Eight seasons in and Apex Legends is still breaking records for itself. Specifically, those in the PC space seem to have been gravitating towards the battle royale shooter a lot over the past few weeks since the beginning of Season 8. So much so, in fact, that the game was able to break a new concurrent player record over this weekend. According to SteamDB, Apex Legends broke a new all-time player record for those over on Steam yesterday on Saturday, February 27. The total number of players topped out at 198,235 in all. Considering the game has been out for over two years at this point, it’s incredibly impressive to see so many still routinely playing Apex Legends after all this time.
That being said, it’s worth stressing that just because Steam players may have shown up in droves over the weekend, it doesn’t mean that the PC platform as a whole boasted the most concurrent players of Apex Legends at a single point. Unfortunately, we have no way of deducing whether or not this may have been the case. Still, Steam is often a good barometer to tell us how popular a game may be at a given moment and if these player numbers are similar on other platforms, EA and Respawn Entertainment have to be thrilled with the shooter’s trajectory.
What’s impressive about Apex Legends already accruing so many players once again is that its player base is only going to grow even larger in the coming month. If you weren’t already counting down the days until release, Apex Legends is going to finally be coming to Nintendo Switch in a little over a week. The game’s official launch date will be that of Tuesday, March 9.
Why is Apex Still So Popular?
One vital element of game design that’s explored perfectly is the interplay between flow and friction. Indeed, much of the time Apex Legends feels frictionless. When you move through the environment you do so freely; if you like, you can hit a button to slide, giving you a short speed boost on level ground but also allowing you to sledge extremely quickly down hills. It’s quick, satisfying, and if you’re sliding toward an object, you can hit the jump button to break out of the animation, gracefully avoiding a collision. The two Apex Legends maps we’ve seen so far are designed to encourage and facilitate this form of traversal, with lots of slopes and valleys to explore.
Buildings and rockfaces also keep the player moving. Whenever you approach a tall object, there is almost always a handy grip point – say, a rocky outcrop or a window ledge – a few metres higher than your character. When you jump at a vertical surface, you scramble up a little, adding extra height and putting that grip point just within reach. This scramble animation makes you feel as though you worked for it, providing a sense of achievement, even though raised platforms are almost always accessible. The game is working with you.
But the masterstroke in terms of cooperative play is the game’s ping system, which allows players to highlight areas of the map, useful items and enemy locations to their team-mates without talking. This, together with a conversation wheel offering a range of tactical phrases, means that it’s possible to play as a squad with strangers without having to use your voice, which is intimidating and opens you to the possibility of abuse – or unwanted noise. “It is a genuine blessing for games culture,” says Pearce. “I might never again have to awkwardly describe an enemy’s location over the sound of a stranger’s barking dog while I’m being riddled with bullets.”
Having spent a lot of time wandering the two Apex Legends maps – King’s Canyon and World’s Edge – what I’ve noticed is how functional the architecture and topography are; how they work together to provide fun little playgrounds, choke points, and risk centers. The icy slides down to the Epicenter, the slim, lava-surrounded walkways of the Dome, the wide, densely overlooked streets of Capital City. In a game with such extravagance in terms of weapon design and character special abilities, you need each area of the environment to provide strict and specific roles. Respawn’s approach to staging is more theatrical than cinematic.
“There’s incredibly little that is extraneous in the designs,” says Pearce. “Almost nothing is there just because it looks cool. Every Respawn game so far has felt to me like it could be played with blocky prototype graphics and still be just as involving because every element justifies its inclusion mechanically. This kind of puzzle-box design, where everything clicks together in such a deliberate way, is harder to come across in games with larger scopes. Respawn isn’t the only developer doing this – Remedy’s Control felt similar to me, but it is rare in the big-budget, triple-A space.”
But what I really love about Apex Legends is the simple, unimpeded pleasure of moving through the world. Lots of game designers are very interested in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, a highly focused mental state in which actions become almost automatic. Assisting flow is one of the most underappreciated elements of design – it might be found in the way a game illuminates certain areas in the world to show where the player should go (Dead Space does this brilliantly), or the use of rumble feedback to indicate the edges of a road in a racing game. But what Apex Legends does is reduce friction in a way that makes the player feel skilful.
“I think this is why Apex has found so much success, even among players who don’t usually enjoy battle royale games,” says Pearce. “It’s very easy for players to feel overwhelmed when they’re being introduced to these games, but Respawn balances everything to make the player feel about 20% more competent and cognizant than they are.” Of course, I have to deal with the realization that the game I’ve played the most this year is the one that’s designed to flatter me. But, 500 hours in, I don’t really care.