The free-to-play battle royal, Apex Legends launches on Switch this week on March 9th, and we were thrilled when we learned the master porters, Panic Button assisted Apex developers Respawn Entertainment with the mission.
To learn more about the interworkings of Panic Button, the challenge of bringing Apex Legends to Switch, and to discuss the possibilities of past Respawn games coming to Switch we sat down the Head of Production, Dan Hernberg and Technical Director, Andy Boggs at Panic Button along with the Game Director of Apex Legends at Respawn, Chad Grenier.
Nintendo Life: Having worked on the ports of Doom Eternal, Wolfenstein II, Rocket League, and more, Panic Button is known as the “Port Wizards” around the Nintendo Life office.
Dan Hernberg (Panic Button): I would like a staff and a cloak!
Ha! We’ll see what we can do. How was porting Apex Legends to Switch different than anything you’ve done before?
Dan: One of the things that’s always interesting when you’re doing a game that’s living, breathing, and constantly changing is that there’s always new challenges, new Legends coming out, and new maps. So I think you’re kind of trying to build an aircraft and land it on a moving aircraft carrier all at the same time. Towards the end of development, we’re all in the same branch working together, and if we make a mistake and break the build, that impacts Respawn and vice versa. It’s a lot going on while you’re trying to ship the first version to make sure it stands up and iron out any issues. Even more so than previous projects, the amount of change Respawn makes to their games is so much more than any other client we’ve ever worked with. Plus, the fact there’s even more going on in the world, that’s been a unique challenge for this project.
With this being a live service game, will you be supporting Apex for longer than some of your other projects like Rocket League and Warframe, or have the keys been handed back to Respawn?
Dan: Currently we’ll continue to support the project for the next couple of months. There’s always the chance it goes on longer or we hand it off sooner if Respawn feels confident. But for the time being, we’ll be fully engaged to release all content on Switch day and date with all other platforms with all of the seasons moving forward.
Has Panic Button been working with Respawn since day one of the Switch versions development or were you called in after the fact to help?
Andy Boggs (Panic Button): We’ve been working on it for about 15 months. I believe it was around Season Four when we started talking with Respawn about what it could look like to bring this to Switch.
Were there any sacrifices or compromises that had to be made to get Apex running on Switch other than graphics?
Andy: Not really as far as features or content, everything that’s there on other versions of the game should be there on Switch. I think the big challenge for us is always coming in and understanding what parts of the game that we can adapt and make changes to and optimize and what parts are so essential that we need to leave alone. I think ultimately the changes we had to make are not going to impact players’ experience with it. It’s still a great experience and it feels like playing Apex!
Cross-Play has been confirmed for the Switch version, but will Cross-Progression be available as well?
Andy: Cross-Progression is not supported right now.
Is Cross-Progression a plan for Apex?
Chad Grenier (Respawn): It is planned, but I think we’re a ways out from being able to offer that. I really want it as a gamer myself, so I hear what our fans are saying and I totally agree with them. We’re doing work to try to make that happen, it’s a complex challenge of multiple accounts existing for various users that we have to resolve or merge, there are legal and contractual things to navigate with purchasing on other platforms and having those carryover and also some technical challenges. So it’s not something we can just turn on, but we are working towards having it and the team is passionate about delivering it at some point.
How does it feel developing a game where you not only have to make the game itself, but you have to make the shop run, coordinate cross-play, etc? It’s not the days of the Super Nintendo where you just make the game and ship it.
Chad: It’s certainly not as easy. In some ways, it’s a nightmare, but it’s a fun problem to have. When you’ve got a popular game, crying about it is sort of like a first-world problem, right? We’ll take the challenges any day and we’re happy to be fighting the fight, solving the problems, and getting things up and running.
With this being the first game Respawn has put out on Switch, is Apex running on a new engine for Switch?
Andy: We used the same engine that the other versions of the game use, so a lot of the work we did was adding support for the Switch to that engine. Respawn’s engine and the game are kind of its own thing, so it is the first game to run on Switch in that engine.
Now that you have this engine running on Switch, is there a possibility we’ll ever see any of Respawn’s past work on Switch? Titanfall 2 for example, may not have seen the retail success it may have deserved, but could the Switch ever give it a second chance?
Chad: The team that’s on Apex is a lot of the team that made Titanfall and Titanfall 2 and it’s something that we’re all really proud of. I think if I look back on my career that campaign is one of the best things we’ve done and I think a lot of people on the team might feel the same. I think you see a lot of the Titanfall content making its way into Apex. So our mindset now is not necessarily on trying to get people to go back and play Titanfall 2, but how do we bring all of the great things from Titanfall 2 into the Apex world and introduce them to our Apex fans.
