Over­watch char­ac­ters

How Over­watch’s over­writ­ten he­roes re­veal the spir­i­tual bat­tle at the game’s heart.

PC GAMER (US) - - CONTENTS - By Edwin Evans-Thirl­well

If you’ve spent any time in Over­watch, you’ll be fa­mil­iar with the in­famy of Hanzo. A sulky archer once equipped with Scat­ter Ar­rows that burst into ric­o­chet­ing shards, the char­ac­ter be­came a by­word for ob­sti­nate lone wolves who pri­or­i­tize kills over vic­tory. “I would pretty con­sis­tently catch some

flak for play­ing him in com­pet­i­tive,” com­ments Jared, an erst­while Team Fortress 2 tour­na­ment player who now plays Over­watch at Mas­ter rank. “I find it kinda hard to get in the zone when some­one is whin­ing about my hero choice, so I was pretty lib­eral with the mute but­ton, which def­i­nitely played into the Hanzo main stereo­type.” De­spite this neg­a­tiv­ity, Jared fell in love with Hanzo’s abil­ity to as­sas­si­nate foes in cover and ter­ror­ize bunchedup teams from high ground. Lately, though, he hasn’t been find­ing Hanzo much fun. The char­ac­ter is one of sev­eral he­roes who have un­der­gone to­tal re­works, gain­ing a new aerial dash that gives him an edge in du­els, and trad­ing Scat­ter Ar­rows for a more con­ven­tional rapid-fir­ing Storm

Ar­rows abil­ity. Jared feels the changes have made Hanzo more ef­fec­tive, but also spoiled his charm. “His re­work pretty much only ad­dressed his weak­nesses and made his strengths only bet­ter, which has led to the un­think­able— peo­ple ac­tu­ally ask for a Hanzo now!”

The prob­lem of bal­ance ver­sus a hero’s fla­vor is one Over­watch at large is strug­gling with, and there are far-reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions for the game’s com­pet­i­tive cul­ture. Ac­cord­ing to David Sir­lin, a vet­eran mul­ti­player de­signer whose cred­its in­clude two Street Fighter games, this is a dilemma ev­ery char­ac­ter-led PvP game runs into even­tu­ally. When de­sign­ing ros­ters for such ti­tles he says, “You ba­si­cally want as many per­son­al­ity types cov­ered as you can, so that play­ers will find some­one that clicks with them.” The more di­verse your ros­ter, how­ever, the harder it is to bal­ance. And the more em­pha­sis you place on bal­anc­ing char­ac­ters against the rest, the greater the risk of de­stroy­ing what makes them dis­tinc­tive and ap­peal­ing. “You’ll likely end up with some­thing like a huge guy made of rock who has hardly any hit points, so he doesn’t re­ally feel like a big rock guy any­more. But he’s fair!”

All the rage

Over­watch is an in­trigu­ing case be­cause its range of per­son­al­i­ties and playstyles is so vast—from timerewind­ing Cock­neys and orb-toss­ing monks, to a cud­dly Satan with an ice­gun. This breadth has roped in play­ers who wouldn’t usu­ally dabble with com­pet­i­tive shoot­ers. For Ni­cole West­brook Smith, a graphic de­signer and cos­player who streams as nweath­erser­vice, it was an op­por­tu­nity to switch genres af­ter years of WoW. “I had been look­ing for­ward to [Bl­iz­zard’s can­celled MMO] Ti­tan, but I love that they mor­phed it into an FPS, be­cause I’d al­ways been in­ter­ested in play­ing one. Counter-Strike was not my jam.”

David Eddy—a plat­inum rank D.Va main—came to the game af­ter friends com­pared it to Nin­tendo’s Spla­toon. “It didn’t feel like a nor­mal shooter,” he says. “It wasn’t loaded with blood and killing and very se­ri­ous-look­ing char­ac­ters. It was one of the first shoot­ers I thought was ap­proach­able to peo­ple who didn’t ex­clu­sively play shoot­ers.”

