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How Respawn Dominated One Overloaded Genre And Revived A Dead Franchise In The Same Year

Cameron Monaghan, Cal Kestis Actor Teases Live-Action Star Wars Discussions

There are a lot of developers who had a great 2019. Obsidian released Outer Worlds, returning to form with the Fallout-like RPG they are known for. Kojima Productions finally released Death Stranding and got (mostly) critical acclaim, proving they could operate on their own. Even Capcom dominated the early year with the excellent Resident Evil 2 remake which made every list of best games that year and sold like hotcakes.

Going into 2019, one developer that is well-liked, Respawn Entertainment, wasn’t on its best footing. Titanfall 2 was a critical hit, though it never quite took off with audiences, losing out to Battlefield and Call of Duty in 2016. They were silent for the most part over the next two years. The closest thing to good news was talk of a single-player Star Wars game, but nobody knew what to expect from a studio that had zero experience making the type of single-player, third-person, story-driven game it was rumored to be. Fans wondered how long they’d last under the close happy regime at EA.

Then February 2019 came along and without any previous marketing or announcement. They dropped a game into the crowded battle royale genre and ended up having one of the better years of any developer over the rest of 2019. They also did the impossible: they revitalized the Star Wars game series after several years of mediocrity. So, how did it all happen? Well, let’s take a look at how they exploded into a genre that had zero room for competition and brought back a franchise that was, frankly, reviled by gamers for several years

The Man Behind the Magic

There are two important words behind everything I am about to discuss: Vince Zampella. A lot of gamers may already know that name, but for those who don’t, I’ll give a brief history of someone who, in my opinion, has never made a bad game. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault was a fantastic WWII shooter from the early 2000s Zampella was greatly involved With. It honestly might be mostly forgotten now, but it was a great PC shooter of the era, nonetheless.

He established Infinity Ward development studio, the brains behind some of the best entries in the Call Of Duty franchise, and after a falling out with Activision, he took several of their employees with him in order to form Respawn Entertainment and make the Titanfall series. Zampella and his team always seem to be slightly ahead of the curve on what people want in the shooter genre: adding mobility to Titanfall before Call Of Duty even considered doing so. They also added the Killstreak and RPG elements to the online portion of Call Of Duty with Modern Warfare that practically every other shooter has used since. That forward thinking led to the reason they could do what seemed near impossible.

Breaking Into the Most Overdone Genre Out There

After PlayerUnkowns Battlegrounds (PUBG from here onward) hit mainstream popularity battle royale became the new flavor of the week.  Every developer wanted a taste of that battle royale goodness. With the survival game genre, which had been the trend before battle royale, becoming tired and stale, PUBG offered a new game loop that felt fresh and exciting.

100 players. Last man standing wins.

It was an easy game to copy, so naturally, everyone jumped on the bandwagon, including the game now synonymous with the genre Fortnite, a failing survival game that was retooled by developer Epic at the last minute., The gaming staple franchise Call Of Duty also threw their hat into the ring with Blackout. If you looked up battle royales on any game store you’d have thousands of options and frankly very few could gain traction.

Fortnite was dominating the casual side with Blackout and PUBG eating up the more hardcore audience. Everyone else was squeezed out. The market needed a middle ground game. Fortnite had serviceable but frankly lacking shooting mechanics, PUBG was one of the most convoluted and buggy experiences available outside of a beta, and finally, Blackout just being another mode in a Call Of Duty that was enjoyable…but everyone knew wouldn’t be strongly supported in the years to come. A free-to-play battle royale with solid shooting and a developer that wouldn’t be looking to replace it annually seemed like the perfect solution, but there was none that for that mold.

Enter Respawn. Apex Legends came out of nowhere and succeeded despite all odds. It shook up the whole market for battle royales, temporally dethroning Fortnite on Twitch. Even now, almost a year later it’s frequently high on streamer count and being played by thousands. With no marketing and zero buildup they came in and firmly planted themselves as a force to be reckoned with in an arena they shouldn’t have even been able to get a foothold.

They replaced the frustrating controls and convoluted inventory system found in PUBG, a big barrier for entry to most console players, with a more traditional FPS controller layout and an inventory system that automatically equipped all attachments to your weapons, even replacing the lower quality ones with your new superior gear with no effort on your end. Add in the fact it was free and had plenty of unlockables and you had the perfect storm for breaking through the crowd.

It even added a new twist with heroes á la Overwatch that kept the experience fresh by giving you different play style options each match. My personal experience was that I had given up on the whole battle royale genre, each game having glaring negatives that made me burn out on them quickly. Apex Legends was different. This game felt like it took all the best elements into a melting pot and removed a lot of the issues that the others came saddled with when they released. Overall, they found a solid portion of the battle royale audience that the other games had left cold and, although no longer number one, have a solid and consistent fan base along with a great seasonal system that keeps the game fresh and should continue to do so for many years to come.

