How Apex Legends Saved EA's Ass... In Spite Of EA
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
Apex Legends has been quite a remarkable entity, something that deserves much analysis. Electronic Arts and Respawn Entertainment released the game without prior warning, surprising everybody without the usual massive marketing spend we see on a major release. Despite this -maybe because of it - the game has been stunningly successful in a short amount of time, so much so that it alone saved Electronic Arts’ ass following the publishers’ biggest single-day stock drop in over ten years.
Indeed, it is because of Apex that EA’s stock bounced back following a major failure that’s been mostly blamed on Battlefield V “only” selling 7.3 million copies.
In its first 72 hours, Apex Legends accrued 10 million players, overtaking Battlefield V’s sales and even beating out Activision’s Black Ops 4’s sales over the same time period. By the end of its first week, 25 million players had amassed. Of course, Apex is also free, and we have yet to see exactly how the game’s freemium economy is performing, or will indeed perform going forward, but so far it’s looking as if Apex Legends will be a massive success.
It’s worth considering that this has occurred during perhaps the worst console generation in terms of abusive, exploitative business models, the impact of which is only now being felt by publishers who enjoyed massive growth as a result of heavily monetized products and are only now being hit with the truth that such growth is completely unsustainable.
Last generation saw the rise of the “fee to pay” game. The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 made online connectivity obligatory for modern consoles, and it was only a matter of time because videogame publishers smelled an opportunity to make money from constant access to their customers. Full premium expansions for videogames gave way to downloadable content, which in turn gave way to microtransactions appropriated from free-to-play games. Only, they never made the games containing them free.
New “AAA” titles saw their entire in-game economies overhauled for the worse in order to support microtransactions. Dead Space 3, notoriously, had to reduce all its horror elements and become a traditional action game to support a desperate weapon crafting economy. This was excused by pundits and spokespeople as offering players a “choice,” without addressing the fact that psychologically manipulative gameplay elements were not things we could opt out of in the games we were paying sixty dollars for.
Having gotten away with it, however, publishers only grew worse. With traditional DLC, season passes, and multiple special editions, many companies have more than quadrupled down on their monetization, and modern games are slowly - subtly - starting to resemble starter packs more than finished products.
Yet for all their unchecked greed and resulting rapid growth, publishers were not spared their humiliation as they tried to explain to shareholders what went wrong and why Fortnite was eating all their revenue. Even Take-Two, the company sitting on a pile of dragon’s gold as a result of Grand Theft Auto Online and Red Dead Redemption 2, talked of losses. Meanwhile, Activision Blizzard’s value has halved after growing by $10 billion a year over six years.
For about as long as Activision started growing like an infestation, myself and similar pundits argued reasonably that if publishers wanted free-to-play economies, maybe they should make free-to-play games rather than stuff one business model into another. As far back as last generation, I lambasted companies for their short-sightedness, told them they weren’t thinking about their long-term security, and we’re finally here. After so many years spent dreading long-term repercussions, the chickens have come home to roost.
I expect no lessons learned, of course. The market is designed to reward those who can’t see an inch in front of their noses, at least temporarily, and game companies are adept at rushing headlong into every new get-richer-quicker scheme to enjoy huge revenue spikes rather than steady growth. These companies aren’t collapsing any time soon, and they’re always ready to glom onto a new craze to lurch themselves forward.
But they do, most certainly, lurch. From one financial life raft to another.
Despite the industry’s commitment to never learning anything, it would behoove many to look at how well Apex Legends is doing, and at least try to come away from it with some valuable insight.
Electronic Arts, like a villain who escapes at the end of a story, managed to recover from its failures swiftly, and this is because it did what many companies should have been doing from the start. Make no mistake, Apex is exactly the kind of game a publisher usually charges for. It’s not a cheaply made game, nor is it threadbare in terms of content. It’s of a quality high enough to make me wonder why Overwatch ever had a premium price. Not that Overwatch isn’t a great game, but the two titles share such similar DNA and possess similar freemium-style economies. It’s not unreasonable to suggest Overwatch would have performed just as successfully, if not better, had Activision Blizzard decided against a paid barrier to entry.
