The morning of Super Bowl LIII felt slightly different for those in the gaming world. The big game was still hours away, but a surprise was potentially waiting to surface at any moment. Rumors started to float around that EA and Respawn Entertainment had something special planned in the form of a surprise game set to be revealed and released on Super Bowl Sunday. To say the atmosphere was unlike anything else in gaming at that time was an understatement.
That game would eventually be revealed as Apex Legends, a battle royale shooter set in the world of Titanfall, but one focused purely on the series' acclaimed infantry combat. It was not revealed, in fact, until the next morning, but the anticipation for its arrival was still unlike anything else at that time. The game hit over 1 million users mere hours after its announcement and subsequent launch.
Respawn's battle royale is now five years old and has evolved greatly in that period. It's still Apex Legends, but Season 20 will see some substantial changes. To learn more about what's coming, Shacknews spoke with Narrative Lead Ashley Reed and Animation Director Moy Parra. On top of that, we just had to ask about the atmosphere in the studio back in 2019 as those Super Bowl reveal rumors began to swirl.
Shacknews: As we reach five years of Apex Legends, the game is changing a lot, but it's been a steady rollout of changes. At what point did the team realize that it was time to go in a different direction from the typical seasonal release pattern of new legend, new map, and incremental changes?
Ashley Reed, Narrative Lead: I think when just the scope became apparent and when we started to realize we were getting dangerously close to releasing content just for the sake of releasing it because we had to be on a schedule as opposed to being happy with what we were releasing. That's when Evan [Nikolich, Design Director] first pitched the idea of "Let's try a season without a Legend." There was some real fear that this was going to be a problem, and then actually it went pretty well. We're definitely not stopping launching Legends, because we still love making them, but there was [a sense of], "Okay, people still loved playing the season. They still loved playing with the existing characters. We can take our foot off the gas a little bit." The intensity to produce for the sake of production is not there.
Moy Parra, Animation Director: I also think we got a taste of that earlier when we stopped releasing a weapon with every single pass, every single season. And, it was actually something super healthy for the game. So that gave us a little [sense that] maybe not adding new stuff doesn't necessarily mean that's the healthiest thing for the game. However, changing course to maybe not [adding] a Legend was definitely a scary proposition. Since then, I think we are a little bit more bold in what we want to try for the season, how we want to shake things up and make some changes that are for the betterment of game overall.
Shacknews: There's a lot coming in Season 20, but what would you say are the single biggest additions or changes?
Reed: Legend upgrades! It's a really big system. It's something [the team has] been talking about since we made that decision of "Okay, we're not going to launch a Legend every season, but what are we going to bring?" And, this is one of the big systems we were talking about. So just in terms of sheer scale and how much it affects the game, it's that, for sure.
Parra: It affects everyone. Some departments more than others, but 100 percent, it's probably the biggest feature and one that's an exciting one.
Shacknews: After five years, what would you say is the biggest challenge in attracting new players to the Apex Legends?
Reed: It can get kind of daunting, and I say this from a lower perspective. There are people who ask us their questions. We get asked where stuff that we think everyone knows is so far beyond what people understand because [they'll ask], "Where did that get mentioned?" We're like, "Oh, in a Twitter post five years ago. Oops!"
We've made efforts to alleviate that. We've created the lore, how that brings together all the out-of-game content so people can see that there. And we're focusing this year on bringing more of the content into the game itself, so people can see it and engage with it there. But it's still a lot, because we do have a lot of content for all of the different Legends. It's a huge roster and we want to make the world feel rich, vibrant, and deep. So, that's a lot. And how do you communicate that to someone very quickly while they're getting shot at and running away from the ring? So, we're constantly looking for ways to help make that more accessible.
Parra: It's also a testament to the team that we've been able to pack so much in the time that we've had, and with that comes the challenge of, "How does a new person come in?" It's like showing up late to a party, and the party is awesome, right? But, you can be late. You can feel a little bit left out. So, this whole thing about accessibility and making sure that players not only come into the game, but want to stay in the game, it's something that we're really trying to push hard in 2024. It's a it's a very big, very big focus.