Reviving a Dead I.P.

Does anyone remember the Star Wars: Battlefront 2 debacle when it launched? The game was one of the most hated major releases in years. Even the previous entry in the Battlefront series sold well, but had a mostly lukewarm reception among gamers. Most people would’ve argued that there hadn’t been a good Star Wars game since Star Wars: The Force Unleashed in 2008, and that there hadn’t been a great one since The Knights Of The Old Republic in 2003. The much anticipated Star Wars 1313 had been looking like the series answer to Uncharted years earlier but had been canceled when Disney bought Lucasfilm.

After the EA deal, which gave them exclusive rights to make Star Wars games, there had been some starts and stops over the years. Visceral Studios worked on a game for several years but ended up being shuttered by EA, resulting in yet another canceled game. It seemed unlikely a single-player Star Wars game was coming anytime soon.

Then EA said that Respawn, who mostly did first-person shooters and games with decent, but not great, stories was making the next game. People were cautiously optimistic but had no idea what to expect, a shooter perhaps? What kind of Star Wars game could they make? Little teases came now and then but very little information until the big E3 reveal, which showed a game more in the vein of Tomb Raider than the studios previous works, making people even more intrigued by what it might be.

The answer was Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and it was far above anyone’s expectations of what we all thought a Star Wars game could be. they made something that was a contender for game of the year on many lists, yours truly included. I’m gonna fanboy out for just a second and say first of all, customizable lightsaber. That alone made Star Wars fans thrilled but it was so much more than just fan service.

One huge reason it succeeded was that Star Wars had been lacking in the single-player game department for years. People craved a story in that universe with characters that we cared about and the game delivered. It also was set during the very popular dark times, a period between episodes three and four of the movie series, that hasn’t been overly explored since Disney reset the canon within the world.

The combat was challenging but fair, using From Software’s “SoulsBorne” style as an inspiration but giving you the option to tone down the difficulty from that series to make it more accessible to most people. It also allowed exploration and had some decent customization options for your character, his droid buddy and even your ship. Oh, and let’s not forget no microtransactions to be found, a huge sticking point in many modern games. It felt like the type of game that Star Wars fans had in their head for years and it hit at the perfect time as most games that fall had been of the RPG or online shooter variety, leaving a hole in the action/adventure arena, paving the way for Respawn to meet fan desires.

In fact, the way they succeeded with Jedi: Fallen Order is not unlike how they succeeded in Apex Legends.

Improving What Came Before With Some Flair

They took what was proving to work in other games of the same type in both cases. For example, adding their own tweaks in Apex Legends. Using their own strength of strong gunplay and unique ideas heroes with abilities you choose from, an innovative colored loot system with easy to manage inventory, and the game-changing ping system so you could communicate with teammates even if they didn’t have a microphone.

The fact it was free for anyone to play and that it simplified a complicated genre without losing what made it appealing to the more hardcore fans made it stand out in a crowded field. It was revolutionary in some ways but didn’t change the rhythm of the game so much that it was unrecognizable. Any age could learn it and have fun but it had enough depth that it took skill and time to actually master. Hitting that perfect zone of appealing to all types of gamers that several of its competitors couldn’t seem to land on themselves.

In the case of Fallen Order, they looked at third-person action-adventure games where there was previous success. Dark Souls was a big inspiration. They copied its respawn system and combat and difficulty, but weren’t beholden to a single source of inspiration. They added in other elements from more accessible games like Uncharted, as well as excellent Metroidvania-type mechanics. Finally, they took all the lessons from their own previous games, Titanfall 1 and 2, on how solid storytelling can help build on a solid base of gameplay, and made it something special. Add in a respect for the Star Wars lore and universe and we had the first bona fide hit for EA since they won exclusive rights to make games in that universe.


Respawn cracked a code that should be obvious to any game developer but too many completely miss entirely: Stealing and refining what works in other games.

Although two very different games doing two very different things, Apex Legends and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order succeeded because of the same reasons: knowing what works in their respective genres, recognizing what can be simplified for gamers to cut down frustration, and finally, innovating and polishing. Although they are two games that don’t even feel like the same developer made them, the philosophy how they got there is actually very similar if you look close enough.

Forward thinking like that is why I’m excited when I read rumors that they could be reviving Medal Of Honor as a series in the near future. EA has put Vince Zampella in charge of other studios in their portfolio meaning we should be seeing more of his inspired ideas. Who knows what they could be bringing to the table in 2020? Even if it’s several years off, like the time between Titanfall 2 and Apex Legends, we know the wait should be worth it. I think we can honestly say 2019 was Respawn’s year, hands down, and things look a lot brighter than they did in 2018.

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