning behind them — is something we’ll explore in more detail below.

During each battle combatants must scramble for weapons and resources as the playable area of that island continually shrinks, forcing survivors into an ever more contained battle; much like other battle royale titles.

Played in the first-person, Apex Legends embraces plenty from Overwatch and similar ‘hero shooters’ — that is, games where players select from a rostrum of distinct characters that offer different attributes (weapons, skills, abilities and such), before collaborating in teams.

Thanks to inheriting the DNA of hero shooters, Apex Legends’ leading cast sit at the heart of its effort to succeed.

Introducing hero shooter convention to the battle royale genre is certainly significant, and is Apex Legend’s leading distinction. Hero shooters ask players to consider and explore team combinations that bring together complementary abilities and weapons. That lets Apex Legends foster deeper, more rewarding team cohesion, and introduce a distinct kind of strategic depth to the battle royale form. This focus on inter-player cooperation makes the social drivers of Apex Legends much stronger than competitors, ultimately having a positive impact on retention, while increasing the desirability of the paid-for hero characters.

In Fortnite and PUBG players tend to be defined by their own weapons over their strengths as a team. That, quite simply, makes Apex Legends stand out in the battle royale space, and offer a distinct experience that will help differentiate the product in marketing.

EA and Respawn’s creation is also well polished, both visually and mechanically, considerably outshining the often janky looking (and performing) PUBG. It is equally a welcoming game that proves to be less punishing than PUBG, thanks to those quality of life improvements, which we’ll explore below.

The control scheme and UI, meanwhile, has been designed with elegance and efficiency in mind, keeping things fluid and clear for the player. Keybinding is kept at a minimum, shortcutting UI elements like menu wheels have been deployed with care, and some interactions such as fitting weapon add-ons can be handled automatically. As such, the controls and systems are easily embraced, and introduce much less interactive friction than PUBG in particular. They also appear to have been designed from the ground up to work equally well across PC and console.

As touched on above, various modes have been added — and some removed. Most significantly, the ‘Solos’ mode that offered a chance to compete alone — rather than in a team — was initially tested, and later removed. In April 2020 EA confirmed it would not be bringing Solos back, with community manager ‘DAVID_EA’ stating in update notes: “When we introduced Solos as a limited-time mode last year we saw it actually negatively impacted the game, especially when it came to new player retention. We’ve also purposely designed Legends and their abilities to compliment teamplay and squad composition, but when played Solo some Legend abilities become useless”

The previously trialled Duos mode, meanwhile, was seen to reinforce team cohesion, reduce time in game queues and compliment existing systems. As such, it was added to the game permanently with ‘The Old Ways’ update, introduced on April 7th, 2020.

Additionally, Apex Legends, like most battle royales operating with a battle pass system, features seasons. These seasons tend to last around three months, introducing new Legends, map changes, weapons and purchasable cosmetics, as well as narrative beats that weave those fresh characters into the game universe. Seasons also mark a refresh of the Apex Legends Battle Pass (something we’ll explore below).

A ranked league is offered alongside the main game mode, presenting the opportunity for serious, high-skilled competition — inevitably as an effort to broaden the appeal of the game by meeting the needs of more competitive players.

How Does It Monetise?

Apex Legend’s efforts to monetise are essentially based around two sinks: Legends, and various cosmetics. The Legends themselves are purchasable with Legend Tokens (acquired from levelling up) or for around $7 in the hard currency, Apex Coins. Players can also pursue a variety of cosmetics, acquired from both loot boxes and through the Battle Pass.

Legends each have a unique set of active and passive abilities, meaning that it is theoretically possible that owning one legend may imbue the player with some gameplay advantage. However, as the Legends are carefully balanced and easily earnable in game (or cheap to buy) to date, the game’s community generally hasn’t seen Apex Legends as ‘“pay-to-win.

The cosmetics acquired through Apex Legends’ loot boxes and Battle Pass are:

  • Skins: Legend and weapon skins are available in four rarities: Common, Epic, Rare and Legendary.
  • Quips: Also known as ‘voice lines’, Quips are distinct to each Legend, and offer a means to share brief spoken phrases on the battlefield.
  • Charms: These take the form of simple aesthetic items that can be used to adorn weapons.
  • Banners: Taking the form of the battlefield flags of real historical combat, banners are displayed before — and occasionally during — battles, and can be customised in various ways, particularly to show off in-game accomplishments.
Player banners provide a means to peacock personality, status and achievements — and a reason to spend money.

