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EA is losing out on the true potential of Titanfall studio with ‘Apex Legends’

With little warning, Titanfall developer Respawn Entertainment and Electronic Arts released Apex Legends, adding yet another game into the ever-growing pool of battle royale shooters. Rather than start from scratch with a new franchise, Respawn took the bones of Titanfall and morphed it into something similar to Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s Blackout mode.

Don’t get me wrong. Apex Legends is a well-designed and engaging game with some of the best shooting controls around, but I can’t shake the feeling that EA has already started tightening its grasp on Respawn – and the studio could lose its soul in the process.

Combating trends

Prior to late 2017, Respawn Entertainment was an independent studio contracted with Electronic Arts to develop Titanfall and its sequel. Whether this independence had any effect on Respawn’s design philosophy is only known by the people who worked there, but its games seemed to sidestep the trends of Electronic Arts’ other multiplayer titles.

In Titanfall 2, there were no paid map packs or modes, with the community staying together after the initial $60 asking price. Its campaign delivered a satisfying and creative series of missions, and its online multiplayer managed to feel unique with its mix of ground-based combat and giant Titans.

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Titanfall 2

When Electronic Arts and Respawn announced the studio’s acquisition, Respawn CEO Vince Zampella told VentureBeat that the studio was “still Respawn” and that it was “going to make the same games [it] made before, hopefully better.”

At the time, Respawn confirmed that it was working on a Titanfall project, and it appears that this was a now-shelved Titanfall 3. If Kotaku is correct, the pivot to free-to-play Apex Legends occurred after the studio was purchased. On paper, it makes sense. The most profitable game in the world, Fortnite, uses the same approach, but Respawn’s case isn’t so cut-and-dried.

Titanfall 2 didn’t live up to sales expectations. With Respawn moving to a free-to-play model with Apex Legends, it seems Electronic Arts was concerned that a third Titanfall game would share the same fate as its predecessor. Titanfall 2, however, was essentially left out in the cold to die.

The game released right in the middle of the busy holiday season, and only a week after EA’s own Battlefield 1 launched. Few franchises can compete with that, and it remains baffling that Titanfall 2 was even considered for such an unfortunate release date. Fantastic reviews from critics and users can only get you so far when you’re facing Call of Duty and Battlefield on either side.

Playing to your strengths

Apex Legends is not a bad battle royale game, and if it were released as a spinoff in addition to a full-fledged Titanfall sequel, it could sit comfortably in that space. However, by making it instead of that game, Electronic Arts seems to have no faith in what made the series unique.

In Titanfall and Titanfall 2, Titans crash down to the earth and alter the course of a match. Players wall-run through the air and seamlessly leap into their own Titans before blasting away at enemies. In Apex Legends, you run along the ground competing with other players, picking up ammunition and gear as a glowing circle closes in. It sounds like 30 other battle royale games because it’s been done already.

If Apex Legends turned out to be a colossal failure, it would be an easier pill to swallow, but it’s made more frustrating because it’s so close to being the best battle royale game around. The elements that would get it there are the same ones that succeeded in the first two Titanfall games. The movement abilities, weapons, and even some of the special abilities included in Apex Legends first found a home in the Titanfall games, and they work well enough in a battle royale game, but the studio isn’t playing to its strengths.

A worrying pattern

If this were any other publisher, these concerns would seem unfounded, but Electronic Arts has a long history of steering thriving game studios away from their bread and butter, and eventually killing them off.

Visceral Games, which found acclaim in the Dead Space series, was moved away from pure survival horror by the third entry and was eventually moved to develop Battlefield: Hardline and a Star Wars game. The Star Wars game was canceled, and Visceral closed a short time later. BioWare Montreal was given the impossible task of creating a new chapter in the Mass Effect series without much of the original trilogy’s design team and was folded into other EA studios shortly afterward.

The EA-owned studios that remain are still being moved away from their skillsets in favor of playing follow-the-leader. Racing powerhouse Criterion Games has been assigned to support work for EA’s major franchises, and though a fourth Dragon Age game is on the way, BioWare Edmonton’s latest game Anthem feels like a response to Destiny rather than an idea born out of creative spirit. Every decision, from structure to combat, serves as a counter-point to Bungie’s work. So far, Anthem seems like it has potential, but this isn’t the type of game that made people fall in love with BioWare.

If they aren’t careful, Respawn and Electronic Arts could once again head down the same path, with all the creativity zapped from its developers in an effort to check all the boxes of a “modern video game.” Apex Legends’ early player-counts show that Respawn Entertainment is capable of delivering a battle royale game to rival even Fortnite, but it was built on the foundation of something completely different.

Respawn’s Vince Zampella teased that something Titanfall-related would be on the way for 2019. For his employees’ sake, let’s hope that it will let them flex their creative muscles more than any battle royale game possibly could. Should this not be the case, it will just another example of Electronic Arts’ remarkable ability to destroy the joy and passion in everything it touches. The pachinko machines bearing the Titanfall name are already coming into view.

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