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Apex Legends Is Bolder Than Ever In Season 5, And Respawn Wants To Keep Trying New Things

Respawn has made a name for itself as a developer willing to take risks and innovate on what it’s good at. In 2019, we saw the studio tackle a live service battle royale game with Apex Legends, a genre that Respawn hadn’t broached before. Rather than simply emulate what had worked for other developers in the past, Respawn crafted its own style of battle royale with a narrative focus–and in the process, it began creating a true episodic game.

With the start of Season 5: Fortune’s Favor and the addition of Quest mode, Respawn is leaning further into this categorization and trying to be more experimentative as a whole. For the first time, the developer removed an iconic portion of the game’s map and implemented character balancing changes that weren’t straight buffs or nerfs. And according to Respawn, it’s worked out very well so far.

The Quest To Be More Episodic

Traditionally, episodic games resemble Telltale’s The Walking Dead or Life is Strange, but these games are more akin to streaming service binge culture. Most streaming services traditionally release entire seasons of a show at once for you to binge through with several months between each chunk. Similarly, episodes of games like The Walking Dead or Life is Strange are usually two to three hours long–you can digest each one in a single sitting like a TV show episode but once you do, you don’t get any more of the story for months. Prior to Season 5, Apex Legends told its story in much smaller pieces, with tidbits of lore or narrative given to the player through season launch trailers, Stories from the Outlands episodes, tweets, battle pass rewards, and unlockable legend intro and kill quips. Pieces of the story were delivered to you a lot more quickly, like a weekly TV show.

Granted, these were either released or unlocked at irregular rates, which doesn’t match the episodic nature of a traditional TV series. But Respawn has changed the tempo of Apex Legends’ story with Season 5 and the implementation of Quest mode. The new mode provides new PvE missions for the player to complete every Tuesday starting at 10 AM PT / 1 PM ET. Completing them unlocks new chapters in the game’s story. With Apex Legends Season 5, Respawn has taken a step closer to creating a truly episodic, television-like experience in a video game–hardcore fans all tune in at the same time each week and come away with just enough to maybe spark a conversation around the water cooler.

When I spoke to Apex Legends design director Jason McCord, he said, “Yeah, we’re really excited to try something like [Quest]–we haven’t seen anything even done like this before, especially in our binge culture. You can understand how if we released all of them at once, everyone would be done with them on day one and then they’d be like, ‘Where are the next ones?’ So it’s kind of an interesting way to do it.”

He continued: “Lots of stories are being written; there’s the main storyline that’s going to take a long time to spin up and get somewhere, and we’ve got lots of smaller ones–Quest is where we start to see the start of those smaller ones. And then we’ve got lots of individual legend storylines and those can come and go when we are able to tell them. It’s like what I imagine writing for a comic book is like, where you’ve got different stories that you’re able to tell in different issues whenever you get to that part.”

Destroying Skull Town

McCord said that episodic storytelling has been a learning experience for Respawn, but the team wants to keep breaking free of its comfort zone and trying new things. Honing in on the episodic nature of Apex Legends’ storytelling is only part of what the developer wanted to do in Season 5. After a transformative first year, Apex Legends managed to get to a good place so Respawn is hoping to use Year 2 to experiment with how it iterates on the battle royale, such as using the game’s story to remove one of the playerbase’s favorite landmarks: Skull Town.

When Loba accidentally destroyed Skull Town and Thunderdome, she attracted the attention of the legends and the people who run the Apex Games.
When Loba accidentally destroyed Skull Town and Thunderdome, she attracted the attention of the legends and the people who run the Apex Games.

“I still remember exactly where I was when I first heard, I think it was Jason saying, ‘We’re thinking about removing Skull Town,'” Apex Legends game director Chad Greiner told me. “It’s like, there are certain moments in life that you’ll never forget. And that day is one of them, I still remember exactly where I was in the office and I was in shock for a moment. Like, you’re going to remove Skull Town? Followed up by the thought of, ‘That sounds great! That’s such a huge change. Let’s do it.’ Because I just love the idea of shaking the game up and making meaningful changes. It’s a live service game, we’ve been playing Kings Canyon for a while–players have had thousands of matches on it–so a significant change like that gets me excited. I don’t worry too much about the players who love Skull Town–I was one of them. I think what’s best for the game is to keep it fresh.”

Greiner added, “I think it’s good for us to telegraph to players that, as developers, we’re not going to be too crushed about things–even things that people really love. We find the value in changing things up and surprising people more than saying, ‘Oh we made a town that people really like.’ I like to think [Skull Town] is iconic to early Apex, and if something becomes too iconic, it probably has our scopes zoomed in on it.”

