Online multiplayer games aren't usually designed to tell stories. For the most part, they're built around their competitive nature, with titbits of lore to help establish a unique world for players to get invested in. However, the line between these online games and more story driven experiences is starting to blur, as games like Apex Legends begin to throw more narrative into the mix. Storytelling in a battle royale seems like a pretty tough balancing act, so I reached out to Respawn to find out about the challenges, and how it all fits into the future of Apex.
"We have a great team of storytellers, a bunch of people that worked on Titanfall 2, and when we started building the game and it became Legends focused, we realised that there was potential to tell a lot of stories," design director, Jason McCord, tells me. "It took a while for us to figure out avenues to be able to tell a good story, or any story at all. And honestly, we're still trying to figure it out to do it as best we can."
Apex isn't the first online multiplayer game to get narrative elements by any means, but the way Respawn is doing it is pretty different from the rest. Over the last year, the stories they've told have evolved from in-game teasers and titbits of character info on the website, to brilliant animations and trailers that give the game life outside of its competitive battle royale nature. Every season we get a little more insight into Apex's world, and the developers' most recent experiment with storytelling is the new weekly "Hunts". They're essentially story quests that, at the moment, are following the newest character, Loba, as she attempts to exact revenge on Revenant (the killer robot who's murdered, well, a lot of people at this point).
The quests are pretty simple overall. It's mostly a case of running to a location, doing a bit of PvE while you pick up an artifact, then running to a landing zone to escape. The more interesting part is the story you get as you're playing, as well as the character conversations you unlock after completing one. I've always found that when big multiplayer games tell stories, you tend to feel like a bystander - you're just on the sidelines watching everything unfold. But, for as basic as the new missions are, I think they do a pretty good job of making you feel more involved and, as a result, more invested, which McCord says is pretty much what they were going for.
"The quest storyline is really building up to something, we're just trying to get people to invest in our universe a little bit more," he says. "We knew there was a way that we could tell something going forward with a more direct approach, where the chapters can actually tell an evolving story."
Of course, the stuff that we do get to sit by and watch happening is pretty cool, too. The trailers and animations released before new seasons or big events help expand what we know about Apex.
"Honestly, the trailers are as big of a treat to me and Chad as they are to all the players," says McCord. "Our writing team and our creative marketing team work really hard on coming up with those, and then they pitch them to us. Then it spins off ideas for us on the design team to go and figure out how to get the stories that they're telling into the game."
"Storytelling in a BR game is kind of our thing right now. We found we were finding ways to do it that no one else out there is really doing," game director, Chad Grenier, tells me. "What our team was previously built on was creating compelling stories and campaigns, so it's been a really fun creative outlet for us. We love going online and seeing all the reactions and all the cosplay and the fan art. All the things that people get excited to do because they love our game."
"I guess it has something to do with the way that we are delivering it in a non-traditional way," says McCord. "The quest chapters are probably the most traditional storytelling form that we've done so far. Previously you kind of had to search for it more. We use Twitter, social media, in game teases, trailers - all these things connect to tell a story that you kind of have to decide to be invested in to get as much out of it. So, I think that for the people that do get invested, the more they look the more they're rewarded."
None of this is particularly easy to balance, however. McCord tells me that one of their biggest challenges is making sure the story doesn't get in the way of players who are there for the game's more competitive side. This is why a lot of the game's lore is made available outside of the game itself, and what you can find in-game tends to be stealthy teasers hiding across the arenas. I was actually curious if there were still any teasers that fans haven't quite figured out, but apparently all you hardcare lore nuts have been finding these teasers before half the devs even realise they're there.
"The people specifically working on the teasers and stuff have quite a few conversations that are like, is this worth doing? You know, we're hiding these things, do you think people are gonna find them?" McCord says. "And now the answer that I have is always like, 'yes, they will find it within an hour'. No matter how hard you hide it, they know it's coming. They will find it."
"One of the best examples of that is actually a conversation that me and Jason had before we launched Apex, and it was about an easter egg in Kings Canyon, Grenier adds. "Going back a year now, we built an easter egg where you would have to collect 10 of these Nessie dolls in the right order that were scattered throughout the entire map, and then it would cause this giant Nessie to emerge from the sea.
"We thought it was going to be so difficult with no clues whatsoever about where these things exist, you'd have to scour the entire map. You couldn't even search for Nessie number two until you'd located number one. It was just crazy to think that anyone would ever even figure this out. But sure enough, right after launch people had solved the entire thing. At that point, it was like, okay, well, I think we can go crazy with these teases."
Apex Legends has come pretty far since those Nessie shenanigans, though. The game we're playing right now already looks incredibly different to the very first season, and that was only just over a year ago. I can't even imagine what it will look like even further down the line - Grenier and McCord can though, because they're already working six seasons ahead.
"I think the furthest content out right now that we're working on is Season 11, and we're playtesting Seasons 6, 7 and 8, like regularly," says McCord. "[Season 11 is] very different, not like a different game, but you can look at the difference between launch and now and kind of see how far the game has come, I think we'll even do better than that in the next year."
"It's really inspiring to see all the things that are coming together for future seasons," Grenier says. "Like the delta between Season 1 and Season 5, we know that the game has evolved and gotten so much better over that period of time. Going another year ahead, the difference is going to be even greater. It's not so much that there's a new crazy thing coming up in Seasons 9, 10 or 11. But there's just so much more content, new features and ways to get players playing together doing cool stuff. I'm really excited for the future of Apex, what we're seeing in our studio right now."
They were pretty tight-lipped on the specifics of what they're seeing in the studio, though they did mention characters that they'd personally like to see a little more on.
"If I look at what characters I play the most, it's Wraith," Grenier tells me. "We kind of did a deep dive on Wraith and we had the Voidwalker lore video. The other character I play a lot is Lifeline. So I think I'd like to see something on Lifeline someday. But, you know, we have some really cool storytelling and lore coming out for some other characters pretty soon that I'm really excited about."
"There's also a couple of really cool characters in development that I really like to play. Loba was actually one of my favorite Legends to play before she was released," he adds.
"Chad, you just gave me a heart attack," McCord said. "Sometimes I forget what Legend we're on. When you said you said Loba I just thought, wait! Have we? Oh yeah we just launched Loba, duh."
So, spoilers avoided (dammit), but we know roughly that the battle royale has lots of the typical stuff in store for us. But, with this new focus on developing the game's story, I wanted to know if they were planning anything bigger. With games like Overwatch 2 coming out specifically to build on the first game's storytelling, I asked if we could ever see Apex do something similar, and create a game with its own sort of story campaign. Seeing as Apex Legends is based in the Titanfall universe (or vice versa), I absolutely framed this question asking if any of what Apex is doing could be leading to a Titanfall spin-off - and McCord didn't actually shut the idea down like I expected.
"It's funny, it's like, it is definitely wishful thinking, but I think we've probably said something unintentionally that could make people sort of spin out on that theory," he says. "And if it ever does happen it would naturally probably happen that way, right? We're so into Apex right now, and the Titanfall universe is becoming bigger and richer because of it. If we ever made a Titanfall game of any kind, I can almost guarantee Apex stuff would leak out into that game just as much."
All Titanfall speculation aside, there are actually some more realistic things we can expect from Apex in the near future.
"We definitely want to keep going with storytelling," McCord says. "One of our driving pillars is to double down on story. I think we'll keep looking for different ways to do that as much as we can.
"The quests for season five are sort of an experiment to see how it lands. So, we'll just be kind of monitoring that and, and we might try something else next time. I hope that we come across as a game that likes to experiment and try different things, so we'll see what happens, because we wanna keep doing it."