I’m sad to say, the image of Overwatch as a charming, accessible, and colourful shooter has grown old and tired, and for many people, all that is seen any more is a community so toxic that makes League of Legends look like a luxury pre-school.
Remember the first few months, back when Overwatch was so popular that it practically dominated Reddit? Remember all the adorable comics, the shitposts, and the resurrection of old COD-style montage parodies? Man, those were the days. Today, whilst Jeff Kaplan remains an absolute savage and one of my favourite game developer, fewer and fewer of the original mega-fans remain to hear his glorious word. Whilst I still spend more time playing it than I do actually working on my degree, I don’t exactly blame those who’ve simply stopped playing.
The problem, I think, lies in the game’s design itself. And so, in this first edition of Armchair Designer, I put my three years of YouTube game design training and 2603 competitive rank to good use and dissect what it is about Overwatch that makes the place the world’s most successful salt mine.
Before I got down to the business of dissecting the game’s design, I decided to follow a hunch I’d been having since the first time I was ever hit by a Scatter Arrow: is this game full of easy, out-of-nowhere kills? So, I did a little experiment. I went into the practise range, and analysed the rate at which one person can be killed be each hero. (For the sake of fairness, I didn’t use any ultimates- after all, predicting when your enemies are going to use their ultimate is a core part of the game)- you can see a breakdown of this at the bottom of the page, if you fancy. But in a nutshell, I came to a certain hypothesis: Overwatch is so focused on creating heroes that are fun to play, that the design sometimes neglects a crucially important part of PvP design: counter-play. The study of how a character feels to fight against, not just play as or alongside.
Almost every well-established counter in the game is hard-designed. Orisa counters Reinhardt by having an ability that makes his two most reliable damage abilities completely null, making it difficult for him to close the gap and even then, only giving him half a chance in the fight. Widowmaker counters Pharah because Pharah has no way to fight back against Widowmaker’s instant-kill hitscan. You can’t reliably dodge a Genji dash because it’s a hitscan ability- and on that note, his hitbox is smeared across the entire dash for some reason, meaning that much of the time a Genji player will make creative use of the ability to dodge an attack they successfully predicted and end up being hit by it anyway. Overwatch uses a server connection system called ‘favour the shooter’, and it seems that this phrase has seeped into their gameplay design somewhat. Someone dying unfairly seems to be what the game was optimised for at times.
Soft counters don’t seem to make much on an appearance in Overwatch play. Zarya is a good soft counter to Junkrat, but this just isn’t nearly as ingrained into the community consciousness as Bastion countering Winston. When Overwatch was nought but a closed beta and the world’s largest collection of short trailers, a big deal was made about hero switching to counter enemy heroes. But what does this achieve? One thing: frustration. Nobody wants to swap heroes. People will always gravitate towards picking a hero they like, say Pharah, and when they get good at that character they will play them a lot. Then, they get countered by a good Soldier 76, and all that counter-play served to was frustrate the Pharah. What’s more, the Soldier 76 may even have been forced to switch away from their main, say Symmetra, because Jimmy the 8th-grader wouldn’t stop whining about the lack of hitscan. Jimmy doesn’t even grasp why they need a hitscan, he just read in a Reddit comment that it’s good to have one on every team. To put it bluntly, all the design focus on hero counters serves to do is force players to choose heroes they don’t really want to play, often with a burst of frustration being the catalyst for a swap.
When you counter an enemy, at least in gold or plat (Where around 80% of players reside), you don’t get the idea that you outsmarted the enemy. No, you simply cheesed them or had a better aim. The enemy isn’t thinking “Damn, he got me there.” No, they’re thinking “For fuck’s sake, he hit Deflect JUST as I pulled the trigger”.
Let’s keep using Genji as an example. Say you, a Genji main, turn a corner and come face-to-face with a Mcree. Frantic, you both slam ‘E’ like Jeff slams toxic Torbjorn mains- and whoever did it faster wins. Either Mcree immobilises Genji, and then simply kills him with an easy right-click, or Genji counter-cheeses the stun and finishes Mcree off with a right-click to the head and a dash. By the way, that dash isn’t even on cooldown now, since he landed the killing blow with it, so now he’s behind your lifeless body teabagging the poor healer than thought would be safe relying on McCree’s cheesebang to keep them safe.
