From official announcement to release in a matter of hours
Over the weekend, news leaked that a number of streamers and professional gamers had been invited to playtest a new and completely unannounced game from Respawn (you know, the studio that’s supposed to be working on the only non-cancelled Star Wars game EA has left). Initial feedback from the playtesters was positive: The new game, a F2P battle royale shooter, is by most accounts polished and fun. Streamers offered general approval, with some tentatively suggesting that they would look forward to playing the game once it released. Which, as it happens, would be in a couple of days… Oh, and also it’s a Titanfall game.
If this seems bizarre it’s because it really is. We’re certainly unfamiliar with any other game which has featured such a stealthy distribution, going from announcement to release in literally a matter of hours. Consider also the fact that this new game is releasing the same weekend as the Anthem open demo and a couple of weeks before the full game – seemingly pitting the two against each other in open competition – and it has all the makings of a marketing disaster. However, as a PR strategy for EA, it turns out that this makes perfect sense.
Keep your fans in the dark
EA, if they have learned nothing else from the numerous and abominable low points in their Frankensteinian history, have clearly learned one important lesson: You certainly don’t want to tell your community what you’re up to because they’re not going to like it. And if you give the community enough time to digest what you are doing and realize the lengths to which you have so utterly eviscerated a beloved franchise in the name of monetization and Games as a Service business models, they will make a fuss. After all, it didn’t work out well for EA when they decided to reanimate the lifeless body of the Command & Conquer franchise only to use it as a kind of crude battering ram into the free to play mobile world. Indeed, disgruntled gamers made concerted efforts to downvote EA’s youtube videos en masse, with downvotes at one point outnumbering upvotes 19 to 1.
If EA were hoping that they could use the goodwill and excitement from this existing IP to generate interest around the most recent, blatant cash-grab to come out of one of their boardroom meetings, they were sorely mistaken. It turns out that liking a franchise doesn’t mean you want to see its corpse desecrated by some Hallmark-esque corporate villain for financial gain.
So why announce it at all? Especially if existing fans aren’t really your target. After all, Command & Conquer is just an existing IP they can quickly convert into a new monetization plan – it doesn’t even matter if it doesn’t appeal to fans of the original games.
What about Titanfall 3?
Titanfall 2, a “player favorite” was released to critical acclaim and is often considered to be one of the great underrated games of recent times. It’s failure to reach mainstream or commercial success is mostly down to EA’s logic-defying decision to release the game in the time frame between Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and their other major release, Battlefield 1 (sound familiar?). It has a committed and loyal fanbase who have been excited about a sequel for quite some time.
Now imagine if you announced to this fanbase that all this time, Respawn was not working on Titanfall 3, as they had previously claimed. Instead, they were working on a F2P Battle Royale game to capitalize on the most recent gaming trend. This game will not feature the key aspects which made Titanfall 2 unique and fun (mechs and parkour) but it will feature plenty of lootboxes and microtransactions. It won’t have a single-player campaign but it does fit the Games as a Service business model. Imagine the Youtube comments section… So instead, EA and Respawn have quietly and surgically removed the soul of the franchise and sneaked it out to players overnight.
Now perhaps this is a cynical view point. Perhaps this type of release is actually some kind of new and innovative guerilla marketing – relying on rumours, word of mouth recommendations and streamers to showcase the quality of the game. Perhaps it has nothing to do with mitigating the obviously “bad optics” of EA cancelling production of Titanfall 3 in favor of a free to play battle royale game with lootboxes, only shortly after acquiring Respawn and the beloved Titanfall franchise.
Except that is literally the reason according to Respawn lead producer Drew McCoy.
“We’re doing a free to play game, with essentially loot boxes, after we were bought by EA, and it’s not Titanfall 3. It’s the perfect recipe for a marketing plan to go awry, so why have that – let’s just ship the game and let players play”, according to McCoy.
Being honest about being deceitful
It’s a new and unexpected play for producers to tell the truth in these kind of situations. Much like when a child admits to something bad they did, one is torn between the need to punish them and to congratulate them on being honest about it. Transparency, after all, should be rewarded, even if they are being transparent about having sneaked a game out to avoid the inevitable negative press from journalists and game enthusiasts.
However, naturally Respawn has tried to frame this in a positive light, suggesting that in fact, this is not so much about misleading or deceiving fans and avoiding fair scrutiny of their game, it’s rather about letting the game ‘speak for itself’.
And – surprise, surprise – it turns out that a F2P Battle Royale game speaks to a lot of gamers. It just doesn’t speak to Titanfall fans. So rather than announce the game, piss off Titanfall fans, have all their Youtube videos downvoted and receive even more negative press, they’ve just decided to skip past all that to the part where they release the game and it does well, only now without months of negativity and bad blood in its wake. It doesn’t matter any more that the game is not what fans were expecting or even perhaps a particularly good game. To be absolutley clear, don’t expect that this is some kind of side project and that Titanfall 3 will be released soon as well – Respawn is not working on a sequel to Titanfall 2.
1 Million concurrent players 8 hours after launch
So this is how EA and Respawn pulled off the PR heist of the century. According to Respawn, Apex Legends had an impressive 1 million concurrent players merely 8 hours after launch – given how important playerbases are for Battle Royales it definitely bodes well for the future success of the game, even if this is yet another example of how quality titles and franchises are being chopped up and repackaged to fit the monetization strategies of big publishers.
It remains to be seen if Apex Legends’ popularity will hold after the initial excitement dies down and once EA’s other title Anthem releases. Regardless, we think you should expect to see more instances of stealth releases of this kind, a masterclass in how to deceive your fanbase.