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Interview: Why the Hemlock is getting nerfed and leaving Lifeline behind in Apex Legends

We speak to the Apex Legends development team about Season 19 Ignite's balance changes and new Legend, Conduit
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Apex Legends: Ignite is the game’s 19th season, but that doesn’t mean the team are winding down in any way. The new season of course introduces another new legend, called Conduit. Like the Legends that came before her, she’s got her own animated intro trailer to celebrate her arrival – followed by a launch trailer for Ignite which shows Conduit brainstorming the perfect intro trailer with her new colleagues.

To find out more about Apex Legends Season 19, we spoke to John Larson, game designer for balance, Aaron Rutledge, experience design director, Eduardo Agostini, world director, and Evan Nikolic, design director, to pick their brains about the new features and strategies players should expect to see in Apex Legends’ latest season. Just read below for our full Q&A interview.

GLHF: The first thing that I wanted to mention was the Wingman in the Care Package which you teased but didn't tell us exactly what's going on. I want to know about this elite skull piercer.

John Larson, game designer for balance: It's a little different than the regular Skullpiercer in the sense that it doesn't care what helmet you're wearing, it will hit for the same flat damage amount. And this was something we had been thinking about with the skull piercer in general, ever since the helmet buffs, with the Skullpiercer not feeling as impactful as it was back in the day, and in early days when it was on the Longbow. I think this is just an opportunity to say ‘let's see what a beefed up Skullpiercer could look like when married with a Wingman elite from something like TitanFall.’ What could that look like in Apex? So that's what we landed on.

GLHF: Is the base damage increased on the gun itself as well?

JL: Yep. A little increase. It’ll be quite zesty.

GLHF: Are those promo trials different for each rank that you climb?

Aaron Rutledge, experience design director: “Yes, the promos change step to step; from rookie all the way up to masters. They'll all be published though, so it's not a secret. You'll be able to see what the ramping of difficulty will be across all of them. I don't remember them all off the top of my head. But they're pretty easy at the lower end and they get significantly harder as you climb.

GLHF: Can you give me any examples of the more difficult ones?

AR: Yes, I think to get from Diamond into Masters, you have five rounds to win a match flat. That's it. That's your only way to promote, is to win one match in your next five games. So very, very difficult.

GLHF: That is tough. Are they all related to winning and getting kills and assists?

AR: Yes, they're all focused on forcing you to be as performative as possible. So we don't want anyone choosing the edge of the ring to get second place. You have to put your try-hard pants on and perform.

GLHF: I'm never seeing Masters again.

AR: I mean, I've never seen it myself, ever.

Conduit Finisher Apex Legends Ignite

GLHF: So, what happens if you rank back down? Do you have to redo the challenges again?

AR: In the five matches that you're attempting, depending on your performance, you'll get kicked back down the ladder when you fail. You'll get kicked back based on a theoretical LP amount that you may have gained while you were in those promos. If you just were a stinker for all five rounds, you'll get kicked down by almost 250 LP if you were terrible. But if you did really well in those five rounds, you'll get kicked down only a little bit and then your second time you come back to the promo trials, you'll have six matches to attempt it. When you are promoted, you're given a very generous cushion so that even if you have a really bad night, you won't get demoted as aggressively.

GLHF: It’s now as aggressive as when there is more of an emphasis on kills and assists for LP earnings this season?

AR: Yes, we're making some tunings to the LP earnings in general. I don't remember the exact details. They'll all be published with the patch notes though.

GLHF: I’m enjoying this season and the matches were very even, but I thought it was hard to rank up.

JL: Some people get frustrated with the type matchmaking. So we're actually trying to ease that grind a bit this season with some of the LP and some of the loosening up on some of the matchmaking in the early part.

GLHF: It’s hard but I didn't feel like I was getting whooped, or rolling over everyone, which is what it felt like in previous seasons to me.

JL: Well, some people wanted to roll over people.

GLHF: What kind of plays have you seen with Conduit so far in testing?

Eduardo Agostini, world director: The biggest thing, I think people see some redundancies with Lifeline at first glance, but Lifeline is very strong. It's resetting quickly after a fight, but Conduit is very much active within a fight, because of the shield healing and the sort of speed at which you can quickly get shield back and get back into a fight. I can't think of any specific plays in playtest per se, but I just know that I felt very comfortable keeping pressure up when I have a Conduit teammate or when I'm playing as Conduit. I say, don't rip your bat, just keep the pressure up, and keep going.

GLHF: What do you think of some good competitive teams with Conduit because if you've got a Conduit in a Lifeline team it heals for days. Is that going to be a bit OP?

