Apex Legends: Saviors - The Big Roundtable Interview
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 03:16pm 11/05/22 | Comments
Our massive interview with the team at Respawn, going behind the scenes on the latest Apex update.
Apex Legends: Saviors is the latest Season for Respawn and EA’s popular online battle royale shooter. As Season number 13 it’s also the latest drop for a title that continues to impress and surprise; even as it has seemingly settled into a groove.
A new Legend, map changes, features, balance updates, a detailed Battle Pass, there’s a checklist to go through and Season 13 is no different on paper. But with Newcastle, a new defensive Legend that is also fellow Legend Bangalore’s older brother, you’ve got a play-style that leans into helping others. IMC Armories and monstrous changes to the Storm Point map introduce new points of interest and ways to play. The former being a new PVE game-within-the-game with its own set of rules and settings.
Ahead of the launch of Apex Legends: Saviors we had the chance to sit down with the team at Respawn to discuss everything from Storm Point’s big monster to the creation of a new Legend to how the team collaborates and is structured to continue to deliver new updates well into the future. With Evan Nikolich (Senior Design Director), Jeff Shaw (Lead Level Designer), Devan McGuire (Senior Character Designer), Samantha Kalman (Senior Game Designer), Cristina Ferez (Lead Concept Artist), and Ify Nwadiwe (Writer) all in the room - it’s an in-depth look at the development behind one of the most popular live service games today.
Let’s dig in.
Viewing Storm Point as a landmass that can change over time, Season 13 introduces something that immediately grabs your attention - a huge monster’s remains. One that you can fight in. Where did the idea of an almost Kaiju-style battle taking place on Storm Point come from? And for something as dramatic as that is, can we expect that going forward? Maps that can dramatically change in an instant.
Jeff Shaw: The idea for the POI really kind of came from the team. One of our level designers had like this spark of inspiration and asked, ‘What if you could fight around a beached sea creature?’ ‘Wouldn't that be awesome?’ That was where we started, with the fantasy. And it was an idea that really clicked and resonated with the team because it fits thematically within what Storm Point is as a map. This map is all about monsters, you fight the Prowlers and the Spiders, so it fits really well.
In terms of making changes to the map, we're always looking at our maps and figuring out how we could evolve this map. What could we do to make it better and really push things that are new and fresh and interesting. Storm Point isn’t the exception, but it being one of our newest maps we wanted to make sure that we’re breathing new life into it.
With new Seasons and the regular cadence of updates, from map changes, to new Legends like Newcastle, balance changes, and everything else. How is the team structured to meet timelines and regular drops? Something like Storm Point changing or Newcastle, how does it all come together so to speak.
Devan McGuire: I can speak about the Legend production side because a lot of this stuff only culminates when we start to understand what we're going to target for a Season. A Season that's coming almost a year and a half down the line. For Newcastle and his kit, development and prototyping started almost two years ago. It was around 18 months ago that we started bringing narrative in to figure out who this character is and wrap something around the idea of what this gameplay prototype is going forward. And then that gets slotted into the Season that comes 18 months down the road.
"For Newcastle and his kit, development and prototyping started almost two years ago. It was around 18 months ago that we started bringing narrative in to figure out who this character is and wrap something around the idea of what this gameplay prototype is going forward."
From a Legend standpoint it's a year and a half of development, fleshing them out, churning on their abilities, developing the core concept of the character through the narrative, iterating and eventually rolling into production something that's ready to go. With a character being the anchor for a Season you need a lot of the time for that narrative component to weave everything together, to figure out what the theming of the Season's going to be, how that's going to work within the roadmap, a big map update, and whatever else is coming down the line. How it’ll work with the Battle Pass.
And because we have those kinds of cascading disciplines, there's a large section of people that are dedicated to those processes. We also have a marketing and narrative team leading the front on how to connect all the pieces and move them forward.
Jeff Shaw: On maps we start really early. This update actually started around the time we were finalising Storm Point. We like to start early, and let things germinate, so we were already thinking about what was next for the map.
Samantha Kalman: IMC Armories in particular have been in development for almost a year and a half. Throughout that time there was a prototyping phase, and then determining which map we were going to ship them on. We were actually testing them on different maps, we’ve tested them on Olympus as well as the base Storm Point. We tested them on the Season 12 update knowing that we were going to ship them with the Season 13 update. It was very much like doing passes, almost carving a sculpture where we think ‘this chunk is in place now let's fill in the details’. It’s more of an art than a science.
Armories are a fascinating and exciting addition because they’re these self-contained PVE battles that have their own loot, but within the context of Apex. Other players could see that happening and know, there's people going for loot there, let's go. From that sense it’s almost like a game within the game. Did Armories go through quite a bit of iteration before ending up like we see here. Was the idea from the outset, to create these sort of self-contained little wave battles?
