The Overwatch Problem: Introduction Heroes
Heroes with obvious designs do a lot to teach new players how to play their individual Roles, but...
When considering the complexity of Overwatch as a game (Multi-ability, Varied Game-mode, Hero Shooter) inevitability, one has to consider how well it teaches it's player-base. Normally this comes in the form of varied beginner exercises (Tutorials, Practice Matches, Training Rooms and External Guides from creators) but these are a front loaded design
I.E - Players know about them and choose whether to engage with them.
Which can have mixed results and, in an increasingly aging game, a lot of variance on mileage. New players may feel inclined to skip most of these steps to get right to the action.
But, crucially, there are elements of the game that not only support teaching new players but do so using 'Quiet Design'.
Quiet Design revolves around building teachable mechanics into the game that players will not immediately, if ever, recognize but intuitively deliver the experience the game is meant to provide. Some might cry 'Subliminal Messaging' but a lot of it is just marketing and external media.
There are aspects in the game though that teach the fundamentals of how heroes work and that are crucial for new players, incentivizing them into playing those characters in each role.
Opening the Door -
Introduction Heroes or "Doorway Heroes" teach the player while they play, through a combination of factors, many of which chain and stagger together to reach the most amount of new players possible in the best order. Introduction Heroes have a lot of common elements to them:
- Strong Lore, Voice and Model Design
- Surface Simple Mechanics (with much deeper technical value)
- External Media Presence and Recognition
- Fallback Value during gameplay (When in doubt, play x)
Each of these provides a crucial component to help the new player (new to the role or new to the game entirely) establish the groundwork for the Role they are playing in, giving those players not just the tools they need to know how to play a Tank but also the experience of knowing whether they might even want to.
Support as a role tends to revolve heavily around enabling your teammates, providing crucial utility in a fight and, most of all, survivability (for yourself and your team). No other Support teaches this better than Mercy, the living Angel that descends from above to heal, empower and even bring her teammates back from the dead.
Her entire model takes advantage of the ubiquitous imagery of angels and their lore, helping players navigate what to expect. This is further reinforced by her portrayals in external media; a doctor with powerful intelligence, providing the world with a singularly unique method of reparative medicine. Something of a pacifist but also, determined to help and inspire others to greater heights. Even her voice lines reinforce the lore and by extension, the mechanics:
"I have my eye on you"
"I will watch over you"
"I'm still with you."
"Must violence always be the answer?"
Mercy also possesses, at a glance, simpler mechanics (though her technical specifics are among some of the most intense in the game, as evidenced at higher levels of play) that are a welcome path for any new player to take full advantage of. This allows her to not just be easy to learn, but also operate as a good fallback option for Support players who might be struggling with less straight-forward heroes in the role.
Meanwhile, Tank as a role, seeks out frontline engagements, providing both defensive and offensive opportunities to their teammates in an effort to achieve objectives. Damage mitigation, CC (Crowd Control) mechanics and large health pools provide a significant advantage in achieving those goals.
But learning the intuitive nature of "Protect and Attack" can be a struggle for many players, who walk into a shooter expecting to shoot.
Enter Reinhardt, the brawling, armoured, hulk of a German man that swings a rocket hammer around in his opponents faces, while holding up a giant, choke-point blocking barrier to keep damage away from himself and his team.
Reinhardt's entire kit delivers on the messages that people will encounter during his external media; his cinematic, a heavy-hearted short animation that tells the story of his past, delivers both playstyles that many new Reinhardt players tend to opt into:
The Crusader that valiantly stands in front of his team, keeping them safe from harm.
The Battering Ram, that charges into the enemy off the protective back of his armour, ready to swing his hammer and deliver crushing blows up close.
There's absolutely more to him than this, as any seasoned veteran will tell you, but Reinhardt's model, voicelines and mechanics all directly support allowing the Player to engage in both these styles, intuitively teaching the basics of spacing, timing and management of resources while the player gleefully celebrates the character's wholly unique playstyle.