Apex Legends’ Battle Pass continues the game’s commitment to fairly conventional battle royale monetisation. Two Battle Pass tracks are available — a free option, which is available to all, and then a paid-for Premium track which offers additional (and often more desirable) rewards, for a little under $10 per season. For around $28, players can invest in a ‘Battle Pass Bundle’, which immediately levels them up through 25 Battle Pass tiers.

Battle Pass progression is gained through ‘Stars’. Stars are accumulated by gaining experience points by playing, via completing Daily and Weekly Challenges, and by finding treasure packs. Collecting set amounts of Stars unlocks the next Battle Pass level. Each level makes available cosmetic and currency rewards.

As with so many online shooters today, a season and battle pass system strives to maximise retention.

Finally, there are Apex Legends’ own loot boxes, named ‘Apex Packs’. Apex Packs contain a variety of cosmetic items and in-game currencies. There is additionally a ‘pity counter’, which guarantees a ‘Legendary’ item in every 30 Apex Packs purchased. Apex Packs can also be secured through reaching Battle Pass tiers, and by earning XP via ordinary play.

How Does the Economy Work?

Apex Legends has three primary in-game currencies — one hard, and two soft. They are as follows:

Additionally, limited-time currencies have also existed in tandem with the presence of specific limited content. Less prominent are ‘Legend Shards’, which are generated when Apex Packs are opened, and are used to make ‘Heirloom’ melee weapons. As soon as the player has no more Heirlooms to generate, Legend Shards cease being rewarded.

Apex Legends lets players put down plenty of cash… but they currently don’t really need to spend too much.

What Does Apex Legends Get Right?

The rostrum of hero characters succeed in encouraging exploration of numerous team-based strategies, and thanks to the season model, new Legends and map changes continually mix and reinvigorate the gameplay and so the competitive meta. These seasonal changes increase player retention and offer a natural point for churned players to re-engage with the game.

The setting, aesthetic and game lore present a world that is distinct enough to feel like a place of its own, while still managing to retain a mass market appeal. The level of polish is consistently apparent, and the game capably betters the levels of visual and technical stability seen in the notoriously rushed PUBG.

Most impressive, however, might be Apex Legends’ ability to serve both casual and hardcore play. It debuted as a ‘dehardcored’ shooter, having made several quality of life improvements to the battle royale genre. Those improvements include:

  • A Ping System: Letting players collaborate through the use of a simple visual interface (clicking on loot to highlight its presence, or sending an order to move to a new area), the ping system removes reliance on voice chat, making it easier to opt out of direct verbal conversation with other users. That circumnavigates language barriers, improves accessibility, counters some potential for toxicity, and reduces the pressure on new or less confident players who may simply feel meek about embracing competitive multiplayer.
  • Automated Loot Upgrades: Traditional battle royale games like PUBG tend to focus on manual loot equipping, granting players deep but laboursome customisation, and control over granular improvements. In Apex Legends, newly acquired loot is auto-equipped when appropriate. This not only serves to keep the gameplay fluid and the battles moving — it also more readily welcomes newer or more casually-minded players. However, this quality of life improvement does come with a cost. Items need to fit a strict hierarchy to work within the automation system. That could be seen as limiting the capacity for subtle distinctions across weapons and items.
  • Respawning: In Apex Legends teammates can help respawn a killed player — a stark contrast to more hardcore battle royales, where death is premenant. When a player is killed, teammates can recover their ‘banner’ and respawn them at set Respawn Beacons across the map. This creates a unique risk-reward mechanic, where both collecting the banner and using a Respawn Beacon is likely to leave a teammate open, but prevents killed players from simply being resigned to watching. It also cements Apex Legends’ distinct focus on collaboration.
  • Low Combatant Numbers: Fortnite and PUBG both focus on rounds for 100 simultaneous players. Apex Legends instead concentrates on 60-player battles, focused by slightly smaller maps. That means higher levels of action and greater odds of winning, resulting in a more enjoyable experience and greater retention.
  • Less Mechanical Realism: Unlike early battle royale games, Apex legends doesn’t pursue realism in it’s mechanics. Falls do not cause damage and one-shot kills are uncommon. This results in a much more forgiving and less frustrating experience.

