Use of monetization mechanics in Apex Legends (only Apex from now on), more specifically, its work with customization and desire creation, was the design that recently caught my attention. Apex is free to play, therefore it heavily depends on its ability to acquire players, to keep them and in the final stage to monetize them. This fact convinced me that there must have been a substantial portion of design work invested to monetization aspects.
My aim in this analysis is to look deeper into what Apex’s design solutions offer, how we can look at it from the perspective of desire creation/fulfillment and what we can learn from it. First, I will provide the basic information about the game including the game flow, and then I will present the desire framework and show how the creators handled it. In the end, I will suggest some ideas and comparisons.
One quick note before we start: The opinions in this analysis are mine and may or may not reflect the opinions of my current employer.
Apex is a team-based Battle royale F2P, title developed by Respawn Entertainment and released in february 2019. Battle Royale is a competitive last man standing mode with zero start and death zone. For a base analysis I will use the framework proposed by Nicholas Lovell dividing the game into a base layer, retention layer and monetization layer. I will use it to provide you with all the necessary knowledge in order to acknowledge the interconnectedness and complexity of monetization in the whole game. Description of the base and the retention layer is not detailed but adequate for understanding their connections to monetization.
The game’s base layer is based on episodic matches which take up to 30 minutes. A player can choose from several characters (Mirage, Lifeline, Gibraltar….) for each match. Each character has specific abilities (one passive, one active and one ultimate). No team can have more than one character in the game.
Flow of the match
A player starts matchmaking with or without friends in the lobby. If there are missing players in the group, they are supplied, so they form a team of three players (the bold part is described by the picture below)
Loading of the map and the player - The player can see miniature icons with a name tag and a picture of player’s previous character. A message waiting for the other players is displayed.
Players are taken to character selection, where each player picks a character for the match.
Player’s squad overview
Champion squad overview
Zero start - Players are on a flying vehicle, which continue on a straight line across the playing area. The player can then choose when they jump and where to drop from there. Therefore, they can radically influence their starting location and they can also take into account the starting location of other players. Players start each match with an empty inventory and have to collect loot (weapons, armor, weapon attachments, consumables) during the match. Zero start is the only point in combat when a player uses 3rd person camera and is able to see his teammates’ skins as well as his own.
Death zone - during the match there are specific circle areas, anyone beyond limits of this circle is damaged. This area is shrinking down in phases, and therefore it drives all the players closer together.
death screen -> If the player dies, the spectator mode possible
Victory screen -> if the player’s squad is the last one in the game
Match summary and then back to lobby.
Apex is using player’s account progression as a core for their retention. Each player’s account has a level indicator which increases with each match (similar to e.g. Overwatch). Players get XP for participating in a base layer. The player is rewarded by soft currency (Legend tokens) and with occasional loot box (Apex packs). The player’s account also unlocks characters and further customizations for the characters at certain levels.
In addition, Battle pass was implemented recently. This is yet another form of retention mechanic as it allows the player to obtain the Battle pass with additional rewards. It has two tiers: premium, which has to be purchased with Apex coins, and free, which is automatic for all players. Battle pass is seasonal; it is active only for a limited time and once it is over, the next season with a new progression and rewards is implemented. Progression is not carried over to the next Battle pass (this is my assumption based on industry standard approach to season passes. At the time of writing this article, only the first season is active).
Crafting materials (CM) - Crafting material are received from Apex packs and are used to craft customizations. Price points: 1200, 400, 60, 30. Players can receive up to 60 from one Apex pack.
Legend Tokens (LT) - Legend tokens are received for leveling up and are used for unlocking characters and in other cases customizations in shop. Price points: 10500 and 12000. Player receive up to 600 for leveling up.
Apex coins (AC) - Hard currency of Apex. Apex coins are acquired for real world money. Used for in-game purchases. Conversion rate moves between 100 AC to 115 AC for $/€. (price in USD and Euro is the same, even though they have different value; I believe this is because of usage of “magic pricing”)
In case of Apex, monetization layer is not as complex as it might seem. Players have to turn real world money into the hard currency (AC). With AC, players can purchase Battle pass, customizations in the shop, characters or Apex packs. I believe, that the most valuable class of items in the game are customizations, therefore my presumption is that bringing out the desire for these customizations in the players was the main goal of monetization design in Apex. All customizations are unlocked per a character or weapon. By customization I mean content of character banner (described below) and character/weapon skins.