Reworking A Legend

Apex Legends is a battle royale game, but it also possesses hero shooter elements. Like the developers of other hero-based shooters, Respawn continually buffs and nerfs the playable characters in Apex Legends in order to rebalance the game. However, the developer tried going beyond a simple buff or nerf in Season 5, completely reworking one of Apex Legends’ characters–in this case, Mirage–by drastically altering or outright changing their abilities.

“[Mirage] was fun because I hadn’t even really considered reworking a character to that degree and one of our lead designers, Carlos Pineda, just took it upon himself,” Greiner said. “Like we see feedback on which characters are underplayed or underpowered–we also have lots of data that tells us very explicitly which characters are underpowered–and we look at those and we’re always thinking, ‘How can we push and pull and how can we move these around and get things more in line but also just shake things up?’ And some characters are harder than others obviously. You see that we keep poking at Wraith and Pathfinder and they don’t seem to be getting any worse.”

Both Pathfinder and Wraith have remained top tier since Apex Legends launched despite Respawn's many attempts to nerf the forward scout and interdimensional skirmisher.
Both Pathfinder and Wraith have remained top tier since Apex Legends launched despite Respawn’s many attempts to nerf the forward scout and interdimensional skirmisher.

He continued: “But with Mirage, it was tricky–we wanted to make sure we didn’t lose the identity of the character. People are attached to Mirage and he makes decoys and he’s tricky and he gets out of situations. So when we thought about this, that was really key for me was to make sure that we didn’t lose the identity of the character. But I think Carlos did a really good job reworking those abilities in a way that makes sense–it makes sense that this character could reasonably upgrade his technology. Just the lore of how a character gets buffed is important to us. It should at least make sense.”

According to Greiner, Respawn wasn’t sure about the Mirage rework all the way up until Season 5: Fortune’s Favor patch went live. However, Grenier reports that fan feedback has been mostly positive and it’s inspired Respawn to reconsider how to balance legends in the future. The team now knows that fans are just as open to the possibility of legends getting brand-new abilities as they are to straightforward buffs and nerfs.

In Season 5, both Mirage's tactical and ultimate abilities were altered and his passive ability was changed outright.
In Season 5, both Mirage’s tactical and ultimate abilities were altered and his passive ability was changed outright.

“Now that Mirage is sort of off the table and on the bottom for feedback, we’re hearing comments about Octane and about Lifeline,” Greiner said. “I don’t think there’s anything substantial right now but there are definitely some options that you can look forward to and things that we’re looking into. Sorry, that’s my long-winded way of saying that we’re not announcing what we’re going to do. But, we are trying things.”

Both Greiner and McCord said that Respawn is paying attention to what the community is talking about and willing to consider constructive fan feedback when making balancing decisions–McCord even paused our interview to ask me how I’d want to see Octane reworked after learning the adrenaline junkie with the tragic backstory is my main in Apex Legends.

Looking Forward: Seasons 6-11

Already, Respawn is considering Season 5 to be a huge success for Apex Legends. According to Greiner, the first week of Season 5 saw the highest number of daily player retention that Apex Legends has had since the game’s first week. Although Respawn will continue to monitor Apex Legends throughout Season 5 and implement balancing changes or bug fixes where needed (like with the update aimed at fixing Season 5’s hit registration issues), the team is already hard at work on content for future seasons, such as the new legends coming in Seasons 6, 7, and 8.

“They’ve got models–not fully, some of them aren’t fully fleshed out–and personalities and we know what they look like, their backstories,” Greiner said. “So we’re able to start planning out these things a lot better and that lets us start to wrap things together in a way that makes it feel like we have things planned out long in advance–because we do! I know that there are some connections coming up that are really exciting.”

Though later seasons aren’t as finalized, Respawn is working on content in Apex Legends all the way through to 2021. “We’re doing play tests internally in our office for Seasons 7, 8, 9–we’re even working on content for Season 11,” Greiner said.

“It took us a long time to find our rhythm because we’ve never made a live game before,” McCord added. “So we came out the gate and suddenly it was like, ‘Oh, okay, people really want to play this game,’ so we needed to figure out a way to do it with the size of our team at a pace that doesn’t just burn us out and kill us.”

For what it’s worth, Season 5: Fortune’s Favor is shaping up to be one of my favorite seasons for Apex Legends to date. Despite the fact that a chunk of Kings Canyon is just gone now, the new additions to the old map have somehow made it feel larger and just different enough to be unfamiliar. It’s been a welcome challenge to relearn how to play on Apex Legends’ original map. Plus, Loba is a fabulous addition to the battle royale–Apex Legends has long needed another support character, and Loba manages to be a useful addition without creeping into overpowered territory. It certainly feels like Respawn has hit its stride.

Now Playing: Apex Legends Season 5 Adds Loba, Buffs Mirage, & More

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