Recently I had my first humbling moment since I started this on-the-side job writing about games. I was at a party, aiming to beat my personal best for drinks consumed in good company – my previous record being three, by the by – when I ran into a friend of mine that I hadn’t seen for most of the year. As it turned out, he’d been following my work almost since I started the website back in March. That in itself would have been enough of an ego boost to last me through the night, but then he also thanked me for the belated not-quite review I did for Overwatch around its release date.
As it turned out, my article ended up being the clincher that ultimately helped him decide to pick up the game. It was a comment that left me grinning like an idiot for the rest of the night – but that may have been the alcohol doing that more than my ego. So, with that compliment still in mind as we near the sixth month anniversary of Overwatch’s supreme reign as best competitive multiplayer ever made, ever, let’s gush over it a little more!
Since its release almost 6 months ago, Overwatch has seen the addition of a brand-new character, a new map and two special events for Rio 2016 Olympics and Halloween which gave players access to new in-game loot such as spooky, scary skins and the ability to hear Genji say the words “Cyborg Ninja”. It tried out its first ever ARG to announce the game’s recently announced character, Sombra, even if it ended up frustrating fans for having little payoff after being far too long and complicated. We’ve even seen a new side to portable turret and bird habitat, Bastion, who starred in his own animated short. And now at six months of popularity, Overwatch has been crowned as Twitch’s most played game, has found a still-growing player-base of over twenty million, and has even kicked off its first ever World Cup event which will pit player teams from around the world against each other at Blizzcon 2016.
And yet despite following the game since the open beta, it only dawned on me during last month’s Halloween event just how long I’ve stuck with this game. Since day one of the game’s release, I’ve found myself playing it every week, even if only for a quick match or two. It honestly surprised me a little when it made me realise that those six months have probably been the longest I’ve stuck with a game that has received frequent content updates after launch from its developers. In fact, the only other game in recent memory that I’ve sunk a considerable amount of time into was Splatoon. But even with frequent updates and arguably more playable content than Overwatch had given its players in the same span of time, I probably only spent two months giving it constant attention before my time with it became much more sporadic – once or twice a month a best.
This has brought to mind an interesting question to me. Why have I kept playing Overwatch for over three times longer than any other game that receives the same level of post-launch treatment, despite it being given less in the way of new gameplay content like maps and characters? Could it be because of the game’s overall quality? The events that give more incentive to play in order to get new and interesting cosmetic loot? Of course, those definitely helped, but I think they’re more like a side-effect of the real reason for me. I think I’ve stuck with the game so long because the team behind Overwatch actually feels like they’re taking part of the community that they created. It feels to me like everything they do has their players in mind, making them feel like they are respected by the developers.
I mentioned back in my first Overwatch article that the development team created the game with an important design philosophy: Everything has to be fun. It’s the reason why every character has an endless supply of ammunition and why every map is designed in such a way that, no matter which character you pick, you can utilize each one’s various abilities and mobility to race around the map in various and satisfying ways. It’s this design philosophy that I think also is the driving force that makes the Overwatch team at Blizzard take part in their community. After all, if you aren’t paying attention to your players, seeing how their playstyles change, as well as listening to thoughts and concerns about things like game-breaking exploits or unfair character stats, how are you supposed to keep the game fun?
As a result, the team is constantly monitoring and managing the gameplay balance of the twenty-two hero roster. By doing this, they are able to give buffs and nerfs to characters that they feel need a slight boost in performance or slight weakness, all based on things like player feedback, as well as watching how frequently players pick certain characters. By doing this, players are more motivated to experiment with buffed characters while spending less time with nerfed ones they got too comfortable with. It ultimately ensures that players keep trying out different characters in different situations, rather than letting boredom set in because they’re too comfortable playing only as Bastion. Hell, it’s the reason why Symmetra is currently undergoing significant changes to how she plays after the team noticed just how little players ended up playing as her – usually only on defence and only on the first capture point of an escort map.
What’s even better is how the Overwatch team communicates with its players, using not only detailed patch notes for upcoming and current patches, but also regular videos that address changes in the game’s competitive seasons, the development of new maps and characters, community concerns and questions, and also detailing their reasons behind certain nerfs and buffs – like the previously mentioned change to Symmetra. Players even feel like they’re helping the team work out the kinks in each patch, update and buff/nerf thanks to the use of the Public Test Region, a server that lets PC players beta test features before they’re put into the full game. Used to test things like new characters, maps and differently designed UIs, this allows the team to see how these new features will work outside of internal testing as well as get feedback from the group that matters the most when considering these changes to the game: their player-base.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the developers who give long-term attention to their games post-launch don’t care about their player-base. If the team behind Splatoon treated their players with giggling contempt, we wouldn’t have been given a stream of new maps and game types, instead we’d be left with the same game we were given at launch – containing only 5 maps and 3 game modes, the remaining content all ludicrously priced paid DLC. But none the less, I think the guys at Blizzard have set a great example for future games with Overwatch, showing that a player’s investment in your game can differ heavily when they feel like they’re being treated with respect, as opposed to just being treated like a customer.