A few months ago someone threw up a random online straw poll. It was well before the pre-Blizzcon round of previews Blizzard was doing for Overwatch, and it was in a climate where most discussion centred around the gameplay videos that the developer pushed out to the public. The community’s collective understanding was, in a word, limited.
Plenty of key details were still missing. How many heroes would the game have at launch? How many maps would there be? And, most importantly, would the game be free-to-play? So a straw poll was created. It finished with 105 votes: 72 favouring an traditional pay-to-play model, with 24 of those supporting microtransactions.
It’s largely the same model that Blizzard has used for decades. Outside of World of Warcraft, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm, all of Blizzard’s games require an upfront payment, with paid expansion or mission packs released after the fact. And they’ve done that again for Overwatch.
But the internet’s verdict now: it’s a disaster.
Watching fans and the press digest Overwatch over the last several months has been fascinating for all sorts of reasons. This is, let’s not forget, a game that was borne from remnants of Project Titan, a project that Blizzard failed to justify after investing umpteen millions of hours and dollars.
Let us put aside the fact that Blizzard, upheld as the Western studio with a license to print money thanks to World of Warcraft, found themselves entering a genre they had never experienced as a result of that project. A project they couldn’t make fun, despite all their best efforts.
Let us not think about the impost of Western gamers having now accepted something that developers and gamers in China, Taiwan and South Korea discovered over a decade ago. Something that Western developers now, through the expansion of many games, successful or otherwise, better understand.
Let us not think about the fact that Blizzard is exceptionally new to all of this. Heroes of the Storm? Most people started playing that last year. Hearthstone? That’s a card game. The rules of that — surely — don’t apply to a first-person shooter.
But as you read this, if you’re not already screaming at the top of your lungs, or writing an angsty email, you probably understand: the world is not such a reductive place. And neither are video games.
It’s hard not to take a degree of pleasure trawling through the discourse on forums and social media when it comes to Overwatch. Ever since it’s announcement, there’s been a degree of certainty amongst discussions. There’s always a degree of that in any chatter, of course, but it’s amplified when in this instance.
Blizzard’s reputation might have something to do with that. This is a developer who has been around for decades. They “know” what they’re doing, or at least they “know” how to sell a product. That’s what the internet believes, at least.
Never mind that their two biggest properties are games in genres that were previously completely foreign. Never mind that their bread and butter is declining so rapidly that the number of subscribers will no longer be openly discussed in the joint company’s annual reports.
Never mind that, come 2016, Blizzard’s three biggest properties are going to be in genres that have either had nothing, or are only tangentially related, to anything the company has produced in the two decades beforehand. Think about it: a CCG, an FPS and a MOBA. There’s a link to a RTS in Heroes. There’s a very, very tenuous link to an MMO. There’s bugger all link to Diablo.
Legion will keep World of Warcraft kicking — but the time has come for that game. Plans are being made to move on. The future has arrived — perhaps the Warcraft movie represents part of that future.
But this is all new territory for Blizzard. As experienced as they are, the notion that they already know what they’re doing is astonishing. It’s almost laughable. History shows that’s far from the truth.
That doesn’t mean they’re clueless or inept, of course. But they are learning on the fly. They’re learning how to survive in the MOBA market; see the radical changes proposed to Heroes of the Storm. They’re learning the benefits of the free-to-play model, as Heroes and Hearthstone has made painfully obvious.
And now they’re learning what works for an FPS. Some would say that was already public knowledge. But Blizzard doesn’t do FPS like other studios. They don’t do FPS at all. They weren’t trying to do FPS. They were trying to make Project Titan, a gargantuan hybrid MMO. Overwatch was the scraps of Titan that were fun.
Blizzard didn’t plan this in advance. Overwatch wasn’t what they were trying to make.
That’s why it’s so curious watching people dissect the developer’s motivations. Maybe because it’s Blizzard, a developer that has been around for an eternity, that people assume everything is planned out to the final detail. Maybe because it’s Blizzard people assume that the company is deliberately withholding information.
But nobody is assuming what history tells us is more likely — that Blizzard is still finding its way. They’ve never made a game like this before, and it stands to reason that they didn’t know how to sell it off the bat either.
So they’ve gone back to their basics, selling Overwatch the same way they would a Warcraft, or a StarCraft, or a Diablo. A year ago that would have been largely, if not universally, accepted. But it’s not now. The West realises free-to-play models have merit. Free-to-play is no longer the devil.
Is it appropriate for Overwatch? No. But that doesn’t sit right next to the gamer who looks at Dota 2, who looks at Path of Exile, and asks why they can’t receive everything for free. Why, they ask, aren’t you going with the model that will get most of the people in the door. Why, they ask, aren’t you designing around a model that will allow people to jump it at any time they want.
These are questions that might have been valid had Blizzard known they were designing Overwatch from the start. But they weren’t. They were making Titan.
But let’s put that aside. Because it’s easier to point at a giant corporation, something the size of Activision-Blizzard, and assume they always know what they’re doing. It’s easier to point at faces on Twitter, faces on streams, names in articles, and assume that everything is planned out from start to finish. It’s easier to assume that everything is known, and information is simply being kept from the gaming public.
When the developers stand on a stage and claim that they’re just focusing on the game and they haven’t really nailed anything down post launch, it’s easier to cry bullshit. Because that’s what the internet does.
But maybe, just maybe, that isn’t always the case. And just maybe, in a world where Overwatch was never supposed to exist, that’s precisely what’s happening now.
Maybe the model a company has used for decades, a model people are still perfectly happy to accept, is right for this game too.
And maybe nobody knows. Maybe the developers are still finding that out.