At BlizzCon 2018 last week, Blizzard announced that its shooter Overwatch is getting Ashe, a new playable character, or hero as they're known. Ashe is the 29th addition to Overwatch's expanding roster of heroes.
With Overwatch being over two years old, its heroes form a large part of the community discussion. Some can be too effective while others are perceived to be far from useful. Both tend to ruin the experience of game that's built on the checks and balances of one hero's abilities being able to be countered by another's.
But with 29 heroes and counting, Blizzard has on occasion gone back to the drawing board and reworked certain heroes from the ground up to ensure they remain effective without players feeling like they're up against insurmountable odds. We've seen this with popular heroes such as Symmetra and Mercy with varying degrees of success. Gadgets 360 spoke to Chacko Sonny, Production Director on Overwatch to find out what makes the game's heroes tick.
First up, we had to ask how does the Overwatch team decides on which heroes to add to the game.
"Some people felt Brigitte was a response to [counter] high mobility characters and that certainly would be the case," Sonny tells us of a past addition to the Overwatch roster before stating that game balance wasn't the main reason for bringing Ashe into Overwatch. "In this case with Ashe, she was driven by a cinematic design we all love. We thought the kit, the abilities and the weapon really resonated with us so much that there was not much deliberation on what she should be doing, it was very clear that Bob [her robot sidekick] was something we wanted in the game."
Explaining further, Sonny says that the Overwatch team has a variety of potential heroes to choose from to reveal and add to the game. Though the thought process behind them isn't the same.
"There are five or six different hero prototypes being worked on at any given time," he says. "Some are driven by ideas like 'this would be a great addition to this class' and other times its driven by a cool sketch that we want to turn into [a hero]. I don't want to present a picture that they're all derived in the same way. The inspiration comes from many different places and there's a lot discussion at the time, figuring out what the next hero is and what's the right thing for the game at that point in time."
On that note, we asked if there was a definite hero count in mind for Overwatch. The game launched with 21 heroes and has added eight more since Sonny claims that the studio is driven by what heroes add to the gameplay rather than the sheer number of them at a player's disposal.
"They've all introduced something new and changed the way people play the game," he says. "There have been some cases where we tweak some things post-release, but we think there's some fertile ground to introduce some new hero designs. I know certainly with some of the prototypes that I've been playing recently, I'm super excited for what's coming up."
And while Sonny could not tell us what new heroes are in the works, he did reveal how the Overwatch team uses community feedback and user data to make crucial changes to Overwatch such as reworking one of the game's more effective heroes despite the data suggesting nothing needed to be done.
"I think the best example was prior to the Symmetra rework," he reminisces. "This was one of the stats Geoff Goodman [Overwatch Lead Designer] always gives, was that Symmetra was one of the highest win-rate characters out there so if you're just looking at the data you'd think nothing needs to be done with her, she should be fine."
The data however, is just one piece of the puzzle. Player feedback suggested that Symmetra wasn't as versatile a hero for higher skill play or had much utility outside specific areas of a match.
"It's ultimately a combination of data that we look at, watching trends, understanding how players are using certain characters and what's happening with them as well as their feedback," Sonny says.
It's not just fan feedback either. In fact the Overwatch team depends on several sources of feedback to iterate and improve upon the game.
"We do our own internal play tests twice a day, the entire team," he reveals. "We also have an internal QA group, a group of QA that sits with us and another that has their own space, and there's so much we get from places like Reddit to get feedback from the community on what's working and what's not. That process of balancing the game is something that happens continuously and at times it can be very different from the data."
That said, we wondered why it takes so long for certain hero changes to roll out if the Overwatch team has access to a wealth of information. The answer, it turns out, lies in its ever expanding roster.
"The game has 29 heroes and so the permutations and complexity associated with making a change to one of them requires a lot of iteration around testing and understanding the impact one change might have to the game," he says. "It would not be sufficient for us to make a change and immediately put it in the build and push it out without us very clearly understanding what it does to the rest of the community."
When a change is ready for public consumption, it's put onto the game's public test realm (PTR) for initial feedback before being rolled out to all. Sonny elaborates that this is necessary to ensure any alterations to the game don't have a negative effect.
"We always try to push our changes early to the PTR," he says. "By the time it gets to PTR we've done a ton of testing on our own to be confident it's not going to do weird things. There times we have pushed it out publicly where we got different feedback from the public versus what the team has experienced. It's just a question of exactly what's involved in ensuring that change is not destructive."
The conversation moves on to Overwatch's game modes. At its core, the game remains a six versus six competitive experience, though the developers have experimented with cooperative player versus enemy (PvE) modes for special events based on certain story arcs such as Uprising and Retribution. Expect the trend to continue due to how popular they are with the game's fan base as well as being "really interesting design challenges" for the Overwatch team.
"We've been very pleased with the response to our PvE events, some of our highest engagement are for events like Uprising and Retribution," he says. "We get a clear sense not just from our fans but from those on our team that PvE has long legs. It's super deep and is a different kind of design experience too. We spend so much time thinking about what the six versus experience is and how these characters bounce off each other. With PvE we wonder about where enemies stream in from, how drop ships enter. All these things are really interesting design challenges."
On the topic of Overwatch challenges, we wondered what would happen if Bob, the robot sidekick of new hero Ashe were to be introduced to the game as a hero himself. In the game, Bob is Ashe's ultimate ability — on being summoned he tears opponents down with machine gun fire from his arms. In fact, Bob can be healed and hacked by others and is even treated as a player hero when contesting or capturing objectives in Overwatch's game modes. If Bob were to be added to a game as a playable character, would Ashe's ultimate ability change?
Sonny did not confirm nor deny Bob's addition to the Overwatch roster, plainly stating that "Bob is now her ultimate."
On being pressed further, he left us with this. "In your hypothetical scenario it would probably have to."
Disclosure: Blizzard sponsored the correspondent's flights and hotel for BlizzCon 2018.
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