Samantha Kalman: The sort of thesis for them as a feature was, ‘We like PVE, we want to put more PVE in the game’. But you know, players really hate getting a third party in the Bloodhound Trials. So what can we do that’s PVE, with Spectors, but no third partying? What does that even look like? From there, it was a prototyping phase and there were several different versions made. Different sizes, different scales, different rules. Chipping away and designing it and removing anything that didn't fit for a PVE feature inside a PVP game. We cut a lot of stuff.
Armories are time boxed so you can’t go in there and just rat for the entire match. It’s visible and audible to others. While third parties can’t get inside, campers might make that decision to camp. But, they're spending time camping while not being in control of how long the squad stays inside. Knowing that there's a squad nearby, but there’s one entrance and two exits. Players can get out through the front door or they can get out through the roof with a skydive launcher. So there's some interesting dynamics there. I think Armories will successfully introduce new dynamics to the game around decisions, around rotations, around pushing a fight, waiting for a fight, abandoning a fight.
How difficult, and this is probably a broader question, is testing and iterating without a PTS or wider beta programme for new features? Going live with a new legend, new map features, and other updates, is there confidence that at launch this should all work as we expect it to?
Evan Nikolich: We have a rigorous play-test culture, and it's very much ingrained into the DNA of the studio. We play-test every day and it’s people from all disciplines. We also have a full staffed QA team, so we're constantly hammering stuff. Even as new Legends or things like IMC Armories are in development, they're constantly being play-tested as they're being worked on. A big part of that timeline process, where you're seeing development take many, many months, it's getting tested many, many times. Newcastle went through many different iterations and revisions while play-testing.
"The sort of thesis for them as a feature was, ‘We like PVE, we want to put more PVE in the game’. But you know, players really hate getting a third party in the Bloodhound Trials. So what can we do that’s PVE, with Spectors, but no third partying?"
Do we catch everything? Absolutely not. The thing about a live game is that you try to make your best estimation of what this is going to be. My attitude is, as long as it's stable and not breaking the game, we’ve got to put it in players hands. We've had over a hundred million people play the game, and it keeps growing. Just one hour of all the people playing, we’d never be able to match that with us playing internally. The real big test is going live and putting it out there, seeing how players react to it, and then us reacting accordingly.
Devan McGuire: In addition to our own internal testing we do UXR tests where we get pros or influencers who are high profile in the community to come in and under NDA or whatever, to try out new characters, new features, or new maps. To give us that external feedback, because sometimes we can get a little tunnel vision with our own internal development. Like Evan said, the best place and real test is once it's in the player's hands, but these [UXR tests] help guide us. So we have that confidence when we release these kinds of features. They get us in that ballpark, so if something goes wrong we're not way off base to be able to tune or adjust or try and fix or correct. If, you know, there’s a need for adjustment or tuning.
Taking a look at Newcastle, there's obviously a play-style for a Legend and they fit into a certain role. A huge part of Apex Legends is also the story and lore, the world, characters. Taking Newcastle as the example, was it a case of play-style informing the design? And how do things like his abilities fit in with his backstory?
Devan McGuire: We always put forward things that make sense for the game first, and that's where we start from as a generalised point. We often have a bunch of Legend prototypes in the hopper that are on the shelf because they're not ready yet or we don’t have a narrative hook. Whether that's for a character that we have or one that narrative wants to develop and it doesn't match up with that kit. Even though it’s kind of ready to go.
When we get to the part where we need to decide on what that next character is for a Season, we look at our backlog of prototypes that have promise and have those tangible gameplay potentials. That's when we start to look at either existing characters that narrative has been wanting to develop for a while, which is the case with Jackson, or a new character that we can create. Someone like Fuse as an example, who didn't exist in Titanfall or the lore before his actual launch. That was a character we were confident in, Horizon is another example where we start building the character.
That element of making sure it all fits with the game and then layering on everything we need over the course of that very focused development cycle, the love and care that goes into making characters rich is what brings them into the Apex universe and the game in a well formed way.
Cristina Ferez: From the art standpoint, design and narrative come first. People see the visuals and they think that the visuals might come first, but it’s actually the design. At the end of the day, if the character looks good but the design is not working, you just have a look. For the art we always wait for those two elements to come to us, but even with all the briefs and everything we always iterate. From the design side there’s a vision for the character, and from the art side there's a vision for the character, so it's a very collaborative process. And that's the beauty of it, I think.
Devan McGuire: The three of us were working together on this very early on. Once we were locked into what character we were going forward with, it was bouncing ideas off each other, talking through different sketches that we felt represented or fell short of the representation of the character. We took a lot of time, going back and forth on iterations to try and find the right representation for Newcastle, what he was bringing to the table from his skillset and his personality.