Shacknews: On that note, what would you estimate the learning curve is for people experiencing Apex Legends for the first time? Do you feel that newcomers can acclimate themselves to the game faster now than they could in the past?
Reed: Oh, definitely not. I feel like it's a huge challenge now because back then it was eight [Legends]. You had to keep track of what eight characters could do. And I think [you had] one map you had to know, and now, you need to know what 20-something different characters are doing and have multiple maps memorized to be at the scale of someone who's been playing since launch day. I don't want to scare anybody, because we do want to make it easier for people to get into it, but the players today have a lot more to take into account. They have to absorb it all at once.
Parra: I think it also varies. If you play purely Battle Royale, yeah, it's difficult and there's a huge variation. However, something that is cool that wasn't there at launch is that there are other modes that are, I would say, less difficult than BR. And they're, by design, a lot more casual, too. So players can go in, get some kills, get some quick reps, and then do something else. Whereas with Battle Royale, it's a much more... almost an emotional investment that maybe not everybody's ready for.
So you can go to these other modes, get to know the game, get to know the characters, get to know the mechanics, and then go into Battle Royale and... maybe get owned at the beginning? But eventually, we do catch on. So overall, even though the game has expanded, I do feel like other aspects of the game make it a more rounded, inviting package than when it just came out and it was sink or swim.
Reed: I do remember at the very beginning of Apex, there was a design philosophy that nothing should be explained. It all should be communicated through feel, which is a noble endeavor, but in a game like ours, as we saw it grow, we were like, "That might be impossible. And we're putting too much pressure on the players who absorb information without instruction in a really hectic environment."
So we have embraced that there's some things we need to do to help players along and communicate better. I think that's a good focus for us and I think it will be helpful to new players coming out.
Shacknews: I'm a sucker for story and Apex Legends has had a compelling narrative over the years. Where is the story now and what can players expect in the year ahead?
Reed: We just finished up Kill Code, which is our first attempt at, "Can we tell a story of one large narrative across an entire year and get that self-contained story in front of the players and have them enjoy it?" That went really well. The reaction to it was awesome, and we learned a lot from how we would want to do it in the future.
So we're working on another story that will take us through 2024. I don't want to give any of that away, but I think if you look again, you'll see hints of it in the season 20 launch trailer.
Shacknews: I do have one more question and I'm happy to have two veterans who've been around from the very beginning. Five years ago, I remember the lead up to the Apex Legends announcement, and there were a lot of rumors going around during Super Bowl weekend that there was a big announcement coming, and some were even speculating that there was an actual announcement coming on Super Bowl Sunday. Can you tell me what the atmosphere was like within Respawn during that weekend?
Parra: It was very, very anxious. It was a mixed bag. For the most part, I think people were very excited. At the same time, there was a healthy amount of... "This better work."
Of course, you go in there with the absolute best of intentions, lots of excitement, but at the same time, that weekend, specifically, was when some of the very first leaks started to happen in Apex and it was like, "Oh my gosh, we worked so hard to keep this under wraps." And some people were trying to get some clout really easily for that. So, that was a little bit disappointing.
But, at the same time, Apex didn't exist yet. So, it was just a scoop. Luckily, it didn't take much away from the excitement. And, of course, when it did happen, it was something that caught everybody by surprise in a super, super good way. And, the atmosphere in this place was just electric and one of the absolutely, by far, one of the best days in my career.
Reed: It almost had an "outrunning the fireball in a movie" energy. Like you're racing towards safety and it's right behind you. We gotta make it! And, that announcement went off beautifully.
Parra: Yeah, people were gathered here, some people were gathered at home. When it did drop, it was... it was fascinating.
Apex Legends: Breakout, Season 20 for Respawn's long-running Battle Royale, is set to launch on Tuesday, February 13.
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Apex Legends interview: Reflecting on five years and that one Super Bowl weekend
Some interesting tidbits in this interview, thanks for doing it! I'm glad that Respawn seems to be opening up a bit and taking their foot off the content content content gas pedal and putting a bit more focus on bringing fun back into the game.
Adding talents is really huge. It also gives them tools to tweak the meta without having to completely redesign characters. Some really exciting changes coming with s20