Playing battle royale games can be a frustrating experience. You heard the formula by now: so or 50-100 players drop onto a single map with nothing, then they loot and fight until a single player or squad is left standing. The randomness inherent within the battle royale genre is a substantial reason why games such as"PUBG" and"Fortnite" have exploded and come to dominate the sector within the past year.
It's also a massive reason why they can be so frustrating. Sometimes you drop in, instantly find everything you need and then spend the next 20 minutes or so gleefully trying to outsmart and outshoot the contest -- otherwise known as"playing the game" And occasionally, for just 5 games in a row, you find nothing, fall in and die within 30 minutes -- spending more times in lobbies and menus waiting for the game to begin.
Last week, programmer Respawn Entertainment surprise-released"Apex Legends," a multiplayer shooter set in their favorite, although arguably overlooked, "Titanfall" universe. Taking a look at the bullet points, it has everything you'd expect from a multiplayer game released in 2019. It is a battle royale game, originally popularized by"Playerunknown's Battlegrounds." It's free-to-play, like"Fortnite." It has a class-based personality system, like"Overwatch." A cynic might look at this and think that Respawn, and publisher EA, took each market-proven business trend, crammed it into a"Titanfall" game, and then took out the mechs and the wall-running.
But just three days after launch, Respawn CEO Vince Zampella declared that"Apex Legends" hit a mind-blowing 10 million players -- a feat that required"Fortnite" two weeks to accomplish -- and after the weekend more than doubled to 25 million players. My friends, on Tuesday no one was playing it. By Thursday everyone was playing it. Granted, the entry price of zero dollars surely has something to do with it, but just what is it all about"Apex Legends" that hooked so many people so quickly? Did Respawn finally find the jumble of mechanics to lure away"PUBG" players and"Fortnite" players and "Overwatch" players? Maybe. But I would assert that the early success of"Apex Legends" comes down to a single button press.
For decades, game designers have been trying to get players to work together.
In the beginning, multiplayer games had text chat -- which was fine except for the fact that it's very hard to play a game and type-specific instructions.
In 1999, "Counter-Strike" popularized two possible options for this: pre-recorded voice lines and mic support. They were, of course, imperfect. The former made it easier for players to communicate with each other, but you still had to dig through menus to find the message, and using it effectively meant taking hours to incorporate the dozens of lines and associated keybinds. It took another piece of hardware and meant that any stranger on the internet was free to yell at you, although the formerly made communication much easier.
Microsoft determined to spark a new wave of multiplayer communication, packaged headsets. If everyone has a microphone, the thinking went, then everybody would want to play games over Xbox Live. Microsoft underestimated the consequences of giving teenage boys microphones with short tempers and internet connections.
Since then, we have seen developers make half-steps towards designing multiplayer games with good communication systems. In 2005, "Battlefield 2" introduced a spotting system where if a player saw an enemy, all they had to do was hit one button and that enemy's place would be added to your team's minimap. This was later improved in 2006's"Battlefield 2142" by placing a genuine marker over enemies inside a player's HUD, and expanded into a radial menu in which players can pick a handful of common voice commands.
Valve's"Team Fortress 2," released in 2007, didn't have the complicated spotting system but demonstrated how to automate inter-player communication. Players automatically spout voice lines off imploring other players to help capture them, when approaching objectives. Whenever they're building something, engineers announce. There's even an option in the game when you're low on health to automatically call for a Medic.
Both games arguably raised the bar for what interplayer communication could look like without having to resort to a microphone, but they weren't perfect. In"Battlefield" if a person kills an enemy you saw, you get some things, which is an excellent way to utilize the in-game system to incentivize positive team play, but more often than not games devolve to whack-a-mole of simply trying to be the first to kill the seen enemies as they are pop-up. And in"Team Fortress 2" if the game is performing all the communication for you, after a few dozen hours or so, it all just becomes background noise. It's another player, and it's the game.
By and large online multiplayer games have microphone support, as well as the communication options, start and finish there. In games like"PUBG" and"Fortnite" if you would like to work cohesively with a squad of people, the easiest option is to 1.) Own a microphone and 2.) Squad up with a group of friends who have microphones. Sure, you might get a few like-minded folks joining random squads, but the mix of competitive multiplayer games and internet anonymity almost always ends up in a toxic situation -- doubly so if your fellow teammates are homophobes, misogynists, racists or transphobes(more often than not, all four!)
So we're back at square one: how can you create players work together, with no microphone?
