Me + Overwatch: It's Complicated

When I first heard about Overwatch by Blizzard Entertainment, I was incredibly excited. I love class-based team multiplayer shooters. If I had to pick a single video game genre, it would be that one. I loved Team Fortress 2. Overwatch is clearly a derivative of this formula, but I fully expected Blizzard to add sufficient twists to really create something special. Historically I'm a big fan of Blizzard and this game was focused exclusively on my tastes. 

I pre-ordered the game for $60, which is rare as I don't really buy video games anymore. I urged my wife to buy me a t-shirt when she went to BlizzCon on a business trip, which she did, and I wore it excitedly. Alas. When the game launched, I hated it. I played 3-4 rounds and just despised the experience. I cursed its name to the heavens above and closed the program. It didn't help that my desktop at home was too old to play it. I could only play at work. What a waste, I thought. 

But, I kept the game on my computer. From time to time, a meeting would run late and I'd miss our lunch board game, so I'd play Overwatch to pass the time. Then, I bought a new desktop to play XCom 2, Titanfall 2, and I went ahead and installed Overwatch. It became my "I have 20 minutes to kill" experience. Now, about 40 hours into the game, I really love it. But, man, the relationship is complicated. 

I still find it infuriating. I still have a bunch of issues with its design. Seems like a good blog post, right?

I'm going to present my analysis of Overwatch, why it works, and where its problems lie. But, before that, I'm going to briefly cover my favorite shooters to provide perspective, as well as write a little about Blizzard to provide context for those who don't play as many video games. If you're typically a tabletop only gamer or designer, don't worry - I'm going to try to wrap this into general design, which means it's relevant to you as well.

First: Shooters I Love

As a youngling I exclusively played Real-Time Strategy games on my PC. Yes, PC was and has always been my gaming platform of choice, though I've spent countless hours on console and am not one of those "mouse and keyboard or else!" theocrats. But, late in college, I began playing shooters and fell in love with them in a big way.

Valve's Day of Defeat: Source is still a pinnacle of design for me. The game did a few things incredibly well:

  • Crisply designed classes. Each with a specialty and a downside. The rifle is excellent at medium to long range stopping power, but has to reload often and is terrible in close quarters. The machine gunner is incredibly potent when prone, but if caught undeployed, it's dead. If it doesn't move? The position will be fixed, and it's dead. The submachine gunner is devastating at short range, but cannot hit a damn thing outside of arm's length.
  • Fluid level design. The game is built around objectives - blowing up a point, capturing a point - and every objective had two, three, or four paths of approach. These interconnected, which made it possible to outflank a sniper, or pin down the main approach while using smoke to hide your movements. Beautiful dynamism.
  • Tense, abrupt damage model. The game is brutal. It takes very few shots to die, and there are no health packs (though my memory is foggy here, so I could be wrong). This forces you to move with purpose, work in concert with your machine gunners and those with smoke grenades, and play decisively. It greatly rewards a cool hand with the trigger and knowledge of the map.

Why might people dislike Day of Defeat: Source? It's difficult. Like, really difficult. The feel of the weapons takes time to learn. You die very quickly. Players who know their weapons and the map will dominate you. There's a learning curve, and people hate learning curves.

DICE's Battlefield 2 blew my mind in the same way that Grand Theft Auto III did, but the game had serious flaws that became apparent as the community dug in. Highly mobile jet fighters with few anti-air counter measures made it so a lone pilot could dominate the map. Prone snipers and long sight lines made it very tough to be an infantryman in the open. Plus, a horribly tuned progression system presented more walls than gifts. This doesn't even mention the bugs present. Enter Battlefield 2142, a reskinned futuristic version of Battlefield 2 that addressed all the design problems in a massive way.

  • Fantastic progression. Playing, and playing well, unlocked new weapons with which to tweak the different classes. A medic was still a medic, but you could pick a rifle or support item that better matched your style.
  • Rewarding teamplay. Battlefield 2 introduced the notion of squads, but failed to provide sufficient feedback to encourage them. Battlefield 2142 rewarded you for everything. If your squad listens to you? Bonus points. Heal teammates? Bonus points. Fix the tank? Bonus points. Suddenly. players fought as a team. It was magical.

