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On the (possibly grim) future of Overwatch

Blizzard’s FPS title Overwatch is probably one of the most hyped titles this year due to a couple different factors:

  • Vibrant characters give personalities for players to gravitate towards
  • MOBA-like mechanics mean that there are cool things for players to do besides aim and shoot well
  • People saw the success that first movers on Hearthstone were able to get with streaming and eSports

Naturally, this led to a bit of a gold rush and disappointment when Blizzard first handed out closed beta keys. Targeting streamers and YouTubers, the focus on marketing left a bad taste in a lot of peoples’ mouths, but this past weekend Blizzard opened up a stress test to a larger amount of applicants.

While not everyone got in who wanted a key, I did.

Basically I spent five hours with a group of five other players in a Skype channel playing in a fully-stacked group. Here’s what I found:

Learning is easy

Blizzard has learned from the design of Team Fortress 2 in the sense that there are a lot of prompts to do things in order to limit the amount of learning that needs to be done beforehand and the information that needs to be remembered.

Routes to attack and defend are highlighted on the ground before the map starts, giving people a chance to see where enemies might come from. This is great when learning new maps, as you need to be able to move between points of interest at a moment’s notice. I found that playing as a Defender meant that I needed to go through all areas of the map from the initial spawn, giving me a chance to familiarize myself with where I’d eventually be falling back to.

Things like hovering icons on the UI let you know where important objectives are, and a flashing marker on respawn re-contextualizes where your current objective is as a gentle reminder. I liked this because the last thing I wanted to think was “what am I supposed to be doing right now?” when winning or losing the map could be on the line.

A quick hit of the F1 key also gave me a screen that showed me my key bindings and the skills assigned to them. This was great for learning new heroes easily; I also loved how when you died to a hero the game gave you tips on your death screen for beating them next time. Getting mowed down by a hero who could turn into a stationary turret prompted a reminder that that hero can’t turn 360 degrees, meaning he could be flanked.

The game also reminds you when your composition of heroes lacks a certain role, meaning that you (in theory) won’t be completely steamrolled because you won’t have a tank.

All in all this is really important from a design perspective, because Blizzard wants to be able to introduce new and casual players to a traditionally unforgiving gametype in an FPS. The last thing they want to happen is for someone to balk at the amount of learning to do when starting up, or dismissing a good opponent as “cheap” and not booting the game up again.

Teamwork is important

I probably had the best time with Overwatch due to the fact I was playing with five other competent FPS gamers. I cannot imagine the chaos of solo queue, and preferably, I never want to.

Being able to co-ordinate class balance is amazing, because I never ran into the Team Fortress 2 problem of five people wanting to play Sniper and no one claiming Medic. Sure, the opening few games were just people trying out a bunch of classes, but once people found their comfort zones we actually went on a fairly huge streak due to being organized.

Having at least one healer is so essential due to the length of spawn times and the travel time getting back to the main warzone. Tanks soak damage and often have valuable disruption abilities that let damage dealers or assassins to work. Even snipers have a role due to Widowmaker’s completely broken Infra-vision ultimate that lets you see a red outline of all alive opponents for a short time.

I can see this game being similar to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive where communication is essential, but for a different way. You need to be able to adapt to information on the fly and feed it to teammates who may not be in the know. Things like being the only one to notice that someone snuck behind us to capture the point directs the whole ship to success.

Like I said, I did not spend any time in solo queue, and sadly I ran into a friend as an opponent in a match who was doing so. We steamrolled them particularly badly, mostly because we could co-ordinate mass revives, pushes and defenses where they couldn’t.

Depth is needed

The one thing that worries me about Overwatch is that need to balance the new player’s experience with the ability to actually have long-term fun. Despite 21 heroes, I feel like there will be a tier list that develops soon enough, and optimization is a quick way to kill the experimentation that lengthens a game’s life.

I can hear it now: “Why did you pick Reaper when McCree is so much better? We would have won if you had picked Mercy, she’s so OP right now.”

I want to see more game types, more map designs that favor multiple approaches, and strategies that benefit from having a distinct hero composition. That’s the kind of depth you usually see from a MOBA like League of Legends or Dota 2: creative risk is rewarded.

Right now, I can see Overwatch running into a pitfall where as new heroes get released, they will either succumb to the same MOBA power creep problem (where old heroes are not adapted to new playstyles, and fall out of favor) or maps will become painfully exploited as new mechanics are introduced for which they were not originally designed.

In trying to combine a FPS base with MOBA elements, Blizzard may have introduced themselves to a combination of problems inherent to both genres, as well. I hope they have the talent on hand to recognize and fix those problems.


I had fun with Overwatch, but with a $40+ price tag without the promise of free map packs or modding tools, I don’t see myself investing into it as heavily as if it were free-to-play. I do not have faith in Blizzard to not charge high prices for new heroes like Heroes of the Storm, and I honestly don’t feel like grinding for access in order to have the fluid lineup you need for success.

Edit: I’ve been informed that Overwatch devs have said they won’t be pursuing a HotS-esque pricing model, and that they don’t want to restrict people’s access to the 21 heroes. However, the wording is very specific to the “original 21”, so the strategy when it comes to new heroes may change.

Seeing that stationary hero turret from before and realizing that I haven’t unlocked or paid for the hero that is his counter is going to suck. Seeing pubs or casual players being limited to a free hero rotation (invariably leading to very bland lineups) is also going to be a problem.

These are all assumptions, but I wish that there were more information to keep me from making them. As it stands right now, all I have to go on is previous business practices and the tendency for games to try to nickle-and-dime as much as possible for add-ons, even when you invest for the base product.

I hate even calling it a “base” product because I feel like I’m resigning to the fact that multiplayer games can’t just be games anymore; they have to be franchises and money-mills for their parent company. While some monetization methods are okay, they’re accepted because they make a relevant, “fair” trade-off: the game will be free with only cosmetics buyable, or essential stat-boosting elements won’t be accelerated by payment.

However, I’m really nervous Overwatch is going to just say “screw it, people are hyped enough for our game already, we’ll just do all the monetization and the majority won’t complain because we’re Blizzard.” Then people will buy it anyway in order to play with friends, fueling the perception that that kind of model is fine as long as you can weather initial outcry.

Gamers are impatient and their passions are fleeting. They’ll find something else to complain about by another company tomorrow.

Maybe this whole wrap-up has been a bit unfair to all parties involved. I’ll try to keep some optimism for Overwatch, because in the end, I’d like to enjoy it.


Matt Demers writes about eSports, gaming and culture. You can follow him on Twitter, Twitch, Facebook and YouTube. He writes a weekly newsletter about the above topics every Monday.