Will Apex have any new features on Switch?
Dan: Yeah, I think a big thing that the Switch has that the other consoles don’t is gyro aiming. We’ve done it on previous titles and we’ve learned every time. We’ve kind of tweaked our formula and tweak it differently based on each game. Sometimes having gyro that moves more slowly is better, sometimes you want a snappier response. So we’ve worked closely with Respawn to make sure it has that “Apexy” feel.
How does Panic Button decide which projects to work on? We imagine your inbox is constantly flooded with potential opportunities.
Dan: We have a lot of different teams here at Panic Button and we always mix up who’s on which team and we dedicate those teams to individual projects. We also usually have about three to five projects going at once, but we’re always talking with potential clients about different opportunities. For every 10 to 20 opportunities that come along, we usually get to only work on about one of them though. We kinda see who we want to work with, if they’ll make good partners, that we think the title is something we like or is a good fit to attach our name to, and we want to make sure the timing and resourcing works out. The stars kinda have to align since we’re just a studio of 50 people. When we go online and read the forums we see endless lists of games that we should work on, and a lot of those we would love to but ya know it all has to work out for a game to get as far as this and I think that’s a real testament to Respawn and Apex. Not only did the stars align, it took a lot of work from a lot of people to land this as we’re developing the Switch version while the live version is being built. That’s kind of a roundabout way of saying “it’s really hard”, haha. Shipping any game is a miracle and any port of a live service game is a true miracle. It really takes a lot of dedication from everyone involved to get it out the door.
Speaking of having two different teams working together remotely on one project, how has that been different in a world impacted by COVID?
Dan: So on the production side, sometimes I feel like I see people from Respawn on Zoom calls more than I see my wife. We’re in constant communication thanks to Slack and Zoom and we’ve always worked remotely with other studios before COVID since we’re based in Austin, TX, and Respawn is in Los Angeles, CA, so we sort of had some of this down already. Developing during COVID had a huge impact on us as a studio, most aren’t set up to work remotely. Our hardware is in the studio and we have a lot of secure data and information we need to get safely to our team so they can use it. You can set up a VPN, but it all just takes more time. Our engineers, production, QA team are all in communication and we really have to be an extension of the Respawn team to make this work.
Do each of you have a favorite Legend?
Dan: I play whatever Legend is left!
Andy: I really like Bangalore but that’s mostly because I’m really bad at the game! So if I find one person that I can get a kill with then I’m just going to use them for the rest of my time with the game.
Chad: I usually find myself playing the latest Legend or whatever Legend received a buff or a nerf. I’m kinda just playing the latest trend really to make sure I’m aware of the meta and what people are talking about so I jump around a lot. If everything is good and we’re not really working on anything I’ll default to Lifeline usually. I like the easy combat revive and I can call in the care package and get some free loot.
When working on a project, have you ever hidden any secrets or easter eggs for fans to discover in Apex or any of your past work?
Andy: I don’t think we’ve done anything in the way of something that would be secret or kind of a content change. We’re always kind of looking to see if there is something special we can do for the Switch audience. I think in the past we’ve done custom skins or things like that. Sadly I think the days of easter eggs are long gone.
Chad: We always put easter eggs in our games, and sometimes as the game director I don’t even know about it! It’s actually quite fun! Most of the time they get cleared by a leader on the team to make sure they’re not doing something harmful. A lot of them are just as surprising to me as they are to others though. It’s good, there’s a human element to making these games, and people like putting things in like that. We had some that were found by the public. The Nessies that are hidden throughout Kings Canyon if collected in the right order would summon the giant Nessie out of the sea. We also had a Nessie shrine with a mother Nessie with all of these candles around it. I have no idea what that was about but the designers like to have fun and put things in like that. There are probably some things that have yet to be found that I don’t even know about.
If you each had your pick of bringing any game to Switch, what would you choose?
Dan: I’m not sure if this is my “any game pick” but, right now I’m playing way too much Valheim and I would love to port that to Switch.
Chad: Right now I’m playing a lot of Dyson Sphere Program. It’s a building game that takes place on various planets and involves gathering resources. I was on vacation recently and couldn’t play and would have loved to take it on my Switch!
A huge thank you to Andy Boggs and Dan Hernberg of Panic Button, and Chad Grenier of Respawn Entertainment for taking the time to chat with us! Apex Legends releases on Nintendo Switch on March 9th.
Be sure to let us know if you’ll be diving headfirst into the game when it arrives on later this week!