Why might people dislike Battlefield 2142? The game is vast. There are a lot of classes, vehicles, huge maps, and many ways to die. It lacks the purity of smaller games and requires teamwork to succeed.

Team Fortress 2 took far too long to arrive, but when it did it was...pretty good. It was fine. But, Valve being Valve, they kept at it. They added new maps, new game modes, new weapons to unlock, and new skins. It had some issues. For example, they would introduce unlocks for a single character class, which meant for weeks, the maps would be dominated by only snipers trying to unlock new sniper equipment. Eventually, the meta would rebalance, but this method was quite strange. Also, the game has one of the best art styles in all of gaming history. It's hilarious, and charming, and so full of soul.

  • Clearly defined classes. Every class had a role, but once unlocks emerged, classes were given a few ways to tweak themselves. Something that's key to games is letting players express themselves. This is why CCGs are so successful. Giving players just a little bit of creativity goes a long way.
  • Strict limitations. In a game that wants you to play together, it's key that everything is limited. Relying on players to play appropriately out of a sense of humanity is foolish. Give them limitations and force them to work with each other.
  • Fluid maps. I loved this in Day of Defeat and I love it here. Maps are fluid, flexible, and offer many paths. 

Why might people dislike Team Fortress 2? If you aren't playing together, the game isn't fun. Being a Heavy without a Medic stinks. Building things as an engineer that keep getting blown up is frustrating. The game takes time to learn and it requires teamwork to be successful.

Titanfall blew my mind when it was released. I think it is one of the most novel, unique shooter experiences available. I'm kicking myself for not finishing the Titanfall 2 story or even starting multiplayer yet, but I've been busy with Overwatch. Titanfall opened up the Z-Axis by introducing parkour elements such as double jumps and wall running to the shooter experience. They paired this with Call of Duty's open class progression (Respawn IS Infinity Ward, so that makes sense) and a Titan mech mode that is so satisfying. 

  • Parkour is awesome. It is so easy to wall run, and slide, and jump. But, it is difficult to do it well, and to do it in combat. I think it's the right balance. When you become good at the game? You know it, and so do your enemies.
  • Maybe the best user expereince in video gaming. I'm not joking. When you summon a mech, it hits the planet from a dropship with a thud. Your mech reaches down to put you inside it, then your HUD changes as the canopy closes up. The controls are the same, yet the mech is distinct from being in pilot mode. Everything about the game feels amazing. Great HUD, great audio cues, great visuals. I think it's spectacular. A real showpiece of thoughtful user experience. 
  • Alters the shooter formula. I realized this playing Titanfall that I couldn't play it like other games. When I'm getting shot in other games, I turn around and fire back. .When I'm getting shot in Titanfall, I find a wall, run, and book it. I'll circle back to find my enemy and then we can square off. The game alters decisions like this all over the place. Subtle, but its so invigorating. 

Why might people dislike Titanfall? Succeeding at parkour takes time and effort. You must think differently. But perhaps most significantly, the game's objective modes aren't very good. The game is designed for team deathmatch as the parkour fits best in a circular arena that forces you to think in terms of all three axes. In an objective mode, you can heal, or sit back, and be a contributing team member. In deathmatch, you need to be quick with the steel and be individually competent. That'll turn some people off.

Now you know what I think is good and have a dash at understanding why. You also know why these games might turn people off, which is key to understanding Blizzard's motives and Overwatch. Speaking of Blizzard, let's discuss Blizzard.

Second: That Blizzard Though

Blizzard has an unmistakable style at this point. It's been very successful for them, but it's also pushed me away as a consumer with their last few efforts. I assure you, they don't care. It reminds me of Days of Wonder. I used to be thrilled at their releases, which are sparing, like Blizzards, and beautifully produced. But, Days of Wonder primarily seems to make perfect information games that just do not interest me. Smallworld, Relic Runners, Five Tribes, Quadropolis (which I do actually like) -- I feel like these games reward the player who stops to calculate everything while the rest of us suffer in wait.

