Everyone thought Blizzard's excellent new shooter, Overwatch, was gonna be free-to-play. Then it wasn't. It's going for $US40 (or $US60 for a special edition). What happened?
The long and short of it is, while Overwatch — with its expanding roster of MOBA-esque heroes and focus on multiplayer — might seem like a no-brainer for the "party upfront, business in the back" treatment, the dollar's in the details. Principle designer Scott Mercer explained it to me in an interview at BlizzCon:
"From the beginning, we knew this was a game all about heroes," he said. "As we continued to work on it and add more heroes to it, hero-switching became a really key component. To really provide for a breadth of heroes to allow for that switching — to let people look at the other team and say, 'OK, let's change our line-up a little bit' — became core to Overwatch. To support that, we need to have our 21 heroes [for everyone]. Not just, like, one tank, one support, one ranged character or something. You've got multiple different tanks and whatnot."
"We want people to have enough options that they feel like they're not at a super huge disadvantage."
It does, however, put Overwatch in something of a tricky position. Premium priced multiplayer-only games have had — shall we say — a rough go of it lately. Let us now take a moment to pour one or two or twenty out for Evolve, Titanfall, and countless well-intentioned multi-only indie games. And while Counter-Strike: Global Offensive might be one of the most rapidly growing phenomena in games today, it's half Overwatch's price on PC.
That barrier to entry could dissuade people from diving in at or, more crucially, after launch. The world's become a free-to-play buffet. Overwatch is already really good, but can it last?
Mercer admitted that Blizzard's aware of the precarious position they have put themselves in, but right now they're taking this day by day. If they need to change, they will.
"It's something we have to consider," said Mercer, "but we're also a different game. We'll look at all the data. We'll look at feedback from the community. We'll ask ourselves some hard questions, and then after launch we'll figure out what's the right thing for Overwatch."
Blizzard is, at this point, not even sure how they will release new heroes. It's likely that they will — in addition to character skins and other cosmetic goodies — but will everyone immediately gain access? Or will they sprinkle micro-transactions atop what is, frankly, already something of a tall order?
Mercer was not able to provide a concrete answer:
"We'll see," he said. "Right now we're focusing on the 21 launch heroes. Exactly what happens in the future with regards to heroes, we're not quite sure. We are gonna support the game, but how that happens and how it's monetized is still up in the air. There are a lot of questions we have to ask ourselves first."