Every multiplayer shooter has that one particular map. CounterStrike has de_dust. Team Fortress 2 has 2Fort. Halo has Blood Gulch. There is a map, or a spot within a game, that players gravitate towards no matter how much work developers put into more complex modes or levels. In Respawn Entertainment's Apex Legends, it's Skull Town.
For much of the game's year-plus-long run, players dropping into the King's Canyon map often favored this one point in the southwest corner of the map. It's four lanes of looting and death that orbit a set of buildings that create an array of unique fights based around the player characters' various abilities. all situated under a giant skull that sometimes becomes part of the fight.
Skull Town was recently removed from Apex Legends in a seasonal event that replaced it with a new, high tech base that over the town's sunken ruins. For a few months, players haven't been able to drop in Apex Legends' deadliest location.
But a recent alternate mode allowed players to compete in an older version of Kings Canyon set in the dead of night, and players beelined for Skull Town at unprecedented and maybe unsustainable rates.
Why did they do this? Why is Skull Town so popular? We quizzed Apex Legends design director Jason McCord about the power of Skull Town and he offered some insight that may help other first-person shooter developers design interesting, meaty maps that will resonate with players even after they're gone.
For those in our audience who are unfamiliar, could you briefly lay out the origins of Skull Town in Kings Canyon, what the design goals for the location were, and if you thought it would become as appealing as it did?
Skull Town was inspired, conceptually, by a level I designed in Titanfall called Boneyard - a desert map covered with the playable skeletal remains of Leviathans (large creatures found in the background of Titanfall).
As developers tend to do, we began with some assets from a previous game to get started - fully aware it would probably change significantly along the way. Instead, the skull ended up driving the "Wild Frontier" theme that we sprinkled throughout Kings Canyon.
The location gets its name from a giant skull that sits in the sand, right outside of the town, and can be seen easily from the dropship. The design of the area was a giant X shape, surrounded by a ring of rocky cliffs with a number of chokepoints to enter. If you rotated into Skull Town, all roads lead to the center of town, which was dense with cover, loot and height advantage.
The spine that hangs over the town was your classic sniper perch. If you're able to "own" Skull Town, controlling the spine with a rifle can feel very powerful and earned.
The goal for Skull Town was to be one of the more prominent locations in Kings Canyon by providing the most amount of buildings and loot, but I had no idea it would become so... hot!
Honestly, I thought Repulsor would be the hot drop of Kings Canyon. Shows what I know.
What do you think are the fundamental principles that make Skulltown such an appealing drop site in Apex Legends? Have any other locations in Kings Canyon or World's End matched its popularity?
In the end, I think the hottest locations in Apex will always be the spots you can land to get lots of kills as fast as possible. Skull Town provides fast looting - you can basically run down the long arms of the town slurping up loot along the way. It's very dense - enough for 4, maybe 5 teams.
One thing I didn't consider when designing Kings Canyon (and sort of stumbled into it on accident) was that the amount of rotation options out of a location defined how accessible the area was. No matter where the ring was going, you could easily rotate out of Skull Town nearly 360 degrees, and there was a town waiting for you to loot in that direction. It's funny, this all sounds obvious now, but this was our first Battle Royale game and we were discovering the very fundamentals of what makes an Apex map tick.
Fragment East and West in World's Edge have probably overtaken Skull Town as the hottest drop in Apex post Season 4. It shares many of the same qualities. Name's not as cool, though. ;)
Despite its popularity, Skull Town sank into the ocean with Loba's arrival in Season 5. Can you walk through the decision to replace it with another site?
When discussing how we want to update Kings Canyon in Season 5, anything we could think of felt overshadowed by Skull Town. It's such a popular drop - would anyone even care if we added all these other locations?
We were sitting around brainstorming map ideas, and Skull Town's existence was hindering creativity. "That's a cool idea, but it's too close to Skull Town" or "That sounds cool, but why wouldn't I just drop Skull?" At some point I proposed, "Okay, pretend Skull Town is gone. It fell into the ocean. Now what would you do?"
After everyone finished laughing me out of the room, the ideas started flowing. The excitement was high. Skull Town had become sacred in the worst way, so it felt exciting and liberating to remove it from the equation so the designers could be more creative.
Map changes usually drive a lot of the season's theme and story beats. Because maps need to be started so early, by the time the writing team looked towards Season 5 we were pretty committed to deleting Skull Town. A few more fun brainstorm sessions later, and the Loba story started to take shape.
Once Kings Canyon at Night was added to the September special mode playlist, every game I was in was filled with a colorful starburst of players diving into Skull Town. Did you anticipate this kind of attention for the site in this mode at all? Does an overfocus on Skull Town have any impact on an Apex game as a whole?
Honestly, I hadn't even thought about the fact that players would be excited to visit Skull Town again. I also experienced the hot drops when the mode went live, and sort of slapped myself that I hadn't thought to push some marketing suggestions for "Return to Skull Town!"
What I take away from the whole experience is that Skull Town feels like, to some people, their favorite deathmatch map in one of their favorite games. The YouTube videos of people remembering "the good old days" were inspiring (c'mon people, it's only been 1 and a half seasons!).
I want to think about ways to allow people to experience the location again, in a way that is more healthy for the game overall. I have no idea what that means but I'll be thinking on it!
Image Source: Reddit User u/chocoloctol
Lastly, are there any core principles behind designing Skulltown that you feel have helped Apex Legend’s map designers in making new locations?
The design of an Apex map location should be asking itself 3 questions - How do I attack this place? How do I loot this place? How do I defend this place?
It should also be easily identifiable from the dropship, with a big landmark to give it an identity and a theme. We try to hit these tenets on all major locations. Some do better than others, but I think Skull Town set that bar back in Season 0.