Last month, Apex Legends dropped a narrative bombshell. Pathfinder, the game's charming, grapple-happy robot, didn't just figure out who his makers were—he learned he had a tiny android son. But the bigger surprise was that this tale of robot families wasn't delivered via Respawn's usual slick, in-house cinematics.
Rather, the developer chose to let the fans take the reins on this major beat in the Apex Legends story.
In October 2020, Moscow-based animator Slava Alekseev posted a short video titled Meet Bloodhound (opens in new tab)—a slick, Unreal 4-powered short following Apex' faceless tracker. For the recently unemployed animator, it was an immediate hit, reaching 800k views overnight.
"It was a huge success that I never even hoped for," Alekseev tells me. "Perhaps things were not that bad for me and I could find a job quicker."
"Respawn Entertainment got in touch a day later."
The Truth had been on Respawn's mind since around February 2020. The Apex writers had already planned the plot reveal to occur at the end of a tie-in lore book, Pathfinder's Quest, but wanted to punctuate the moment with a video. Unfortunately, animators were already busy on a different Pathfinder short to coincide with the Fight Night event.
"After discussing a few ideas on how to bring this to life over the course of a few months as well as getting a rough script together, we finally decided that maybe instead we’d bring a bunch of different artists on and have them each draw one important frame of the story, then we’d stitch it all together, motion comic style," Alex Ackerman, senior social media manager at Respawn, explains.
"But then a few weeks later, we saw this INSANE fan-made Bloodhound video and knew we had to pivot. I reached out to Slava, we briefed him in, and we were off to the races."
Alekseev wouldn't be the first community creator to be brought into the writer's room, of course. Starting with Season 5 last year, Apex has told its seasonal storylines with two comics—an in-game strip created by in-house artists, and supplemental twitter spreads created by artists hand-picked by Respawn.
"There was a moment where [former Apex writer] Tom Casiello and I started to see more and more community-made pieces popping up in relation to bits of lore Tom was speaking to on his Twitter account," said Ackerman. "And this stuff was just absolutely gorgeous, like, just when I thought I’d seen it all, a new piece would come up."
Senior writer Ashley Reed added: "Apex is a battle royale game, and when we started, there wasn’t much of a roadmap for how to tell stories in that context. Post-launch, we were also completely blown away by the amazing fan content our community started creating (see #31DaysofApex).
"We decided to see if we could get some collaborations going, starting with two comics (opens in new tab) drawn by @_jelart, both taking place in the aftermath of the Season 5 Quest, Broken Ghost. Not long after, we worked with JEL on a Wattson search and find (opens in new tab), and @IFrAgMenTIx and @noxlotl on two fully voiced (opens in new tab) scenes that used their art as backdrops. Those pieces blew up in the best way, and we were off to the races."
Respawn's own authored, in-game comics may push the world forwards, but Reed explains that these community comics let the team explore "side stories that enrich the Apex universe". To find artists for these, Ackerman says she keeps a constant tab on Twitter and Reddit ("I’m always watchinggggg"), tracking their work to see which characters they gravitate towards.
A year on from those initial fan-comics, she admits that there are a fair few returning artists she falls back for certain scenes. But she's frequently on the prowl for new artists to add to Respawn's rolodex.
"For the Season 9 social comic, for instance, I think we ended up with an even split on new vs returning, and that was in part because we had a few artists who we all agreed just had to do a specific issue. Like JEL for instance. Tom and I always associate her with Voidwalker Wraith because she draws her quite frequently, so we brought her in on the Voidwalker issue.
"But with CaitySecret (opens in new tab), while we’d never worked with her, Tom and I saw a piece she’d done on her own that portrayed the dynamic between Lifeline and Octane beautifully, so we brought her in on our Octane/Lifeline issue."
One of these new artists was Genta, a self-described hobbyist artist who would end up penning Season 9's Octane-focussed Checkmate (opens in new tab) comic. Despite admitting to having "no map-sense or aim", Genta immediately fell in love with the aesthetic of Apex Legends after spending 2 years deep in Overwatch.
"It was grittier and the character models were more realistic," Genta told me via DMs. "I've always been kind of an edgelord so that spoke to me, I guess."
They recall that developers noticed their art after posting on social media, which caught the eye of Respawn's resident Reddit-lurker, Ackerman. Genta's art found its way into a devstream highlight, but Ackerman would eventually approach them to commission a community comic for Season 9.
"I was surprised because I didn't have any professional art credentials, but I said yes because the idea of making stuff and having it be canon was, and is, incredible to me."
Genta was happy to run me through the process of how these community comics come about, explaining that the writing team will send over scripts broken down into pages and panels. Of course, the script takes on a different form when it hits the canvas, and the artist gets a say in how to best make Respawn's words work on the page.
"If speech bubbles need to be edited or panels need to be merged/split up, the writers are very open to suggestions, as long as the overarching plot and character development intention is maintained. The script goes through several iterations before the final product."
Ackerman tells me that the artists are given "so much freedom" when it comes to these script revisions—stressing that as long as the broader goal of the comic is met, artists are free to suggest script edits as they like. But ultimately, fans aren't taking complete control of these stories. "Canon" content, Reed notes, ultimately stays in-house.
That back and forth naturally extended to production of Alekseev's short, with the animator calling it a "full-on collaboration". The developer supplied Alekseev with art references and 3D models, as well as bringing in Pathfinder voice actor Chris Edgerly.
But Ackerman tells me that Alekseev was also instrumental in forming the script, suggesting tweaks that'd look better on screen. In one instance, Alekseev tells me how the team agonised over approaching the fight scene—having to balance visual spectacle with story consistency, while still communicating Pathfinder's in-game toolkit.
"Originally Path already had a gun and he initiated the fight, albeit unintentionally. That obviously didn't work, Path looked too aggressive and made a group of trained soldiers look like a bunch of incompetent grunts."
Above: An early animation test for a fight scene in The Truth.
Instead of that early draft, the final shot feels more comical, with our robotic hero dropping crates onto his attackers. "It felt very Pathfinder-like to get into new trouble right after a solution. It felt like a neat moment you could have during an apex match and it worked much better than a ton of mindless shooting."
It's important to note that, while neither Respawn nor its community collaborators would share specifics, all felt that the artists were fairly compensated for their work. In Ackerman's words, this whole collaboration only works because there's a strong degree of trust between the studio and its fans.
"Because they’re so passionate about Apex Legends, we know they’ll pay attention to detail and pour care into their work because they know Apex like the back of their hand and want to get it right."
Community collaborations have only ramped up in recent months—and starting with a series of Twitch drop load screens, Respawn plans to further push fan-art into the game itself. It's an effort that hasn't gone unnoticed by the community, with Genta telling me that fans no longer feel quite as alienated from the game they love.
"In the beginning I think it was relatively detached from the fandom, as most studios are. Fanart gets retweeted, devs answer questions sometimes on Reddit, things like that. With the advent of community comics, loading screens, and other cosmetics, I think they're engaging a lot more.
"It's been really nice to see people whose work I love get recognized in this way. In terms of fandoms I've been in, it's definitely been a first."
Ackerman, for her part, only sees this relationship going further—not just with streamers or traditional illustrators, but pushing into a far broader definition of what it means to be an artist.
"I think for a long time, in the gaming space, the term 'creator' has translated to mean streamers and folks who make VOD content. And while that is true, it’s not the whole truth. What we’re now starting to see is that idea being tossed aside and reformulated to include all kinds of things—artist, animator, cosplayer, you name it."
"I for one am thrilled to welcome a wider spread of creators into our wheelhouse and can’t wait to see what sort of Apex content it leads to in the future."