Trouble in Kings Canyon
Apex Legends highlights the difficulty of establishing a competitive battle royale
We’re now several weeks into season 2 of Apex Legends’ new battle pass, and I’ve also had a few weeks to sink into the game’s new ranked mode. Some form of competitive (or ranked) option was something the community had been asking for since launch. At the moment, this same community seems divided on the new mode.
Before levelling any criticism at the ranked gameplay it’s important to highlight what people enjoy about their battle royale experiences. I think for many, the compelling component of battle royale — and what sets it apart from other genres — are the stories that each match tends to tell. These stories — about how you made last ditch effort to get out of the storm on a motorbike and ended up shotgunning someone down as you flew past, or how a single player narrowly escaped a scenario where they were by all accounts, outnumbered and outgunned — are what I would argue make battle royale games so compelling. It’s like pulling a lever on a slot machine; every time you drop into the map on a game like Apex Legends, the experience is different. Each game features a large group of players, all with different strategies and goals, as well as the randomised loot distribution, which leads to different gameplay scenarios every time you drop. It’s the way that each match feels different that makes me want to fly back in again until I see the champion screen.
Sadly, the ranked most largely seems to work against many of these mechanics, having the effect of imbuing matches with a bland repetition; it feels a little disconnected from the core experience that makes battle royale so appealing.
Rank points and the Hawthorne effect
The Hawthorne effect describes a scenario wherein participants modify their behaviour in response to an awareness that they are being observed, studied, or measured. When a developer chooses to track the players stats and feats in a multiplayer game, this affects the way that people play and interact with one another.
For example, if your game only recognises individual kills, and not assists, then it’s likely that players will fight for the opportunity to get the last hit on an enemy player. In some cases this creates arguments between players, in what players commonly refer to as ‘kill stealing’. Games like Overwatch and Battlefield work against this by offering an ‘assist counts as kill mechanic’, ensuring that both players can be rewarded with the kill credit. This means that players are free to contribute without feeling that they’re being punished by the scoreboard screen if they don’t land that last crucial hit.
Keeping this phenomenon in the back of your mind is important when considering how Apex Legends’ new ranked mode impacts player behaviour. While playing ranked mode, players are measured by their skills and for their overall placement in a multiplayer match. Each individual player can earn up to 5 points for kills, and up to 12 for their match placement. Points are only awarded to your team once it achieves a placement within the top 10. As well, there’s a cost to entering each ranked match; you’ll be coughing up between 0 and 5 points depending on your existing ranking.
The emphasis on team placement points over individual kills makes sense on paper — this is a battle royale where the overall goal is to survive, after all. However, the mechanism implemented here provides different incentives for players than regular casual matches. Ultimately, this creates a scenario where players would often rather run than fight.
Let’s break down the problem a little further.
Let’s say you’re a diamond ranked player. It’s going to cost you 4 ranking points to play. Now let’s imagine there are 14 squads left alive in your current match and you find an enemy squad in front of you. In this scenario — if your squad were to take down the enemy squad — you’d net 1 point per kill (so, 1 point each if you kill all three opposing players). Now, if you happen to die in this scenario, you’ll be booted back to the lobby which means you’ll each lose 4 points (the points you spent the enter the match originally). If we assume that your opponents in this case are of equal — or similar — skill, it’s very easy to see how the risk associated with taking on the encounter far outweighs the reward.
Diamond-ranked teams must kill at least 4 other teams before they break even, so to speak. And this is even before getting into the top 10 squads in the match. Given this context, the ranked mode ultimately feels like a game of hide-and-seek, where there’s little reward for the seekers. The systems in play here incentivise hiding and letting other squads battle it out, in the hope that your squad will achieve a profitable result (at least as far as points are concerned).
Let’s remember the original reason why battle royale is so satisfying: the idea that each match tells a distinct story. When set against the backdrop of ranked mode, the lack of diversity in terms of how players are rewarded for their performance inherently pushes against this core value of battle royale. It’s a restricting factor, which creates the sensation that players are “playing the circle” rather than each other. This makes the early and mid-game of a match feel distinctly uneventful.
One of the big reasons I love playing Apex Legends so much, as a battle royale, is that there’s a way to get your team back into the match after they get thirsted. If you’re playing a match and your team get outright killed, there’s always a chance that you can bring them back.
But again, ranked mode throws a spanner in the works — due to its emphasis on overall placement, there’s very little incentive to put your neck on the line to pick up a downed teammate. Walking back to where they died and picking up their banner carries tremendous risk — the risk is even greater if you actually revive them with a respawn station. Even if you succeed, you’ll have drawn a great deal of attention to yourself — and your respawned buddy — all within the context of a playing field that has been completely wiped of loot. Consequentially, respawning squad mates is often too risky. In almost all scenarios, if your team get downed out of the blue, you’re better off cutting and running. Yes, you’re disadvantaged in a gunfight alone, but because of the way the ranked mode is scored, you don’t need to be able to win gunfights to earn placement points. Simply run around on your own, hide, and you can get considerably more ranked points than you would have if you died trying to revive your team.
