Every week, Chris writes about his ongoing experience of Blizzard's new team shooter.
Overwatch is a game about switching characters. The more I play, the more this one single thing stands out to me as the difference between an experienced player and an inexperienced one. A timely character and role change has game impact equivalent to—and often in excess of—any of the multi-kill sprees you see in the end-of-match highlight reel. Yet this is also the idea that the game struggles most to communicate to new players, and one that a substantial part of the playerbase—even in a group as small and self-selecting as the beta community—struggles to reconcile.
Switching characters is alien to MOBA players, whose games are defined by adopting a role and sticking with it. Many modern shooters also reward you for picking a playstyle and digging deep, often by granting you unlocks that skew your approach in a particular direction. Overwatch doesn't do any of these things, but the impulse is there nonetheless: you lock in 'your guy', and you then might reasonably expect to play as 'your guy' until the game ends. That this is often the quickest way to lose a match isn't readily apparent to a lot of people, and as Overwatch approaches release—particularly as it gets more competitive when ranked arrives—I see character switching becoming a real flashpoint for toxicity within the community. You already see it: people flaming because their team has too many Genjis, unwilling to do anything about the fact that they, also, are playing Genji.
Playing the new beta, I've started to feel locked into the roles that nobody else is willing to switch to. In around fifty games I've only played about half the roster, and almost no offense heroes, snipers or builders—they're incredibly popular, and the players that lock them rarely switch to anything else. My playtime is disproportionately weighted towards supports Lucio and Symmetra and tanks D.Va and Winston. Don't get me wrong—I really like these characters—but I've started to feel trapped in them. I like to win, and these characters (particularly Lucio) provide a safety net that makes winning much more likely.
I understand that I need to own this to a certain degree. I've made a choice to play a lot of support because I'd rather have a positive winrate than get to ever play, say, Hanzo. I've encountered something similar in my thousands of hours with Dota 2, and I don't anticipate that anybody will ever make playing support popular in that community (despite its importance.)
At the same time, I think there's a lot that Blizzard can do before the end of the beta to encourage more players to explore the full roster. The game is weaker for everybody if players feel encouraged to confine themselves to particular roles, and the expectation that somebody else will take on the mantle of support is a fast-track to the kinds of community problems that MOBAs have long struggled with.
Communicate the importance of character switching
The current tutorial ends by demonstrating that you can switch from Soldier: 76 to Tracer if you like, but (a) doesn't explain why or when you might want to do this and (b) arguably uses the wrong two characters to illustrate the system. Showing that you might sometimes want to switch from Soldier: 76 to Mercy—and explaining why—would be a lot more helpful.
The current set of tooltip warnings on the character select screen do a decent job (although 'too many snipers' should probably be written twice, for emphasis.) There's more that can be done, however. The perfect time to switch hero is after you've used your ultimate and reset the charge bar back to 0%—perhaps your first death after an ult could come with a message saying 'now is a really good time to switch. Here's what your team needs.'
In addition, the current end-of-game screen only includes the character each player was playing at the end. Then, awards are doled out on a character-by-character basis. How about this: instead of just showing the hexagonal portrait of the character being played at the end of the game, nest the portraits for every other hero the player used behind it. I believe that the majority of players respect versatility, and showing that somebody was willing to pick up the slack as, say, Reinhart, Lucio, and D.Va during the course of a single game is worth highlighting.
Fix the Play of the Game system
Play of the Game has problems as it is, problems that are Blizzard are aware of. It prioritises kills and damage over all else. You'll sometimes get moments of real skill—a run of clutch Hanzo headshots, say—but you're just as likely to see Torbjorn playing with himself while his turret kills people (as this satirical petition notes) or Soldier: 76 heroically holding down the left mouse button. Tanks rarely get Play of the Game; supports almost never do, and when they do it's usually down to Zenyatta's damage output.
This is a twofold problem. One, it makes the highlight intro cosmetics for supports completely useless. Mercy's 'Battle Angel' intro is rad, but you are never going to see it. Two, it acts as a gigantic advertisement for characters that do not need to be any more popular than they are. "TORBJORN CAN GET PLAY OF THE GAME WHILE BROWSING REDDIT???" you may cry. "I SHALL NEVER PLAY ANYTHING ELSE."
A fair sprinkling of Mercy and Lucio plays would do brilliant things for the community, I think, because it would communicate something that is already true: these characters are fun. Everybody should try them. Lucio is mobile, with a great gun for prefiring corners at head height. A good Mercy is everywhere at once, disguising the fact that she's technically a single-target healer by always being where her team needs her to be. You just don't see this much, if all you do is play Genji, because the game never shows it to you. Change that and, hopefully, you change the game. Change the game and you change the playerbase—ideally before the notion that supporting is for other people sets in.
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