EA’s studio Respawn Entertainment announced that its new free to play, battle royale game, Apex Legends, has attracted 50 million players in its first month of operation. It has accumulated this substantial player base across Xbox One, PS4 and PC. The early success of the game has led to comparisons with established battle royale behemoth and market leader, Fortnite.
There is talk of Respawn’s free-to-play battle royale title Apex Legends, published by EA, providing some stiff competition for resident industry leaders Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battleground (PUBG). Set in the established Titanfall universe, it attracted over 50 million players in its first month, and represented a big hit for EA in the battle royale space. It also recorded the best Twitch launch ever, though this figure is skewed by EA’s marketing campaign which saw them pay numerous top influencers to stream the game at its launch. Some suggest that Apex Legends could be a “Fortnite killer”, but this is likely a symptom of the audience desire to predict the fall of industry leaders and be ahead of the next big trend.
While there will inevitably be some overlap between player bases, rather than enticing disenchanted Fortnite players in a wholesale fashion, we believe Apex Legends will establish its own separate player base – but may find it more challenging to maintain its scale as it is entering an already-saturated market and competing with long-standing fan-bases. Several factors suggest it appeals to a different audience. Fortnite is colourful, un-bloody, and broadly accessible thanks to cross-platform play, yet it carries a deceptively high skill cap. It is both approachable and intensely competitive, attributes which have contributed to its global success and which, as yet, are not mirrored by its competitors. Apex Legends is more grounded in realism. It combines Overwatch-style heroes with the traditional battle royale format, forming a battle-royale/MOBA/FPS hybrid which piques player interest. We believe the battle royale scene is approaching a MOBA-style decline, whereby a highly competitive, over-saturated market results in numerous high-profile failures. Falling player numbers force longer queue times and the effect snowballs: a disaster for a fast-paced genre where jumping in for a quick game is a major selling point. However, adopting features from other genres gives the battle royale scene a new lease of life which may help to sustain player engagement.
Apex Legends has successfully introduced effective new features which could be adopted by competitors and implemented in similar games in the future. It has won praise for its innovative ping system - already added to Fortnite following Apex Legend's launch, which allows the player to highlight objects, areas and enemies for their team to notice, along with various context-sensitive voice lines. This virtually eliminates the need for a microphone, making the squad-based style of play more attractive to a wider audience. At the same time, the few who relish the challenge of team co-ordination and strategy-building in titles like PUBG resent its simplification. The many bells and whistles of Apex Legends, designed to streamline the player experience and enhance usability, may not be appreciated by PUBG-players who prefer the gritty realism and basic interface.
With Tencent rumoured to be in talks to publish Apex Legends in China, and the Fortnite World Cup on the horizon, both games are poised to engage both new and current players in 2019. EA announced that they were looking into both mobile and cross-platform play for Apex Legends and, with this increased accessibility, the player-base is likely to grow. However, cross-platform play, though successful for Fortnite, will not have the same effect for Apex Legends due to the comparatively high quality of the graphics which would not translate well to mobile devices. Much like PUBG, the creation of a completely separate version which is redesigned for mobile is more likely.
Due to their feature-light launch, EA has numerous options for potential implementation. Drip-feeding the audience new features, such as a much-desired single-player mode, could keep them engaged and on their toes in the long-term. Additionally, the gradual introduction of new characters and roles will both broaden the game’s appeal and allow players to become invested in their various backstories, increasing retention. The fleshing out of character identities holds appeal for fans of story-driven games and RPGs, reaching yet another audience. There is even potential for Overwatch-style spin-offs such as animated shorts or virtual comics. There are signs that the initial surge of interest has eased in key Asian territories such as South Korea, so the implementation of new content to continue to engage users is an important next step. Core differences in style and gameplay mechanics mean we will probably see multiple, well-performing titles co-habiting in the battle royale space, rather than fighting for individual dominance.