March 1, 2019

The numbers are in, and Apex Legends is a smash hit: The Respawn game hit 25 million downloads in its first week, smashing the Fortnite record of 10 million in the first two weeks after its 2017 launch. While it’s easy to dub Apex Legendsas the “Fortnite-killer,” the videogame exists as part of the evolution of the increasingly popular battle royale genre. Did you know that Minecraft originated the online survival games format? Since then, the genre has grown over time with DayZ, PUBG, Fortnite, and now, Apex Legends.

I cannot understate how new and old this format is. Even though the “battle royale” namesake stems from the Japanese film of the same name, the last person standing format is found in lots of places—musical chairs, March Madness, and dodgeball. Within that format, game developers are innovating in various ways, some more unexpected than others. What’s new, of course, is that online videogames are an excellent way to drop people in and out with speed.

So why has Apex Legends taken off? The blessing of being late to the party. The history of innovation illustrates that being first isn’t always best: Before the Apple Watch, there was Microsoft’s smartwatch SPOT; before AmazonFresh, Webvan; and before the Hershey’s Kiss, the Wilbur Bud. Entrepreneurs think that they need to beat everyone else to market but they might find an audience that’s not ready yet for their product and product that doesn’t quite deliver on its promise.

According to product launch consultant Joan Schneider, revolutionary products can face their own unique challenge. “If they’re first in their category and nobody knows what they’re supposed to do, you really have to educate. The early adopters love revolutionary products but there’s that huge chasm of how do you get the mass audience to adopt it?” she told the Harvard Business Review.

To their advantage, the developers behind Apex Legends are participating in an active feedback loop: players give feedback to developers who market to players who give feedback to developers and so on. In other words, Apex Legends includes features that address the pain points of Fortnite, PUBG, and past battle royale titles: The ability to let the game choose weapons for you rather than have to deal with the less-fun aspect of picking a specific weapon. The ingenious ping system, which alerts your squadmates to items, enemies, and locations. The chance to revive eliminated squad members by retrieving their banner and bringing them to a respawn station (although, sadly, half of players don’t bother helping you out). Apex Legends’ makers simply had to wait, see what worked, and then build on top of it.

And on top of that, the switching costs between these games is functionally zero. Since both Fortnite and Apex Legends are free-to-play games, players don’t have to pay anything to switch to playing the latter. You might leave behind the hours and custom in-game items like skins or emotes you’ve earned, but if your friends are playing somewhere else, you can just join them.

Part of the challenge for new battle royale games is that publishers and the streamers like Ninja and TSMyth that drive games’ success want different things. Publishers want new eyeballs; streamers want new audiences. New audiences want new experiences, which puts game makers in a race to outdo one another.

And to muddy the waters even further, Nintendo debuted Tetris 99 in the days following Apex Legends’ release. That’s right—Tetris as a battle royale. Met with lots of praise, the frantic free-to-play take on the classic game involves attacking the other 98 players with and defending yourself against lines of gray garbage blocks that quickly flood your screen.

Battle royale is clearly a new genre of game but one that will ultimately transcend FortniteThe Western movie genre started with The Great Train Robbery, but now also includes the surreal The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and comedies like Blazing Saddles. In the same way, battle royale now applies to Tetris and Fortnite. The last person standing is just a state of mind.

Let’s unlock this loot box: When a videogame like Apex Legends skyrockets in popularity, its success doesn’t happen in a vacuum—look upstream for predecessors and downstream for contenders looking to reinterpret the battle royale formula.

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