The biggest multiplayer first-person shooter of 2016 is Blizzard’s newest game, Overwatch. It the short time since its official launch, the game has amassed over seven million players and has dominated gaming discussions for weeks. With a colorful art aesthetic and vibrant characters, Overwatch has built a rabid fanbase who are in love with its style and gameplay. Critics also adore it, with glowing reviews in spite of a limited selection of game modes. The game has emerged as the clear leader amongst the recent spate of hero shooters to hit the market.
Huge multiplayer FPS titles are nothing new. In just the last few years we’ve seen games like Titanfall, Evolve, Rainbow Six: Siege, Star Wars: Battlefront, and countless Call of Duty and Battlefield games. Most of those titles were not failures, but they did not feel as revolutionary as Overwatch does. Largely those games adhere to an older multiplayer FPS style; They are gritty gunmetal gray battles of powered space armor or modern military idolatry.
The assumption is that only those who master esports levels of twitch reflexes are worthy of a multiplayer FPS. If you cannot sense three seconds into the future to snipe characters far across maps or spin rockets like a pro, you are a liability to your team and deserve the virtual face-sitting mockery you will receive. Before recently, the logic went like so: you’re either in the market for a testosterone-filled battle of masculine superiority, or you just do not like shooters.
But Overwatch is not at all hyper-masculine. It is a very friendly game that has built not just a devoted following, but one of the more relaxed FPS fanbases around. Rarely will you see players shriek about how their teammates are holding them back or attempt to humiliate fallen enemies. The game has a clean, warm vibe lacking any of the grit or negativity that most games in the genre aim for. That is because Overwatch wants to be a positive experience for its players. This is a game built from the ground up to win over people who would never give the angry experiences mentioned above the time of day.
The genius of Overwatch is its ability to draw in an entire untapped market of FPS players with a supportive design. It wants its players to continue enjoying themselves in spite of losing matches or dying repeatedly. Every element of Overwatch from art design upwards is made to let in the Newbies and win them over. On the surface, Overwatch is just an evolution of what Valve was doing with its very successful Team Fortress 2. But the genius of Overwatch is the structure that teaches its players and encourages them to keep playing.
A very difficult task for any multiplayer game to pull off is the ability to teach its players just what they need to do. New players are naturally going to be easy targets for the experienced. If they are not taught the rules quickly they may drop the game after a few losses. Overwatch is a deceptively simple game. It relies on a handful of maps and only three game modes. The meat of the combat and strategy comes from the characters selected. The focus of the game and tactics are supported by the art design. That design instantly teaches players the distinct threats and opportunities of every character on the map.
The Pixar-esque art style of Overwatch is not merely beautiful and fanart inspiring, it also defines the characters perfectly. Zarya is not big and muscular just to fit the whim of a Blizzard designer. Rather her character design reveals everything about her and what kind of opponent or ally she will be. Every character has a unique silhouette and walks with a distinct gait, so you will never confuse one for the other. Even if a player cannot immediately identify units, they can tell that the large characters are tanks and will take a lot of punishment to defeat. Reinhardt’s massive shield gives no confusion as to what it is meant to accomplish. But neither does his huge shape or powerful, heavy steps.
Color is another important feature. The purple colors of Widowmaker along with her slim body give a subconscious relation to snakes, poison, and danger. Her purpose as a surprise sniper killer is revealed. Tracer is lean and yellow, a color that is hard to ignore. Thus, she completes her job as a distracting foe to draw opponents away from the battlefield.
Compare the character shapes and design to a match of Halo. Every Master Chief on the field looks identical at first glance, but thanks to collecting different weapons and loadouts, can be totally different kinds of threats. Unprepared players will not know that a certain Master Chief might be holding a weapon that will instantly eliminate them. In Overwatch no player will be very surprised to learn that Pharah, the flying character with a rocket launcher, can lay down serious damage from above. A quick examination of the six opponents in your enemy’s team will instantly teach players the strategic outlook of the skirmish to follow.
A battle of Overwatch is a hectic thing full of attacks, flanking, and major strikes with Ultimates. Blizzard keeps things well-organized in the sound design so that players can be aware of the situation around them at all times. Battles are made to be confusing, but the chaos is organized into distinct audio categories for ease of understanding. Most weapons make very distinct sounds when fired. Few will confuse Tracer’s buzzing weapon for the shuddering bang of Reaper‘s shotguns. Enemy footsteps are actually made louder than ally steps in order to help players locate threats. Furthermore, characters will automatically shout phrases to help direct players. “Look out behind you!” is a piece of advice that players will get when they are being ambushed. If the payload has not moved or a character has reached the objective, the game’s quotes will direct you on the current ebb or flow of the match.
Overwatch also borrows concepts from fighting games with its use of character quotes. Veterans of Super Smash Bros. know immediately what will follow once they hear “FALCON PUUUUNCH!!” They have a Pavlovian response to dodge out of the way of Captain Falcon’s burning fist, or else pay dearly. Similarly, a few matches of Overwatch will teach players to also fear such lines as “Fire in the hole!”, “Justice Rains from Above!”, and Reaper’s very direct “Die! Die! Die!”
Blizzard knew that players would have a hard time telling an ally’s Ultimate quote apart from an enemy one. So friendly Ultimates usually have different lines. Friendly Ultimates are played at a softer volume and are always spoken in English vs a foreign language. Hanzo‘s Ultimate as an enemy is a roar of furious Japanese. A friendly Hanzo instead says “Let the dragon consume you,” in a much calmer voice.
