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The Overwatch Problem: Mini-Games

by Harvest 4 months ago in product review
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Abilities so powerful, they disrupt both gameplay and design.

Aspirin for heals, a Cruise Missle for Utility.

Overwatch Design tends to revolve around ebbs and flows, existing in a careful, often chaotic mass of back and forth that changes with each hero chosen or ultimate activated.

There is, however, a singular element in the game that exists between Primary Fire and Ult combos, that drastically alters the way each hero operates:

Ability - The temporary alteration of a Hero's capabilities to achieve a unique interaction.

A bit stuffy but hopefully you get the idea.

Abilities operate in the neutral space above Primary Fire and below Ultimate Use. Abilities Occupy a wide range of value that can secure kills and save health bars, but, in Design, they need to be handled carefully.

Primary fire, even with it's varied applications (Melee, Hitscan, Projectile, Beam etc.) is a fairly steady medium with adjustable numbers that are easily tweaked to bring heroes into line. Add in the supportive nature of many Secondary Fires and there is a broad range of Design that is easy to apply to the game.

In contrast, Ultimates are free to be overpowered. They are meant to be, some more than others. Game-changing, fight winning, play-making value is found in their use but it takes time, resources and effort to build them up, making them rare and able to be strategized around/with.

In occupying the space between, Abilities adhere to both the broad power of Ultimates as well as the steady predictability of Primary Fire, yet the balancing act of their use and application is delicate. With many other aspects in play to keep track of (Cooldown, Range, Utility, Damage, Placement, Restrictions, Limits...the list goes on) and no strong comparison between many of them, Abilities can (and do) spin out of control, not just affecting Play by adjusting the ebb and flow, but, more crucially, disrupting the Design structure of heroes, game modes and even future Design choices.

The Introduction of a certain Ability can have ramifications on similar Abilities being added later, or force adjustments to Abilities already in the game, because of strong synergy.

Double Shield: Similar Abilities stacking into absurdity.

There are also certain abilities in the game that can cause this disruption at a level so extreme, the rhythm and flow of a match can be interrupted in favour of paying strict attention to that Ability's effects. All attention turns to the Ability, demanding resources, time, energy and even objective value to address something that, in many cases, doesn't even provide anything in return.

In many cases, these abilities are simply preventing engagement and must be planned around to the detriment of those affected by them.

Mini-Game Abilities -

Mini-Game Abilities or 'MGAs' tend to stop the match, sometimes a hard-stop, to force one team or both teams to operate inside that Ability's function.

The Dreaded "Lamp"

Baptiste's Immortality Field (called Lamp by the playerbase) is a prime example of a MGA; with a single aspect application (Placement), a player can stall out a fight by refusing the enemy team the ability to kill, damage and even deny ult charge.

The argument can be made that it is a long Cooldown? But Cooldowns are only one Aspect in a long list used to adjust, balance and design Abilities in Overwatch. Treating a Cooldown as the reason for why an Ability is a viable Design choice is similar to eating a fruit because of it's colour. Taste, texture, ripeness, storage, toxicity and other reasons are needed to make that piece of Fruit an edible option.

The main concern though is how Immortality Field can completely change the pace of the fight; interrupting the ebbs and flows of Primary, Ultimate and even other Ability usage. It harvests all other sources of gameplay and reduces the match, for a period of time, to

"Destroy Lamp".

Bio-nade as is? Is one of the worst Design choices to have been included in the game.

But Immortality Field isn't the only Ability that does this, just the most obvious from a non-design perspective. Ana's Bio-nade is a crucial part of her kit, but an ability that takes away Enemy Supports capability to:

  1. Heal
  2. Gain Ult Charge
  3. Survive

Is an ability that reduces options for players, stealing their agency and collapsing their gameplay throughout a match to

"Hide until the Purple wears off".

CC effects were constantly being blamed for 'Stealing Player Agency' in the Design and Development process and many of those effects did less than Bio-nade. Bio-nade's inclusion not only steals player agency, it also steals Design Options from the developers.

By having an ability that eliminates so many options (Healing Abilities, Primary, Secondary, Ults etc.) at the Design level, you effectively have to treat any unique or interesting abilities as comparable:

"Does this do anything with Anti-Heal in the game? Will the hero work or function well if the enemy just switches to one of the most popular Supports in the game?"

How are you meant to continue to Design around it?

The Answer: More MGAs.

Three of these "Cannot Die Sometimes" because one of these "Removes Healing as an Option"

It is no secret the development team enjoys having large cooldown abilities in the game but those aren't the only identifiers. Most of the Support cast has at least 1 MGA in their kit (Mercy Damage Boost, Zen Discord, Moira Orbs, Baptiste Lamp, Ana Bio-nade) and of the two that don't? Brigitte herself was a walking MGA (receiving over 19 nerfs and re-designs to bring her down to a skill-manageable level) and Lucio, the best designed Support, is the exception that proves the rule.

The three Supports that came out, after Ana's release, all had versions of "I cannot die for a certain duration of time". Moira's fade, Baptiste's Immortality Field and Brigitte's...well, everything proved to be the answer the developers found in response to Bio-nade.

"Nevermind healing your team, which can be taken away from you, we'll give these Supports an incredibly powerful survival tool that ensures they can remain on the field to outlast Bio-nade's effects."

Except survival is just one component of a Support's kit and allowing duration windows of "I cannot die" to exist just trades out MGAs. Worse, it means any character, Support or otherwise, that doesn't have an MGA to respond with, gets left in the bargain bin of a spawn room, never to be touched.

Or picked by new players who discover the joys of being flamed for choosing a 'Throw Pick' against an Ana with half-decent aim (Hi Roadhog!).

The Solution -

Like most Design Solutions, it's complicated. Nuanced design choices can break the game depending on how they are implemented but they can also do absolutely nothing, if it means going up against an MGA. The reality is the game needs a comb-through to identify the problematic MGAs that are present and re-design them to actually represent opportunities and not anti-play.

I.E. - Bio-nade can be changed from an Anti-Heal (which is an entire category of Abilities) to a Health Limiter, where-in whatever Health the enemy team was at after 'nade inflicts damage, is their maximum health for Bio-nade's duration.

This is a lot of work and a LOT of theory-crafting. An updated system of Design structure would more than likely be necessary. As well as clear-cut foundations for what makes each Role, so unique interactions can be found for Heroes in those Roles.

Overall, though, it would take a monumental shift in the way the Developers see and run their game. Identifying the problems and alienating the concept of "Powerful = Fun" from the lexicon, would go a long way to restoring a lot of the Design strengths Overwatch used to be known for.

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About the author


Gamer, Writer, Design Theory and Spec. Fic. Everything else is just noise.

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