Battle pass can be purchased for AC in-game in two variants: Battle pass and Battle pass bundle. Basic Battle pass gives players access to the premium Battle pass and costs 950 AC. Battle pass bundle additionally unlocks first 25 levels of Battle pass and costs 2800 AC.
In-game shop offers purchase of items with a single price of 1800 AC and purchase of Apex packs with a price of 100 AC per pack. Finally, the price of characters is set to 750 AC per character.
As some dismal examples show, it is possible to have a game with a big and loyal user base but very low income if their willingness to pay is not harnessed. Apex Legends is a F2P game and as such it is reliant on purchases in-game. Therefore the objective of the development team is not only to make it entertaining, but also to push players towards the purchase. In other words, they have to build a desire in players. Once this is done by a required tactic, Apex Legends also has to offer ways to fulfill this desire in the intended way - in this case by spending. Desire framework is again knowledge I have received from Nicolas Lovell (but I am not sure of it's origins)
The desire creation and fulfillment can be also seen as a law of supply and demand in the specific case of the game Monopoly Market; the only seller of in-game items is a game developer and therefore Respawn Entertainment is monopoly in Apex. Their problem is not the fight over resources or their competition, but building the need for their product in the game.
A desire in a player can be created by two different ways: cognitive and emotional. While the cognitive one is more focused on killers or archivers in Bartle’s typology and mastery, the emotional one is more focused on the basic needs such as self-expression, social proof or relatedness. In the ideal case, desire creation will hit the target by both ways. In case of Apex, I regard badges, player’s account level and trackers to be cognitive while other parts as emotional.
I will continue by listing strategies that are used in Apex to create desire in players.
Champion squad overview - a screen when the players are connected to achievements in form of trackers and badges.
Death screen - a player sees their killer and can unconsciously connect their skill (“they killed me”) to their customization. Due to the nature of the game (battle royale), it is possible that you are not going to see the player ever again and this way it secures an opportunity to see their customization. The killer is also aware of the fact that you have seen their banner.
Diegetic banners - They are all over the game area and similar mechanism to commercial ads is applied as well. There is a feeling that they is something to strive for. The player is seldom fully focused on them but their content is always present.
Always in plain sight
A player is exposed to the customization of his team mates for at least 2 minutes before the combat phase of a match - character selection + player squad overview + zero start. My hypothesis is that the exposure in this case increases the desire for the exposed items.
A player is rewarded by random customization from loot boxes. The game drives them to the armory menu. He or she will get in touch with all the desire fulfillment mechanics there (as described below).
If a player dies during a match, the death screen is shown after loading. After that, the player can follow to the spectator mode. In the spectator mode, the player uses the first person camera of his teammates.
If the whole squad is dead, the player can observe the match through the camera of their killers again in first person. If that squad is killed too, the player can continue watching through the camera of their killers and so on until they watch the winners.
Customization as a progress indicator
Badges and trackers - heavy cognitive indicator. The primary function here is to show a big number and say: “look at me! I have 10000 kills I am such a good killer” or “I have 500 revives, I am such a good teammate.”
All customization is unlocked with progress via loot boxes and soft currency rewarded for leveling up the player’s account.
I know they are watching
A player knows, on several occasions, that other players (their random team mates or other players in match) are watching them. This fact therefore pushes the player to want to look good (have the right customization). This is the case of the champion squad overview, character selection and finishers. Finishers are specific actions in the game, which kill a downed player. What is important about them is that a player can unlock a few different finishers and this animation is not possible to skip by any player.
Player is shown in the middle of the screen in one of the predetermined poses. If a player plays with his or her friends, they are by the player’s sides.
Players take turns to pick a hero for next match. Everybody in the team sees characters of other players including their customization. After the selection of a character, there is also a specific animation and/or catchphrase of the character called quip.
Player’s Squad overview
A player can see the character banner of his own as well his teammates’, consisting of quip, trackers, frame and badges.
Pose - a picture or a short animation of the character in the frame. They have to be unlocked.
