Apex Legends is already a special game. In just 24 hours, this Titanfall battle royale spin-off acquired 1 million unique players, overtook Fortnite to become one of the most-watched Twitch games, and dominated headlines. You might say that some of these accomplishments are fairly standard for a new battle royale title from a major developer that was announced and released within a day, but the truth of the matter is that very little about Apex Legends so far has been standard. That includes another possible record that Apex Legends may have set: quickest time for a developer to distance itself from its publisher.
“Not to be throwing EA under the bus, but this wasn’t the game they were expecting,” Apex Legends’ executive producer Drew McCoy said during an interview with Game Informer. “I had to go to executives and show it to them and explain it and…not convince but more ‘Hey, trust us! This is the thing you want out of us.’ As a corporation, they can only quantify based on past data and they’ve never done anything like this before. There’s a giant rainbow question mark over revenue projections for this game. This is a game we had to say ‘This is what we want to do. Help us get there.’ They had no hand in development or anything about this game.”
Even if Respawn didn’t set some verifiable record with that statement, it’s certainly not every day that you hear a developer go out of its way to effectively throw a publisher under the bus (despite what Mr. McCoy may say). Then again, Apex Legends‘ first day of availability isn’t like every other day and EA isn’t like every other publisher. In fact, in a genre full of world-class competitors, Apex Legends‘ greatest threat may be the presence and influence of its publisher.
So far as the game itself goes, Apex Legends has a lot going for it. It’s much more than just another battle royale game. The game’s focus on squads and teamwork push an element of the battle royale genre that has traditionally been limited by the chaos of random matchmaking. Here, though, a streamlined communication system combined with easy-to-understand incentives makes teamwork in Apex Legends feel organic. The same is true of the game’s hero system, which could have ruined the simplicity of the experience (like we saw with Quake Champions) but instead offers a genuine incentive to coordinate with your squad and find a Legend who compliments how you want to play.
Apex Legends‘ ability to separate itself from the genre’s leaders goes far beyond back-of-the-box features. It’s been suggested that top battle royale streamers and players helped developer Respawn address some of the biggest problems in battle royale games and their effort shows. Unlike Call of Duty‘s Blackout mode, item pickup and inventory management in Apex Legends feel smooth and enjoyable. Unlike PUBG, it’s easy to navigate the game’s world and work your way in and out of firefights. Unlike Fortnite and many other battle royale games, Apex Legends‘ enhanced revive and respawn systems make it less likely that your run will be ended by a cheap shot or some other unfortunate circumstance.
All of that is great, yet the threat of EA looms over the game like a buzzard stalking a thirsty man through the desert. The most obvious possible way that EA can interfere with the success of Apex Legends is by pushing a predatory microtransaction system (Star Wars Battlefront 2 is the most obvious example of the publisher’s tendency to do so). Apex Legends‘ current microtransaction system, which largely pushes cosmetic items, feels standard enough, but the game’s use of loot boxes and premium heroes certainly opens the door for someone to whisper in the developer’s ear that it might be a good idea to encourage free-to-play users to become whales.
McCoy seemingly suggests that such a future may be possible when he mentions that EA has questions regarding the game’s revenue potential. That feels like an odd thing to say. Why would EA question the revenue potential of a well-produced, free-to-play battle royale title when it’s surely seen how successful such games can be? However, you get the sense that he’s talking about the revenue potential of such a game that isn’t designed to encourage spending through significant microtransactions but rather through quality gameplay, feedback-based updates, and genre innovation. It certainly feels telling that EA seems to have more faith in Anthem‘s business model (i.e. the almost exact replication of a model of gameplay that emphasizes a narrow and short gameplay loop).
The more disturbing implication is that it’s Respawn EA doesn’t trust. It’s easy to see how EA could look at a game like Titanfall 2, which featured few microtransactions, an incredible single-player mode, and other fan-friendly features, and see only the game’s somewhat disappointing sales figures. Nevermind that Titanfall 2’s release ensured that it would compete not only against the latest Call of Duty title but EA’s own Battlefield 1. The publisher apparently felt the market for all those titles wouldn’t overlap, which is quite odd when you consider that EA also promoted Titanfall 2 through Buffalo Wild Wings and Mountain Dew.
The truth might be that EA and Respawn have always been locked in a battle of ideas. EA undoubtedly thought that Respawn would deliver EA the next Call of Duty. After all, the founders of Respawn created the Call of Duty franchise and were the driving force behind some of its best entries. What EA was apparently never prepared for, though, is the fact that the Respawn developers first made Call of Duty a great franchise and then turned it into a global phenomenon. In doing so, they demonstrated the kind of patience and long-term understanding of gaming and gamers that EA either chooses to ignore or simply doesn’t believe in. EA is a company that can afford to let a franchise grow yet often elects to judge the merits of any venture against the success of its already proven cash cows like Madden and FIFA.
It’s that battle of philosophies that leaves you to wonder whether Respawn really does have a helpful partner in EA or if it’s going to have to continue to convince the publisher that the game it wants to make is the game it should be able to make. Apex Legends is a very good battle royale title, and unless you believe that Fortnite is unstoppable or that the battle royale genre is just a flash in the pan, then you have to believe that Respawn can turn it into a great game. Yet, believing that requires you to assume that EA will not resort to yearly installments, aggressive microtransactions, and developer discarding. After all, the company has consistently utilized all of these business tactics over the last 15 years, even as the world changes around it.
Apex Legends has accomplished a lot in just a short amount of time, but in order to be truly successful, it must not only remain popular in the long run but convince one of the world’s most controversial and sometimes outright despised game companies that it is time to change.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.