A player may not live very long charging into the backline to swing on squishy targets, but so long as they hear Reinhardt's bellowing laugh as they swing their hammer, death won't matter. They'll be experiencing the Tank role while also learning over time that doing this might not be the most effective way of playing. Reinhardt though, teaches them to try, to experiment and find ways to navigate the game as only a Tank can.
Likewise, Soldier 76, is the model for the Damage role, epitomizing not just the role itself, but also the likely mechanics and play style that many FPS players who come into Overwatch from other games, will find comforting. A gateway that easily translates across mediums, Soldier explores fundamental elements of the game in both his simple mechanical elements, but also his grizzled, pessimistic voicelines and grim determination. A former captain of Overwatch, now vigilante, he showcases a need to focus, tunneling down opponents with his pulse rifle, auto-aim Ultimate and Sprinting movement.
Much of Soldier's kit, though not directly translatable to the remainder of the Damage class, nevertheless has a broad interaction with the fundamentals of what the Damage Role can expect to accomplish; taking high ground, pressuring enemy positions, sight-lines and use of cover. Even Soldier's healing station, provides some understanding of Support and positioning that can become crucial for other Damage heroes who do not have the well-rounded kit that he has.
Design Challenges -
So the question becomes 'Where's the problem?'. If each of these heroes provides so much to the game and it's new playerbase, why would any of these be considered a problem?
The answer is, like many things in design, complicated.
Hero shooters are complex by design and have many, many, many shifting parts. Balance and Design are crucial components not only for fair play, but enjoyable play at many different skill levels and ranks.
When a game has characters in it that help to, fundamentally, teach the game to new players (the lifeblood of maintaining any Video Game's lifespan) changing those characters becomes a monumental task. Too much, can alienate or even outright destroy a player's ability to relate to a character. This can be hard for veteran players as their mains, favourites or just learned heroes, are altered to a degree that they do not play the same way as those players are used to.
This becomes much worse though, where new players are concerned:
- If External Media no longer matches the way a character functions.
- If the mechanics of a character do not match the model aesthetics or movement.
- If there have been multiple changes over short periods of time.
All of these contribute to a dissociative, even disconnected interaction between the player and the hero. Any hero that gets reworked, inevitably comes with a heavy bit of backlash from those who might main or love that hero.
And if done to an Introduction Hero, there's the added risk they no longer represent an easy way for new players to learn how to play a Role, cutting off Quiet Design and worsening different factors of the game.
Queue times, Role Popularity, Balance, Design; all can suffer due to the reduced navigation of Introduction Heroes by new players.
It will also anger the existing playerbase as their months/years of experience get washed away by new mechanical structures to a tried and true favourite.
On the other hand, the problem of not updating Introduction Heroes, leaving them largely at the state they began with, can very quickly turn them into Niche, if not outright throw picks in the game as better and more capable heroes enter into the game.
Soldier 76, Reinhardt and Mercy all have kits that demand they do only one thing at a time. Compared with a lot of the rest of the cast (and all of the heroes who have been added since OW1 launch) this is wildly out of date and can close off player ability to operate these heroes. They may end up spending most of their time in spawn, barely getting to play the game.
It is frustrating and demotivating and can quickly turn new players off.
But any large changes to bring these characters in line, also runs the risk of obliterating the unique Teaching elements Introduction Heroes bring to the table.
There is a see-saw effect happening in a game that demands constant, persistent updates to alleviate competitive stagnation and boredom. Worse yet, when that competitive environment does not have much space or room available for new players who want to play the game.
Resulting in, one of several factors, that has reduced Overwatch's population over the years.
The Solution -
I wouldn't say there is a silver bullet to this. Careful design choices, updated external media and an incredibly strong Design Philosophy that translates to the player base so they understand what can have major impact.
Quiet Design goes a long way for new players, but allowing veterans to know these elements of the design process can also alleviate pressures.
None of which (historically) is Blizzard's strong-suit.
Still, there are ways to integrate and engage with balance around these three characters, ensuring they are not only part of the game but can operate comfortably in that space without overtuning.
But altering and messing with their basic design (Mercy's recent iterations on the OW2 Betas is a prime example of this) can have long term consequences that need to be carefully thought out.