Blizzard does the following: Identify a successful game. Strip away literally everything until you have the core. Prioritize hyper accessibility. Give it great art.

Now, this formula excludes the games from their early catalog. Starcraft II is still Starcraft, and Diablo III is still Diablo II. The main difference is that here they're identifying a game produced by themselves instead of somebody else. 

World of Warcraft is, in my opinion (and that of their accounting department) the best example of their style. They started with Everquest, removed pain points like the death penalty and kill grind, and made the game beautiful. Blizzard games give everyone a blue ribbon and World of Warcraft does that from the first second. You are blowing up monsters, exploding in screen shattering glows, gathering killer weaponry, and just being satisfied with your efforts. The UX is perfected (and has since been emulated by everyone) and satisfaction is frequent and furious. 

The goal of the design is "make the player feel awesome as quickly and often as possible." The rewards and progression are key because the individual mechanisms are thin and grow old quickly. You will kill thousands of nameless creatures in largely the same fashion. To be honest, it's impossible to design sufficient mechanisms to sustain the content ramp. Therefore, rewards are key.

Blizzard did the same with Hearthstone, which is built around the notion of the CCG as defined by Magic: The Gathering. Mana curve is frustrating, so it is now built on a deterministic model. Instants and interrupts are complicated and frustrating, so Blizzard removed them largely. Building a deck is complicated, so have the player build it around a character and class. Warhammer: Conquest and Netrunner do this as well, though the former is far more accessible than the latter. They also created rewarding single player gameplay, which is such a smart move for a video game. Most people don't like the stress of playing a live opponent. This is why Call of Duty has a campaign or Unreal Tournament created compelling bots. 

I despise Hearthstone. I completely understand why it's so successful, but I despise it. The meta of the game feels so shallow and it seems with every release the "right deck" is quickly surmised. I'm not saying the game is without skill -- I'm lousy at arena and was generally not successful in competitive modes. But, Blizzard's goal of bring in as many people as possible and make them feel awesome falls apart a little when it's competitive. If we're all being awesome and not at each other's expense (World of Warcraft, Diablo), then great! But suddenly you've removed a lot of nuance and compelling mechanisms to ease in the masses. Again, Blizzard doesn't care that I'm grumpy. They have millions of eager fans.

Blizzard is all about accessibility, making everyone a winner, and great art. Where does Overwatch fit here?

Third: The Payload is nearing a Checkpoint, aka I rip on Overwatch

You can see the Blizzard approach immediately upon entering Overwatch. Characters don't have ammunition limits. Sure, most of them have to reload, but there is otherwise a finite pool of bullets. The character selection screen groups character types (Offense, Defense, Tank, Support), and chides your team for not picking a balanced suite of characters. The game does away with the Kill stat, i.e. were you the one that ended an enemy character, and replaces it with Eliminations. What are eliminations? Did you breathe on the enemy at some point before it died? Great! You get an elimination. Whose a winner? You are! 

You can also see the clear fingerprints of somebody else's game.

  • The TF2 Engineer has been split into Symmetra and Torbjorn
  • The Medic? I think you mean Mercy.
  • Our favorite black one-eyed Scotsman is now Junkrat.
  • The Sniper was split into Hanzo (the bow unlock) and Widowmaker, your traditional sniper. Granted, the sniper is not exactly unique to TF2!
  • The Soldier became Pharah. They gave the rocket jump to Junkrat and Pharah equally.
  • The Scout's nimbleness and shotgun? Yeah, that's Reaper.
  • Finally, the Heavy is broken into D.VA (armor, constant death spray) and Bastion (mini-gun).

The Spy is noticeably absent...he must have been too hard! I'm a little surprised the Pyro didn't make it either.

Blizzard also took the game modes from Team Fortress 2: Control Point and Payload. Yes, they added a few arcade variants, like 3 vs. 3 death match, but the bread and butter is TF2's bread and butter. 

