Blizzard talks about the past, present, and future of Overwatch's Competitive mode

Just over a week ago, Overwatch received its first big update with the addition of Competitive Play, but it hasn't exactly been a smooth launch for Blizzard. While the mode represents a much more serious approach to playing the game, it also has a few kinks that need working out. I caught up with principal designer Scott Mercer to not only talk about the challenges of making 21 heroes play nice in a highly competitive scene, but also discuss the future of Overwatch as both an esport and a more casual shooter.

PC Gamer: You changed the competitive mode pretty extensively after the beta, can we expect to see just as drastic changes going forward into new seasons?

Scott Mercer

Principal designer on Overwatch

Scott Mercer, principal designer: Yeah, we've already announced we're going to make changes to this competitive mode based on feedback from the [public test realm] from last week. There are times where we try something and we think it's going to work out and then player perception is different than what we expected or things just didn't work as intended, and we're pretty humble about those things. We say, okay, don't worry we'll fix it and move on. With the current competitive mode, players really don't like the sudden death mechanic we have in place. The thought was that the coin flip, while it was a little random, would be balanced so that the chance for the attacker or defender to win would be really close. But it turns out it wasn't close enough and in some cases wasn't close. We pulled back from that, decided that, hey, for season two we're going to remove sudden death and allow for the concept of ties to take place.

One of the big changes for this Competitive Play release was changing the Assault game mode to what we refer to as a 'time bank' system. It's something where our feedback on that was so positive we're going to take that concept and move it over to what we're doing for Escort and Hybrid maps. That's something where we got a bunch of positive feedback and a good idea because someone asked why not do [time banking on other maps]. We were like, oh, why the hell didn't we think of that?

PCG: With such fundamental changes still being worked out, why did you choose to push forward with Competitive Play now instead of waiting until it was in a place when players were happier with it?

Mercer: We made a decision not to hold off on Competitive Play because we think it's more important for players start playing the competitive mode so we can get even more feedback. And the players just really wanted this feature, so we just made the decision to go for it. More changes are coming and they'll continue to come as long as they're needed.

PCG: It seems like there's been a common theme of your team introducing features that you felt were really good and the community has reacted quite negatively to. What's that like having to constantly go back to the drawing board on ideas that you felt would've been received better?

Mercer: For us it just feels like it's part of the process. We're a pretty veteran group of developers, and part of that is knowing that you don't always make the right calls on design decisions. In my mind, it's just something that happens. Andrew Stanton at Pixar said "be wrong as fast as you can." We're trying some stuff that isn't quite what players expected. Based upon feedback we just need to react quickly and move on.

PCG: And this is the first time Blizzard has made a first-person shooter too. That has to represent a new frontier to be exploring.

We didn't try and do everything from scratch. [...] We're looking back and learning from other successful games.

Mercer: It's humbling and scary at the same time. While it's the first first-person shooter that Blizzard has made, there are quite a few people on the team that have worked on this type of game previously. We've also reached out and talked to people like Treyarch. We know it's a tall order, it's a beloved genre, and we have a lot of work ahead of us. We didn't try and do everything from scratch. We're leveraging a lot of great ideas and concepts from a lot of other great games in the genre and I think it's part of the reason the quality mark is so high. We're looking back and learning from other successful games.

PCG: The time bank system seems like a pretty creative solution. How did your team come up with that?

Mercer: It came out of a discussion where our professional competitive community doesn't really like [Assault] maps. The feedback was that what can happen is, you're attacking, you have one awesome team fight and you take the first point. The defending team tries to defend the second point, they can't, and the game is over. There are times where the attacker just blows right through for whatever reason. We really looked at how to extend the format to provide players more opportunities to determine whether or not who was the better team. And it was actually one of our programmers who came up with the concept, and everyone was like, oh yeah, that totally sounds like it would work well. We prototyped it out really quickly and realized we were onto something.

PCG: With Competitive Play, is there anything in particular you're not happy with aside from Sudden Death that might be changed for later seasons?

Mercer: Well, it's only been live for a few days [laughs].

PCG: That's fair! What about the competitive scene, how do you feel about the hero picks we've seen so far? Are you surprised to see any hero being particularly popular?

Mercer: Not really. In a lot of cases we have professional players that played other first-person shooters, so we have players that came from Team Fortress 2 and their skill with a rocket launcher came over really quickly. There are a lot of very dangerous offensive heroes with instant hitscan weapons, so players with incredible aim are going to flock to those and be devastating with them. There's not one hero that we're really surprised by. With non-traditional heroes like Winston, a big giant ape from the moon with a tesla cannon, that's not really an archetype that's existed before but we're happy that he sees competitive play.

On the next page: Zenyatta changes, new game modes, and the "dark voodoo art" of balancing heroes...

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.