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Playing battle royale games can be a lonely, frustrating experience. You’ve already heard the formula by now: 50-100 or so players drop onto a single map with nothing, and then they loot and fight until a single player or squad is left standing. The randomness inherent within the battle royale genre is a huge reason why games like «PUBG» and «Fortnite» have exploded and come to dominate the industry within the past year.
It’s also a huge reason of why they can be so frustrating. Sometimes you drop in, immediately find everything you need and then spend the next 20 minutes or so gleefully trying to outsmart and outshoot the competition — otherwise known as «playing the game.» And then sometimes, for like 5 games in a row, you drop in, find nothing and die within 30 seconds — spending more times in menus and lobbies waiting for the next game to start.
Last week, developer Respawn Entertainment surprise-released «Apex Legends,» a multiplayer shooter set in their popular, although arguably overlooked, «Titanfall» universe. Looking at the bullet points, it has everything you would expect from a multiplayer game released in 2019. It’s a battle royale game, initially popularized by «Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds.» It’s free-to-play, like «Fortnite.» It has a class-based character system, like «Overwatch.» A cynic might look at this and think that Respawn, and publisher EA, took every market-proven industry 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 announced that «Apex Legends» hit a mind-blowing 10 million players — a feat that took «Fortnite» two weeks to accomplish — and after the weekend more than doubled to 25 million players. Amongst 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 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 argue 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 both play a game and type specific instructions at the same time.
In 1999, «Counter-Strike» popularized two potential solutions for this: pre-recorded voice lines and microphone support. They were, of course, imperfect. The former made it slightly easier for players to communicate with one another, but you still had to dig through menus in order to find the right message, and using it effectively meant taking hours to memorize the dozens of lines and associated keybinds. The former made communication a lot easier, but it required another piece of hardware and also meant that any stranger on the internet was now more-or-less free to shout at you.
Microsoft, seemingly determined to spark a new wave of multiplayer communication, packaged headsets with the 2005 launch of the Xbox 360. If everyone has a microphone, the thinking went, then everyone would surely want to play games over Xbox Live. Obviously, Microsoft severely underestimated the consequences of giving microphones to anonymous teenage boys with internet connections and short tempers.
Since then, we’ve 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 location would be added to your team’s minimap. This was later improved in 2006’s «Battlefield 2142» by placing an actual marker over enemies within a player’s HUD, and expanded into a radial menu where players could select a handful of common voice commands.
Valve’s «Team Fortress 2,» released in 2007, didn’t have the complex spotting system, but demonstrated how you could automate inter-player communication. When approaching objectives, players automatically spout off voice lines imploring other players to help capture them. Engineers announce whenever they’re building something. There’s even an option in the game to automatically call for a Medic when you’re low on health.
Both games arguably raised the bar for what good interplayer communication could look like without having to resort to a microphone, but they weren’t perfect. In «Battlefield» if someone kills an enemy you spotted, you get some points, which is a great way to use in-game system to incentivize positive teamplay, but more often than not games devolve into a whack-a-mole of just trying to be the first to kill the spotted enemies as they pop-up. And in «Team Fortress 2» if the game is doing all the communication for you, after a few dozen hours or so, it all just becomes background noise. It’s not another player talking to you, it’s the game.
By and large, most online multiplayer games have microphone support, and the communication options start and end there. In games like «PUBG» and «Fortnite» if you want 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 combination 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 transphones (more often than not, all four!)
So now we’re back at square one: How do you make players work together, without a microphone?
On paper, «Apex Legends» seems like a game that 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. In the beginning of every game, players take turns picking their «Legend,» one squad member is designated «Jumpmaster» and the game defaults to you and your squad landing together. Compared to «Fortnite» and «PUBG» it’s much harder to kill someone «Apex Legends,» which makes interplayer coordination essential to eliminating a rival squad. But you don’t need a microphone to win, or even have a good time, in «Apex Legends.»