So, we're in very familiar territory. Now, Blizzard adds some more tweaks. Most noticeably, every character has an ultimate. Over time, characters build towards an ultimate power that is huge and devastating. Every player will typically get at least one ultimate just for being present in a match of average length, though better players receive them more often. This is exactly how League of Legends executes them, or in FPS terms, it's like the Kill Streak bonuses in Call of Duty. Finally, Blizzard added a ton of characters. The game launched with 22 characters and has since added the very cool Sombra to the mix. 

This seems like a pretty good package, right? Infinite ammo, double the characters, great game modes, and ultimates. Who doesn't want an ultimate!

There are problems. For one, there is so much health in the game. Blizzard seems to have identified that dying is frustrating, so they do everything in their power to prevent that. The levels are jam packed with small and large health packs that respawn constantly. There are also plenty of ways to self-heal if you are Bastion, Roadhog*, Mercy, Lucio, Ana, Mei, Soldier: 76, Tracer, Reaper or Zenyatta. If you don't have a way to heal yourself, don't worry. There are plenty of characters to heal YOU. These include Lucio, Ana, Zenyatta, Mercy, and Soldier: 76. Still worried about healing? Reinhardt and D.VA prevent damage. Torbjorn and Symmetra provide additional armor and shields. Zarya provides a barrier. So does Winston. Mei's wall blocks incoming damage. Hell, Sombra even makes health packs spawn more quickly! 

Editor's Note: Previously I noted Junkrat could self-heal. Apparently staring at the Overwatch Hero Gallery for 3 hours gets the wires crossed. I meant Roadhog, which is now fixed above. Sorry! Thanks to Carla Harker for catching the mistake

Blizzard is terrified of you dying, but while this is novel, it means the game quickly reaches points of stalemate where both sides are merely heaving quickly mitigated death at each other for no progress. 

Remember how there's no ammo shortage? By removing this "complexity" we've had since Doom, Blizzard has created an issue with the game's economy. Economy isn't just money, but where you spend your time and apply focus. Because players never have to go find ammo, they never leave the front line. Because their main gun never runs out of ammo, they never need to make the decision of pushing ahead with just a sidearm, or leaving their team to resupply. Or, thanking an Engineer for being there with ammo! 

Effectively, a good team won't die (thanks health!) and will never run out of ammo (thanks Blizzard) so let's just keep firing at each other until someone breaks the stalemate. How do we break the stalemate? Well, we do that with ultimates. Ultimates in the game are devastating and almost always provide free kills. Almost all of them fire blindly, and many have an area of effect power.

Let's examine healers first.

  • Mercy revives everyone in the area.
  • Zenyatta heals everyone in the area.
  • Lucio shields everyone nearby.

Blizzard really, really doesn't want you to die. So, please don't. Also, having 23 characters that all do a very similar thing...doesn't feel that distinct.

What about area of effect damage?

  • Junkrat sends out a tire that blows up everything in an area of effect.
  • Pharah unleashes a rocket barrage that blows up everything in an area.
  • D.VA blows herself up and kills everything in an area.
  • Reinhardt knocks everyone in an area down.
  • Mei freezes all enemies in an area.
  • Soldier: 76 no longer has to aim and kills most people in an area.
  • McCree no longer has to aim and kills most people in an area.
  • Bastion gets a tank that does massive area of effect damage.
  • Hanzo shoots a dragon through the world that kills everything in its path.
  • Reaper kills everyone in an area. No aiming.
  • Zarya launches a gravity well that sucks everyone into it.

What about other supports?

  • Widowmaker shows you everyone in the world.
  • Sombra hacks all enemies around her, hurting shields and disabling abilities.

Now, this doesn't mean the timing and positioning of an ultimate is without skill. Far from it. But, so many of the ultimates are intensely powerful and lead to cheap, frustrating deaths. The game is full of narrow passageways and tight corridors. It forces players next to each other, which means it's rare for a remotely skilled Repaer to not get at least 3 kills with their ultimate, then a Mercy to simply bring them all back. These ultimates are so powerful because they exist to break stalemates, but these stalemates probably wouldn't occur so much if the game wans't so full of health and ammo wasn't infinite. 