Now that we’ve harvested some salt, let’s add it to the wound: Blizzard don’t even seem to understand the little annoyances nearly as well as they should do. Just recently, a change was made that meant that ult charge was depleted completely when Q was hit, not over a short period appropriate for that ability. Remember those epic moments you had in the early days of Overwatch where you’d jump down from a ledge, slam Q, and hear Darin De Paul screech “HAMMER….. DOWN”? Well, as fun as those moments were, that’s not allowed anymore. Why? Because, if you’re killed mid-descent, you’ve not only lost the opportunity to shift a teamfight in your favour (A fitting punishment for misjudging the use of the ability), but you’ve also been cheated out of a us of your ultimate, putting your entire team at a disadvantage for long enough for you all to re-download Modern Warfare 2.
This change was made because the design team felt that, after much consideration, the adrenaline rush that comes from narrowly saving your team from 7’4 of screaming German Man-meat should be upped even further by giving you the ability to laugh at the poor Junkrat main who was forced to play tank this match and just wanted to win a teamfight. The official wording was that knowing the ult would be back soon somehow ruined the moment- which, I have to say, isn’t something I or anyone on my Discord channel had ever agreed with. Overwatch doesn’t need more moments of joy imbalance, it needs to be less frustrating for the people who aren’t doing so well so that they can bounce back and keep the fight interesting. Steamrolling an enemy team and screwing them out of their Ultimates is fun, yes- but it’s worth significantly more misery for the victims than it is fun for the victors.
The newest hero, Moira, is a move in the right direction, for sure. I’m just not sure if Blizzard understands why. Sure, she is a step toward fixing the damage bias, but she’s also exactly the kind of character that can easily counter heroes without removing that hero’s chance to fight back. If she predicts someone is about to hit her with a high-damage ability, she has her Fade ability to quickly dodge and either close or create a gap, depending on the situation. She has a tactical choice to make between damage and healing, and is useless should she ignore one entirely. Her highest DPS comes from an Orb/Alt-fire combo, which is easily countered by most movement abilities and/or quick bursts of damage. She allows the person playing her to make choices, and approach fights in a variety of ways. She is rarely helpless in the same way Doomfist is, but does allow the enemy fighting her to manage her cooldowns and outsmart her, not simply overpower, cheese, or outshoot her. The fact that Moira can use all of her abilities offensively or defensively allows the ‘dance’ of different abilities and characters to take place, which is great fun and what Overwatch should be aiming for. Reinhardt and Zarya are also great examples of characters that are great fun to play against, and fun to tanks as (rather than playing a thinly veiled DPS); in fact, this article started as a breakdown of just how well-designed those specific heroes are.
Ultimately though, 16 out of 26 heroes currently in the game (including every hero that is ever considered a DPS bar Pharah, Sombra, and Symmetra), is able to kill a 200-hp hero exceptionally quickly as to be near-instant (or stun them long enough to kill them before they are un-stunned). That is, instant out-of-nowhere deaths are a distinct possibility if you encounter the majority of characters at the wrong moment. That’s not to say that the entire game is a maelstrom of instant deaths, but rather it means that every now and then you’re going to suddenly find yourself dead out of nowhere- in one of my test matches, I hugged my Reinhardt as Ana and still managed to be instant-killed by a previously unseen Hanzo three times in a single round. Whilst you can live with this when the game is new and fresh, over the year and a half the game has been out, it grinds down and you begin to resent entire characters just for those easy kills they snag a few times. This is going to happen a lot quicker and a lot more often when more than one of your six opponents is aiming your way at once.
So, what to do when a hero can easily wear you down in under a second, and there’s six of them firing indiscriminately at you? Well, there’s two options. The first is to git so gud that you can easily win any 1v1 with your main. Congratulations, you’re now the one dealing out those insta-kills and making the entire enemy team saltier than lunchtime at McDonalds. The alternative, of course, is to get help from your team. Hug the tank, and hope the healer sees your mangled corpse in time to save you. I often find myself performing some kind of dance: stand near the enemy for a little bit, and then hid behind my teammates, heal, and stand in front again, rotating in and out of the crowd like a penguin with an assault rifle. Spending more time out front if you’re a tank, and as little as possible if you’re a healer. Remember that, it’ll be important later.