Tracker - trackers show three selected stats. Some are character-specific some are common. They have to be unlocked for each character. Kill is the only default stat.
Badge - awarded for specific feats in the game. They have to be unlocked and some are character-specific. Some have more versions changed by leveling.
Frames - have to be unlocked.
Champion squad overview
This overview shows a champion of the match. Again you can see the trackers, quips, frames and badges. There is one champion per match. It is based on performance of players in the previous match. The better the performance, the higher the chance of being chosen as a champion in the next match.
The death screen appears on two possible events: the player’s death and the squad elimination. In the case of the player’s death when at least somebody from the squad is still alive, there is an option to return the player back to the game. If the whole squad is eliminated, the player can choose to watch their killer.
Squad death screen
The player see quips of their team plus specific stats of the match: kills, damage, time in match, respawns and revives, place in match and combined squad kills. There is also an option to return to lobby or spectate.
Player sees the winning team characters in victory pose and their nicknames. There is an announcement that this is the victorious team. After this, the only option is to continue back to the lobby.
Match summary provides the player with information about score acquired for the match, level progression, rewards for a new level, final squad place in the match, and character banner.
The narrative of Apex frames the whole match as a fight in Arena which is being watched by an audience. This is why there are several diegetic banners in-game. Banners show either the champion team or kill leader.
Banner displays stationary quip, name tag and first badge in case of a champion team. In the other case, whole character banner is spread over all three banners. The game narrative is also supported with catchphrases of the characters and the match narrator.
Banners are dynamic and omnipresent over the whole game area.
Once players desire to have a specific item, the game has to be able to fulfill this need. There are only a few specific ways how to do that in Apex and therefore it is important that the developers do it correctly.
The player can see an item in the predetermined slots and also interact with the slot to get a detailed look before they continue with purchase. Players are able to fully see and rotate models so they can fully appreciate the item they are going to purchase. I believe that this bring strong sense of transparency and “clean” transaction to players.
Apex is using a seasonal shop. There is only a limited time to purchase items in it and it is made obvious for each item with a timer. Only a limited amount of items is offered. This can eliminate decision paralysis and also increase the sense of scarcity.
Apex uses a very specific tactic. Players are able to purchase some items in shop for Legend tokens but only if they also purchase prerequisite items for AC. So far, my hypothesis for this tactic is that it could possible create an impression of two items for the price of one (provided that players perceive LT as weaker currency in case of shop).
Shop is, similarly to Apex packs, random in its ability to offer specific desire fulfilment, therefore players will get fix for their immediate need but still will leave some space for other things to be desired.
Players can use crafting materials to craft any customization in game. Players can craft in Armory tab in the lobby. Prices of customizations are adjusted accordingly. Therefore, crafting anything with material takes long hours of playing the game and this way takes twice the time than the retention mechanic. Players either have to grind a lot or have to purchase Apex packs (containing CM) for hard currency.
Apex Packs (loot boxes)
Players can open loot boxes (called Apex Packs in game). These contain three random items - these items may be anything from customizations or crafting materials. Players can get loot boxes for hard currency, occasionally for player’s account progression or for using Battle pass. It also seems that Apex solution of duplicates in boxes is that player will receive a partial value of the duplicate in crafting materials. It is also certain that different items have different chances to be part of the content.
Apex packs create skinner box which was analysed many times. It is the way how to find desired items but randomly. There is a potential chance that the player will receive item that has great value (way greater than 100 AC) but that probability is really small. Apex uses some additional tricks like approximately disclosing chances. This plays with the probability in player’s favor (but guarantees rarity of the item, not that it will be for the player’s character or type of item of choice).
Battle pass allows players to get preset rewards. This is bit a different strategy for desire fulfilment because it shows very specific and rigid way how to get things done. On the other hand, scarcity again plays great role in it.
Monetization in Apex Legends is created through user’s character customizations. This are valid because of the nature and narrative of the mentioned game. After all, players are gladiators in the arena. Customizations are strongly connected to the base layer of the game and thus base layer is the focal point for desire creation.
