State of Play: Will 'Titanfall 2' Receive the Long-Term Attention it Deserves?

State of Play: Will 'Titanfall 2' Receive the Long-Term Attention it Deserves?

'Titanfall 2' is a hit with fans and critics, but its competitive scene needs some nurturing. Respawn Entertainment

Respawn’s masterpiece hopes to avoid its predecessor’s fate

Respawn’s masterpiece hopes to avoid its predecessor’s fate

Last weekend, Respawn Entertainment released a major content update for Titanfall 2, including a remastered version of Angel City, the previous game’s most-beloved map. To promote the patch, Titanfall 2 multiplayer was free to play over the weekend. For dedicated players, the update was a welcome sign of life. Despite universally positive reviews, the game's first months have been tense. Many in the community already fear that Respawn’s latest will meet the same fate as the first Titanfall, which never managed to gain a foothold amongst the most popular multiplayer shooters. (Respawn didn't respond to a request for comment on this story.)

FrothyOmen – who declined to give us his full name – is a prolific Titanfall YouTuber who creates instructional videos popular enough that Respawn regularly links to them in blog posts. He blames the first game’s relative obscurity on the lack of a single-player mode and a host of other bells-and-whistles that are standard on most modern blockbuster shooters. “People were so spoiled by Call of Duty and Battlefield,” he says, “It's hard to compete with engines that huge when you're a smaller development team... How do you compete with games that are essentially three-in-one for 60 bucks when you've got sub-100 developers?”

Titanfall 2 added a single-player campaign, which earned considerable praise for its experimentation with puzzle and platformer elements, but it’s unclear whether this will lead to a long-term rejuvenation of the multiplayer scene. In addition to Call of Duty and Battlefield, Titanfall must now contend with Overwatch, Blizzard’s FPS juggernaut. In such a crowded space, it doesn’t take much to send a game into a death spiral.

“So many people stopped playing [Titanfall 1] due to a perceived notion that the game was dying,” FrothyOmen says. "They saw the player count dip by a hundred people, and... saw that as an indicator that they too should jump ship.”

This reverse-snowball effect afflicts many multiplayer communities. When player counts dip, it takes longer to find a match, and the likelihood of finding an even match decreases. This drives more players away, compounding the problem. In Titanfall 2, certain game modes are already inaccessible – there simply aren’t enough players searching, so nobody bothers to queue for those. (Not that this is a Titanfall-specific problem – on PC at least, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare has many equally underpopulated modes.)

'Titanfall 2' is a colorful carnival of pyrotechnic chaos. It deserves every bit of the critical acclaim it has received. 

A large part of the reason why FrothyOmen is so active in the Titanfall scene is because he feels a responsibility to give it the best shot possible. Why does he care so much? There’s a famous Battlefield 3 video of a fighter jet screaming toward the stratosphere with an adversary in close pursuit. To avoid incoming missiles, the pilot of the uppermost jet ejects, brings his sniper rifle around midair, and fires a single shot, killing the enemy pilot. Then he lands in the freshly-vacated enemy aircraft and flies away unscathed. That’s what Titanfall 2 feels like all the time. Movement is fast and fluid, with wall-running, sliding, jet-packing, and bunny-hopping incorporated into one smooth and continuous system. Skilled players can cross an entire map in a single movement combo. The maps are sprawling, vertiginous playgrounds, perfect for high-flying acrobatics. Weapons are loud and visually stunning, with well-differentiated personalities. And then there are the titans, great hulking mechs that form the centerpiece of the most jaw-dropping moments. Titanfall 2 is a colorful carnival of pyrotechnic chaos. It deserves every bit of the critical acclaim it has received. 

Dan Nunez, a 29-year-old strategy manager at the Department of Energy, moonlights as a Titanfall 2 competitor and tournament organizer. Nunez’s competitive shooter career began with Team Fortress. He represented Complexity in Team Fortress 2 under the tag “REP.” But after Team Fortress 2 declined, Nunez gave up on competitive gaming. “Nothing interested me, and all the new games were so dumbed down and easy to learn, I gave up pursuing anything with real passion,” he says.

That all changed when he saw a trailer for the original Titanfall. “When I saw people bunny-hopping, I had flashbacks to my early 2000-2006 days, where speed was the name of the game,” Nunez says. “I estimate I watched that trailer once a week until its release.” He’s been a dedicated player ever since.

In an attempt to stimulate the nascent competitive scene, Nunez organized and hosted a $500 Titanfall 2 capture the flag (CTF) tournament over Thanksgiving weekend. “I am thankfully in a position to put some cash out there to entice people and hopefully grow this community,” he says.

Organizing the event wasn’t easy. To encourage interesting play, Nunez implemented rules – no "overly defensive" play, limits on overpowered weapons and perks, a restriction on the number of titans per team at any given time – that stirred up a lively controversy. Everyone seemed to agree that ancillary rules were necessary to ensure a balanced competition, but no one could agree on what exactly those rules should be.

“This really exhausted me,” Nunez says. “I probably received over 120 private messages… [but] had we not done anything, I sincerely believe people would never want to participate in a [capture-the-flag] game mode again.”

Many in the community hope that Respawn will carefully balance the game for top-level play, to reduce the need for third-party regulation. The Angel City patch is a promising start, with numerous changes to problematic weapons, perks and titans, but Nunez wants Respawn to go a step further and add customizable private lobbies for fine-tuned competitive rulesets that would allow for tournament organizers to set the conditions of a match. He may not get his wish. Such lobbies might increase the chance of Titanfall 2 developing an esports scene, but they’d have little utility for the bulk of players, who prefer to duke it out in public matchmaking. Respawn, stretched thin, is likely to focus resources on efforts that improve the game for everyone.

And make no mistake: Respawn is trying. More free content is in the works. Developer representatives actively post in the community forums and the r/Titanfall Reddit community, seeking feedback and announcing balance changes. When one commenter’s game disc was stolen, Respawn sent them an autographed copy. Titanfall 2 looks and plays like an AAA game, but the doting attention to the community is more reminiscent of a crowdfunded indie title.

The truth is that there’s no simple solution that can guarantee Titanfall 2’s longevity. Free content can’t. Regular balance patches can’t. Neither can marketing schemes or free multiplayer weekends. Whether players stick with Titanfall 2 is largely dependent on ephemeral factors like competition, consumer taste, and pure dumb luck. Respawn built a great game, and it's following through – the rest is out of its hands.