EA: I think you can flex it both ways, which is the fun part about Conduit with her versatility. I think you can double down on healing, pairing her with Lifeline and you'll have pretty good survivability when you're caught on the back foot. But then she also pairs pretty well with more aggressive sort of DPS-oriented skirmishers or assault characters where you can just out-trade damage and keep the pressure going when you're trying to make a push.I like to pair her with Horizons or Fuses or Maggie just to keep the assault going.

GLHF: I just don't want to ever see Conduit, Lifeline, and Watson around a Watson Pylon, because that would just be the worst.

EA: I guarantee you will. You will see some of that early experimentation around that.

GLHF: What kind of distance do you have to be from your teammates to get the tech off? Because it seemed like you had to be quite close in the trailer.

EA: You can't be hitting from across a POI, but you can definitely hit from farther than what's shown in the trailer. It's kind of a nice middle ground and if you are just out of range, the goal of passive is to get you back as soon as you can.

GLHF: And since I brought Lifeline up, I was expecting to see Lifeline in the balance changes, to be honest. I was surprised that she wasn't because she feels underutilized in the game at the minute and now she hasn't got a shield and you've got other support heroes who have a bit more versatility, she feels like she's a bit lower down to me. Have you got any plans to revisit her in the future?

JL: Sure. I think, as players see Conduit being added to the games, there will be a lot of people saying, ‘What happened? Have you forgotten about Lifeline?’ Lifeline is a fan favorite. So I think Conduit will probably mean we see pressure internally to see how we can revisit or update Lifeline. But we look at the cast as a whole and see what opportunities there might be for balancing changes. So, we can't promise anything on that front in the lead-up to the season.

GLHF: There were rumors about bringing the perks system over from Apex Mobile. Is that something you've considered?

Evan Nikolic, design director: We always looked to the mobile game for potentially things that we could learn and maybe bring over, but no firm plans around any of that stuff yet.

GLHF: What about a lot of the games built around breaching buildings. Are there any other breaching tools you've considered like flash bangs?

EN: I wouldn't say flashbangs. We have prototyped a bunch of stuff, but nothing we’re gonna ship this season or in the following seasons. We like to keep people on their toes. What we don't want is everyone huddling in their corner and waiting for somebody to make the first misstep or make a mistake. We want somebody who's able to force the fight. So we keep investigating.

Apex Legends Ignite - Conduit

GLHF: I'm interested in the process and understanding how you get to where you are now?

EN: It all comes from the number one rule of staying within what feels like Apex. What are the design space opportunities? Does a flashbang actually make sense in it? There is level design, but there's also the game’s verticality. There's a lot of fast movement. It's not boots on the ground, like a Call of Duty or Battlefield. It's finding something that works and makes sense and you have to iterate towards something that feels empowering, but also feels fair when you get hit up against it. So there's good counterplay in there.

GLHF: There are stun weapons so there are enough things in the game that make your vision get funny as it is.

EN: Yes, we have visual effects, and clutter issues as well and we're trying to fine-tune what is the right amount, what feels fair, and what is designed for good competition versus good presentation.

GLHF: That makes me think of Ash, because obviously her attack pins you down. And as the person is being pinned, that's not a fun gameplay thing, not being able to move. So you've given quite a large area that they can move around in, and it feels like they can escape a bit too easily and they're free to move a bit too much.

EN: There's definitely stuff we could look towards with Ash as well. She has like a really empowering fantasy. But I think sometimes it doesn't translate cleanly to where our sandbox is compared to when we launched her. So that's the thing too with Ash, like building counterplay. The big thing is can I see, and can I anticipate that attack coming out? And do I feel like you have an opportunity to dodge it versus if it comes up too quickly, and you have no time to respond. So those are the fine-tuning things, even fractions of a second can make a difference.

GLHF: What other Legends are you looking at for a possible rework in the future?

EN: I’m not going to comment on that today. We're always looking at our Legends roster. And we're always looking at opportunities to revamp because that has always done well. But we're happy with how that landed and we're always evaluating, where can we push and what the design space opportunities are with our existing roster, but I'm not gonna say who or what or even when, but we're always working on it.

GLHF: I'm a Fuse guy, so don't touch Fuse. It feels like there are a lot more Fuse guys this season, he's been popping up more in my matches anyway. Is that something you've seen on your side?

EN: It makes sense as we only just shipped his heirloom, people come back, but I don’t have strict data.

EA: I recently switched to being more of a Fuse main. I just find him so satisfying when he lands his Knuckle Cluster. It’s my playstyle.

GLHF: On the subject of aim assist, it's something that you're looking at over the long term. Can you explain how you're approaching that? Because to me, the aim assist works fine. It just annoys the PC players.

