How Apex Legends' lower skill floor makes every player more competitive
© Joab Gilroy
Apex Legends is awesome. A Battle Royale set in the Titanfall Universe, it's fast-paced, has great gunplay and most importantly, easy to get into. We look at why that's important.
Apex Legends surprised almost everyone when it stealth launched a few days ago it was new, it was pretty, it was ready to play right then and there - but most importantly, it was good. With 10 million people on board and 1 million concurrent players already, I'm here to tell you why it's so good.
If you look at the best competitive games, they're easy to get into. The low skill floor for Rocket League is far-and-away the most critical element in its success. Certainly it's fun, but the fact that anyone can work out the idea of "Car Soccer" in a heartbeat is why it was adopted so quickly. Once players are 'in', personal motivations take over and they will strive to learn to be better of their own accord — but if you never get anyone to play in the first place, it can be difficult.
Counter-Strike can be simple too - you point at an enemy, you click on them and they die. From there it's all smoke strats, B retakes and triple stacks. League of Legends and Dota 2 are both devastating to my point and we won't talk about them any further.
Apex Legends, from Respawn Entertainment — a team made up of former Infinity Ward developers and clearly some of the best UX designers in the business — is bringing that same low skill floor to Battle Royale games.
Of course, Battle Royale already has a pretty low skill floor. The massive wall of the circle (zone, storm, electric field, gas, whatever) speaks for itself, and the general gameplay loop is largely the same as any other shooter outside of that. Fortnite already did amazing things in the same area, with simplified gunplay thanks to RNG weapon spread (which is mercifully a thing of the past).
That'll Do Ping
But Apex Legends is lowering the skill floor and raising how people think about the game in a different way. Apex Legends has built competitive thinking into its very DNA.
It starts with the Ping system. If you hit the middle mouse button, you'll ping an area for your teammates to check out. Double click the MMB and it will change to a red marker — an enemy is nearby. If you single click ping on an enemy, the game uses context to automatically call that out — you don't need to double click, it will turn red on the fly.
This context-sensitive ping system is a huge deal for accessibility. The amount of information you can communicate in a heartbeat is massive, and you don't need to plug a mic in to do it.
The contextual differences even carry over to the difference between open and closed loot bins — an extremely important difference. If you've just landed in an area and you find a bunch of open loot containers, and you can see your teammates aren't nearby — there's an enemy close. If you're following a group and you see open loot containers in one direction and closed in another, you can take an educated guess as to where they went.
You can use the ping wheel by holding the MMB to mark where you think other players have been, you can issue orders (suggestions) to defend or attack certain positions. The power you have to communicate via a single button press is monumental — and it means that even the most casual games are innately more competitive.
I've played a lot of Battle Royale. Easily thousands of hours. I'm not bad at them. I'm not going pro, but I'd back myself to win a lot of the time. And I've played with a wide variety of different people. And identifying the location of enemies and the telltale signs of an impending ambush are some of the key factors that lead to losses.
Every game of PUBG or Fortnite with a new player is like a crash-course in how to use cardinal directions and the numbers on your compass to identify a location quickly. Identifying landmarks can be difficult — especially when everyone has their own weird words for certain things… I was very confused the first time someone told me to check a "Wizard Tower" when they meant a Guard Post.
With a robust, context-sensitive ping system that's not a problem. By removing that as a hurdle, players quickly learn how to read extra information in those pings — which means their positioning will improve as well.
The Hottest Drops
Another brilliant change is the drop system — in Apex Legends, teams drop in formation (unless they specifically opt out). A "Jumpmaster" decides where the team will go and takes you there. It's not flawless — if you're playing with randoms and you're not the Jumpmaster, you'll find yourself at their mercy if they want to land directly under the dropship immediately. You could split away, but it's not keeping in the spirit of the game very much.
What this does is removes the pressure of jumping from new players, allowing them to go with the flow and learn the map without needing to worry about learning where The School, Estates or Tilted Towers is and then deciding whether to avoid that place or not. The roaming dropship is the hot drop of choice so far, it seems, by the way.
It's a great way to ease players in — as you learn the map and how to play, you can make suggestions on where to go next using the ping button, and the Jumpmaster can reply. You can launch away on your own — but unless you have a particular strategy in mind, I wouldn't recommend it.