There's an interesting trade off here. Clearly, the dopamine from DOMINATING EVERYONE is more potent than the frustration from being cheaply defeated. If my team is working incredibly well to hold a point and a D.VA shows up, because it's just time for her ultimate, and we all die because there is literally nowhere to hide...is that the good use of a skill, or Blizzard abritrarily breaking a stalemate created by their other decisions?

In Titanfall, earning your Titan (which happens in approximately the same fashion as an Overwatch ultimate) is deeply satisfying and it alters the state of the map. But, the Titan, while incredibly powerful, is also vulnerable. It cannot wall run or enter houses like Pilots. It must occupy the street and is a massive target. It also has blind spots, which means a cunning enemy pilot can cause real harm. Also, every player is given an anti-Titan weapon, which means they have tools to counter this problem. Battlefield does this as well when fighting walkers or tanks or choppers. Yes, those are problems, and yes they are tougher than a lone infantryman. But, you have tools to solve them. 

Frequently, countering an ultimate in Overwatch means you need to be in exactly the right place to quickly shoot the enemy. It feels more like luck than planning. One of my favorite modes is mystery, for two key reasons. One, it forces you to play random characters. This means you learn new characters in a safe format. It's like drafting in Magic - you learn how to wield unlikely combos and make the most of a bad situation. Secondly, because your ultimate resets every time you spawn, ultimates are truly special in the game. It means players must rely on their skills and using their character's basic weapons. It makes the game much more compelling. 

Overall, if everyone is special, nobody is special. This means I'm not an amazing player in Overwatch, even though my stats are pretty solid. The game is tuned to make me feel amazing.  I feel like another member of the soccer team and we all get a trophy. Furthermore, because it's almost guaranteed I at least damage other players executing my ultimate, that qualifies me for Eliminations. When playing as Pharah, who uses area damage rockets, I frequently end the game with 30 Eliminations. That seems amazing, coming from other first person shooters. But, I quickly realize that Overwatch is more inflated than the Zimbabwe economy and it feels cheap. It's like how Pokemon adds three zeros to every statistic. 

The progression in Overwatch is weak and removes all player creativity. It's based purely on skins, voice lines, sprays, and other pointless cosmetic features. Gone are the weaponry tweaks you'd see in almost every other modern shooter. "But there are 23 classes!" they will counter. Yes, but those 23 classes are really just the 9 classes of other games diluted. This solution is classic Blizzard. Yes, it's slightly more complicated to let a player tweak elements of their loadout. Yes, it's possible the player chooses a bad one, or one they aren't good at, and becomes frustrated. But, I argue it is far better to guide the player towards that learning moment instead of doing it for them.

The game's level design is stifling and further leads to the game's stalemates and overly potent ultimates. Let's take Hanamura for example. Early in the level you must pass through a narrow gate to enter the courtyard and capture the point. The few characters who can fly, climb walls, or otherwise get to elevated positions can move through the left to go around. However, most characters cannot do this, and moving in alone often means you're moving without healing and without a way to make a decisive difference. For example, if I use Pharah's jump to fly over the courtyard, I'm frequently killed by a Bastion or Torbjorn turret before I'm able to destroy either. This means I either need to wait until I have an ultimate, or enough of my teammates gain ultimates to punch through the gate. The next time you're playing Hanamura, pay attention to what happens when the gate is finally penetrated. It is most likely due to:

  • Defending team is incompetent
  • Attackers use coordinated ultimates

If you have two equally matched teams, it is very difficult to penetrate that entrance without ultimates. Hanamura isn't the only map that does this. Because the maps are so narrow and confining, and offer few alternative routes, it makes some characters overly potent. In Day of Defeat: Source, I can counter a well-positioned machine gunner with patience and alternate routes. In Overwatch, if I want to dislodge a Bastion, I have three options:

  • Appear and hopefully kill him in seconds from directly in front of him to the left.
  • Appear and hopefully kill him in seconds from directly in front of him to the right.
  • Appear and hopefully kill him in seconds from directly in front of him.