Many of Over­watch’s hero bal­anc­ing up­dates have been wel­comed, but there are a few that re­call Sir­lin’s ex­am­ple of the huge rock guy with hardly any hit points. Part of the prob­lem here is that bal­ance is not some ob­jec­tive truth to be pur­sued. It arises from how de­vel­op­ers de­fine skill and suc­cess to play­ers, and the ex­pec­ta­tions about the va­lid­ity of cer­tain ap­proaches those play­ers bring with them, based on their ex­po­sure to other games. Bal­anc­ing a game thus helps shape who the game ap­pears to be for, whose criteria of skill takes prece­dence, It’s a con­cep­tual tug-of-war that ex­tends from the de­vel­op­ment team and player­base into the realms of peo­ple who might pick up or re­turn to the game if cer­tain changes are made.

Over­watch’s breadth of styles has cre­ated many con­flict­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tions of ‘skill’. Its bal­anc­ing up­dates thus tap into the heart of broader un­der­ly­ing ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences within the PvP com­mu­nity. In par­tic­u­lar, the game has been both praised and slammed for how it di­verges from a nar­rower vi­sion of the FPS as be­ing pri­mar­ily about ac­cu­racy and man­ual dex­ter­ity. That con­sid­er­a­tion hinges on the pres­ence of he­roes with au­toaim­ing weapons, or whose role isn’t re­ally built around kills. These char­ac­ters are of­ten branded ‘low skill’ by tra­di­tion­al­ists who ex­press prow­ess in terms of streaks and head­shots, but oth­ers love them pre­cisely for how they tran­scend that con­cept of the shooter, while mak­ing Over­watch more ac­ces­si­ble to play­ers with dis­abil­i­ties who might strug­gle to aim a cur­sor. Re­cent re­works sug­gest, how­ever, that Bl­iz­zard is giv­ing ground to that older no­tion of a shooter, po­ten­tially alien­at­ing por­tions of its au­di­ence as it man­ages what has be­come a flor­ish­ing es­port.

Take Sym­me­tra, the builder/DPS hero whose now-re­tired ‘2.0’ skillset was de­rided as un­der­pow­ered, over­pow­ered, or sim­ply a headache to play around. Armed with de­ploy­able tur­rets, a fly­ing bar­rier, an au­toaim­ing gun with man­ual se­condary fire, and the choice of a tele­porter or shield gen­er­a­tor as her ul­ti­mate abil­ity, the older Sym­me­tra cer­tainly took some un­rav­el­ing. But mas­ter rank Sym­me­tra main To­grias ar­gues that she was valu­able pre­cisely be­cause she was so am­bigu­ous, able to per­form many roles at once—plac­ing

tur­rets to catch out in­fil­tra­tors when hold­ing a point, or us­ing her fly­ing shield to lead the charge.

Her choice of ul­ti­mates helped “change the flow of the game and add va­ri­ety to an oth­er­wise stale meta”, he says, as op­pos­ing teams had to de­cide whether to sab­o­tage the ul­ti­mate it­self or deal with its ef­fects. The new Sym­me­tra, by con­trast, is a more in­flex­i­ble, “flashy” cre­ation, her ul­ti­mates swapped for a gi­gan­tic tem­po­rary shield, her tele­porter now a short-ranged reg­u­lar abil­ity, her au­toaim dis­carded—the re­sult be­ing a hero geared to­wards du­els and DPS.

To­grias feels the changes play into the ca­sual ableism that suf­fuses much dis­cus­sion around shoot­ers, with the old Sym­me­tra lam­basted as “brain­dead” for her au­toaim—a re­mark that dis­re­gards both her ap­peal to play­ers with dis­abil­i­ties and the strengths of her former playstyle. “The re­work shows how ugly the com­mu­nity can get. When we pointed out [these is­sues], most of us were de­rided be­cause ‘new Sym­me­tra takes aim now, hur hur learn 2 aim Sym mains’.”