There is a lot this game does right. The movement feels fast and fluid. Aiming and shooting feels intuitive, yet still rewarding and challenging when done right. The cast of eight «Legends» have just the right amount of personality, and their abilities add enough complexity 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 one weapon, everything seems to be working right. But the glue that holds all of this together, and arguably the reason why players keep coming back, is the ping system.
The ping system in «Apex Legends» is a masterstroke in interplayer communication — not only in how easy it is to use, but also in how much it does for you. The mechanic is simple: ping something, and it’ll send a flag to your players. The beauty of it, is that pinging is context-sensitive, and it works on almost everything.
It might sound complicated, but literally within the first few moments of playing your first game it’s stupid just how easy and effective it is. Even when playing with friends, the simple act of trying to find a landing zone is needlessly complicated. People hem and haw, others don’t know the map that well. In «Apex Legends» someone can suggest a landing spot, others can ping that spot to confirm it, and within, like, 10 seconds you already have a consensus on something. Think about that: In a genre where a good landing is crucial to your success, «Apex Legends» only requires you to hit a single button to get on board with your fellow teammates.
And that continues once you hit the ground. Ping a weapon, ammo, or item and your character will call it out to the other players, and place a marker on their HUD. While you’re on the ground, pinging a location will tell your squadmates you want to relocate there. Pinging enemies will flag those enemies to your teammates with a special icon. What’s more, is that your teammates can respond to any of your pings with a ping to confirm them. In a genre that requires an incredible amount of situational awareness in order to play well, «Apex Legends» is able to cram all of that into a single button. Press R1 to be situationally aware.
It’s such a simple thing to do, but it also speaks volumes about who you’re playing with. It’s comforting to drop in with two strangers and watch them start pinging stuff left and right. They’re only hitting a single button, sure, but it communicates the simple fact that they are willing to work with you. It’s so easy and essential that neglecting to ping things in «Apex Legends» arguably makes you a worse player and teammate. Pinging gives players a in-game mechanic to master and make themselves useful to their squad. If you’re not great at shooting or don’t really have a mastery of a particular Legend’s mechanics, you can still ping the heck out of everything and still be useful to your teammates.
What’s more, the ping system is robust, but it has its limits. This is a good thing! Unlike using a microphone, which gives players access to the infinite power of the spoken word, the ping system can only be used to help, not harm. The fact that «Apex Legends» matches you up with to strangers on the internet every match undoubtedly made a fair amount of under-represented folks in gaming nervous. But the ping system removes this concern almost entirely by making pinging arguably more effective than voice chat. Why tell people there’s a Hemlock in this shack when you can just ping it? In addition, «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 speak ever.
Humans are social animals. While it feels great to jump onto a digital island with 100 other people and be the last one standing, it feels even better to be the last squad standing. And if you have a group of friends that you can do that with, then great. But not everyone does. Respawn’s choice to make «Apex Legends» a squad-based battle royale could have gone wrong a hundred different ways. Imagine going into every game with not only the uncertainty of what’s going to happen when you hit the ground, but also with what kind of randos the game is going to pair you up with.
If the game just had microphone support, you’d inevitably spend the first minutes of the game figuring out if other players could hear you, then figuring out who these people are, how to communicate with them, how to motivate them and how to play with them. And then after doing all of that, your squad gets wiped 30 seconds after hitting the ground. Imagine coming home from a long day at work, hoping to unwind by spending an hour or two shooting computer men, and then having to figure out how to manage two complete strangers every 5-10 minutes. It’d be exhausting.
With the ping system in «Apex Legends» you don’t have to. You just ping stuff, and your teammates figure it out. You can coordinate with two other humans, and expend almost no emotional energy. It’s like some sort of interpersonal perpetual motion machine: button presses go in, and out comes complex relationships with your squadmates. In the real world hell is other people. But not in «Apex Legends.»
Steve Rousseau is the Features Editor at Digg.