PC, PS4, Xbox One
Outside the entrance to Blizzard’s California headquarters is, obviously, a giant statue of an orc. Surrounding it are a series of bronze plaques that spell out the company’s values. “The primary value, that sits front and centre, is ‘Gameplay First’,”
Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s game director, tells us. “Our philosophy is, do the right thing for the game, build engagement with players, and we’ll find ways to be successful from there.”
It is this ethos that has led to Blizzard deciding that Overwatch’s post-launch character and map releases will be free of charge. It is not ruling out paid DLC down the line, but for the time being everything that follows Overwatch’s spring launch will be free. It’s a refreshingly player-focused decision, one that serves the customer before the bottom line – but it’s about more than that. Kaplan firmly believes that it’s the best thing Blizzard could do for the game itself.
Overwatch may splice together two elements from two well-explored genres – the online shooter and the MOBA – but it is very much its own game.
At launch, Overwatch will contain 21 characters, or heroes, as Blizzard (along with the MOBA community) terms it. Each has a bespoke ability set, and each plays a specific role. You can switch freely between them at any point in a match – from attack-minded heroes to defensive or support ones as the ebb and flow of the action dictates. It’s something that was central in Blizzard’s decision to make
Overwatch a full-price release instead of going free-to-play, and to give future heroes away for free instead of charging a fee. “We thought about some other business models,” Kaplan says, “but the one thing that was bothering us was hero swapping. It feels like you need a certain number of heroes to really be viable in the game, to feel competitive.
“Is that number 21? I don’t think so, but let’s say it’s three or four. I think it’s going to be a different three or four depending on the type of player – some might be really skilled, twitchy players; others might like to play a support role. We can’t read minds, can’t know which three or four characters you are going to need to be successful. Giving everyone all the heroes just felt like the right thing to do.”
This has been a novel project for Blizzard, with a more open attitude to development than it has been known for in the past. Beta tests have brought valuable feedback on game flow and balance – and Kaplan is enthused not just by the amount of feedback Blizzard has had on the game, but also by its quality. Load up the busy Overwatch subreddit and, rather than profane calls for Blizzard to nerf this or buff that, there are suggestions on
“From the inception of the game, we were designing with the console controller in mind”
the minutiae of how things could be changed for the better. “It’s extremely intelligent,” Kaplan says. “Players have been so thoughtful in their feedback. I really appreciate it because it’s like we’re speaking the same language; I love that people have an awareness of, and appreciation for, game design.”
And, from the outside at least, it’s been sorely needed. With 21 characters, each with a bespoke set of skills, and the player being able to switch between them at will, Overwatch sounds like a nightmare of a balancing job. Yet Kaplan tells us it actually makes his job easier, pointing to the community’s current bête noire, Bastion, a robot that can transform into a static turret. Players complain that there is only one viable counter to its turret form. Kaplan reels off almost ten.
“If we only had, say, four heroes in the game, the balance would be very delicate,” he says. “I think there’s a hill that you crest; when you have so many heroes, it actually becomes easier to balance. We’re not making rock, paper, scissors. That’s not how the game is designed. It’s about different dynamics and fluid team combinations. It’s not a question of whether, say, Mercy can go 1v1 against D.Va. That’s just not a situation we even want to support. It’s more a question of, can a team with D.Va beat one with Mercy? The answer is yes, absolutely, and it goes both ways.”
The beta tests have, however, brought to light problems elsewhere in the game. Blizzard has already made and abandoned two levelling systems. The first wedded progression to the power curve and so tilted the balance towards those that played the most. The next gave each hero their own levelling path, which punished players for moving around the character roster – something that should be rewarded. Kaplan is optimistic that the new system will stick, with a single, account-wide levelling curve with no cap that offers a selection of random, cosmetic loot (see ‘Third time’s a charm’) each time you rank up.
A planned January return for the beta had to be put back until early February, but it promises to be worth the wait. In addition to the new progression system it also adds two new maps – one set high in the Himalayas, the other in urban China – and a new game mode that should show Overwatch at its best.
Control is most readily comparable to King Of The Hill, with two teams of six fighting to capture a single point in the centre of a symmetrical map. Matches are the best of three rounds, each of which involves a different capture point in a different area. The China map starts in a street market, moves to a corporate retreat, and if a final round is needed, concludes on the top of a skyscraper. It’s not a new idea, but it’s a perfect fit for Overwatch. Focusing both teams on a single chokepoint means more of the 6v6 team fights in which the game shines, while hero swapping means players can alternate between attack and defence depending on who has control of the zone.
The February beta will be PC-only, though Kaplan hopes consoles will receive a similar treatment before Overwatch’s launch this spring. It could certainly do with one: PC players will more readily understand a blend of shooter and MOBA than those on consoles, where the latter remains largely unexplored. It would be much-needed marketing for a game announced as a PC title, made by a company best known for its work on PC, and whose console release was revealed at the largely PC-focused Blizzcon in November. Console players could do with a primer.
This is no hasty port, either. Kaplan says Blizzard was designing Overwatch for the console player long before deals were in place with Microsoft and Sony. “From the inception of the game, we were designing with the console controller in mind,” he says. “We felt that, even if the game never made it to console, by limiting how many abilities characters could have to ensure it would fit on a controller, we would make a better PC game.” Once again, Blizzard has taken a business decision and re-framed it as a question of how best to serve the player, and the game. From what we’ve seen, it’s been a success. That orc at the studio entrance is sure to approve.
Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan
Mercy’s Devil skin, one of many new looks available through Overwatch’s new progression system