Nothing to Say
Communicating in Apex Legends
While playing battle royale games over the past few years, I’ve said some of these phrases a few thousand times:
I see something…up there…wait….over there…up by that thingy.
The circle is closing in, we gotta go. Yo, stop looting we gotta go!
I found a shield, who needs it? No one? Are you sure? OK I’m keeping it for myself.
This language is filled with ambiguity and requires additional conversation to clarify or resolve. Strong team communication is absolutely essential to battle royale game play. The best squads are attentive to details and can clearly communicate information in the least amount of words possible:
Enemy contact, 155, top of the hill, engaged with another squad, let’s third party them
I have a large shield on my marker, bathroom of the second floor
There’s a drop at 270, behind the red house, I’m going for it, I need a spotter
If your team is communicating using language like this, you will engage better with other squads, not be overwhelmed by enemy attacks, and generally be more effective in your game play.
This type of chat has historically been something you learn over time as you play the genre. But what if a game supported this kind of communication at its core?
I was blown away when I played Apex Legends for the first time because it includes the most robust built-in communication system I’ve seen in a battle royale game thus far.
Apex Legends only supports three person squad games at launch. If you don’t have friends to play with, you are matched up with others. Games in this genre typically encourage people to have microphones so they can communicate properly in these match made modes. Almost every fill squad game of Fortnite starts with someone saying “y’all have mics?”
The makers of Apex Legends decided to innovate on how people would communicate in-game by encouraging and amplifying natural behaviors. They introduced systems to provide additional audio and visual cues to what is happening in the game. Some feedback is player-initiated and some is automatic to game play events. None of the systems are particularly novel by themselves, but together they create a robust network of communications which reduce inefficient behaviors and help drive game play forward.
The Ping System
At any point in the game you can alert your squad-mates to what you are looking at by tapping the ping button. This system infers automatically whether you are looking at an item, location or enemy, but it also offers more manual control with a contextual wheel.
Standard Ping Options
- Looting This Area
- Attacking Here
- Going Here
- Defending This Area
- Watching Here
- Someone’s Been Here
You can easily define where you are going, where you are looting, and where someone has been with this wheel. These choices cover the majority of possible routine conversations a squad will have during the game.
The real magic of the experience is the automatic context pings. If I ping a weapon, it will let my squad-mates know what weapon I have found via audio cue as well as showing a visual cue to direct them to the weapon’s location. Squad mates may call dibs on weapons they deem desirable by pressing the ping button on the visual cue. This action is represented visually as well as with an audio cue to the rest of the squad so everyone can know the weapon has been claimed. There is no contextual menu usage in this exchange even though it is a fairly complex interaction.
You can even ping items you need in your inventory. If you are looking for a scope for a sniper, ping the empty slot and your team will be made aware of what you are looking for via voice and visual cue.
During the initial jump onto the map Apex Legends randomly assigns someone to be the Jumpmaster, meaning they control the squad’s decent. Any other member can break off from the squad at any time, but for the most part teams tend to land near each other because of this design decision.
Before or during the jump, members can suggest locations for the Jumpmaster to land. Other members can ping the location to approve or open the contextual menu to choose one of three options:
Dropping Ping Options
- I Can’t
It was initially odd to me that ‘I Can’t’ was an option since it feels like it muddies the decision. The binary options of ‘OK’ and ‘No’ seem conceptually simpler. But ‘I Can’t’ provides you a way to say, “I don’t disapprove of your choice, but I think we are physically unable to get there”. I believe this option was included to allow the player to be explicit and polite.
There is a lot to like about the ping system. It reduces the amount of ambiguous communication between players. The system is more clear than the language players would use to describe these directions, events and items. This creates an efficient system of communication and also trains people what to pay attention to and say in general.
The system is seemingly more advantageous for matched groups so they don’t need to feel as much pressure to communicate over voice. At this, it succeeds, but it does come with one noticeable disadvantage. In some ways this system dehumanizes the communication of squads.
For example, playing with randomly matched squads in Fortnite is a very social experience. People discuss the game events, but sometimes they also just chat or have fun. It’s a less focused experience because of this, but it is generally pleasant and sometimes amusing. Teams tend to feel like they have gone through something together by the end of the match because they get to know each other’s personalities in the process.
In my experience playing Apex Legends, people talk over voice considerably less. When they do speak, they are often doing so out of frustration. Either there is something the UI system wouldn’t say or there is something critical happening and communicating over voice seems faster. People tend to be curt and it is intimidating for players because you don’t end up naturally building the rapport you would under more casual circumstances.
Apex Legends is a competitive game, and for that it will naturally bring about some aggressive communication styles. I can’t help but wonder if the in-game communication system ends up amplifying those behaviors while it also attempts to solve for them.
In Apex Legends, I commonly find myself saying, ‘Hey, we need to find you some better armor’ to a squad-mate. This is in strict opposition to other games where I am often saying things similar to, ‘I need to find some health, I’m low, does anyone have any health?’
The UI indicator for squad-mates health and shield reveals more than other games in the genre. You can easily see how much shield and health each squad-mate has, but you can also determine the quality of their armor from the indicator. When you open the inventory menu, you can explicitly see what armor they have equipped.
Another nice feature in the team UI is that it shows you who is firing or healing. If you hear a gunshot close by, you can see an explosion from the side of the player card if your squad-mate is the person who fired the shot.
The game has an enormous variety of global audio cues. In addition to the sound effects that delineate major changes such as the ring closing, there is a global announcer voice which offers ongoing information about the game. It brings your attention to moments when a new squad takes the lead, when first blood is drawn, or when a new round begins.
Your squad’s characters also provide unique narration to game events. Some of the common phrases I’ve heard are:
- ‘The ring is not close, we have a way to go’
- ‘Defeated the whole squad’
- ‘I’m taking fire’
- ‘Shooting back’
- ‘We are spread out’
- ‘The ring is closing in 1 minute’
- ‘I’ve been downed’
- ‘Landing in this area yields us a high probability of high tier loot’
These voice-overs offer convenience and additional information to improve game play. There is a great comfort in ambient alerts that let you know if you are in the circle or far from it without having to open your map. Knowing that the team has suddenly spread out too far is great feedback. It feels like the characters are taking care of each other and also teaching people how to play the game better.
These cues can result in direct communication or action from the team as a response. I feel I’m less often caught outside of the circle in general in this game compared to others in the genre mainly because the game gives you plenty of information to know where your currently stand. For example, hearing a verbal cue when you defeat a full squad gives you a bit of comfort that you can begin looting.
The map provides important shared information for your squad. One nice feature is the ‘Hot Zone’ which gives players a random location to drop if they want immediate conflict and high tier loot. The Supply Ship is a moving target which provides a similar experience.
A tiny UI detail is the quick focusing gradient that draws your eye to the cross-hairs when activating the map so you can register the cursor position faster. This is incredibly clever as it is barely noticeable in real time. Slowed down it becomes quite obvious. This allows the player additional clarity and speed in marking locations from the map view.
When dropping in on the map there is a UI which shows the speed as well as the altitude and height of the ground. Players have developed techniques as to how to get down to the ground the fastest watching using these indicators. This UI helps the full team know how the drop is going and discuss how to improve it as well. The font choice is absolutely spot on for aviation overlays.
In general, I’m super excited by the improvements to squad communication that Apex Legends has introduced to the battle royale genre. I’m also excited to see how other battle royale games react to these changes and how they eventually put their own spin on these ideas.
The biggest benefit I see from this work is that people will learn how to communicate with their squads and play these games better. Good squad communication is being pushed forward and hopefully that helps introduce even more people to the genre who have felt intimidated by it in the past.