What could be improved?

While Apex Legends is all-round a polished, enjoyable and very playable game, it is not without its faults.

Cosmetic Blandness
As much as Apex Legends puts cosmetic items front and centre of its monetisation, they can be considered rather bland and uninspired, particularly if contrasted to PUBG Mobile and Fortnite. Despite the former’s leaning towards the serious, it has introduced the likes of superhero skins to shake up its monetisation. Fortnite, meanwhile, is famed for high levels of eccentricity and absurdism. Apex Legends’ skins, meanwhile, are broadly similar and contained in a narrow aesthetic range. Indeed, it can be hard to tell in-battle if another player has a default or distinct skin. That can have a significant impact when considering that the driving force behind skins — and their role in the game’s monetisation — is about players peacocking to indicate status or individuality.

  • Possible Solution:
    Respawn and EA should introduce wilder, weirder and more varied skins, even if it comes at the expense of keeping the overall aesthetic tight and consistent. Distinct silhouettes are worthy of particular consideration, as an unmistakable shape is striking and apparent on the battlefield. Knowing cosmetics offer more apparent distinction would encourage players to more vigorously pursue them, subsequently driving increased uptake of the premium Battle ass and loot boxes.
Fortnite character skins and items demonstrate and abundance of personality…
…while Apex Legend’s skins tend to sit in a narrow aesthetic range.

Limited Hero Monetisation Presently it costs less than $50 to unlock every Legend in the game. While that may deliver considerable value to players, that is a low amount considering that it is the maximum a player could spend on Legends, the primary monetisation feature, over 18-months. Additionally, the low hero release cadence means players are more likely to settle into using just one, becoming increasingly skilled and comfortable with a given Legend. That can cause players to see the acquisition of a new hero as a downgrade, disconnecting them from Legends’ monetisation.

  • Possible Solution:
    Increasing the release rate of Legends would have a significant impact on the potential monetisation. However, a rotating roster of free Legends — as seen in League of Legends and many other MOBAs — would encourage players to move between and experience a greater selection of heroes. Rotation also encourages natural spending on heroes that pass out of the free selection.

Uninspired Time-Limited Events
Fortnite has disrupted the music industry and the conventions of live music with in-game events such as its famed Travis Scott gig, which 12 million players attended together. Apex Legends, meanwhile, has offered a rather underwhelming spread of time-limited events. Equally, it’s time-limited game modes have done little exciting or extraordinary — though they remain a valuable means for EA and Respawn to explore new ways to engage and retain players.

  • Possible Solution:
    Hosting music events, promoting other EA properties, end of season map-destruction parties and more could do a great deal to reinforce Apex Legends’ status as a place to keep revisiting. On the gameplay front, more events that temporarily offer an alternative to the main modes — perhaps easter egg hunts or PvE boss raids — would shake up strategies and keep play fresh. Additionally, time-limited heroes that hail from other games and IPs would also have a positive impact on monetisation

TL;DR

Apex Legends is ultimately an enjoyable and polished battle royale shooter, that is both fun and rewarding. It takes the battle royale concept into a new space, helping to broaden the genre, while offering players a somewhat distinct experience from the likes of Fortnite and PUBG. It deserves particular credit for its capacity to welcome and serve casual players, while equally satisfying hardcore shooter fans.

However, Apex Legends has not monentised well. The analysis here shows that a more ambitious, varied and thoughtful approach to cosmetics, events and heroes is needed to see EA’s game near anything like it’s main rivals’ financial success.

Ultimately, it’s a case of one of the most fundamental rules of successful monetisation: Players need reasons to spend money. And Apex Legends needs more of those reasons.

Originally published at https://departmentofplay.net on August 11, 2020.

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We bring together data and discipline experts to solve problems, improve market performance and make good things happen for PC, console and mobile games.