There's a unique kind of stress with playing a battle royale game online with strangers, because with the winner takes all format of the competition, there's an extra burden on the player to not drag the whole team down. I've personally felt this stress, and I'm sure countless others have as well.
When Apex Legends was surprise launched a couple weeks ago, many focused on what was missing. Here was a Titanfall battle royale game without Titans or wall-running. But as more and more players began to play Apex Legends, conversation shifted to what Apex Legends had that other battle royale games did not.
Unlike Fortnite or PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, Apex Legends is always team-based. There are classes with unique abilities, and the ability to revive fallen comrades. And then there's the ping system. Using a rotating wheel, players can select pre-written voice lines to indicate to their teammates whether there's useful loot, if they're going to go and scavenge a specific area, or if there's enemies present or nearby.
The ping wheel is also just one in a suite of tool designed to improve Apex Legends' accessibility. There's also a text-to-voice feature that turns chat dialogue into narration, and voice-to-chat feature that does the reverse. These are tools so useful, that it's honestly surprising it's taken this long for a battle royale game to implement any one of them.
I imagine the reason is because most battle royale games either have a solo mode where communication isn't mandatory, or players are expected to partner up with their friends for teams, so voice chat is assumed. Apex Legends, which always requires teams, has a higher chance of players pairing with random people.
But Respawn in its decision to solve one problem, may have gone and solved a couple other problems in the process, either intentionally or not. It turns out a voiceless communication tool as easy to use and efficient as the one in Apex Legends can overcome not just gameplay difficulties, but physical and emotional ones as well.
"Apex has done a wonderful job with adding communication mediums for people who may not have the ability to speak easily. It's not just about people who have speech impediments. Some people don't have the ability to speak at all," says AbleGamers COO Steven Spohn. "If you are somebody who is on a ventilator, breathing machine, or breathing mask, you might not have the ability to call out anything."
Spohn highlights how the emote responses in Sea of Thieves and the ping system in Apex Legends both demonstrate how the game industry "is coming around to the idea that not everyone can or wants to engage in voiceover IP communication."
I reached out to Apex Legends players on Reddit and EA Origins to ask if the ping system helped overcome any communication difficulties not directly related to gameplay. "I don't use a mic, [I] am way too shy for it [and] hard of hearing," writes EA Origins user Draxonfly. "I also have industrial deafness with added Tinnitus, so hearing people talk is a challenge to me too. The ping system and the voice to text really helps me feel more 'normal' in-game."
"I have terrible anxiety and hate actually talking. The ping system lets me do any communicating I need to do, and it does so well, probably better than I could actually say!" says one Reddit commenter.
"I played a game recently with a player who was clearly using a text-to-speech system to communicate via voice chat. Whenever they would communicate via voice chat it was preceded by them standing still and doing nothing for a while," recounts one Reddit player. "The ping system made it quite easy to communicate without ever needing to speak."
Many of the players I talked to say Apex Legend's ping system foster communication rather than stifle it. Talking in audio chat is difficult for some players, whether due to a disability, anxiety, or even out of fear of harassment.
"Talking in voice is always awkward because I have to reveal that I'm female and that gets me unwanted attention," says another Apex Legends player through Reddit. Online harassment is a prominent issue in many online multiplayer games like Overwatch and League of Legends. "The ping system is a godsend, I don't need to choose between communicating or blending in, I can do both."
Spohn says there is still some ground to cover in Apex Legends. There are lingering issues relating to mouse sensitivity not being as sensitive on the higher end, and the tutorial not allowing for assistive technology integration. Spohn says he hopes Respawn will reach out to work on those issues.
But as far as communication goes, Respawn may have found a way forward for online multiplayer games. Especially in a genre where cooperation is crucial and tensions can run high. Whether or not this system can help mitigate problems like harassment down the line requires more time to observe, but for now there's much to like about Apex Legends' voiceless communication tool.
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