It's a collective problem facing gaming right now. Everyone wants to make something that is easy to learn and hard to master. For Blizzard, it's a core tenet of every game they've ever made.
But what happens when the base level of knowledge required to learn — the game within a game, if you will — becomes a daunting task in and of itself? After multiple expansions, it's a problem facing Hearthstone players. Heroes of the Storm's rapidly approaching that point. And the developers behind Overwatch admit it's an issue for them too — and they don't have an answer.
Right now, the Overwatch roster stands at 18. It doesn't seem like a significant amount, but for a team oriented, competitive class-based shooter it's actually quite a lot. Dirty Bomb, for instance, only has 16 and Splash Damage's game has been playable since June. Lawbreakers, the latest game from Cliffy B's studio that competes in eerily familiar territory to Overwatch, has only announced four.
When you factor in each of the character's abilities — of which they have between three and five, depending on whether you include passives — that's at least 70 different attacks and tricks one has to experience before a player can fully become comfortable. And the way Overwatch is designed, where heroes are designed to be rapidly interchangeable, that figure is almost guaranteed to explode into the hundreds.
I asked Jeff Kaplan and Geoff Goodman, the game director and principal game designer on Overwatch, about how they were tackling this potential roadblock — and Goodman immediately replied by saying he didn't know how to.
"That’s absolutely a concern and it just gets worse the more stuff we add," Goodman replied. "We don’t have the perfect solution yet, we completely acknowledge that as a problem. I don’t know."
Kaplan tried to walk back from the concern, saying that there wasn't a problem just yet, but he too admitted that they are weary of overloading players with new content down the road. "So the two issues we keep an eye on is one, adding so many heroes that people are so overwhelmed and don’t know what’s going on. That’s something we would start to back off from or say, 'Hey, maybe the game has enough heroes at this point.'," he explained.
"We have no mandate though, it’s not a goal of ours to add infinite heroes and we don’t have some hero number that we’re inspiring to hit, the game is not complete until we’re at a lot of heroes or a certain number of heroes. We really have certain gameplay niches that we want to fill — when Geoff was talking about Junkrat and wanting an indirect fire, projectile based defence class, that was a niche we really felt was lacking. That’s how we approached how should we add new heroes, or is there something really cool and different that will play unlike anything else."
Team 4 does have one potential answer to smooth things over. When the beta eventually launches, Kaplan said players will be able to test out a rudimentary tutorial mode against bots that will allow players to practice maps and heroes in a safe environment. "It’s not a full blown co-op mode or anything like that we’re you’re fighting a masterful AI, it’s more just for practice," he said.
One advantage that Blizzard has up its sleeve is that the entire company effectively acts as their initial beta testers, giving them data and feedback from roughly 4000 employees. "We’re seeing behaviours, it’s almost more like player type behaviours. There’s the team players who are, 'What does the team need and I’m going to do that,' and they tend to be the ones who are aggressively hero swapping," Kaplan told me. "And then you have the people who claim they have a main and that’s all they’ll play. And then you have some people in between who have like two characters they’ll switch between."
Goodman chimed in that Overwatch does actually penalise you slightly for switching characters, with players losing any progression they had accrued towards their ultimate. "I think most of the time too because the characters are so diverse, people inevitably get a lot better at a smaller subset of heroes, at least initially."
That natural caution amongst players might help people in the beginning, although it will be interesting to see how many characters in the future have passive or active abilities to improve their movement. The verticality of levels is already becoming prominent in Overwatch's currently small map pool, and I'll be curious to see come the beta whether characters that aren't blessed with the capacity to fly, hover or climb get as much public love as the rest of the roster.
The author travelled to Blizzard's studios in Irvine, California for the interview as a guest of the developer.