EA’s New Apex Legends Targets Gamers Suffering Fortnite Fatigue

(Bloomberg) -- The game designers at Respawn Entertainment had reason to feel a little low in the summer of 2017. Their last big release, Titanfall 2, sold far fewer copies than expected, and the video-game world was abuzz with a new free-to-play format that threatened to upend the industry’s traditional sales model.

These days, Respawn, a unit of video-game giant Electronic Arts Inc., is living up to its name. The studio, based in suburban Los Angeles, released the hottest game of the year on Feb. 4. Apex Legends, which is free to play and uses a battle-royale format similar to the global hit Fortnite, has already signed up 50 million users.

The studio announced Tuesday that it is introducing a new character, a high-speed player called Octane, and a $9.50 season pass, which allows access to more content. That shows Apex is aiming squarely at Fortnite, the phenomenon made by closely held Epic Games Inc. Apex could generate as much as $500 million in revenue for Electronic Arts in fiscal 2020, according to Colin Sebastian, an analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co.

“Apex is taking advantage of a market of core gamers that were probably tired of Fortnite, and happy to embrace a battle-royale game that has more of the look and feel of the first-person shooters,” Sebastian said in an email. “Launch timing was also fortuitous just as some fatigue was setting in for Fortnite.”

Happy Tale

The tale of Apex is a happy one for the industry, in that it signals traditional game makers who were used to selling $60 titles can move fairly quickly into the free-to-play universe and still have something to sell. Electronic Arts shares are up about 13 percent since the title’s release.

Apex is a first-person-shooter game, where teams of three players compete to be the last people standing on a shrinking landscape called Kings Canyon. There are 60 players in all. Although contestants don’t have to purchase anything, many buy new “skins” for their characters, decorations for their weapons and one-liners, called quips, to intimidate rivals. Sample: “Don’t look for sympathy. You won’t find it.” Skins cost about $18.

In addition to the three-person fighting format, Apex has other features that differentiate it somewhat from Fortnite, including the ability for a jump master to control where the team lands when they drop into the game.

“It’s managed to capture the best elements of what hardened Fortnite players like and add something to it,” said Ann Hand, chief executive officer of Super League Gaming Inc., an organizer of video-game tournaments.

Change of Plans

Respawn designers originally developed a battle-royale mode for Titanfall 2, but chose not to release it, according to Drew McCoy, executive producer of Apex. Like many in the industry two summers ago, Respawn designers were caught up in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the first widely successful battle-royale game, and developed an every-man-for-himself prototype of Apex.

“It was a really cool new genre that was burgeoning, and we asked, ‘Can we help define it and move it forward and not have it be a flash-in-the-pan game mode,’” McCoy said.

Respawn kept its work on Apex a secret. With the release of the game last month, Electronic Arts paid a number of well-known Fortnite players, such Tyler Blevins, screen name Ninja, to stream their matches on Twitch and other sites. Since then, Respawn has been battling players who use unauthorized software to cheat in the game, using it to improve their aim, for example. Respawn has kicked off more than 355,000 players and is including ways to quickly report cheating in the newest version of the title.

All of which underscores that a free-to-play game can take as much effort as a traditional one.

“We’ve spent as much time on this as we did on other games, it was actually larger than any previous build,” McCoy said. “We didn’t treat this like a low-cost game.”

Colorful History

Respawn has a colorful history of its own. It was started by Vince Zampella and Jason West, two co-founders of Infinity Ward, a studio owned by Activision Blizzard Inc. and the one responsible for that company’s hit shooting game Call of Duty.

Zampella and West were fired by Activision in a dispute and sued, seeking damages of as much as $1 billion. The parties ultimately settled in 2012 for an undisclosed amount. West has since left Respawn.

Respawn, with 300 employees, still works on traditional console titles -- Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order will be out later this year. The success of Apex gives the studio a new level of energy, according to Zampella.

“I think what it signals for us is, in the changing world of games and pricing structures, that we can do something different than what we’ve been done in the past,” he said. “It’s a great thing for the team and morale here.”

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