It’s a shame there’s no benefit or reward for getting your whole team to the finish line. Perhaps this mode could benefit from mechanisms that reduce the risk of reviving your squad.
Loot randomisation and an emphasis on the meta
It’s worth considering the impact that ranked mode has on the meta. Now that there’s an increased emphasis on reward and punishment for participating in these matches, there’s a significantly increased focus on acquiring and using the very best weapons and equipment — and of course, deploying the most effective strategies (the meta game, in other words). Ranked mode’s incentive structure has a substantial impact on this meta.
On the surface, this isn’t a problem — a healthy meta game is good for competitive play overall. But the issue I have here is with the way the game’s loot is distributed. Apex Legends features a semi-randomised loot pool with only a limited overall quantity of items being distributed in a given match. It’s very possible in this context to drop into an inherently unlucky scenario (in terms of access to good loot) — given the increased weight that ranked mode places on the meta game, the consequences of your squad’s luck (or lack thereof) is even greater. This situation is exacerbated by the addition of some new items that impact the game’s overall balance, too: the recently added disruptor rounds attachment allows certain weapons to deal almost double damage to enemy shields. That’s right: double.
Facing off against a squad that just happened to find this attachment can be downright frightening, leaving you at a severe disadvantage if you don’t also have said attachment. This is one case where sheer luck has become a more significant factor in victory than it was before.
Also, it’s not uncommon that you can run through several buildings and loot caches, without finding a gun and or body shield. Meanwhile somewhere else on the map, someone will find a purple body shield and a decent gun, right as they drop. This disparity has more of an impact in Apex Legends than it does in other battle royale games, as the time to kill is considerable here. Having extra shielding or a gun that kills almost twice as fast, is going to make more of a difference than the weapon distribution does in a game like Call of Duty Blackout, where almost every weapon is likely to be lethal with good positioning and reaction time.
In unranked games, the disparity in loot distribution is paired with other variables that mediate its effect. You might only have a Mozambique, but you also don’t know what skill level the other players in your lobby are going to be at. So everything that deals damage has potential utility. In ranked games, where your opponents are approximately at the same skill level as you, the differences in loot distribution will determine the outcome of a fight much more often.
This in turn places emphasis on the survival factor. Avoiding fights helps mitigate the impact of potentially unbalanced loot distributions.
Competitive validity versus fun
None of this is to say that, for the most part, ranked mode isn’t valid as a competitive experience. Outside of the randomised loot distribution, the emphasis on survival and placement still gives each team an equal opportunity at success. However, it’s the way these factors combine that dramatically impacts the pacing of the game in a way that often feels like it fails to capture the magic of the regular mode.
As a ranked match draws closer to its conclusion — the circle is closing, there might be around 10 squads left alive, and everyone is fighting for space in a very claustrophobic environment as the circle closes around them — the gameplay can be highly tense and enjoyable. Often, though, there’s some 15 minutes of build-up and then 3 minutes of intense gunplay where you might lose simply because you didn’t get weapons or armour as strong as the team that kills you.
In ranked mode, this scenario plays out similarly in each match because of the survival-focused strategies that are incentivised by the point system. Apex Legends’ ranked mode just doesn’t feel like it encourages and rewards the wide variety of play styles that make the game so diverse to begin with. Ranked mode feels slow and repetitive as a result.
In general, battle royale games typically emphasise a variety of play styles and approaches — but Apex Legends’ new ranked mode feels like it only legitimately supports one.
Hope for season 3
I’m currently playing Apex Legends on a daily basis. And, despite some success ranking up — I’m currently sitting on platinum 2 — it’s hard to bring myself to want to play the ranked mode at all. The pacing of matches, the repetitive strategy, and the impact of uneven loot distribution often makes matches feel like a chore compared to the unranked games.
To be fair, it’s difficult to introduce a competitive component to a battle royale game without drastically shifting player behaviour. Naturally, everyone wants to do well — so, self-preservation becomes a big factor. However, a more balanced set of incentives for different play styles might help to make the game feel more flexible and dynamic again.
Despite the difficulty in establishing a ranked battle royale, I do think there are some ideas which could help make ranked games feel a little more interesting. Let’s take a look.
- Increasing the points players earn per kill. While I think the 5 kill cap for points is fine (because it’s often unrealistic to get more than 5 kills if your opponents really are equally skilled), a higher number of rank points awarded per kill could help incentivize taking fights rather than running away from them.
- Reducing the points earned for top 10 placement. Making placement points feel more like a bonus than a necessity to progress could help the game feel like every fight matters, from start to finish.
- Introducing champions that fight the bunker-up metagame. Right now, defensive Legends like Wattson are very popular. Adding characters that help teams work against those defensive teams — either through weakening those positions, or forcing opponents to relocate — could help make matches more dynamic.
In the meantime, I’ll be trying to bring myself to grind it out in ranked before the end of the season, but here’s hoping Respawn have some changes in mind for season 3.