On Feb. 4, 2019, Apex Legends burst onto the battle royale scene with a surprise launch. It quickly became one of the most popular free-to-play games -- taking on hits like Fortnite and PUBG -- but waned in popularity as the year continued. Now, a year into the game, developer Respawn Entertainment says it's found a niche among the big battle royale games.
With Apex Legends season 4 starting Tuesday, the development team says it's landed on the right balance to make the game more innovative while also giving it a compelling storyline. Respawn surprised players last week with the introduction of a new Legend, Forge, only to then kill off that character in order to introduce another, Revenant. The result is a trailer with more than 3 million views in the past week and a renewed sense of excitement among Apex Legends fans.
Excitement for Apex Legends started early on, after Respawn worked on it in secrecy for years. It's part of the sci-fi Titanfall universe, and players choose a Legend and form a squad with two others. The goal is to outlast 19 other teams to win the match. Unlike in other battle royale games such as Fortnite and PUBG, each Legend has unique abilities. The result is a fast-paced, competitive multiplayer game that players were hungry for.
Within its first week, 25 million people downloaded the game across the PS4, Xbox One and PC platforms. Respawn says its work paid off as Apex Legends surpassed the battle royale juggernaut Fortnite in popularity.
"When we saw the success of Apex, I think there's probably not a feeling that tops what that feels like," said game director Chad Grenier. "You're working for several years on this project in secrecy and you never have more than a couple hundred people playing it during that time. While we think we have a really great game on our hands, you don't know until it's out there."
It was "euphoric" for the team, said Dusty Welch, chief operating officer for Respawn, but they soon discovered what happens when hordes of people jump on a brand new game.
"We learned when we launched that there was such demand, such passion for what we were creating, that we learned that we needed even more content than we thought possible," he said. "I think that caught us a bit off-guard, in a positive way, of course."
A lack of new content early on turned out to be a drag on the game. Over the months following its successful debut, Apex Legends saw its player base growth begin to slow. It took one month for the game to reach 50 million players, but it took another seven months to reach the 70 million mark.
As a live service game -- video games that are regularly updated in order to keep people playing -- there's an expectation that new content will be released monthly as in PUBG or weekly as in Fortnite. Apex Legends, on the other hands, releases content at the start of each season, which lasts approximately four months.
"[Live service] is like having a child," Welch said. "Everyone can tell you about it, but until you have one, you really don't know what it means to run a live service."
Instead of making content for the sake of releasing content, the Respawn team went in a different direction.
"We made a conscious choice as a team to slow down and catch our breath so we didn't kill anybody off and to focus on the quality of the game, make a much better and tighter experience at the cost of putting out more content," Welch said.
It was a costly decision for Respawn. Apex Legends generated an estimated $92 million in its first month, making it the biggest launch for a free-to-play game, according to video game market research firm SuperData. But just two months later, in April, revenue from the game dropped to $24 million.
Still, the team is unwavering with its choice.
"It was absolutely the right decision that we would do 10 out of 10 times," Welch said.
Now with the launch of season 4, Respawn says it's found a niche among fans who value stories as much as, if not more than, gameplay.
"Starting with season 4 and continuing through the year, we're going to double down on telling stories, building these characters backstories," Grenier said. "Killing off Forge is just one of those things that helps builds Revenant's backstory and creates an interesting narrative for our players."
Each character takes approximately 16 months to develop and test before they're ready to be added to the game, Grenier said. However, the team isn't running short on characters.
"We have Legends lined up for several seasons at this point," he said. "We've got a big backlog of characters that are in varying stages of development."
Respawn notes that it's listening to the fans who are saying they want even more storytelling in Apex Legends. We'll just have to wait and see if this renewed focus on narrative will entice others to pick up the game.