In a video interview with Stylosa in late February, Overwatch Lead Game Designer Jeff Kaplan talked about the realities of game design and the amount of time it takes to implement changes. Already back then, he was giving clear signs that the yet to be announced 2-2-2 role lock was an idea that they were at least strongly considering but would hypothetically take time. Choosing the example of the matchmaking system, Kaplan explained that it took them two years to get to the point that they are at now and having to rewrite code for a potential role-queue would naturally need additional adjustment.
Add the apparent issues of heroes like Brigitte not fitting the role lock with her current kit design as well as countless other ripple effects on all the different aspects of the game such as console balance, different skill levels as well as OWL viability and it quickly turns into an ecosystem that requires careful consideration when making changes.
With all that in mind and also empathising with developers who have to stem this monumental task, at the end of the day we still have to point towards an (until recently) stagnant meta at the pro level, steadily dropping stream viewer numbers outside of OWL as well as waning active player numbers.
The development team invested time into designing tools which allow the community to create content for the game such as the replay viewer as well as the workshop. On paper, those are features with an exponential payoff that allow for crowdscourcing of creative ideas from the community. The issue for now is that the community will need time to familiarize themselves with the tools, though it is a safe bet that we will see a payoff especially from the workshop in the upcoming months. Just yesterday, Blizzard tried to promote the feature through the Twitch Rivals:Overwatch workshop event.
While we wait for someone outside the development office to make Overwatch fun again, we find ourselves in an excitement draught that begs to be filled and toyed with.
One of Activision Blizzard’s biggest competitors for the attention of players has been Epic Games with their smash hit Fortnite that elevated the Battle Royale genre to new heights of popularity, but perhaps more crucially was also able to keep the attention for an extended period of time. On top of the proven core design, Epic also updated their game with resonating content at unusually high frequency and eventually the game became a pop-cultural phenomenon and stayed at the top every since. Last year, seemingly every two weeks a new gun, vehicle or other feature would appear in the game as well as the occasional mainstream brand activations. Fortnite was getting ahead by outsprinting its competition.
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Granted, according to reports by Polygon in April of this year, it became clear that this schedule and the related crunch wasn’t a sustainable state of affairs. Moreover, the game would repeatedly have to disable new features for a time as they caused unforeseen bugs, but Epic would have a hotfix ready swiftly. The polish on new features didn’t feel comparable to the standards that Blizzard has historically been committed to and yet the audience loved Fortnite for its frequent content updates. Epic didn’t mind imperfections if it meant that their drip content schedule could commence.
It begs the question: What is the drip content of Overwatch that makes people log back in? It doesn’t appear to be either maps or skins, both the only semi-frequent additions to the game. Admittedly judging without seeing the numbers that Blizzard is notoriously hush about, it seems that seasonal events like the Lunar New Year or the Summer Games are too few and far in between and don’t have the replay value to last us till the next excitement spike hits. The real barn burners seem to always have been hero releases and yet at only three releases a year, they too fall short in creating a gravity field which constantly pulls players back into the game’s orbit.
On top of Blizzard’s philosophical attachment to the anchor of polish, it also seems as if it historically tried to work around each niche audience and perhaps dulling their focus in the process by spreading itself too thin. In the aforementioned interview, Kaplan recalls several instances of community fractions becoming agitated at their decisions. In contrast, Epic only recently in January committed to releasing their content updates with their own sponsored tournaments in mind stating that they believe frequent changes to keep ”Fortnite fresh for everyone including players, competitors and spectators.” Previously, players had been confronted with game changing new weapons, vehicles or gadgets entering the field mere hours before a competition they practices weeks for. While Fortnite signaled to focus on esports more for 2019, they at least showed focus in the first place.
Self-evidently, carbon copying this approach is out of the question for Overwatch, as the Overwatch League is one of the cornerstones of the games’ ecosystem and too important to disrupt. Rather we should look at what Epic did in principle, namely to stop trying to appease everyone equally at once and make decisive decisions towards the more important aspects of their product. As things progress and esports competition started gathering attention, Epic refocused and gave a bit of ground to the competitive community.
With the Overwatch League ending the season in late September, it could give Blizzard the necessary freedom to go wild till the season starts up anew in early 2020. Especially looking towards the rumoured Overwatch 2, it seems like an opportune time window to thoroughly test what works and what doesn’t down to the very core principles of the game.
Curiously, in a later follow-up interview again with Stylosa, Kaplan promised a “very exciting” and “different” summer that breaks from the mold of Overwatch’s usual content schedule. Perhaps the 2-2-2 role lock is just the beginning.