PC, PS4, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES - De­vel­oper/pub­lisher For­mat Ori­gin Re­lease Bliz­zard PC, PS4, Xbox One US Spring

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

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