What is really well-handled in Apex is the desire creation through seamless and natural exposure on both fronts; cognitive and emotional. I believe that this design is extremely effective in selling 2D assets - poses, frames, badges and stats but not so effective in selling full character customizations. Creation of 3D assets is very difficult considering production, especially once game enters into content treadmill such are time limited season passes.
Based on their marketing campaign (Apex was announced one day before the release) it is safe to presume that the game did not have enough production support as it might required in the art department. There is quite artistic similarity overlapping with the studio’s previous title Titanfall II.
On other hand, Apex’s spectator mode is not very effective for creating desire, compared to Fortnite. I believe there are three main reasons for that - 1st person camera, default action and loading screen. In Fortnite, the players use third person camera so they see customizations of the killer. Also, killers know that their victim will probably see them so they can fully express themselves with an emote (or a dance). Additionally loading and default use of death screen instead of spectator mode blocks full potential of spectator mode.
Zero start offers very specific challenge to any monetization because it is possible that players will not see their weapon skin for several matches; loot drops are luck based. This is remedied only a bit with showcase of the weapon in armory but game in general does not offer any specific solution for this. On the other hand, because the game is first person shooter, considerable portion of the screen is taken up by a weapon.
Desire created in Apex Legends are strategies to fulfill certain needs. My hypothesis is that the main need in this case is a social proof or competence in the self-determination theory framework. By nature, the game base layer showing progress in combat is the main desire for players in game. They can do it either by sharing statistics or via sharing their customizations. Quasi-random approach to desire fulfillment in a way of a apex packs or seasonal shop means that the only way to fulfilling this desire is to play and be lucky. This way, the design of the game does not allow players to burn their desire too quickly (or without spending loads of money).
Desire fulfillment in game is heavily leaning on delayed gratification and offering quick fixes for players to keep them satisfied but not full. This can be seen in randomization of the seasonal shop/Apex packs or long grind for direct purchases in case of crafting. The only exception, in my opinion, is the direct purchase of a character which is not repeatable and can be substituted by grind. Also, it is worth mentioning that all the purchases except Battle pass are durable. Similarly to other popular BR, Apex stepped on content treadmill.
I believe that Apex moved boundaries of what can be done in F2P monetization in an non-mobile environment. With the trend of several big new titles recently trying to introduce game as a service to non-mobile market, I expect a lot of new and interesting approaches to monetization and retentions.
EDIT: There is one information that slipped my mind but for keeping right ethical standards I like to add it. This article was based on my consultations and talks with Nicolas Lovell and bunch of other colleagues. I do not claim that Desire framework or any other framework is mine. I just applied it to case of Apex Legends. There may be other traceable sources of knowledge or ideas behind that that I with my best consciousness cannot trace back.
Do you want to know more?
I believe that there are not enough sources yet about non-mobile Free to play monetization. Here are some tips that have some connections to my analysis:
Ryan, Richard M., Rigby, C. Scott, Przybylski, Andrew. The motivational Pull of Video Games: Self-Determination Theory approach. <https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2006_RyanRigbyPrzybylski_MandE.pdf>
Cialdini, Robert. Influence: Science and practise (4th edition), Boston: Allyn & Bacon; 2001.
Free to play Bible, <https://mobilefreetoplay.com/bible/>
Various lectures from conference Casual Connect <https://www.youtube.com/user/CasualConnect>
Lovell, Nicholas. The Pyramid of Game Design: Designing, Producing and Launching Service Games. A K Peters/CRC Press: 2018. (also check his web: https://www.gamesbrief.com/)
Campbell, Colin, How will Apex Legend be monetized?, Polygon: Feb 4, 2019, 3:30pm EST <https://www.polygon.com/2019/2/4/18210764/Apex-legends-loot-boxes-microtransactions>
McCarthy, Caty. Apex Legends' Caustic and Mirage: How Much They Cost to Unlock, Is it Worth It, and More. Feb 8 2019. <https://www.usgamer.net/articles/apex-legends-caustic-and-mirage-how-much-they-cost-to-unlock-is-it-worth-it-and-more>
Apex Legends, Respawn Entertainment, 2019.
Fortnite, Epic Games, 2017 (specially Battle royal version 2018)
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, PUBG Corporation, 2017.
Overwatch, Blizzard Entertainment, 2016.