Vince Zampella, the CEO of Respawn Entertainment, likes to say that his teams “chase the fun.” And by doing that, the studio was able to come up with a surprise, Apex Legends, a new battle royale shooter game set in the Titanfall universe. The free-to-play game debuts today on Electronic Arts‘ Origin platform.
I played Respawn’s Apex Legends for a few hours last week, and then I interviewed Zampella, cofounder of the studio that made the Titanfall series, about how the game together. I asked him, for instance, about why the team decided to nix the Titans, or giant mechs, in this game, even though that’s the major feature of previous Titanfall releases.
Zampella is a veteran of a lot of shooter games, including the Call of Duty series when he was at Infinity Ward. I also asked him if Apex Legends was tuned for esports, and he said that it is an easier game to watch because it isn’t as massive as other battle royale games (Apex has 60 players, with three on each team).
The game is the first title that Respawn is releasing since EA bought the Los Angeles studio for $455 million in 2017. I asked Zampella if EA was able to come through with more resources to make games like this, and he said that was the case. It’s an open question, however, if Respawn has to pour more resources into this game and make some painful trade-offs. Zampella doesn’t think Apex Legends will be a drain on resources for Respawn’s other games yet, but that depends on how big an investment Respawn will make in live services in reaction to the reception from fans.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Apex Legends feels quick, fun, different. It’s smaller in scope, which I think almost makes it more manageable. Was that how you guys got to that scale, smaller than 100 people?
Zampella: You’ve probably heard this from me a dozen times. It’s that whole theory of, we’re not just chasing a number. We’re chasing fun. We tried bigger. We tried smaller. And again, some of that will probably change over time. We’ll probably release other maps that are bigger if we decide they’re fun. This was just the — as we started playing and growing and shrinking, this number felt right. The 60 players in squads of three is the most fun we had. It’s not an exact science. It’s more of a gut feeling. The team tried thousands of permutations, and we all settled on this. It feels good.
GamesBeat: How do you get to some of the bigger decisions? How large would this team be compared to some of the other things you might want to do? Everyone wants a Titanfall 3, and then, there’s whatever else you might be able to do. There’s your VR project. How did this become the next thing you wanted to ship?
Zampella: We kind of set out to find the fun. This is what became the fun and the focus of the team. It’s a new, emerging mode. For us, it’s about mixing it up. We try to never do the same thing too many times in a row. This was about, how do we as a team and a company grow? This was something that resonated so well that it had to be the focus of what we do. We needed to get this out.
Deciding on the size versus other things — the Star Wars team lives on its own. They have the size of team they need to make the scope of game we have to make. The Titanfall stuff is all more flexible. As we push pieces — if we need to get something done now, we pull in from the rest of the Titanfall team. Then, we’ll refocus on some later Titanfall stuff as we get this out. We’ll see how much it takes for us to do live services. Some of this is new for us. That’s going to be a learning process. We’ll adjust as we go. Hopefully, we’ll get more right than wrong.
GamesBeat: When EA was acquiring you, you said you were getting more resources. Is that what happened to make something like this possible? Doing multiple games at once.
Zampella: Honestly, with the recruiting resources at EA, we were able to hire a lot more people. We didn’t pull too many people from other teams or anything like that, but just having the backing of EA to say, “Yeah, we need to grow by another 30 people to be able to do this and this,” we had that support.
GamesBeat: So, you didn’t have to make any painful trade-offs or delay anything you wanted to do?
Zampella: No. We’ll see, as we get into the next stuff. As we balance live service and what’s coming next, we’ll see if there are any trade-offs that are painful. I don’t think so.
GamesBeat: And you follow the players, wherever they’d really like to go?
Zampella: Yeah. It’s a best-worst case scenario, right? If it blows up and people want all the content in the world, OK, now we have to figure out how to give them more. Then, we make the decisions around, maybe we delay something that’s coming later because this one is so successful. Or, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just good successful, and we keep doing everything we’re doing.
GamesBeat: Did this turn out the way you expected when it started?
Zampella: [Laughs] It’s so different from how we started out. The core of it was, let’s build something we know works first and then iterate from there. It started out as just the base battle royale and then, how do we put the Respawn spin on it? It’s changed so much over the last year that I don’t know if you — it’s not as if we had an exact vision at the start. This came from testing, trying, tweaking so many permutations that it’s hard to say. I wouldn’t say that, at the onset, that I knew it would be this. I knew it would be good, but this is something that grew from all that.