EN: We definitely do have problems with aim assist in terms of how we've dialed it, and how we can tune it. We need to untangle it and put more levers to dial it in. Like I think it feels good if you're using it, but like there are things that the aim assist does that actually has outward effects to our entire weapons roster. Like, the mag sizes of our submachine guns are what they are because of the aim assist’s power at close range. So do we want the mag sizes to be there? Questionable, I think it puts us into some less than ideal design corners. And so we need to be evaluating that. You can see with the rise of our top level players where controller is the default option. We actually want an interesting choice, not just to become the default.

Apex Legends Ignite - Batte Pass squad

GLHF: Would you maybe bring parity on the high skill movement side of things where keyboard and mouse players have the advantage?

EN: Potentially. It's something you can do. John and I would talk at length about what actually is core Apex versus an exploit. And there's a culture that has been built around a lot of these tactics that were not necessarily designed. The kind of stuff that's emerged and now become part of the culture and you have to ask yourself, what is good, and what is bad? What is learnable and what is an exploit? So there's a fine line that we have.

GLHF: What’s your favorite thing about the Storm Point update?

EN: I hated the Forbidden Zone. That was a death trap, I hated that POI. That was the one, where I felt we had to fix this.

AR: I think the team knocked it out of the park this season, just the overhaul with the skybox and the lighting and it's a really fresh look. You know, people have seen Strong Point for two years now looking the same, but this time we've been back to quite a few parts of the map and I hope people really feel like it’s a new experience.

GLHF: It seems like it'd be quite scary to approach this map because it's your most competitively viable map in the roster. How did you approach that?

AR: It was very surgical. I think there was a reduction in the overall map size, but it was done in a way that made the most sense by bringing a few POIs closer to the rest of the action, just so that people could get more encounters quickly. Obviously, the competitive people will still take all their shots and land them where they want to go. But for casuals, we felt like we wanted them to get into the action faster and reduce that friction like we were talking about with Prowlers and it's stopping me from flowing nicely through this rotation. So I think we did a pretty good job of balancing both without sacrificing the competitive integrity of the map.

JL: Michael Shannon, who was the map designer of the map update, he was sharing his goals with me, and the main goal was to improve the experience because people always groan when Storm Point comes around in the rotation. I think it'll feel better for sure. A secondary thing that just happened is that it does feel even better as a competitive map because I know competitive players are fans of Storm Point and I think it's even improved on that front too. So it's been a win all around.

GLHF: When you said that you'd remove Prowlers, did you mean just from the Forbidden Zone or that you've totally removed Prowlers from the map?

AR: No, just the Forbidden Zone. It’s just that one area that was filled with Prowlers. That's gone. One other thing that we've done is we disabled the IMC armories. So those IMC armories that you could go in and loot up and like fight Specters. Those have been affected by the storm. So they are now destroyed and the Specters are gone. And that's just another example of trying to improve our flow and reduce that friction because people would go into one of those and that's like one less team that's out on the floor because they're in their own little loop with the Specters. So that's been removed.

But there's still Spiders, there's still Prowlers, you're still going to be able to shoot them and get loot from them. So we haven't changed that part of it. That's the identity of the map, but we definitely reduce friction and we're surgical in where we did it.

Apex Legends Ignite - Storm Point Ceto

GLHF: Are there still vehicles about because you've reduced the size of the map as well?

AR: Tridents are still available, there's still something you can jump in and boot across the map with.

GLHF: And the Grav Cannons are where they used to be as well?

AR: Yep. Actually, Watson's Pylon has a Grav Cannon kind of built into it that launches you straight into the Forbidden Zone. So that will be a new kind of dynamic that people can play with.

GLHF: What was the decision behind nerfing the Hemlock? I know why because it was melting everyone. But can you talk to me about it from your side?

EA: Yep. That's the main reason, it felt like you could get exploded by it and the data backed that up that that was happening across many skill bands. With any burst weapon in our game, it's a tricky thing to balance because you want to have it approachable enough that people feel that they can pick it up instead of the trusted more reliable sort of 301 or flatline full automatic options without making it overpowered in top players hands. And so just reducing the bursts a little bit for when you land that triple burst headshot or whatever on someone out in the open. It's just a slight damage nerf, I think it'll still feel quite strong.

GLHF: What do you think the biggest learning is from the previous season that you're taken into this one?

EN: I would say for me personally is, we have to keep tending the garden and when we revitalize systems that the players know and love like with Revenant they have a huge impact, they are really resonant with players. And I think you're seeing that continue forward into this season. We have a new legend, but usually when we ship a big map, we actually put a lot of that focus into taking a map and giving it a rework and giving it a significant update, because there's something powerful about something you've spent many hours with and then turning it and challenging how your perspective is. And so it's clearly resonating with the player base and we're gonna keep doing that, the same thing with another iteration of ranked for this season.