If Sym­me­tra’s re­work makes vis­i­ble the com­pet­ing de­mands on Over­watch, the con­flict’s pa­tient zero is prob­a­bly Mercy, the sup­port hero who can buff or heal al­lies with her au­toaim­ing staff. The char­ac­ter was con­tro­ver­sial dur­ing Over­watch’s first year for her orig­i­nal ul­ti­mate, Res­ur­rec­tion, which let her re­vive an en­tire team at once and so flip matches in their

“Peo­ple a ctu­ally a sk for a Hanzo no w!”

clos­ing sec­onds. Mercy’s ul­ti­mate was re­sented be­cause ac­cord­ing to some, it al­lowed ‘tal­ent­less’ play­ers to ‘cheat’ their op­po­nents of the re­wards of pre­ci­sion shoot­ing or the timely trig­ger­ing of dam­age-deal­ing ul­ti­mates like Hanzo’s Dragon­strike.

Much tun­ing later, Bl­iz­zard has de­moted Res­ur­rec­tion to a reg­u­lar abil­ity that can only be used on a sin­gle tar­get, while hand­ing Mercy a new ul­ti­mate, Valkyrie, which su­per­charges her ba­sic abil­i­ties. The re­sult is that Mercy is more about shoring up her team than turn­ing the tide, and play­ers are di­vided over the changes.

West­brook Smith com­ments that Mercy’s Res­ur­rec­tion “has no place in an FPS and re­mains the most un­fair abil­ity in the game”. David Eddy ar­gues that her tac­tics have al­ways been coun­ter­able, and in line with the im­pact of other hero ul­ti­mates. “You could wipe five of six en­e­mies, but if you ig­nored the Mercy there was a chance she could res­ur­rect all of them,” he says. “This is no dif­fer­ent to throw­ing a Dragon­strike into a Gravi­ton Surge, only for the en­emy Zeny­atta to use Tran­scen­dence and ren­der your two ults use­less.” Eddy’s friend Ruby, a Mercy main, adds while the char­ac­ter doesn’t re­quire great ac­cu­racy she “does re­quire a lot of aware­ness of map tricks and track­ing en­emy ults to be used to her full po­ten­tial.” The con­tro­versy around Mercy’s skill thresh­old and her re­works is shaded, more­over, by the ques­tion of sex­ism. Judged in terms of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, Over­watch has made many mis­steps: Its fe­male char­ac­ters tend to be in line with stereo­types of beauty, while male char­ac­ters are given more lee­way in terms of age and body shape. But it is no­table none­the­less for its gen­der-di­verse ros­ter, which ap­pears to have at­tracted more women to the game: Ac­cord­ing to a July 2017 re­port from Quan­tic Foundry, Over­watch boasts around twice the av­er­age pro­por­tion of fe­male play­ers for a first-per­son shooter.

This has, in turn, made Over­watch a tar­get for out­rage about ‘po­lit­i­cally cor­rect’ rep­re­sen­ta­tion—and Mercy’s de­sign is a place where this dove­tails with con­ver­sa­tions about what con­sti­tutes ‘the right way to play’. For Nico Deyo, me­dia critic and host of the Make it Sound Fic­tion pod­cast, Bl­iz­zard’s re­plac­ing of Res­ur­rec­tion with Valkyrie is less about bal­ance and more ap­peas­ing those who view sup­port roles gen­er­ally as the prov­ince of women. Deyo ar­gues that the view that ac­cu­racy is para­mount of­ten goes hand in hand with the stereo­type that fe­male play­ers are in­her­ently less able than men, fit only to play sup­port char­ac­ters in a per­pet­u­a­tion of the cliché of woman-as-care­giver. Hence the com­plaints from some male play­ers when a fe­male sup­port is deemed to have too great an im­pact.

