This year’s BlizzCon was an odd one on a lot of levels, but I was personally stricken by the number of friends and acquaintances who told me they’d taken weeks or months off from playing Overwatch. Last year and the year before, it was an obsession. Lately, though, it’s felt a little stale. Despite that sentiment, game director and proud internet papa Jeff Kaplan isn’t sounding the alarms just yet.
“I always think of the type of game Overwatch is – competitive 6v6 action shooter – it’s the type of game that players are gonna ebb and flow in and out of,” he told Kotaku during an interview at BlizzCon. “I think that’s very natural. I think that’s very good for players, and it’s good for us – to have players not obsessing, like, all they ever do is play Overwatch.”
That’s not to say it’s been a boring year for Overwatch. The game introduced a hero who’s a mecha-piloting mega-genius hamster, for crying out loud. Kaplan and company also added looking-for-group and endorsement systems to the game, leading to generally better sportsmanship among players – a welcome development by any measure. Then there was the Overwatch League and spectator features designed with esports in mind. At the same time, though, seasonal events like Summer Games and Halloween Terror were business as usual, and a stun and “boop”-heavy meta turned the act of playing key roles into a slog for many players. Overwatch has also been out for two years now. It’s comfortably entrenched, but to some, it feels almost too comfortable – familiar to the point of complacency. And that can make them walk away.
Where Jeff Kaplan starts to get concerned, he said, is when players don’t just check out temporarily, but indefinitely, perhaps even permanently.“That’s something that I think we would want to keep on our radar and say, ‘Did we not introduce a new hero? Are we not introducing new maps? Are we not introducing new modes? Well then, let’s do that.’”
“I think sometimes players panic when it’s like ‘Oh, my friends are playing Call of Duty this month,’ or whatever,” he said. “It’s OK. Call of Duty is brand new, and it’s super awesome. We’re playing it too. Then we come back and play Overwatch and do our placements.”
“The complaints are real, and the complaints are accurate.”
Ashe is the Overwatch team’s latest attempt at giving the game a shot in the arm – and probably the head, the limbs, the gut, et cetera. Kaplan hopes the cowgirl with a heart of obsidian (and a robot friend) will both liven things up and help address some of the game’s more pervasive issues. Foremost, you’ll notice that she’s not a “boop machine” – that is, she’s not capable of suspending tanks in motionless purgatory for several small eternities stun and knockback abilities. That’s by design. Players have been complaining about an overabundance of stun and knockback abilities in the game ever since shield-bash-happy Brigitte destabilised the meta at the start of the year, and Kaplan said these complaints are “real” and “accurate.”
“I think Brigitte is an interesting character in that she was one of the heroes that really escalated that discussion,” he said. “She’s really defined by her shield bash and that flail knockback in particular. We just straight up nerfed the shield bash. We changed the cooldown on that in a recent patch. We took another pass at Brigitte recently with reducing her shield damage.”
Doomfist, with his ability to knock heroes around like helpless pinballs, is also in line for a nerf, though Kaplan has “nothing specific to report right now.”
As for Ashe, well, she at least does not add to the problem.
“When it came to Ashe, we were very cautious,” said Kaplan. “Just the introduction of Ashe, with us going ‘Here’s a traditional gun-based character who’s more like McCree, more like Pharah.’ She has a knockback on her, but you’re not gonna see Ashe running into the fray with the specific intention of knocking people over edges – for the most part. She’s a stand-back character.”
Ashe can knock enemies back with her shotgun sidearm, but it’s less an attack and more a defence mechanism. “The reason she has that coach gun knockback is what we call a disengage,” he said. “So if a Pharah or Genji gets up on her, she can go ‘Hey, get back from me’ and then use her rifle. But characters don’t lose air control when she does the knockback. She has no stuns on her. I think even looking at her design and seeing how much we chilled out; there’s no major crowd control effects going on on Ashe.”
So if you or your friends decided to sit out a season because you were annoyed by the state of Overwatch’s balance and all the time you were spending incapacitated, that may change in the near future. What won’t change, according to Kaplan, are existing heroes’ kits. While this year has seen big overhauls of both Symmetra and Torbjorn, everyone else is set. At least, for now.
“We don’t have an overhaul character on our list, which is just great,” said Kaplan. “I think it’s a necessity sometimes. Torbjorn and Symmetra were both in a place where balance tweaks alone weren’t gonna make the characters more viable. But in general, I’m not a huge fan of reworks.”
“I tried to be very transparent with the community that our focus wasn’t the seasonal events right now.”
Kaplan said that overhauls “push the reset button on balance” for heroes, and that’s why he doesn’t like them. They ask as many questions as they answer. In Symmetra’s case, for example, people who main her are still getting hate even after the rework, but Kaplan can’t be sure if she’s in a good place or not yet.
“With Symmetra, I personally am in wait-and-see mode,” he said. “There’s two elements there: One is, did we get the correct mechanics? Is this character doing the things we want them to do and occupying the gameplay space we hope that they occupy? And then the second part is the balance. We feel like, with characters like Torbjorn and Symmetra, they’re mechanically doing what we want them to do now, but I don’t know if they’re balanced correctly.”
Balance changes and overhauls, Kaplan said, are also part of the reason why other elements of the game ended up treading water this year. Players have repeatedly expressed disappointment that seasonal events – once lightning rods for lapsed players – are stuck in a rut.
“I tried to be very transparent with the community that our focus wasn’t the seasonal events right now,” said Kaplan, noting that the team instead prioritised “other stuff” like new heroes, balance changes, overhauls, LFG, endorsements, and spectator mode.
Kaplan teased that there’s more where that came from – just not for events. If you’re expecting the upcoming “Winter Wonderland” event to be as unrecognisable as your own backyard after it’s been blanketed in snow, you should probably keep those hopes in check, as Kaplan said that Winter Wonderland will “feel very similar to how it felt last year.”
Kaplan is more focused on what’s gonna happen a little further out, and he thinks it’ll all be worth the wait in the end. When pressed for specifics, however, he could only grin and tease in his trademark “awkward dad accidentally doing ASMR” sort of way.
“We do have a few tricks up our sleeves for next year that I think will be pretty cool,” he said. “When those moments happen, I think players will go, ‘Oh, I get what you’ve been doing now.’ It’s always hard because we try not to talk about things too early. To some of our players, one week is a long time. Others are a bit more sympathetic, and they get that things take time. But the team is working harder than they’ve ever worked before. They’re bigger than they’ve ever been before. So I really believe that there are great things coming for Overwatch.”