This time around, EA didn’t charge upfront for Apex Legends, and the results were so good that the game served as the publisher’s life raft. It took the Fortnite approach, which had already demonstrated exactly how successful a free-to-play game could be.
Even more interesting is the game’s surprise launch. Publishers spend millions on marketing their videogames. As a general rule, and it is just general, companies spend half of a game’s budget on marketing. Imagine that, half of a videogame’s overall financial resources go toward advertising it. Yet Apex was essentially dumped out into the world, specifically because EA was scared of potential backlash to it, and found itself played by ten million people.
This is not to say advertising isn’t important. Marketing is an essential component of many successful products, but the sudden arrival and instant adoption of Apex should cause many companies to reevaluate exactly how they’re spending their millions of advertising dollars. If Apex can become this successful in such a brief window of time, without months of previews and trailers and associated promotion, perhaps the millions of dollars being dumped into marketing videogames could actually be spent on making the games themselves more appealing to the audiences they’re hoping to attract.
Maybe if Brütal Legend had focused its resources on gameplay more than a huge E3 2009 presence, an air guitar world record attempt, and a full-on rock concert, it wouldn’t have been a massive commercial disaster. Perhaps if its niche appeal was recognized, and budgeted for accordingly, it could have performed well on its own merits. We’ll never know.
Another crucial element here is EA’s involvement with Apex Legends’ development - or rather, its lack thereof. According to Respawn, Electronic Arts “had no hand” in making the game, which may account for it being such a robust production to begin with. In fact, EA didn’t get what it bargained for with this particular title.
According to executive producer Drew McCoy, Apex “wasn’t the game they were expecting” and added that Electronic Arts had never done something like this before.
That last note is important too, because game publishers play follow-the-leader so often that doing something unexpected is both alien and scary to them. In fact, we already know EA was scared of what Apex could bring them - they’ve admitted it! They were worried about doing the unexpected, which in this case would be Titanfall 3. That’s a game I want as much as the next Titanfall fan, but it would certainly be the most expected, predictable, and “safe” move for Respawn. In this case, the studio did not take the safe route, and I think it deserves praise for that.
Rather, Respawn was left to its own devices, to make the game it wants to make. Not the game an EA executive wanted, not the game a focus group of teenage boys would say they wanted, but what they alone wanted. I’ve commended Bethesda, for all its faults, on doing this in the past. They went on record stating that with Dishonored, it simply let Arcane Studios make the game they desired without muddying the water. Dishonored was a critical and commercial success.
While Apex Legends is entering a crowded genre and is yet another “live service” in an industry stuffed with them, it is bringing something new to the Battle Royale genre. Its intense focus on squad based play, implemented in such a way that one can successfully play without voice communication, as well as taking elements of Hero Shooters to add a sense of character, has carved out a strongly defined niche. And while insecure bigots may cry about it, the varied backgrounds, races, sexualities, and genders of the titular Legends has only resonated with the audience. So much for this idea that games will fail if they offer diversity.
I’ve been loving my time with Apex, and think it’s a terrific game. I have problems with it, specifically the monetization doesn’t appeal much to me, and the fact it has loot boxes will ensure I won’t be buying into its microtransactions. I did decide to put my money where my mouth was and get the founder’s pack, but that’s the least and the most I could do for it unless the gambling crap is retired.
It’s very telling that the one thing EA had a hand in - the marketing and release - is where they got things wrong with Apex Legends. Electronic Arts was scared about this game, it was worried about the way it would be anticipated, and decided to just throw it out there ahead of Anthem’s highly marketed release.
EA was wrong about Apex, and because it was wrong, Apex saved its ass for another quarter. Electronic Arts didn’t have have zero hand in Apex Legends, it had zero hand in its own rescue.
There’s a lesson that won’t be learned in that, too.