With Echo, Overwatch is about to see the greatest overhaul of its meta in the game’s history since the change to hero limits and role queuing. It’s not just that there’s a new hero. It’s Echo’s threat as an aerial DPS and potentially the most game-breaking ultimate: the ability to copy other heroes and chain multiple ultimates in the space of seconds.
The sentient AI has sticky bombs that can quickly focus down a 200 HP or lower target when combined with her Genji-like primary fire. There’s a dash move that lets Echo fly for a few seconds, a hitscan beam that does more damage to all targets under half health – so that includes shields and barriers. And as an added bonus, players have already worked out how to bunnyhop out of Echo’s dash, giving you even more survivability.
And the ultimate, which is just bonkers.
Echo’s Ultimate lets her duplicate any enemy hero – so not heroes on your own team. This lasts for 15 seconds and your ultimate charge is massively boosted, enough so that it’s possible to get two or even three ultimates off during that time. Even better, you can’t die during this phase: if the enemy team kills you in that 15 seconds, you’ll simply revert to Echo with 200 HP and her original kit.
All in all, Blizzard has made a hero, at any given time, that functions as a tank or barrier buster, decent at doing poke damage, a great pair with Roadhog or Orisa for quickly killing heroes, and an aerial threat to boot.
Echo has the psychological element too: what do players do when they know Echo’s ultimate is charged? Echo’s range for copying heroes is enormous, so she could transform into D.Va and quickly fire off a D.Va bomb to break a fortified position. Imagine the second point on Eichenwalde where Echo transitions into a second Baptiste, creating a second matrix that forces the other team to quickly engage or completely hide. An Echo that transitions into a second Zarya, providing a super-quick gravity orb and a quick transition into a 3/2/1 composition. Diving into the enemy backline, quickly copying an enemy Roadhog, killing a support player and then launching a quick ultimate while your teammates engage from the other side.
I asked Overwatch’s principal and lead hero designer Geoff Goodman precisely why they decided to go with such a volatile character, particularly since Echo is likely to be the last hero added to Overwatch until Overwatch 2 is released. Goodman explained that Blizzard had played around with a prototype version of Echo for a while, but the original ideas came from a support character – not a DPS – that would attach itself to other heroes.
“We had this idea for a character, what I called an attach-support – it’s really not even a character, it’s a gameplay concept,” Goodman explained in an interview with Kotaku Australia. “The idea with that character is you’d actually be a support role, and you’d attach to another character.”
“We never actually [did] this, but either as a spirit kind of thing, or maybe the character itself would be a hologram and you’d holographically support people, you could attach or be around them, almost like riding them like a turret, so your movement is controlled by them and then you could jump off of them.”
Where Echo really started to come to life was around the ultimate. Original versions of the prototype would give players the copied hero’s ultimate straight away, which resulted in test sessions where players would wait until an ultimate was charged, copy a hero, and then unleash two sets of ultimates at once.
It was chaos.
“You’d be able to clone them, and you’d get their ult right away, and it led to some pretty degenerate gameplay tests where you’d wait for your Genji to have his ult up, jump onto him, clone him, and then you’d both ult at the same time, and you’d have two Genjis dashing around and it was like impossible to stop,” Goodman explained.
“I still had a lot of hope for the ult, the duplicate ult, I found it was really interesting. It had some problems like being able to get the ult right away – we talked about maybe there was a version where you didn’t get the allied ult, but then it was like, it’s kind of weird to clone a hero and not get their ult, because it felt I’m trading my ult for not even getting any ult out of it, so we had a lot of questions to solve there.”
Echo’s main cloning ability now is done through her ultimate, but a very early idea, one that was never made into a full prototype, would let you clone individual abilities from players. “You’d still look like Echo but you’d get Tracer for a little while if you [stole] her ability,” Goodman explained.
“You could maybe take Tracer’s ult from Tracer and then look at D.Va and took an ability from her, then you have blink and D.Va’s matrix, and then you could have both and that would be really interesting, but the control scheme was a nightmare.”
Once Blizzard’s heart was set on Echo being a DPS character, the design and outfit came together pretty quickly, according to Goodman. It helped that the idea for Echo’s ultimate was largely already done, which is often the biggest hurdle when making a new Overwatch hero.
