Apex Legends' Design Director on Next-Gen Upgrades, the Switch, and Crunch at Respawn

Apex Legends' Design Director on Next-Gen Upgrades, the Switch, and Crunch at Respawn

Ahead of Season 7's launch, Respawn's Jason McCord also fills us in on Horizon, map design, and Respawn's new studio.

I don't know about you, but it feels like change is in the air. Autumn has settled over my city, the new consoles are already tucked into media center shelves in journalists' homes, and my brain is having a hard time accepting that Season 7 of Apex Legends launches on Nov. 4, just a day after the upcoming U.S. election. I'm trying to stay focused on what's right ahead of me, but my thoughts keep drifting to the clouds.

Apex's next season is called Ascension, and the update will see Respawn's battle royale take to the sky. A new map, Olympus, hosts combat in a floating city built for the super-rich. As always, the new Season will add another character to the roster of Legends: this time, astrophysicist Mary "Horizon" Somers will bring Scottish flair and some gravitational trickery to the Apex Games.

Ahead of today's Season 7 gameplay reveal, Respawn Design Director Jason McCord took some time to field my questions about Horizon, Olympus, and what else Apex has in store for the coming year. Next week will see Apex launch on Steam, with a Nintendo Switch release set to follow in 2021 and proper next-gen improvements coming at a to-be-determined date. McCord is filled in some detail on those changes and on recent developments at Respawn, giving a clear-minded look at where Apex Legends is heading next.

Mary, Mary Not Quite So Contrary

In contrast to the chipper combatant seen in Season 7's launch trailer or the brilliant, betrayed scientist shown in her animated story short, Horizon was originally going to be very different. Respawn's original concept was a Lex Luthor-type, but writing and gameplay iteration has turned her into a grinning genius with a tragic backstory, almost like a foil to the brilliant-but-prickly Caustic.

"This is the first Legend that Respawn Vancouver developed," McCord says, giving credit where it's due to Respawn's new Canadian satellite studio. Horizon's unique Legend abilities are focused on mobility, pairing better movement options for her and her squadmates with snares for her foes. Horizon's passive ability lets her land a bit more gracefully than other Legends and preserve her momentum. Her deployable gravity lift can be used to reach the top of one of Olympus' many towers or toss enemies into the sky for some target practice. Finally, Horizon's ultimate ability unleashes a black hole that (like Titanfall 2's Gravity Star grenade) will yank enemy players toward its event horizon.

Like Lifeline, Horizon's got a robot sidekick at all times. | Respawn/EA

One abandoned idea for Horizon's toolset was a deployable area-of-effect zone that would enable low gravity for both teammates and enemies. "It was kind of weird and fun," McCord says, "but when you start to ask 'why would I do that, when is it useful, is it useful for my team but also for the enemies,' you start to think maybe we shouldn't do that."

Once her three abilities started to gel, McCord notes, Horizon ended up on the fast track for deployment. "She was actually planned for a later season and then she got moved up, because once we locked that part in, she became really fun."

Just Ask the BioShock Devs How Hard Making a Floating City Is

The fluffy clouds and luxe buildings make Olympus a striking place to set the Apex Games, but upon seeing its reveal I couldn't help but wonder how difficult it was to get this map right. On top of being built to accommodate Apex's first pilotable vehicle, the Trident hover car, Olympus lacks a common feature of Apex's other maps: mountains.

Apex Legends is built on Respawn's heavily-modified version of Valve's Source Engine, tech that's also given us one of the best examples of how hard it is to make battle royale maps. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive's small Blacksite mode follows the genre's usual trend of setting its map on an island, but it's an island that's essentially one big mountain. Stand around the edges of it and players can't see to the other side, nor does the engine have to render anything obscured by the protruding land. The numerous mountains in Kings Canyon and World's Edge serve a similar purpose in Apex Legends.

Enjoy a break from Kings Canyon's dust clouds and shacks. | Respawn/EA

"We didn't want to just make another island with mountains, right? That's something that we really like and it's sort of the flavor of our maps, but when we were looking at Olympus, we were not going to have mountains," McCord says.

Tall structures provide that all-too-crucial visibility blocking for Apex's engine, but there are also wide, open spaces where the game doesn't have to render much at all: literal gaps in the city's floating superstructure. Those chasms will still funnel players into chokepoints, but bold players will also be able to snipe across those sightlines or try to fling themselves across.

Another thing players will notice about Olympus is that it's somewhere between the size of Kings Canyon and World's Edge. "I think we've found as small and compact as we'd want to go with Season 5 Kings Canyon," McCord says. "For Season 7, we're actually going to vault Kings Canyon for the entire season and rotate between Olympus and World's Edge." Apex's original map won't be going away forever, McCord says, but we can probably expect to see it return with more tweaks and, perhaps, some added landmass.