Let’s talk for a second about reiteration time. That’s the time it takes you to try again when you fail in a video game. In some games, like Call of Duty, it’s instant- you slam the Square button and are shoved straight back into the fight. With Rainbow Six: Siege, you have to wait it out until the round ends and your entire team respawns again, which sometimes takes several minutes. Overwatch is somewhere in the middle- you die, take a few seconds to spectate, and then walk back to the teamfight. Fair level design dictates that sometimes that’ll mean leaving the spawn, but other times you’ll have to trek across large sections of the map. You only have five seconds to view the fight, meaning you get just a fleeting glimpse of it, not a good look; this can be misleading, you might see a character miss a shot, or misuse an ability, and that can give you a false impression of how well they’re playing. You don’t get a long break to cool down and observe the fight, but you don’t get to jump right into the action.
Let’s quickly look at the balance of the overall roster. I won’t go over DPS bias again- everyone from Ohnickel to Sir Swag has already been over it- but I will touch base. Given that standard composition is 2 DPS, 2 Tanks, and 2 Healers, you’d expect that roughly a third of the hero roster to fit in each category. But that isn’t the case- between 12 and 18 heroes (46-70%) are damage roles. That means that, even if there was an even spread of all mains (Which there isn’t), the average composition would consist of 3 or even 4 damage dealers. Without the 6-stacked, Caffeine-marinated coordination that such an unorthodox composition demands, you’re going to get steamrolled. Period. That means DPS mains are, either before or after a shouting match with the rest of the team, going to have to switch to the less satisfying Tank and Support roles. And even then, the fact of the matter is that DPS are almost always more satisfying to play than a healer- you’re going to crave the dopamine hit of the little ‘ding’ noise and forget to actually, y’know, tank or support. That’s not to say that all Tanks and Supports are boring to play, but that they’re just not nearly as instantly satisfying to play as characters that focus on getting kills.
(Heroes underlined in RED are firmly considered DPS characters. Those in ORANGE are debated.)
So, now we’ve reached the end of this article- but it’s just a cursory glance at some of the superficial frustrations of gameplay. In part 2, we’re going to tie this into the players, and see what role the community plays in the saltmine. Which, as you can imagine, is a lot. And when we tie it all together, I’m sure it’ll all make sense.
For those interested, here’s the notes I took on some of the most frustrating heroes to face in open combat, and why exactly they are such.
The A-team of speedy killers include Doomfist, Hanzo, Junkrat, MCree, Reinhardt, Roadhog, Widowmaker, and Zenyatta; all are capable of either killing you in a single hit, using multiple abilities so fast that it’s practically instantaneous, or stunning you for long enough to kill you before you regain control. Of these, only Widowmaker and Genji have to land headshots on a mobile target to get that instant or near-instant kill. That’s 8 out of 26 heroes, or just under 1/3.
Bastion is capable of killing a 200-hp hero in only 0.45 of a second, without the need to land headshots. That’s a tiny window to go from full to zero HP.
Mei may take longer to stun and kill you, but for the whole 1.5 seconds it takes, you’re slowed, meaning you cannot escape her without using a movement ability- if it’s on cooldown, or you’re playing a hero without one, your only chance is to kill her first. Sometimes, this is okay, but a lot of the time you won’t have the prep time and/or cooldowns to do it. There’s a reason Overwatch memes often refer to Mei as some kind of satan-spawn.
Reaper has the ability to kill in a single primary fire, if he gets close enough.
Torbjorn can kill you in a single hit, if they get close enough and aim for the head. How’s that for a Swedish meatball?
Soldier 76 can kill a hero as fast as bastion (0.45 seconds) if he lands two headshots and a rocket.
Symmetra with a charged beam can kill you alone in just over a second- without having to aim at all. What’s more, the beam disconnects at a further distance than it attaches, meaning that you have to create a significant amount of distance in under a second to stop the attack, or kill her yourself. And on top of that, her shield allows her to march right up to you without you being able to fire back and destroy it with most heroes. Also, every 2 seconds she can fire an orb that will chew through over half of your health in a single hit.
Ana is admittedly one of the less annoying characters to fight, but nonetheless she is capable of stunning you for up to 5 seconds: more than enough time for a hero like reaper to walk to your body and kill you with a single, easy headshot. She also has a combo (Stun – Shoot – Melee – Grenade) that can almost kill you in the time it takes for you to stand up again. From there, it’s a 1-shot kill, and you’re at point-blank range.