GamesBeat: Did the absence of Titans wind up surprising you? The Titanfall universe but no Titans?
Zampella: No, because it just doesn’t make sense for the game. Once you play it, you don’t even think about that. It has to be fun. You could force something in for the sake of a name or an identity, but this is part of the Titanfall universe. It’s not just about having giant Titans. It’s about the characters, having more identifiable characters and less generic sci-fi pilots. To me, this is stunning. I love it.
GamesBeat: Do you think this is more friendly to esports in any particular way? Would it come off better than 100-person battle royale? It feels like there’s a lot of skill involved. I see, just looking at who wins, some people were getting 20 or 30 kills.
Zampella: That’s not me, unfortunately [laughs].
GamesBeat: The people who are skillful are winning. That makes sense to me for esports. Fortnite and [PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds], you sometimes have no idea who’ll win.
Zampella: There’s more strategy to it because you can put squads together for different situations. Some of it’s going to matter relative to your play style. Your play style will dictate what characters you want, what kind of squad you want. But the goal for us is to balance it so there’s not just one overpowering, obvious squad. Then we would have failed. We’ll adjust that.
So does it help in competitive? I think the smaller scale probably does in some small way. It’s an easier thing to watch. I think the matches can go faster than, potentially, some of the other games. There’s probably little things here and there that would help it.
GamesBeat: I guess you can go solo here. You’d just abandon your teammates. But you’re not doing a specifically solo mode?
Zampella: Not on day one. There are definitely times, like in PUBG, where I’ll play solo because I don’t really feel like being social.
You don’t have to jump with your squad, though. You can jump solo. Any time during the dive when you’re with your squad you can split off and decide, “I want to go to this building because I like that spot.” A lot of the time, right at the end, squads will split up and — I’ll take this building, you take this building. You’re not all landing on the same building and fighting for loot. You split up, and you have a better chance of all grabbing loot simultaneously.
GamesBeat: There are lots of things you can do post-launch, then.
Zampella: Oh yeah, absolutely. This is just the start of our journey. There will be new maps, new modes, new characters, new weapons, new skins. There will be a ton of stuff coming over the next year to 10, maybe. It depends on how successful it is.
GamesBeat: There are already conventions in battle royale. It sounds like you dispensed with some of those in that process of chasing the fun.
Zampella: I think a lot of the core conventions are still there. Drop in unarmed. Find loot. Compete against others. Last one standing wins. That core is still there. But we have the character twist on it, where it’s now more interesting.
GamesBeat: Was there any thinking that maybe you have to avoid things that Battlefield might do?
Zampella: No. I mean, I hope their game does well too. It’s a new mode that’s kind of — it’s a genre, right? It’s here to stay. Battlefield V can exist. They’re doing things differently. They have the vehicles and those Battlefield moments that feel completely different from us. I don’t think we have to worry about them.
GamesBeat: Did you consult with each other at all?
Zampella: A little bit, yeah.
GamesBeat: I think they’re doing a 60-ish kind of thing.
Zampella: I’m not sure where they are right now, so I don’t really want to comment.
GamesBeat: But in that sense, you’re not coordinating. You might compare notes.
Zampella: Right. We compare notes from time to time.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like this is a different IP at all, even if it’s the same Titanfall universe? The branding with the name is different.
Zampella: I think we’re trying to treat it like a new IP. While it is in the Titanfall universe, it’s something new and unique. We want people to know that and understand that. Someone might have heard that Titanfall is such a hardcore game, so maybe if this one is branded that way, they don’t want to try it. This is something new. Come and give it a fair chance.
GamesBeat: It’s different. I think I always have a lot to absorb when I’m playing a battle royale game the first time. The only thing I was confused about that I think I shouldn’t have been, maybe, was remembering where the high-level loot area is or the medium loot area. These things that don’t change, I can’t tell you where they are right now, even after playing half a day.
Zampella: I think that’s one of the things you learn after playing a map for a couple of days. You start to get a feel for where you like to drop. The loot is all random. There’s just a higher chance of there being higher-tier loot in certain areas. You’ll pick up on that pretty quick.
GamesBeat: Any other comments on the game today?
Zampella: It’s exciting for us because it’s something new for Respawn. It’s a new way of developing, the live service stuff. It’s embracing the future of how people take in content. It’s something new for EA. It’s putting EA in this position of slight discomfort. We haven’t done this before, but let’s do it. They’re embracing it and backing us. For me, it’s exciting to see that because that was the promise. Let’s get together and do great things. The fact that they’re living up to that is exciting.