Apex Legends has been one of 2019's biggest successes, and developer Respawn Entertainment is looking to keep the interest for the growing battle royale game going with its upcoming second season of content. During EA Play at E3 2019, the creators revealed what's to come for its battle royale spin-off from the Titanfall franchise, and how much the team learned following the runaway success after its surprise February debut. In addition to a significantly revised battle pass--lessening the grind and offering better rewards--we also learned of some buffs coming to characters like Mirage, along with everyone's favorite gun--the Mozambique.
But the biggest news to come from EA Play was the reveal of Wattson, the game's newest legend. During EA Play, we spent some time talking with Apex Legends project lead Drew McCoy and lead product manager Lee Horn--along with a surprise special delivery from Respawn co-founder Vince Zampella. In our talk, they reflected on the fast and unexpected success of the game, and the big lessons they learned following the game's debut.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.
First off, can you talk about what it was like seeing Apex Legends become such a hit after launch?
Lee Horn: Yeah, I mean, the first couple weeks was just us watching twitch being like “Oh my god, I can't believe this is happening.” No one here expected to find such a rabid fan base so quickly, and to find fans that were just excited about our game. This was great for the team, everyone was like “Yeah, we put a lot of time into this and it's great to have that payoff.” But it's also a learning experience for us.
Drew McCoy: It was crazy. Nothing can prepare you for that. You realize what's happening as it's happening. You don't get much premunition to it, and so it's just kind of washing over you.
Horn: On the first day, I think we were watching the meters fill up and it's like, “I can't believe we have that many players already.” Everyone was cheering, it was a very surreal experience.
McCoy: Yeah, we smashed our 7-8 week expectations on the first day. So it's like "Oh no, what's going to happen?” There's a little strip mall next to the office. At lunch, we went over to get some food, but because everything was just continually growing, I actually brought my laptop and logged into work so we can watch the graphs while we ate--in case something started breaking. I was with a lot of the server engineers and that was our life for a while.
Horn: Now we can sort of take a breath.
McCoy: Yeah, time to get back to work.
Lee: Yeah, get back to work.
Following that success, it seems like there was a number of paths you could have taken with the game. What did you think was important to focus on first?
Horn: We definitely wanted more variety. We want you to sort of tackle a bunch of different things with challenges, but we're not trying to go crazy yet. Again, a lot of people play the core of the game. We want to shake it up, but nothing too crazy. There's a fine line and we'll keep dancing on that. We're also trying to come up with more game modes. We now have the Elite Queue, and that sort of gives players, especially the hardcore, a new way to play. Then the evolution of that is, with Season 2, we'll have ranked. It's not a temporary one, that's more of a full feature game mode for Apex Legends.
With that in mind, what were some of the lessons learned from the last version of the Battle Pass, and how that informed what was to come with Season 2?
Horn: We spent a lot of time reading Reddit, going through Reddit, getting the community feedback. A lot of it was like we talked about, the game came out, it was like "Oh, crap we've got to work fast, we got to add more." The players were asking for a Battle Pass so we kind of had to do the best we could do given that we had a five to six-week timeline to work with.
So with this season, we've heard all the feedback. A big thing for us this season is challenges, which will keep the gameplay fresh as you're leveling up. The total time to get to max level is reduced considerably, and even casual players will feel a nice ramp-up to the battle pass. We're putting crafting metals in, that was a big community request, and you will be able to get the legendary of your choice. We added three other legendaries to the track, so that's Caustic, Octane, and then the Spitfire weapon skin. We're also adding three new content types that will replace the voice lines, badges, and the stat trackers. We're leaving other things as a surprise for when season two launches, but there will be completely new categories that you've never seen before content.
Another change that a lot of people are happy about is for Mozambique, a gun that's somewhat notorious for being unreliable in most combat encounters. Can you talk about the general reception it's had since launch, and how you wanted to change it?
Horn: So, I think we're leaving that one for a surprise, but our hope is that we'll have some late-game potential for it. If you find it, you'll consider it as a real choice versus a sort of temporary measure. But I mean, we enjoy a good meme, and it's exciting to see people responded so strongly to it. That's sort of why we added like a joke throw away animation. Now, when you replace Mozambique, you like just throw it down.
So yeah, we embrace it but we also--at the same time--are trying to come up with ways to be viable and things like that. So a lot of the changes you'll see for weapons are sort of trying to give the underplayed weapons situations when they're good.
