Apex Legends has come out of nowhere and made a huge impact – 1m unique players in the first eight hours no less.
Out of nowhere is the key phrase here, though, with the game making it to within days of release, after 21 months of secrecy, before the rumours started circling – due to EA’s decision to show it to the press and influencers in advance of launch.
It’s not the first such surprise in recent months, admittedly. But for an indie studio, such as Supergiant Games, to spring Hades onto Epic Game Store is one thing; for EA to develop a battle royale spin-off of a much-beloved franchise and launch it simultaneously on all three core platforms is an incredible feat.
Based on that achievement alone, Apex Legends is sizing up to be something of an apex predator.
The most notable comparison is Netflix’s surprise launch of Cloverfield Paradox one year ago. Though in that case the film was well-known to exist and its connection to the franchise had been unveiled well in advance, though Netflix unleashing it with no build-up was mind-boggling in terms of accepted wisdom. But what EA achieved here was still a coup far in excess of that launch.
From a marketing point of view, the idea of pushing the game out there with practically no build -up or support is both exciting and terrifying. Letting the game speak for itself is a powerful concept and this will undoubtedly become a more accepted approach, especially for a free-to-play title such as Apex Legends.
But here the launch solved a specific problem for this title, for this publisher, according to lead producer Drew McCoy, talking to Eurogamer at a preview event.
"We're doing a free to play game, with essentially loot boxes, after we were bought by EA, and it's not Titanfall 3. It's the perfect recipe for a marketing plan to go awry, so why have that – let's just ship the game and let players play."
It’s a great insight, and a remarkably honest one, as EA and Respawn would have had a huge uphill struggle to try and get their game even a fair public judgement. "To try and convince a sceptical audience for months with trailers and hands-on articles, we're just like 'let the game speak for itself' – it's the most powerful antidote to potential problems,” he told Eurogamer.
The unexpected popularity of the battle royale genre has created many interesting reactions. Epic pivoted Fortnite almost entirely to the genre. Activision choose to integrate the format into its annual paid release, to great effect. And now EA spins-off a much-loved but commercially struggling franchise into its loosely-related take on the genre.
The key here is that all these games were able to be built on top of existing codebases, and largely by existing teams, allowing them to appear in relatively short order, in a way that a whole new genre, say VR titles, would struggle to recreate.
The battle royale is a multiplayer game mode, a grand mod, something that sits between simply adding a new multiplayer mode to your shooter, and actually a new genre in its own right, it’s a sub-genre of the multiplayer shooter. There are always blurred lines in these things, after all there are less players in Apex Legends than in Battlefield’s biggest games, which looked the more likely source of a free-to-play BR-style title coming out of EA.
Free-to-play is fare from the only way to go in battle royale, but it does look to be its future, a perfect confluence of creative and financial desires. The expertise and technical knowledge to create such games already exist within many shooter-focused teams, pointing them in the direction of a mass shooter makes sense on so many levels, reducing development time and cost on titles that may make a mint, but may sink from sight.
With the biggest players now having thrown their hats into the battle for battle royale, it looks likely the steady stream of smaller players we saw last year will now dry up, as smaller developers go looking for the next big thing, and leave the likes of Epic, Activision and EA to slug it out.