Apex Legends, the new battle royale game from Titanfall developer Respawn Entertainment, takes a lesson from the monumentally successful Fortnite: make your game free. Apex, which is out now on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, makes its money by selling in-game items rather than asking you to purchase the game itself. Fortnite and other games use a similar model to make tons of cash, but it's a monetization method that's fraught with the peril; free-to-play can be extremely lucrative, but it can also alienate players--kill games altogether.
Free-to-play games often carry a stigma because many fall into the trap of providing the paying customers with legs up over those who don't choose to buy in or can't afford to pay as much. At a recent preview event in Los Angeles at which Respawn showed off Apex Legends ahead of its launch, project lead Drew McCoy said the developer has been very cautious about its monetization choices, using lessons learned from its last game, Titanfall 2. You can spend money in Apex Legends, but like in Fortnite and similar titles, you can only ever buy cosmetic items and skins that change how your characters and weapons look--McCoy said you'll be able to pay to look good, but never pay to win.
"A lot of the team was really skeptical early on that we were going to be doing dirty things or stuff that felt scummy," McCoy said. "It was important to us that we did things that felt fair, that felt like Respawn. ...We looked at other games, we did research with the first parties [developers] across other EA games, for what really drives people from a fun perspective without hurting the game from feeling like you're being nickel-and-dimed."
While Respawn experimented with some monetization efforts like cosmetic items during the post-launch period of Titanfall 2, the team also hired a product manager who previously worked on Riot Games' free-to-play powerhouse League of Legends to make sure they were getting it right.
But McCoy also noted that Apex Legends includes a particular free-to-play element that has generated a lot of ire: loot boxes. McCoy said the developers have taken steps to make loot boxes fair to the players who choose to buy them. Respawn publishes the drop rates for its loot boxes both in the in-game store and on its website, so players know what the chances are of getting the best stuff. You're guaranteed at least a mid-tier "rare" item or better in each pack, and they don't dish out duplicates of items you already have. There's also "bad luck protection," McCoy said, to keep you from buying lots of loot boxes and never getting lucky enough to acquire some of the game's best stuff. During the preview, the store said that players are guaranteed at least one legendary item, Apex Legends' rarest, for every 30 loot boxes they open.
Apex Legends also includes other ways to spend money outside of loot boxes. There's an in-game store with a rotating inventory where you can purchase some items directly, and like Fortnite, Apex Legends will offer a "battle pass," a flat fee that lets you unlock more cosmetic items as you play. Finally, you'll be able to buy Legends, the game's playable characters. Six of the game's eight characters are available off the bat, and two more can be unlocked either with premium currency you pay for, or by earning in-game currency by playing.
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"We have been very diligent about making sure that the characters, the Legends, play differently--not better," McCoy said. "So the more cautious among the community would probably say, 'Oh, you're going to make the new ones more powerful for a little while if people buy them.' That's absolutely not our intention."
McCoy said one of the ways Respawn hopes to stand apart from other battle royale games is in its dedication to care and balancing when introducing new elements to the game, to preserve its integrity as a competition. It doesn't want to add a new gun or character to Apex Legends, only to have to immediately roll it back because of unforeseen consequences. A big part of that approach is gathering and analyzing data to see how people are playing the game and using its elements to make sure they're balanced. While the characters in Apex Legends offer different abilities, McCoy said it's essential that none are more or less powerful than the others, and Respawn is putting a lot of its efforts into making sure that's true.
Respawn's publisher, Electronic Arts, has run afoul of scummy-feeling monetization schemes in that department before. It was the trouble in Star Wars: Battlefront II, developed by DICE and published by EA. Before a last-minute change, the game was set to use loot boxes to hand out strong, useful weapons and items, and offered players powerful new characters they could purchase with real money. You could earn loot boxes and in-game currency to buy characters just by playing, but people willing to pay more into the game would obtain the better stuff faster and get ahead of the competition.
"We've seen from games like Battlefront II, how much paying for any kind of advantage is so bad," McCoy said. "I actually think that Battlefront is a really good game mechanically, and they did a lot of great things and it got overshadowed by some of those choices, but it's a really good spotlight to shine on why those kind of systems are so problematic."
You can't buy everything with in-game currency you'll earn for free, McCoy admitted, and he expects some people still will be turned off by the game's loot boxes. But Respawn is trying to make players feel like they get a lot for their money if they do pay, and like they're rewarded for their time even if they don't, he said.
"We just hope that you find a large-enough player base that likes what we've built and wants to show off and decides to spend some money in the game," he said. "But if not, free players who spend their time are just as important to us. We take that very seriously. Time and money are the two most precious things in any humans life. And in fact, they're choosing to spend either of them with us is incredibly important to us."
Check out our early impressions of Apex Legends from its preview event, and stay tuned for our full review in the next few days.