Marketing video games, like many other categories of products, used to be a much simpler proposition. In 2020, purchasers of video games are among the savviest and most critical consumers out there, so getting them to pay attention to your game is a harrowing proposition. Having consumers pay for your game is even tougher due to the advent of free-to-play games that offer a dearth of content for no pricetag. Games in this style may not ask for an upfront investment, but a lot of them rely on a continuous cycle of new, sometimes paid content. With this style of content rollout, your game risks going to the well in the same way for so long that it stops catering to a mass audience. This applies to both in-game content and even subsequent marketing content. To keep players coming in and coming back, you have to break through the noise.
APEX Legends has done that.
I am typically a very solitary video game player; most online and multiplayer games have never managed to grab me and keep me playing for long. In the past five years, the only shooter that I have engaged with heavily has been PUBG during the summer of 2017. My gaming echo chamber just doesn’t talk about them: I usually stick to a small set of outlets and podcasts to get news and never venture outside of it. Yet, APEX Legends breaks through, and has done so multiple times. This feature breaks down Respawn’s marketing successes while speculating why their team has been so successful.
The Launch of APEX Legends
APEX Legends, a game developed by Respawn Entertainment and published by Electronic Arts began its life as a multiplayer mode for Titanfall 2 called Titanfall APEX. When the team’s take on the genre didn’t quite work with the speed and maneuverability of the player characters in Titanfall 2, the game was broken out into its own franchise with different movement and hero characters. It was a game that was started before Respawn’s acquisition by Electronic Arts, a game that no one expected from Respawn, and a game that started with an absolute bang right out of the gate.
When the game launched as a free-to-play project in February 2019, APEX hit 50 million players within a month. Outlets spoke highly of the game’s launch which relied on the element of surprise, good messaging in light of EA’s missteps with Star Wars Battlefront 2, and influencer/streamer marketing; the team paid $1M to get Ninja to play the game on stream, for example. The game’s marketing worked because it relied on showing, not telling. It got me to try the game to see the its unique-at-the-time “pinging system”, solid networking and great core gameplay loop. I fell off after about a week, but tried the game despite not being a huge online shooter fan and left with a positive outlook: mission accomplished for the marketing team. The team at Scholarly Gamers recognized APEX Legends as a runner-up in their 2019 Game of the Year deliberations.
APEX Legends Season 4: Assimilation
In order to get me back into the game, it took some heavy subversion of the typical “hero shooter” or battle royale content marketing roll-out. For games like Rainbow Six Siege and Overwatch, the rollout consists of a trailer for new characters and/or a new season/year of content. However, with this season, the team at Respawn surprised players by announcing a character (James “The Forge” McCormick, a cybernetically-enhanced MMA Fighter) that was immediately murdered by the season’s real new character, Revenant. In an interview with Dotesports, Respawn design director Jason McCord indicated that once players data-mined Revenant out of the game, they created Forge and left a trail for players to find as an exercise in misdirection. McCord himself has commented that he couldn’t “…think of any other game that has gone through such hijinks,” and I think that statement is fairly accurate. For the first time since the launch of the series, the team included a character reveal vignette as the main trailer which revealed that APEX has a story with mysteries that have not yet been solved by the community. It also may set up future characters coming to the game.
The Recipe to Respawn’s Success
Without speaking directly to the team at Respawn, I would probably chalk up some of the excellence in marketing execution to the way that the team is structured. In an interview with GamesIndustry.Biz, we have learned that the team’s senior director of brand management Arturo Castro has worked with the team since the beginning of APEX Legends‘ development. The team’s marketing excellence goes beyond their launch and Assimilation reveals: you may remember the stunt that the team pulled at The Game Awards just a few short months ago. One of the game’s more charismatic characters, Mirage, made a surprise appearance to announce a holiday event with Geoff Keighley in a segment that many thought had to have been pre-recorded. However, this Game Awards Stunt, we found out later was done thanks to an army of visual effects wizards who helped Roger Craig Smith, the voice actor behind the character, appear live with Keighley.
Having marketing embedded with the development team may not work in all instances, however. Drew McCoy, the executive producer of the game, cautioned that this relationship can easily break down when the balance between marketing insight and development direction are out of balance. When there’s trust and open communication about expectations on the development side and solid market insights coming from the marketer, great campaigns with developer buy-in can happen.
What Separates APEX from the Pack
Now, you may be thinking there are tons of marketing activations in free-to-play games that have gotten good press beyond APEX Legends‘ Season 4 campaign. The “Black Hole” event created by Epic for Fortnite may come to mind. Even though these types of event may subvert expectations, I would argue, that beyond generating buzz in the industry about the uniqueness of the event, this event doesn’t have the claws that APEX Legends‘ Launch and Season 4 rollouts possess. Events like Fortnite’s Star Wars and Black Hole events are there to please the existing players and grab headlines.
Conversely, I would argue that APEX‘s marketing activations have managed to do more because they give players a deeper pay-off for their attention. The Assimilation launch of APEX in particular makes players realize that there’s much depth to the world. Spend the time and you’ll realize that this game is more than a [insert any other Publisher name]’s version of the Avengers. Players will be pulled in deeper thanks to the team’s Stories from the Outlands vignettes and may even go further than that with the theories about the world that are being spun up via the APEX Lore subreddit.
Replicating Respawn’s Success
I think more teams in the business should take the a step back and brainstorm more marketing activities that will ask for an investment in a player’s time. Before doing that though, some teams may need to ask if their current structure is working, especially if marketing is done by a publisher who may not be embedded with the team. Through a better development-marketing alignment, teams can build trust that allow for really sticky marketing activities like the ones that have been generated by Respawn Entertainment.