Okay, there's like half a mountain in the middle of the map, but that's it. | Respawn/EA

20/20 Hindsight and 2021 Goals for Apex Legends

Apex's second year of live service will be wrapping up right around the time we start hearing about Season 8. It goes without saying that 2020's presented some new challenges; on top of integrating the new team up in Vancouver that's solely focused on Apex development, Respawn has had to adjust to the realities of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back in April, an anonymous reviewer alleged in a Glassdoor review of Respawn that remote work during quarantine had quickly curdled into crunch. When the review surfaced a few months later, Apex Game Director Chad Grenier issued a lengthy response where he refrained from dismissing the reviewer's claims while also defending Respawn's practices. "They're absolutely right in how they felt, and they were clearly working too much, despite being told it was ok to miss their deadlines," Grenier said of the reviewer. "The problem is not with the intent of Respawn's leadership, we've got everyone's best interest in mind."

A few months later, McCord still agrees with Grenier's sentiment regarding crunch on Apex. "I would love to say that we don't crunch, and it's true we don't ask anybody to crunch," McCord says. "You've sort of got your natural thing that happens in the industry where people work late because they're really into what they're working on, but I feel really good about the fact that we haven't asked anybody to crunch on Apex ever, maybe?

"The key there is to be okay taking it on the chin when you have to release less content. You just have to say there's a group of developers that we need to be healthy and happy, they're going to make better content when they're happy, so that means we're not going to get a weapon out in Season 7—okay, that's what's going to happen, and now we don't have to crunch."

To the point about opening up Respawn Vancouver, McCord thinks the forced transition to remote work has even had a silver lining. "We almost lucked into doing it as well as we're doing it," McCord says. "It's one of the few good things about the quarantine and having to work from home: They're no longer a studio 'over there.' We're all online at the same time, we're all in the same Zoom meetings, we're just one big team now." McCord's not sure the integration of the team would have been as successful as it is if they had remained siloed in separate offices.

Backing up McCord's comments on how the growing Apex team handles delays, there is a recent one to consider: Apex Legends was originally supposed to hit Nintendo Switch around this time, but it's been delayed to 2021 "in order to do justice to the game."

A few static portals make for quick repositioning around Olympus. | Respawn/EA

McCord can't talk about the technical specifics of getting Apex on Switch, but he's happy to discuss Respawn's aims for the port. "We take a lot of pride in [Respawn games] feeling really fluid and fast," he says. "That's one of the reasons why we pushed it out; it just wasn't there yet. We're starting to see improvements, and we know it's going to get there."

Likewise, though Respawn is working on bringing improvements to Apex Legends on the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series S, and Xbox Series X, it'll simply run in backward compatibility on all the next-gen consoles at launch. There may be slight improvements to performance and load times, but bigger next-gen changes are (forgive the joke) still on the horizon. McCord says he's looking forward to seeing where Apex settles on next-gen consoles post-upgrade.

"Technically, [Apex] asks a lot of a console, and PC users I think are able to get the best version of the game with a consistent frame rate. Being able to see that on console, and just to feel like the smoothest version of the game you can play is available for console players is really exciting for me. Obviously, potential graphical improvements are great, but for me it's always taking away any sort of barrier to the player having the smoothest frame rate-consistent game ever."

Boots on the Ground (or on the Deck of a Hover City)

Because I still play a lot of Apex, I had to ask McCord if any other major balance, pacing, or mobility changes are being planned. I noted that Apex had some pacing issues in USG's 2020 reassessment of the game; soon after, Respawn made the Evo Shields from a limited-time mode (LTM) into Apex's standard armor loadout. That move has improved match pacing, but McCord says he thinks there are still issues to iron out.

Tridents don't come with weapons, but you can attach Rampart's minigun and other tools. | Respawn/EA

"My very personal opinion is that I think the very beginning of the game is the part that needs the most improvement," McCord says. "Landing, trying to find a gun, trying to get into a fight with a bunch of people all around you, not knowing where anybody is—that's a pain point that I see, that I'm sort of looking at right now. You might see us start to experiment with stuff like that in LTMs."

One experiment that won't leap into regular Apex play (at least, not if McCord puts his foot down) is Titanfall-style wallrunning. Right now, during Season 6's send-off Fight or Fright event, players can enjoy wallrunning in the Shadow Royale mode while playing as undead, melee-only Shadow players. McCord says adding the ability for Shadows was like flipping a switch, but it's a switch that'll remain "off" in regular modes.

"I stand pretty strongly, still, in the case that if Shadows had guns, that would be really unfun," McCord says. "You get too many opportunities for people to use wallrunning to get behind you and shoot you." The philosophy McCord and team for Apex adhere to is that "drop is greater than twitch," meaning that "if you outplay someone strategically, you should get the drop on them" and win in most cases.

With plenty of Legends to keep tabs on, each with their own abilities, there's already a lot to consider when dropping into a match of Apex. Players booting up Season 7 can look forward to using Horizon's tools and to learning the ins and outs of Olympus, but don't fret about having to dash along walls any time soon. Just get used to those gravity lifts and try not to drive your Trident straight off of the map.

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Mathew Olson

Reporter

Mathew Olson is a writer formerly of Digg, where he blogged and reported about all things under the umbrella of internet culture (including games, of course). He lives in New York, grew up under rain clouds and the influence of numerous games studios in the Pacific Northwest, and will talk your ear off about Half-Life mods, Talking Heads or Twin Peaks if you let him.

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