Is there a worry there that a slight buff to one gun--even the Mozambique--could seriously disrupt the flow?
Horn: Yeah, most of the time we try to stick with hop ups [gun attachments that alter weapons] so that way it sort of makes it late-game, because you have to find component A and component B and put them together. So the Mozambique's still the early game, better than a kick--or arguably better than a kick, but it's still worse to some people. So yeah, we're trying to do it through ways that will make it not better early-game necessarily. We're buffing some damage here and there, and some small tweaks to just sort of make it not feel like a wet noodle gun. But we are trying to make it so that it'll be worthwhile when trying to progress to the next weapon. That is a goal, and hopefully the hop ups we'll add as well can make it exciting and open up new gameplay.
The new Legend coming to the game is Wattson, who has some cool tactics that relate to locking areas down. Have there been any cool tricks or skills that you've seen players pull off from your playtests?
McCoy: Well, I'm a mostly simple player, so Wattson's like really complex for me. You have to plan, have an idea, and try to execute on it. So I'm part of the wrong one to ask about her. I don't know if you've had any really good experience with her?
Horn: We've seen some cool things so far. Like when there are multiple teams in Skull Town with Wattsons, and they essentially just lock it down with her fences. They basically turn it into this crazy prison city.
McCoy: I was actually in a final circle once where Caustic and Wattson were hunkered down in a building during the final circle, and it was like impenetrable. We got just destroyed because it was their house and we were not welcome.
Lee Horn: (Laughs) Yeah so they'll have a great trade-off of being really strong, or that duo will be really strong in buildings obviously, but if they get caught out in the open and they didn't have time to set up. So it's a lot of like anticipation gameplay and sort of thinking about where the fight will be versus reacting to the fight right now.
Can you talk a little about the process of making a new legend?
McCoy: Generally, a legend can take a year and a half to make--so we came up with our main roster really far in advance. We have a bunch of them that we prototype and iterate on, and they all have kind of like different stages they go through in development. We have to make sure that they're fun enough, they've got a good personality, their assets are looking good, and that they have a silhouette that gives off their personality.
It just takes a long time. We've got stuff that we haven't shown yet that we've been working on for more than a year and a half. That's the tricky part about game development, the live service world. People expect satisfaction immediately and they don't realize how long it takes to make content. So we have to use our crystal ball and think; what are people going to like a year from now? And start working on that while looking at what the game's doing and it's adjusting along the way. It's kind of a dark art.
I'd imagine that you all must agonize over how new legends will play with others.
Horn: We play test the game twice a day, which can be up to three or four hours if you participate in all of it. That's usually where we get that kind of insight. We'll lock all characters but say the four or five we're working on, and just play those so we can get a lot of reps on them. That's where we feel out the balance changes. We also have periodically brought in streamers to give feedback. Not for marketing purposes but just to play the game, tell us what's working. If they have a crystal ball, what do they see happening with this character if it was to come out as it is? That's been really helpful as well.
Editor's Note: At this point, Respawn Entertainment Co-Founder Vince Zampella arrived with lunchtime fajitas for the devs, proudly asking McCoy and Horn "would you like some fajitas?" He stuck around for the remainder of the interview.
Since you're here, what are your overall thoughts on just how successful Apex Legends has been?
Vince Zampella: Yeah, holy shit, right? (Laughs) It just went way past our expectations. I think Lee and Drew already spoke this, but you know, it creates its own set of problems too right? We weren't prepared for it, I mean even like just on the hardware side. It's a great problem to have, don't get me wrong, right? But it's still like, I think Drew was walking around in a zombie-like state for about two months. It's created a lot of work, but it's amazing to see. I don't think we would change it if we could. It took us all by surprise.
Did the sudden success of the game force you to reevaluate certain features or shift your perspective of what the game can be?
McCoy: Not necessarily what it could be, but like a really practical example of what we wanted to focus on was anti-cheat. Cheaters go to games that are popular. Not that we were expecting the game to fail, but we weren't expecting it to be as popular as it was. So we thought our anti-cheat would be sufficient--it turned out it wasn't. So we had to divert a bunch of resources away from other things, and start working on cheaters, spammers and stuff like that. That's just one of the things we knew we were going to have to do if the game got big enough. We just happen to do it in the first month, rather than it be twelve months down the road.
Horn: A lot of the features we wanted on day one was going to be hard to deliver, regardless of how much time we had. But now that frenzy at launch has died down, we can now sort of take a breath, and then get back to work.