You know another reason Bation is particularly frustrating? He never runs out of ammo! And, he can heal himself! If I get the jump on him and deal him 99% of the damage to kill him, in another game, a teammate could then mop him up. Or, he'd need to evacuate his position to seek healing or reload. Not in Overwatch! Now, he can instantly get up, step behind cover, heal himself entirely in seconds, and redeploy. Torbjorn's turrets work similarly. In Team Fortress 2, the Engineer must carefully use their finite supplies to setup the various pieces of equipment. They need to play the match for the game long to both be potent, but also have enough resources and time to build a teleporter, high quality turret, and more. Not Torbjorn! He can make a level 2 turret in seconds. You blow that one up? No worries. He'll build another one. Yes, he has to get scrap to throw out his armor, but don't worry, there are 30 other ways the game will prevent you from dying. You know what's really devastating? A Reinhardt standing with his replenshing shield in front of a Bastion. If players are patient enough, they can literally do that the entire game. 

This means more stalemates. Rewarded by a map that doesn't let you flank entrenched positions. And an economy that doesn't force diversions for health or ammo.  

Another minor quibble - the environment rarely factors into the design. I'm fine with that, there's enough going on. But, on 1-2 maps, it DOES factor in. And, on these maps, there are 1-2 characters (Lucio, Pharah) who can knock you off. This means that in 99% of situations you don't need to worry about it. But, in 1-2 specific spots on very few maps, if a specific characters is in the game, you DO need to worry about it. This feels like a weak justification for an otherwise pointless power. It's also intensely frustrating to die and go, "oh yeah, Lucio is in this situation, I need to not stand in that one spot that is normally not an issue." You either make the environment a factor of the game, or don't. Don't do it so rarely.

Fourth: My Ultimate is Ready, aka I say nice things

Seems odd for me to write so heatedly about a game I've spent 40 hours playing. And, will probably begin playing after I hit "publish" on this blog. The thing is, Overwatch does a lot of smart things that appeal to everyone, which is Blizzard's target audience.

There are so many classes that there is surely something for everyone. If you prefer a Call of Duty style, go for Soldier: 76. If you like the mobillity of rocket jumping, Pharah is your girl. Do you hate aiming? Don't worry, Junkrat and Symmetra have you covered. Want to heal? Go for Mercy. Want to heal but look cool? Lucio has roller blades. Because there are so many classes, you can pick on you like, and because there is no experimentation, it is never your fault if you chose poorly. It's the game's fault for making an underpowered character, right? 

The ultimates are satisfying. Not on the receiving end, oh no, but even a lousy Reaper will get a kill or two with their ultimate. D.VA literally explodes everything in a massive radius. It's spectacular, comes with an audio cue, and just feels satisfying. You get an ultimate every few minutes if you're remotely participating, which means you're going to stick around for that next satisfying dopamine drip.

The game is exclusively objective based, which means you never need to rely on  your ability to kill things. And, due to eliminations being the currency, if you fire in the general direction of the enemy, you'll earn eliminations when your other teammates do the heavy lifting. Who gets a blue ribbon? You do. You all do! Here's an ultimate.

Overwatch is also just easy to play. The maps are essentially one-way channels. There is health everywhere, so instead of dying, you'll run north, hold down the left mouse button, and earn eliminations. If you play two games over lunch, you'll go back to your desk satisfied in that you're awesome. 

Overall, Overwatch exists to be a mass market first person shooter. It wants all of you to play. It wants satisfaction at your great stats to keep you around more than the satisfaction at being truly good at the game. I played Titanfall and Day of Defeat for years because I was good at the game. It took a while, I earned it, and I had satisfaction both in being good and playing against others who were better. But, and you see this in board games, players want to be awesome immediately. Players don't want to spend 2 to 3 games to learn the strategy. They want satisfaction, they want it now, and lord help a game that presents a learning curve. 

There's a lot of very smart tuning and design work in Overwatch to achieve these goals. But, they aren't always the goals that excite me. In many ways, they are the same strategies used in World of Warcraft and even Farmville to keep players engaged and hooked for a very long time. I sat in a presentation the other day where the consultant wisely noted that rewards and satisfying results are more important to a game than fun moments. Think about that. I think the consultant is 100% correct, but I find it just a tinge disappointing. 

Then again, I play, and love, Overwatch. So, what do I know?