For decades, game designers have been trying to get players to work together. At first, multiplayer games had a text chat – which was good, except that it is very difficult to play both a game and type specific instructions at the same time. In 1999, Counter-Strike popularized two possible solutions for this: pre-recorded voice lines and microphone support. They were, of course, imperfect. The first one allowed players to communicate a little more easily with each other, but you still had to search the menus to find the right message, and using it effectively meant taking hours to memorize the dozens of lines and associated keyboard shortcuts. The first one made communication much easier, but it required another piece of equipment and also meant that any stranger on the Internet was now more or less free to yell at you. Microsoft, apparently determined to trigger a new wave of multiplayer communication, is offering headsets with the 2005 launch of the Xbox 360. If everyone has a microphone, the thought has gone, then everyone would surely want to play games on Xbox Live. Of course, Microsoft has seriously underestimated the consequences of giving microphones to anonymous teenagers with short Internet connections and temperaments. Since then, we have seen developers take half-steps towards designing multiplayer games with good communication systems. In 2005, “Battlefield 2” introduced a tracking system where if a player saw an enemy, he only had to press a button and the position of that enemy was added to your team’s minimap. This was improved in 2006 in the “Battlefield 2142” by placing a real marker on enemies in a player’s HUD, and extended to a radial menu where players could select a handful of common voice commands. Valve’s “Team Fortress 2”, released in 2007, did not have the complex tracking system, but showed how to automate communication between players. As they approach the objectives, players automatically launch vocal lines imploring other players to help them capture them. Engineers announce every time they build something. There is even an option in the game to automatically call a doctor when your health is precarious. Both games probably raised the bar for what good communication between players could look like without having to use a microphone, but they were not perfect. In “Battlefield”, if someone kills an enemy you have spotted, you get points, which is a great way to use the game system to encourage positive team play, but most of the time, the games turn into a test shooting to be the first to kill the enemies spotted as they appear. And in “Team Fortress 2”, if the game does all the communication for you, after a few dozen hours, everything becomes background noise. This is not another player talking to you, it’s the game. Overall, most online multiplayer games support microphone, and communication options start and end there. In games like “PUBG” and “Fortnite” if you want to work coherently with a team of people, the easiest option is to 1. own a microphone and 2. team up with a group of friends who have microphones. Of course, a few like-minded people can join teams at random, but the combination of competitive multiplayer games and anonymity on the Internet is almost always in a toxic situation – doubly so if your teammates are homophobic, misogynistic, racist or transphone (most often all four!).
How can we get the players to work together, without a microphone?
“Apex Legends” looks like a game that would require a microphone. Unlike “Fornite” or “PUBG”, you can’t give up solo. Each “Apex Legends” game consists of 60 players divided into 20 teams of 3 players. At the beginning of each game, players take turns choosing their “Legend”, a member of the squad is designated “Jumpmaster” and the default game, you and your squad land together. Compared to “Fortnite” and “PUBG”, it is much more difficult to kill someone “Apex Legends”, which makes coordination between players essential to eliminate a rival group. But you don’t need a microphone to win, or even have a good time, in “Apex Legends”. There are many things this game does well. The movement is fast and fluid. Aiming and shooting is intuitive, yet rewarding and challenging when done well. The distribution of the eight Legends has just the right amount of personality, and their abilities add enough complexity to the gameplay without giving the impression that the use of their skills is essential, or worse, an obstacle to the right game. The respawn system eliminates one of the greatest frustrations of battle royale games – dying early – without turning the game into a gigantic team death match. Except for one weapon, everything seems to be working properly. But the cement that keeps all this together, and probably the reason why players keep coming back, is the ping system. Apex Legends’ ping system is a masterstroke in inter-player communication – not only for its ease of use, but also for what it does for you. The mechanics are simple: ping something, and it will send a flag to your players. The beauty of this is that the ping is context sensitive, and it works on almost everything. It may seem complicated, but literally, in the first moments after your first game, it’s stupid how easy and effective it is. Even when playing with friends, simply trying to find a landing zone is unnecessarily complicated. People hem and haw, others don’t know the map that well. In “Apex Legends”, someone can suggest a landing point, others can click on that point to confirm it, and in 10 seconds, you already have a consensus on something. Think about that: In a genre where a good landing is crucial to your success, “Apex Legends” only needs one button to get on board with your teammates. And it continues once you hit the ground. Ping a weapon, ammunition, or object and your character will call it to the other players, and place a marker on their HUD. While you are in the field, indicating a location to your teammates will tell you that you want to move in. Ping-Pong enemies will report these enemies to your teammates using a special icon. In addition, your teammates can answer any of your pings with a ping to confirm them. In a genre that requires an incredible knowledge of the situation to play well, “Apex Legends” is able to bring all this together in one button. Press R1 to be aware of the situation. It’s such a simple thing to do, but it also says a lot about the person you’re playing with. It’s comforting to pass with two strangers and see them start pinging right and left. They only hit one button, of course, but that communicates the simple fact that they are ready to work with you. It’s so easy and so essential that neglecting to ping things in “Apex Legends” makes you a worse player and a worse teammate. Pinging gives players a mechanic in the game to master and make themselves useful to their team. If you are not good at shooting or if you don’t really master the mechanics of a particular legend, you can still do everything you can to be useful to your teammates. In addition, the ping system is robust, but it has its limitations. That’s a good thing! Unlike the use of a microphone, which gives players access to the infinite power of speech, the ping system can only be used to help and not to harm. The fact that “Apex Legends” puts you in contact with strangers on the Internet at every game has undoubtedly made many people under-represented in the world of gambling nervous. But the ping system almost completely eliminates this problem by making the ping probably more effective than the vocal chat. Why tell people there’s a hemlock in that cabin when you can ping it? In addition, “Apex Legends” has an option that will automatically transcribe the microphone chat into text.
Humans are social beings
It’s nice to jump on a digital island with 100 other people and be the last to stand, but it’s even better to be the last to stand on the team. And if you have a group of friends you can do it with, then great. But this is not the case for everyone. Respawn’s decision to turn “Apex Legends” into a royal combat squad could have gone wrong in a hundred different ways. Imagine entering each game with not only the uncertainty of what will happen when you touch the ground, but also with the kind of hikes with which the game will match you. If the game only had a microphone, you would inevitably spend the first few minutes of the game determining if other players could hear you, then determining who these people are, how to communicate with them, how to motivate them and how to play with them. And after doing all this, your squad is erased 30 seconds after touching down. Imagine going home after a long day of work, hoping to relax by spending an hour or two shooting computer scientists, then having to figure out how to handle two perfect strangers every 5-10 minutes. That would be exhausting. With the ping system in “Apex Legends” you don’t have to do it. All you have to do is ping some stuff, and your teammates notice. You can coordinate with two other humans, and expend almost no emotional energy. It’s like a kind of perpetual interpersonal motion machine: button presses come and go from complex relationships with your teammates. In the real world, hell is other people. But not in “Apex Legends”.