'Apex Legends' Devs Talk Anniversary, Germaphobe Horizon and Jumpmaster Origin

Apex Legends has emerged as one of the top battle-royale titles in a very crowded market, and it's not showing any signs of slowing down. Following several successful seasons of the game on PS4, Xbox One and PC, developers at Respawn Entertainment are just days away from the debut of Season 8. Yet, despite working diligently to get the next update polished, the studio is also wistfully celebrating the project's two-year anniversary.

In late January, Newsweek spoke to Apex Game Director Chad Grenier and Team Director Steven Ferreira to discuss the humble origins of a concept borne out of passion that almost instantly became one of the biggest games in the world. While still existing in the Titanfall universe that Respawn has been nurturing since 2014, Apex leaned heavily into the growing battle-royale genre with a vision that played to the studio's strengths in narrative and character design.

apex legends kings canyon interview
'Apex Legends' is celebrating its two-year anniversary. In a Newsweek interview, developers discussed the early days of Kings Canyon. 'Apex Legends' is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC. Respawn Entertainment/EA

Over the course of a short Zoom call, we discussed how Apex came to be, the mindset behind the game's sudden stealth release and the untold origin stories of Horizon and the game's hallmark Jumpmaster mechanic. Over the past two years, iteration on Apex has continued relentlessly. And, if the still-looming Switch and mobile versions of the game are any indication, its creators have no plans to stop anytime soon.

This interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of length and clarity.

What are your top-level thoughts on the anniversary?

Chad Grenier: I never imagined that it would be this popular. We've been doing a lot of internal reflecting and celebrating the success of the game that started out as this little thing that we were hoping would gain some traction and somebody would be playing. We never anticipated [anything] near the numbers we're at now. It's interesting.

There was actually a joke that was made on launch day. One of our engineers who was in charge of keeping the servers up and running when the game went live, I remember him standing in front of the entire team and setting expectations and saying, "Don't expect a million players right out of the gate. This game is hopefully going to build over time, and it might take us a year to reach a million players." We did that within I believe eight hours, so we gave him a ton of crap, of course. And then quickly, you know, 10 million within less than three days.

It's very exciting and also like watching a car wreck, in a sense. We were like, "What did we just create, and what are we gonna do now because we're not prepared for this?" It was an exciting time, and the excitement hasn't stopped. Every time we release a season or any kind of continent of the game, it re-energizes us and the excitement really hasn't died down. Insert a big pandemic into the middle of it, and you've got an interesting two years.

How did the idea come about? Did EA approach you to make a battle royale?

Grenier: I think it's the other way around. We were working on a different project, and EA was well aware of the project we were working on. They had also just acquired Respawn, and so it was a time where EA had invested in Respawn and had acquired the studio and was very excited about the project we were working on.

And we actually threw a pretty big curveball to EA and said, "Hey, this game we're working on, yeah about that... We have this other prototype that we've had a few designers build and we're actually thinking that this is the direction we want to go. What do you think, guys?!" And, luckily, EA was very supportive. They have always been very supportive of Respawn. EA has never asked us for anything specific. They've always let Respawn innovate and lay the path for ourselves and have supported us fully along the way.

Were games like Fortnite and PUBG openly considered during development, or did you feel Apex was always on a different path?

Grenier: We didn't really try to take things from either of those games. Our game was very different in its own way.

Fortnite we considered to be very different. We could talk about the differences between Fortnite and Apex all day, but ultimately it's a different art style, it's a different gameplay loop, it's a different pace. PUBG was the ultra-real, soldier-sim kind of a game, and ours is very different. We wanted to tell story, and neither of those games was telling story.

We didn't really look at them too much, other than many of us were fans of both of those games and were playing them, but we obviously had something that was unique in its own right. Respawn loves to tell story, we love to create fun and interesting gameplay loops, and so we were mostly focused on how to create the most interesting gameplay that would have a long life, and that's where Legends came from and different kits. And team play—not just having players on a team, but having them have synergies. Those are the things we were thinking about.

apex legends legends interview
New Legends in 'Apex' must fill a hole in the meta and tell an interesting story. Respawn Entertainment/EA

Are there any cool features that wound up on the cutting room floor from those times?

Grenier: I don't think there was anything that we cut that we're bringing back. I think there's a lot of things we did that aren't in the game, but probably for the better. One thing that comes to mind is, in trying to figure out how to build a team game, we were doing some experimentation with the drop. And at one point we were letting everybody just jump out of the dropship individually, and we found it very hard to keep teams together.