Music is also used to direct the flow of the battle. The orchestra will swell towards the end of the match, reminding players that it is either victory now or nothing. The game encourages players to rush with everything they have at the objective, all costs be damned.
Overwatch’s modes are a very simple collection of capture or defend. Every map is a linear tube meaning that new players should never get lost on the way to the objective. However, the maps are also made to look like cities and real lived-in places, meaning players could mistake dead-end avenues for the route. The maps have blue lines indicating the path to the Objective and red lines indicating the path enemy teams will take.
Icons which appear through walls are another major guiding factor. The Objective marker is always shown, meaning players have a cardinal direction in which to move. Little blue chevrons indicate ally locations, which turn yellow if that ally is taking damage. Fallen allies show skull icons. A player can see before they reach the objective if their team has been eliminated or if they are holding the point well.
Beyond the HUD icons, Overwatch‘s menus help its players out when it comes to choosing teams. Before matches, the game will point out weaknesses of unbalanced combinations, such as not having a healer or lacking offensive punch. The suggested options are not always 100% the best possible for every situation, but a basic combination of healer, tank, a pair of attackers, and support builder are enough of a mixed combination of talents that even the newbiest of newbs can find a useful task.
Overwatch very specifically is not a deathmatch game, and even the least offensive support characters can flip a match dramatically. No matter how effective a lone Tracer might be or how many kills she might rack up, a weak team behind her all but guarantees defeat. Blizzard has done all it can to keep player options varied so that players of all skill levels can contribute.
Eventually, all players will find at least one of the 21 characters to be a good fit, be it Winston‘s aggressive pushing or Reaper’s deadly assassination skills. The veterans of the hardcore FPS scene will take to characters like Hanzo which require lightning fast reflexes to land kills. But many players of Overwatch may never have played an FPS before and might prefer to stay on the back lines to play a support role. Not everybody can rack up bodies using Reaper, but anybody can heal their team as Mercy and still be important contributors to victory.
Knowing that many of its new players might not be familiar with FPS combat, Blizzard designed several characters to help ease players into the genre. Most of the support characters have attack options that do not require twitch reflexes or even much aiming. Symmetra’s laser auto-aims, Mei’s freeze ray has a huge cone of attack, Torbjorn’s turrets take care of themselves, and Junkrat’s grenade launcher can only be directed in a general direction, not aimed. Overwatch‘s philosophy of pedagogy in action can be seen in characters like Mercy. Her healing ray requires no aiming at all, and she has a very versatile movement ability to teach escaping and flanking. Mercy also has a sidearm pistol for bolder players to use. Even with a relatively weak attack Mercy can drop down punishment with surprising speed, allowing players to acclimate themselves to the more dedicated gunslinging roles.
If a player cannot master the particulars of the first character they choose, they can always switch over to another character after a death. Overwatch is not a cruel game. It will not force players into being Genji all match. Switching out to a tank or healer might actually be the switch in momentum that a flagging team needs to overcome the enemy.
An obsession of many FPS games is the Kill/Death Ratio. Overwatch does not show the full K/D rankings at any point. This would be distracting due to the speed of the game, and not doing so keeps players focused on the goal. It does not matter how many deaths or kills a player has as long as the Objective has not been taken. Overwatch also further deemphasizes the importance of the K/D ratio by ignoring the Assist stat altogether. As long as you aided in taking down an opponent, even if it was just with a single bullet, you get the full recognition for the kill. Those looking to show off will find little in common with Overwatch‘s style. This is a game of friendly support, both from teammates but from the game itself.
The stat screen the end of every match is what separates Overwatch from other games. The top three or five players are always listed here, but these are not necessarily listed in terms of pure kills. Players can be recognized for the healing they perform, the damage they block, the time spent on the objective, or raw damage dealt. The actual numbers of kills and deaths are left for the next screen, and are kept mostly private. This way the more vocal members of the FPS competitive community will not yell at players they assume to be weak.
The coveted Play of the Game replay is usually a dramatic series of kills at a key moment, but it can also be Mercy resurrecting her team just at the right time to save the day. Overwatch also fishes for compliments for players. It will give medals for any player who achieved anything at all in one of five stats. It also highlights above-average play for the gamer, making sure to note improvement.
The last thing Overwatch wants is to make its players feel defeated. There is always something positive to say at the end of a match.
Why has Overwatch succeeded so brilliantly when Battleborn has seemingly lost player interest every day? Both games were brighter, more quirky takes on the multiplayer FPS genre. They were essentially looking to be to 2016 what was Splatoon was to 2015. But only Overwatch was built from the ground up to be encouraging, transparent, and easy to grasp. Battleborn still judges players on K/D but also has a surprisingly rough skill ceiling. Its characters look distinctive but it is not immediately obvious what Rath does as compared to Phoebe. The game was clearly built with very different goals in mind. Battleborn wants to be a skillful and weighty experience for players looking for a long game, where Overwatch is light and speedy. For a new IP, the barrier to entry to Battleborn may have simply been too high.
Overwatch‘s positive style has clearly had an effect on gamers. If other companies want to copy the formula, they should look not to the specifics of wacky mixed characters and art style, but rather in Overwatch‘s helpful newb-friendly concepts. Blizzard has taken an opaque genre and opened it up to the masses. Overwatch will most likely remain a huge game for a long time to come.