'Apex Legends' Knows Its Genre Is a Winner-Take-All Fight for Attention
Respawn's battle royale is the latest winner in a marketplace survival game that is always speeding up.
All images courtesy EA
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
I’m sure there’s lore to answer this question, but something has been bugging me since I first heard the name: What, exactly, is an Apex Legend? The top? The biggest one? The most powerful being in a great, long chain of them? The last person standing? These are the kinds of questions that are rattling through my head as I play Apex Legends, the battle royale game from the developers of Titanfall 2 that has occupied the brainspace of the past few weeks that Fortnite (and PUBG before it) used to operate in. It’s the game of the moment, the king of the hill of battle royale, and it’s given me the linguistic weirdness that I’ve needed to think through some of my own personal questions about the winner-takes-all nature of the genre.
The rate at which we have passed through battle royale games as a culture is strange. In terms of big games from the past couple years we’ve had H1Z1, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite, Realm Royale, Radical Heights, Call of Duty Black Ops 4, Tetris 99, Apex Legends, and probably a dozen more games that haven’t risen to the level of broad public consciousness. In my neck of the internet woods, there’s a fascinating effect that I can’t help but use to draw comparisons between the games themselves and the way that they are treated in the public eye: there can be only one.
PUBG dominated the video game discussion in 2017 to such a degree that it became the experience which I measured everything else against. A horror game needed to do something more interesting than PUBG’s slow, dedicated crawl. An action game needed to deliver something more pulse-pounding than a long-range gun battle with 4x scopes and an incoming blue zone boundary. A driving game needed to be better than the honking, zooming ramshackle bouncing of a Dacia. It was the thing, and everyone, from random Twitter users to game critics to YouTubers, found some angle through which to address this weird, tactical experience that still had plenty of room for prime goofery.
But that attention couldn’t stay put, and I think that most people would tell this story as one about consumer confidence. The old poem goes something like this: PUBG was good, but it required a powerful computer and didn’t work all that great for most people, so as soon as players could find something else to give them the group fun of PUBG, they jumped ship. And I think that’s right, to a point, and it at least provides a rational narrative as to why Fortnite was able to appear, soak up lots of PUBG players, and then maximally expand far beyond the market bounds that PUBG was able to hit.
I also want to consider another story, though, which leans as much into the game form of the battle royale as it does the actual movement of economics and players. It seems like attention, the hours we spend looking at, playing, and thinking about specific battle royale games, is a kind of battle royale game itself. We think about the video game market as a place where one game is king, the best one, the one where all the players are, and that mode of thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in which that newly-crowned king in the press becomes the actual king. Our curiosity, matched with our desire for new experiences, creates a resonant effect. On this day, PUBG wins. On the next, it’s Fortnite. For a few days, it can even be Realm Royale, which appeared from the back of the line to take a few games off the reigning champ before settling back into obscurity.
It seems like attention, the hours we spend looking at, playing, and thinking about specific battle royale games, is a kind of battle royale game itself.
Unlike role-playing games or Metroidvanias, there’s not a pantheon of battle royale games. It’s hard to have a conversation with someone about the genre that doesn’t immediately devolve into a discussion of the “best one” rather than an evaluation of the various parts of each that are good or bad or whatever. To some degree, it makes a lot of sense. They’re all chasing the same emotions and gameplay experiences, and short of some unique mechanics here and there (like Fortnite’s building or Radical Heights’ bicycles), they’re basically all the same thing. Fight people. Win fights. Win games. There can be only one.
It’s interesting to be thinking these sort of meta-genre thoughts as I’m playing Apex Legends, and that’s because it knows that your attention will wane. Something newer and stronger and better focused onto the Skinner box ratbrains we all have will come along, and our eyes will slowly drift (along with our friends) to the next thing that appears. And I think Legends knows this, which is why it is built with your attention in mind.
Want to be known for your good performance? Win games and be the top team so that you can appear before the next game. Want people in-game to know that you’re getting kills and dominating? There are massive billboards everywhere. When you die, the announcer will let everyone know who has usurped you. These are pathways for directing attention, aqueducts that grab the stream of consciousness and take it to a place that makes you have unique thoughts about Apex Legends that you haven’t had about other games.
The design of these levels and the way your accomplishments are echoed back to you are not just good design. It’s watching developers play a metagame, the battle royale of battle royales that determines who is the winner this week when it comes to player retention and monetization. After all, the next good competitor, like the Battlefield V battle royale mode, is always around the corner willing to steal your players’ attention and bury you in the past like PUBG. It’s not about being the best of all time. It’s just about staying on top as long as you can.