We had a very early version of the ping system, and so, if you had two teammates, you were likely pinging sometimes the same spot to drop to and, in most cases, different spots because everyone has a different opinion of where you should go. And teams would often drop out of the dropship and either not stick together or, even when they wanted to stick together, it was very hard to see where your teammates were dropping. it was just difficult to stick together.

One of our early versions of the drop evolved into teams being in a drop pod instead of doing a skydive. So you would get into a fully enclosed drop pod and that's sort of where the Jumpmaster concept originated. You'd have one person who would pick where the drop pod lands and then you'd all exit the drop pod together.

That was cool and that solved the problem of keeping the squads together, but it didn't allow for players to intentionally split up or intentionally drop to slightly different buildings to get to loot more efficiently. And so that evolved into keeping them together but not in a drop pod. "Let's put them into a skydiving formation and allow for people to let the Jumpmaster control where you land, but give users the ability to break off the formation if they choose to." That's an evolution of the first two minutes of the game, and that happened throughout all of the game. That's just one example of how we've iterated.

Steven Ferreira: I think that's kind of a critical part to our creative process, right? We try a lot of things. Nothing ever goes from paper to the game and is the way you think it is going to be. We've got to playtest it, we've got to try it, we've got to change it, throw things out. That's the only way you're going to get to pushing the envelope and innovating, is just trying things out.

What was the thinking behind the shadow-drop release?

Grenier: For us, it was about getting the game into the player's hands as fast as possible. Because we knew we had a really good game that we were playing every night and couldn't put down.

At that point in time, I think there were a lot of expectations about what Respawn was working on, and that expectation wasn't necessarily aligned with what we had created because the game had evolved over time. So we knew we had a good game and we didn't want any speculation or criticism of a game that people hadn't even gotten a chance to play. It became pretty clear that [we should] just let the game speak for itself. Announce it and let them play at the same time, because you'll remove that time span when anyone could speculate or criticize a game they haven't even played yet. So it was very important to us to do the secret launch that way, purely to get the game in people's hands. We knew they'd love it. Just let them play it and cross our fingers that they'll love the game as much as we did.

Would you be up for more shadow releases on the platforms where Apex isn't yet playable?

Grenier: Possibly, yeah. We want to reach as many players as possible, so if it makes sense we're absolutely up for it. We've got Switch coming soon and we've got a mobile version of Apex coming, and I think there's a lot more opportunities in the future as well.

apex legends horizon interview
The earliest designs of Horizon featured the character as a fire-loving germaphobe. Respawn Entertainment/EA

Do you have any cool stories about the process for Legend design?

Ferreira: The process for anything we put into the game, including Legends, means that we try a lot of different things. In particular with the Legends, we start with [asking] what is the gameplay space, design space [or] a change to the meta that we want to introduce. We focus there as our starting point, try a bunch of prototypes, playtest them and we land in a space that we think we like. Then we start to ask ourselves what is the fantasy that we want to fulfill with this character, and what is the personality we want to lay on top of that as well. That gives us our holy trinity of character design: the core gameplay loop, the fantasy that we will fulfill and the personality that we're going to bring to that character. That means a lot of the characters start off going through a lot of different changes.

Horizon started off as a recluse in space that was actually concerned with germs and bugs. She was a germaphobe, so she actually used fire to kind of sterilize everything. Her gameplay kit was both about traversal and movement, but also anchored in this theme of fire. Obviously, that evolved and changed into the version of Horizon you see today, which is obviously very different, and every character goes through that [process] where we have a couple of pieces that we really like about that character.

And they might have multiple elements that we really think add to who that character is, but [at] the end of the day, simplicity always wins out. We always refine it down and consider what is at the absolute core of that character, bring that to the surface and shine a light on that. That's how you get any one of our characters. They're deep in terms of the fantasy they fulfill or the personality that they have, but in terms of what that character is when you look at the roster, each one of them fills a very specific role, has a very specific intent and synergy with other characters in the game. The Legends are core to Apex, and they're one of the most fun things to build.

What's been the most challenging and most rewarding thing about working on Apex over the past two years?

Grenier: The most rewarding thing is seeing the response from all the people who play the game and love it. You can search the internet and very quickly be overwhelmed by fan art and user-created videos and whatnot. It's just very rewarding to work on something that's loved by so many people. The most difficult part is not letting those people down.

Ferreira: I one-hundred percent agree. It's both the most exciting or rewarding thing and the toughest thing: the fact that so many people love this game and are passionate about the game like we are.

Apex Legends is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC.

Do you remember your first match of Apex Legends? Will you still be playing this game two years from now? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section!