Jug­gling act

An el­e­men­tary prac­ti­cal is­sue here is the dif­fer­ence be­tween what teleme­try or in­ter­nal test­ing re­veals about bal­ance and what the com­mu­nity per­ceives to be the case. Ul­ti­mately, per­haps, there’s no bridg­ing that gap: As Sir­lin com­ments, “if a game were per­fectly

“I t’s okay to have he­roes that are more niche”

bal­anced by di­vine be­ings, the ex­pected re­sult would be that fo­rums claim it’s re­ally un­bal­anced.” But Deyo ar­gues that Over­watch has be­come more vul­ner­a­ble to the va­garies of per­cep­tion as it has be­come more of an es­port. “Stream­ers and pros have al­ways dic­tated how the com­mu­nity ‘feels’ about some­thing, es­pe­cially in a cul­ture of instant feed­back. If stream­ers and pro play­ers love play­ing a hero, of­ten the ones that have the high­est skill ‘ceil­ing’, then the com­mu­nity will broadly love that hero.”

Jared sug­gests that Bl­iz­zard has grown over-cau­tious of late. He ar­gues that Over­watch’s more re­cent char­ac­ter ad­di­tions and re­works are aimed at those in­clined to rage at any hero with pro­nounced strengths or weak­nesses, ref­er­enc­ing a run­ning joke in MOBAs that all char­ac­ters will even­tu­ally gain self-heal and a dash abil­ity be­cause this makes them eas­ier to bal­ance. West­brook Smith agrees that Bl­iz­zard is too ready to dis­em­power he­roes that re­quire more thought in re­sponse to vi­o­lent re­ac­tions. “I think it’s okay to have he­roes that are more niche and sit­u­a­tional. Of­ten, I feel like Bl­iz­zard for­gets this.”

One way of work­ing around louder, kill-ori­ented and more prej­u­diced play­ers could be to ac­tively cham­pion he­roes with abil­i­ties that go against the grain for shoot­ers. To­grias points to the Spe­cial­ist cat­e­gory in Over­watch’s MOBA sta­ble­mate He­roes of the Storm, used for wild­card char­ac­ters who are cher­ished be­cause they don’t fit in. Deyo feels, how­ever, that Bl­iz­zard is com­fort­able with Over­watch’s cur­rent di­rec­tion, and that the game’s en­gross­ing breadth will only con­tinue to nar­row.

“I wanted the de­vel­op­ers to fight harder for Sym­me­tra, for Mercy, to un­der­stand why they were such good on-ramps for the com­mu­nity, for peo­ple who had less me­chan­i­cal aim,” she says. “But they didn’t. Bl­iz­zard could do more to ex­plain what they want Over­watch to be and they used to. But de­sign is how de­vel­op­ers ex­press their prin­ci­ples, their vi­sion of play and their ide­ol­ogy and we’ve been drift­ing far­ther into a sea that prizes a cer­tain kind of play and a cer­tain kind of player.”

Deyo adds lead hero de­signer Ge­off Good­man and prin­ci­pal sys­tems de­sign­ers Scott Mercer have more to say on the game’s de­tails than Jeff Ka­plan, Over­watch’s cre­ative director. “It feels like their back­ground is more in line with tra­di­tional shoot­ers in terms of feed­back, skill, and the ‘loop’ of Over­watch. What feels good to them feels very dif­fer­ent from what feels good about the game to me, or what did in the past. Var­ied hero de­sign that is in­no­vat­ing away from what we know of team shoot­ers to­wards MOBA-es­que team play, with an em­pha­sis on fun that teaches skill, is what I’ve loved about Over­watch. I don’t know if we’re play­ing that game any­more.”

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1 1: Tor­b­jörn 2: Mercy 3: Hanzo 4: Bas­tion

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1: Win­ston 2: Tracer 3: Rein­hardt 3

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