I tend to break off from the jump right at the end, but otherwise I'm more than happy to go wherever the Jumpmaster takes us. It's a great way to visit places you'd normally avoid, and to see how other people treat the early phase of the game.
And hey, if your teammates die because the drop was too hot, you can always get them back into game.
It's in the development studios name — Apex Legends is a Battle Royale where you can respawn mid-round. And it's baked into the core game — it's not just some sort of party mode modifier.
If a player gets killed, you've got a window of time to recover their dogtags, after which you can get them back into the game. It's not risk free — you've only got 90 seconds to recover their information, which often means you'll need to push into the enemy. If your opponents hang around to loot, the amount of time you've got might be very short indeed.
And when you get to one of the respawn locations, marked in green on the map — and highlit when you acquire a teammate's tags — you need to spend 5 seconds reviving your squaddy. It takes another 10 before your teammate is back, and they land without any gear. If the enemy is bearing down on you, they might be respawning only to die again — not an ideal scenario.
So it's not easy, and it's definitely not guaranteed, but it's a stroke of genius for helping players learn the ropes. If you've teamed up with some good players and they get your tags, you'll be invested in watching them as they move through the game. You'll see what they pay attention to — how they move through rooms, what weapons they favour, how they scope out the respawn site — and you can learn a lot from that.
Because you're invested in what happens next, you'll learn far more than you normally would from a death in a Battle Royale game, especially when soloing along with random players. In other BRs if I die, I die. I re-queue and try again. But in Apex Legends, there's a big incentive to stick around and see what happens next, which means there's an incentive to passively learn how to get better.
The Powers That Be
The final piece of the brilliant Apex Legends puzzle are the Legends themselves. I was sceptical when I first read that it was a "Hero-focused" battle royale, because they can be difficult to balance. But Apex Legends balances it perfectly — and once again uses it to lower the skill floor (and raise the skill ceiling).
Bloodhound, for example, can see through walls using a sonar-like ping system. It doesn't last forever, like Widowmaker's Ultimate, but the information it provides you with can save your team's life.
The rub is that anyone in range can see a pale orange bubble emanate from them when they activate this ability. That means those cheeky breeki's waiting to ambush you inside that next house can see the bubble and will know that you know they're hiding within. Which means you know they know that you know they're hiding within — a real trace-buster-buster-buster situation. It's balanced against itself — there's upsides and downsides to it.
Consider my favourite character, Caustic. He drops gas traps that act as an effective area denial tool, but they have a drawback too — your teammates aren't poisoned, but they can't see through the gas very well, so they're just as blind as your enemy. I think being able to drop six gas traps is a bit much — they might want to tone it down a tad — but on the flipside his Ultimate is kinda crap, so there's more balance.
For new players though, some legends provide ample utility for learning. Bloodhound's passive ability lets you track enemies too. This can teach you how they moved through an area, providing you with information even when you don't directly ping them. And a lot of the information they glean can be read without their ability — as mentioned earlier, knowing what has been opened by other players can tell you quite a bit about a location on the map.
Lifeline is probably the best newcomer character. Her ability summons a Healing Drone, which is great if you need to top up after a skirmish. But her ultimate is even better — a droppod of great gear, delivered wherever you need it. It's perfect for bolstering a bad looting phase — there have been many situations where I've found myself heading into the third circle with nothing amazing, only to get a Lifeline drop with exactly the scope/helmet I needed to boost my confidence.
Bangalore is great too for newcomers too. Her passive makes her run faster when under fire, which lets her reposition quicker — great if your positioning game isn't fantastic yet. Her Smoke Launcher is a bit of a get out of jail free card too, as it obscures a huge area to bolster escapability. It can be used offensively too.
So much effort has gone into making Apex Legends not just a great BR, but a brilliant learning experience. It's obvious that Respawn truly understands the Battle Royale mode in a way that we haven't seen much of yet.
A low skill floor has traditionally translated into popularity, and by giving players ample tools to learn how to get better Respawn has made something that grows all Battle Royale games. Only a few days out, it's hard to say whether it has a high skill ceiling yet, but it has fantastic gunplay, above average (for a BR) netcode and a good deal of depth thanks to the Legends system — my gut says it has a pretty high ceiling.