On paper," Apex Legends" seems like a game which would require a microphone. Unlike"Fornite" or"PUBG," you cannot drop solo. Every"Apex Legends" game consists of 60 players split into 20 squads of 3 players. At the beginning of every game, players take turns choosing their"Legend," one squad member is designated"Jumpmaster" and the game defaults to you and your squad landing together. In comparison to"Fortnite" and"PUBG," it is much more difficult to kill somebody"Apex Legends," making interplayer coordination essential to removing a rival squad. However, you don't need a microphone to win or even have a good time in"Apex Legends."
There's a lot this game does right. The motion feels fluid and fast. When done shooting and aiming feels instinctive, yet still rewarding and challenging. The cast of eight"Legends" has just the right amount of personality, and their abilities add enough sophistication to the gameplay without making it feel like using their skills is essential, or worse, a barrier to playing well. The respawn system removes one of the biggest frustrations of battle royale games -- dying early -- without turning the game into a giant team deathmatch. Apart from 1 weapon, everything appears to be working right. But the glue that holds all this together, and possibly the main reason is the system that is ping.
The ping system in"Apex Legends" is a masterstroke in interplayer communication -- not only in how easy it is to use but also how much it does for you. The mechanic is simple: ping something, and it'll send your players a flag. The beauty of it is that pinging is context-sensitive, and it works on everything.
It might sound complicated, but literally within the first few moments of playing your first game, it's stupid how simple and effective it is. Even when playing with friends, the simple act of looking for a landing zone is complicated. Others, people hem and haw do not understand the map well. In"Apex Legends," somebody can suggest a landing place, others can ping that place to confirm it, and inside, for example, 10 seconds you have a consensus on something. Think about that: In a genre in which a good landing is imperative to your success," Apex Legends" only requires you to hit a single button to get on board with your fellow teammates.
Once you hit the ground and that continues. Ping a weapon, ammo, or item and your character put a marker on their HUD and will call it out to the other players. Pinging would like to relocate there, while you're on the floor. Pinging enemies will flag those enemies with an icon to your teammates. What's more, is that your teammates can react to any of your pings with a ping. In a genre that requires an unbelievable amount of situational awareness to play well," Apex Legends" is ready to cram all of that into a single button. Press R1 to be situationally aware.
It also speaks volumes about who you're playing with, although it's such a simple thing to do. It's comforting to drop in with two strangers and watch them start pinging stuff. It communicates the truth that they are prepared to work with you, although they are hitting a single button, sure. It's so simple and essential that failing to ping things in"Apex Legends" arguably makes you a worse player and teammate. Pinging provides players an in-game mechanic to master and make themselves useful to their squad. If you don't have a mastery of a Legend's mechanics are not good at shooting, you can still ping the hell out of everything and still be useful to your teammates.
What is more, the process is robust, but it has its limitations. This is an excellent thing! The system may simply be used to help, not harm, unlike using a microphone, which gives players access to the infinite power of the spoken word. The fact that"Apex Legends" matches you up with to strangers on the internet every game undoubtedly made a reasonable amount of under-represented folks in gambling nervous. But this concern is removed by the system by making pinging arguably more effective than voice chat. Tell people to hack when you can ping it? Additionally," Apex Legends" has an option that will auto-transcribe microphone chatter into text, so it's entirely possible to play without ever having to hear another human talk ever.
Humans are social animals. It feels much better to be the last squad standing while it feels great to jump on a virtual island with 100 other people and be the last one standing. And in case you have a group of friends that you can do that with great. But not everybody does. Respawn's choice to create"Apex Legends" a squad-based battle royale could have gone wrong a hundred different ways. Imagine going into each game with not only the uncertainty of what's likely to happen when you hit the ground but also with what kind of random the game is going to pair you up with.
If the game just had microphone support, you would inevitably spend the first minutes of the game figuring out if other players could hear you, then figuring out who these people are, the way to communicate with them, how to motivate them and how to play with them. After hitting the ground, and your squad gets wiped 30 seconds. Imagine coming home from a long day at work, hoping to unwind by two computer guys that are shooting or spending an hour, and then having to determine how to handle two strangers every 5-10 minutes. It would be exhausting.
With the ping system in"Apex Legends," you don't need to. Stuff is just pinged by you, and it is figured by your teammates out. You expend virtually no energy and can coordinate with two other humans. It's like some type of interpersonal perpetual motion machine: button presses outcome relationships with your squadmates, and go in. In the world that is actual hell is other individuals. But not in "Apex Legends."