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People of the Year 2019: Respawn Entertainment

Starting with Apex Legends and finishing with Jedi: Fallen Order, in 2019 Respawn became EA's single most important studio

By most relevant measures, Titanfall 2 is one of the best action experiences of this console generation.

The first game established a seductive blend of combat, free-running and pitched battles in gigantic exoskeletons -- the Titans that give the IP its name. The sequel refined those fundamentals while adding snappier writing, a flair for the cinematic, and the kind of smart, inventive level design to which first-person shooter players are seldom treated.

Titanfall 2 was everything AAA entertainment should be, and evidence of a relatively new studio finding its feet and coming into its own. However, Titanfall 2 also failed to meet EA's commercial expectations, and so in the most crucial of all relevant measures, it fell worryingly short.

The fact that EA decided to launch Titanfall 2 in the week between new Call of Duty and Battlefield games didn't help its chances, of course, but that was unlikely to matter when it came to any repercussions Respawn might face. Major publishers aren't generally keen to admit their own mistakes, and studio after studio has paid the price for mismanagement far beyond their control.

"There's a strong argument to say that no developer displayed as much creative range and sheer daring in 2019 as Respawn Entertainment"

Our own Rob Fahey called EA's release plan "mind-boggling" -- more than likely a failed attempt to disrupt Call of Duty's longstanding hold on the lucrative Christmas quarter with a two-pronged assault with its franchises. When asked about the decision by EA's shareholders, CEO Andrew Wilson played down its importance, and didn't directly respond to whether he would repeat the strategy again.

What was abundantly clear, however, was that Titanfall 2 deserved to do better at launch -- a fact that even Respawn CEO Vince Zampella acknowledged -- and the decision to scrap a long-awaited Titanfall mobile game a few months later only raised more questions over what might be round the corner for Respawn Entertainment.

As it turned out, waiting round the corner was the opportunity to be acquired, with EA paying $151 million upfront for the studio in November 2017 -- just a year after the tepid sales of Titanfall 2. It was a show of faith that few industry observers had expected, but without that show of faith (and the resources and stability that were part of the bargain) it's hard to imagine Respawn having nearly as strong a 2019 as it did. Indeed, while many other studios launched great products this year, there's a strong argument to say that no developer displayed as much creative range and sheer daring as Respawn Entertainment.

An important aspect of that is Jedi: Fallen Order, which was warmly received by critics and a much-needed reminder of the potential of the Star Wars license in video games. On any other year, Fallen Order would be a crowning achievement, but Respawn started 2019 with a success so huge that it managed to not only shake up what many saw as a stagnating genre, it also challenged the industry to rethink how it announced and released blockbuster products of any kind.

Apex Legends was announced on February 4, and it was available to astonished players the very same day. A free-to-play battle royale game set in the Titanfall universe, it was exactly the kind of product that is supposed to be teased, then announced, then unveiled, then previewed, and only then given to actual gamers. Respawn subverted that entire process, and in doing so got out ahead of any number of criticisms it might have received had it kept the public in the dark.

"On any other year, Jedi: Fallen Order would be a crowning achievement"

"We're doing a free to play game, with essentially loot boxes, after we were bought by EA, and it's not Titanfall 3," said lead producer Drew McCoy at the time. "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."

Though it hardly needs to be said now, the gambit worked. Apex Legends' estimated first month revenues were among the highest ever recorded for a free-to-play game. It surpassed Fortnite as the most viewed game on Twitch in a single day, and within two months, it had amassed 50 million registered players. It achieved a level of success that EA could not possibly have expected, and it's to Respawn's credit that it refused to meet that massive surge in demand by forcing its team to crunch out content and updates.

Incredibly powerful shock-and-awe marketing aside, though, the fact that Apex Legends was a great game should not be overlooked. Surprise can draw a lot of eyeballs, but you need much more than that to get 50 million people to sign up in a genre that already has giant competitors like Fortnite and PUBG.

For that, you need reviews that proclaim your game to be the very best of its kind. For that, you need the kind of word-of-mouth that only a rewarding experience can inspire. For that, you need to give a studio with the talent of Respawn the freedom to make a huge bet on its own abilities.

"We took a big risk, and we didn't know how this was going to land," Respawn's Arturo Castro said at the Montreal International Game Summit last month. "If things went a little bit differently, I might not have a job now. But we took this calculated risk because we went in eyes wide open. And we did our homework."

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