"Absolutely not. The thing about a live game is that you try to make your best estimation of what this is going to be. My attitude is, as long as it's stable and not breaking the game, we’ve got to put it in players hands."
Ify Nwadiwe: Jackson is this person who's always wanted to be a hero. He found out that the IMC weren't the heroes that he thought. So now he has this defensive kit that he can use to be a hero within the games. And that all fed into the design where he has this ability where he can drag someone and that's a personality trait. We took all that information and Christina came back with these amazing design concepts that blew my mind. I had the hard job of trying to narrow it down and choose the things I liked and didn't. And yeah, from there we just kept bouncing. We were in the bunker, all of us together.
As the design inspires the art, what was it about Newcastle and the character that inspired the armour? Was there a touching off point? Was there something specific that stood out?
Cristina Ferez: The biggest thing was to show that he's a defender, that he plays the role of a hero. As we said, we went through a lot of sketches and iteration, but one of the first ideas was that he was going to be a Knight. And we kept iterating on that, and then we decided that it was better to move him more into the superhero realm. Where he would live that fantasy of being a superhero. You know, when we received the brief one sentence was like, ‘this guy needs to look that he's ready to defend’ and that line alone sparked so much. Immediately you begin thinking about armour because a defender would need to be some sort of armoured person.
One funny thing is that in the beginning, we started designing Newcastle without a helmet. Because the narrative team was like, nobody knows his identity. But we then pushed to have a helmet where it's a visor so you could see his mouth, because Jackson is such an expressive character. It’s always an evolving process, he can jump far so he’ll need some sort of mechanics in his boots to jump that far. The design informs everything, and we try to incorporate it all with visual cues.
Going the other way, as the character begins to take shape with narrative and art, adapting or looking at refining or changing mechanics, is that also a part?
Devan McGuire: Obviously there's a strong gameplay core that exists, but that adaptation, as we layered Jackson in, was something that was core to the evolution of the kit. It took him away from having mechanics and an ultimate, especially in the early days, that were selfish abilities that you could use. Where it wouldn't really matter if your team was around or not. It was a case of, ‘No, this guy needs to be somebody who's going to have your back’. He's going to be someone who leaps to you and gets to you when you need him. That idea became a motivator within gameplay, when my teammate's over there and they're in trouble, I am that character.
It then became, what else could we bring to the kit that would actually fulfil that fantasy? We know what we're going for, we know what this character's about. So those mechanics that we started with, they need a tweak to get there. The leap itself, which didn't have the shield component at the start, got that as a key factor because it answered that particular gameplay question. Those heroic elements of Jackson, from a narrative perspective definitely helped evolve and push iteration in a particular direction.
There's also the father side of Jackson, which gels with that idea of protecting and looking out for his teammates. Was that something that was there from the beginning?
Ify Nwadiwe: It was there from the start because you have this character Jackson and right off the bat the first question we're kind of answering is where did he go? What was he doing? What has he always wanted? Everyone thinks Jackson's the bad guy, why did he abandon his sister? He eventually found this family that he wanted, he was ready to start a new life in the Outlands. And you kind of saw that in Bangalore's Stories From The Outlands, where he was very comfortable. And Bangalore was like, no, we got to go back home.
"Once we were locked into what character we were going forward with, it was bouncing ideas off each other, talking through different sketches that we felt represented or fell short of the representation of the character. We took a lot of time, going back and forth on iterations to try and find the right representation for Newcastle"
He's always wanted to be a family man, and when he found that opportunity in the Outlands, he held on to it. I think that's kind of always been at the core, and then there's that element for the spice of it, the drama of it all, someone who kind of has what Bangalore wants. That's the drama we're going to see unfold.
Finally, with things planned out a year or longer with map updates and new Legends, how is the team structured for new Seasons going forward? How malleable is that for things like new modes and features?
Evan Nikolich: We try to plan multiple years out, and the closer stuff obviously is more firm versus the further out stuff, but the big thing is that all our decision making is informed by how the live game is shaping up. We have things on a roadmap that are like 2024 and 2025, but they're very much going to evolve and pivot depending on the live game. Newcastle's going to hit and we're going to see how players react to him and how he shifts the Legend meta around. Legends that are in development now will probably shift as new gaps are created, new needs.
My job is to basically have that oversight over all the teams. We have our teams split up, we have a Legend focus, we have world systems with Sam working on IMC Armories, Jeff’s on maps, Ify is narrative. We have a team that's not represented here in terms of weapons, because we’re not really showcasing any weapons this season. My job is to see all the pieces moving, get them together, and try to form good Seasons out of them. We very much work from the bottom up sourcing the best ideas from all places, trying to build the strongest vision we can.