“Because we started with the ultimate, the rest kind of fell into place. We knew we wanted her to fly – she’s got these kind of cool wings. Her tri-shotgun went through a little bit of iteration, we tried to figure out how exactly the fire rate and the projectile suite [would work]. We knew we wanted her to be a projectile hero, especially because she could fly; it’s really hard to make a hero with either extremely fast projectiles or hitscan, instant projectiles, that could fly.”
The biggest problem with the original versions of Echo was that the AI was originally designated as a support character, but her ultimate often meant she would be copying the ults of other roles. Goodman explained how that was a jarring experience as a teammate, as players often felt the team was lacking something if one of their support characters suddenly wasn’t fulfilling their role anymore.
“It felt really bad as a support character, or if your support teammate clones really anything other than a support, it’s like transforming one of your supports into another role,” Goodman said.
“It’s a really hard tradeoff to make; it’s hard to make that worth it in most cases. So we sorta decided at that point, let’s try her as a DPS, because it feels like if this is going to work as an ult … the most flexible ult is damage. And if your damage dealer becomes a tank or a healer temporarily, often that’s seen as a benefit. So that’s kind of where it started as: maybe’s she’s not a support, maybe she’s a damage dealer.”
Another challenge with Echo was a technical one. By allowing the player to clone another hero, the game is essentially spawning another character in the in-game world. Goodman explained that Overwatch basically has a memory budget for 12 characters, and to make that work across all platforms without affecting performance, a limitation had to be introduced.
“The hero that you clone – the player controlling that hero – is not allowed to switch heroes while you’re cloning [them],” Goodman said. “Originally it started as a concession to tech; if they switch heroes, and you’re still Echo in this other hero, there’s 13 characters loaded, and that’s kinda not OK.” The limitation is only in effect while Echo’s ultimate is in use, which is a maximum of 15 seconds, but knowing that beforehand could be an interesting idea that professional teams could certainly mess with.
Echo’s kit is also designed in a way that lets Blizzard really fine-tune the balance later on. Her default tri-orb attack, for instance, has a relatively tight spread over a long distance. Blizzard’s toolset means if Echo’s damage output is too great, they can reduce the individual damage of the orbs – or they can reduce the damage at distance. They can increase the spread of the orbs, making Echo’s base attack less effective at range without affecting its damage output in close-quarters fights. The same can be applied to Echo’s other abilities, giving the developers a lot of options for preventing Echo from steamrolling the game for the next few months.
I asked Goodman if Blizzard had any other concepts in the tank for close-range flying characters, combating the issue he mentioned earlier with flying characters and projectiles. He mentioned one idea around what he simply called “Flamethrower Guy”, which was largely a character that would swoop in with close-range flamethrower attacks.
“We have a concept for a guy which is called Flamethrower Guy, or whatever – I don’t even know if it’d be a flamethrower at this point,” Goodman said. “The idea was you could fly, and have mobility, but you’d have a really short range weapon like a flamethrower. But you’d do diving attacks and sweeping attacks and getting close.”
He even mentioned an early concept for Genji that was scrapped, largely because of the animation and technical challenges around it.
“We’ve also had characters in the past – Genji originally, one of his concepts was that he could stick to walls and ceilings and shoot from there, which is pretty cool, but it ended up being not that useful for him and it ended up being technically challenging, especially on the animation side.”
One hope Goodman has with Echo is that players get a much broader appreciation for the entirety of Overwatch‘s skillset. Echo’s ultimate gives players the ability to initiate huge team fights and turn the tide of a match within seconds, but it’ll also be a crucial tool in the hands of skilled and professional players who excel at making quick decisions under fire.
“I think we’ve seen that already with Mystery Heroes, a lot of people play the Arcade mode because it feels guiltless to play every hero,” Goodman said. “I hope Echo has a little bit of the same reaction, where you decide to – I guess I’ll take Roadhog, I don’t know how to play Roadhog, but I need to copy somebody right now or I’m going to die or we need to take the point, so I’ll figure it out. I find it a ton of fun, obviously working on the game I’m pretty competent with all the heroes. But I’m hopeful that people will really enjoy that as well.”
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