It's no secret that Overwatch players are precious about the game's balance changes. On the internet, fans act as armchair game devs, flooding the Overwatch forums with strongly-worded opinions whenever there's an unpopular or surprising change. Most recently, the forums overflowed with salt after the popular tank hero D.Va received a brutal nerf, making her far less powerful. For months, players begged Blizzard to revive the old D.Va.
At an Overwatch anniversary event in New York on Wednesday, Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan told me that his personal "low point of the year" was tied to that balance patch. But he does not regret nerfing D.Va. His low point, he says, was leaving her overpowered for too long.
Late last year, the Overwatch team gave the hero D.Va a huge buff. She became an agile fighter, more mobile while firing her gun. Her mech suit's health skyrocketed from 100 to 200. And it became much easier to charge her ultimate ability, which often kills two or three enemies at a time. In the patch notes, the Overwatch team explained that the changes would help the tank hero "withstand attacks, which will allow her to keep pressuring enemies".
Then, Blizzard turned off its lights for Christmas, postponing any balance changes for at least a few weeks. "People were burned out," Kaplan said. He and Overwatch's seven other designers took a break to visit their families over the holidays, when Blizzard essentially shuts down. Of course, Kaplan and Overwatch's dev team didn't take a holiday from games, or, apparently, from looking at Overwatch play data. D.Va was way overpowered. She had become too essential to the meta and too difficult to kill.
"We [Overwatch lead designer Geoff Goodman and I] were literally talking through Steam chat about how we're gonna nerf D.Va and as soon as we got back," Kaplan said. (He wondered whether Valve president Gabe Newell was reading his chats, laughing, "All Blizzard secrets are probably available in Steam chat.")
Players got used to D.Va's strength over that Christmas break. So, in January, when Blizzard nerfed her, the forums went mad. Popular complaints described the new D.Va as squishy, ineffective and not a true tank hero. Kaplan doesn't regret the nerf, though. Of her current state, Kaplan says, "D.Va is totally fine."
In a few instances, the Overwatch team has been quick to roll back dramatic changes after strong player feedback. In March, Bastion received a huge boost that Blizzard reversed just a few days later. Players barely had a chance to learn how to counter him. It's easy to forget that there's a learning curve after developers make big changes. Describing his decision to scale down Bastion's power, Kaplan wrote in an Overwatch forum post, "Balance changes can be very difficult to make when emotions run so high in the community."
But why was Bastion scaled back so quickly? "Part of the quick response to Bastion, it's sort of like, D.Va's our Alamo," Kaplan said today. "If we put something in and leave it for too long, the players will gravitate towards that and it's going to be hard to back people off."