When Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan took the stage at Blizzcon 2019, most in attendance knew that Overwatch 2 was coming. Leaks had circulated online just days prior, and reporting as far back as June had pegged internal changes at Blizzard to the sequel's development. Kaplan himself couldn't ignore the issue, jokingly addressing the leaks during the announcement. While Overwatch 2 wasn't a surprise, another bit of news was: Most of the sequel's new features will be playable in the original Overwatch, and players of both games will co-exist in a shared world online.
Outside of upcoming player-versus-environment (PVE) modes, Overwatch 2's new heroes, skins, maps, and player-versus-player (PVP) modes are coming to Overwatch 1. The reverse is also true: All cosmetics and progress can be transferred from the first game to the sequel. Support will continue for both titles, and eventually, the two experiences will be merged into one unified client.
It's a consumer-friendly approach, since Blizzard is pledging not to leave Overwatch 1 players behind. But in practice, it also raises several questions: Given continued support for Overwatch and an eventual merge, why call Overwatch 2 a sequel? And, with co-mingled content, will current Overwatch players have enough incentive to buy the sequel? If not, does that make Overwatch 2 a financial risk?
Based on what has been revealed, it's been stated that Overwatch 2 looks more like a paid expansion than a true sequel, and Blizzard's messaging thus far has painted a confusing picture.
"For us as gamers, sequels make us nervous more than anything else," Kaplan said nearing the end of his Blizzcon 2019 address. "So, what we're hoping to do with Overwatch 2 is really redefine what a sequel means."
In a phone interview, Kaplan called the game a sequel in terms of artistic and creative direction. It's a way for Blizzard to repackage and re-imagine the franchise in a new light. To Kaplan, Overwatch 2 "isn't as controversial as it sounds." From his point of view, it's incomparable to DLC because the content for Overwatch 2 is considerably larger.
"This isn't just DLC or an expansion," Kaplan said in the interview. "I play a lot of games. I can't think of a single DLC or expansion of this magnitude."
Blizzard is keeping additional heroes and modes under wraps, so we don't know how massive Overwatch 2 will be. However, there have been recent examples of expansions or DLCs with extensive new content. Destiny 2′s paid expansion, Shadowkeep, for example, includes new missions, a new raid, new PVE locations, PVP maps, a revamped armour system, new weapons and exotic gear. But at least some of that content will be made available to existing Overwatch owners.
Kaplan believes that Overwatch 2's central hook of PVE will be enough to incentivize players to purchase it, since a portion of the Overwatch audience has long clamoured for a better exploration of the franchise's lore and story.
"There's so many people who are deeply engaged with our characters because we've put these heroes in the forefront," Kaplan said. "People have fallen in love with them who aren't necessarily the best PVP players, and they have a tough time sometimes in a competitive setting. They would love to engage with the characters in a way that is a little bit less high pressure to them. So we felt like, you know, if we could deliver one really massive feature to our fans, it would be to blow out the co-operative side of the game."
The question of the game's future success could focus on whether the Overwatch fanbase, which has been almost entirely PVP to this point, is in fact clamouring for a PVE counterpart set in the same universe. Up until this point, Overwatch has been light on narrative, leaving eagle-eyed fans to pore over character reveal teasers - which resemble animated Pixar shorts - and the series' official comics. Kaplan says Overwatch 2 will be "a complete story experience like you would expect from any triple-A blockbuster game." Kaplan didn't specify how long the campaign would be since it's still in development, but promised it would be "significant." The team is exploring a live-service approach for it as well, so that new content can be added regularly.
PVE modes aren't completely new to Overwatch; previous iterations, like Uprising, appeared as limited-time events that players could participate in for free. Overwatch 2's PVE mode sounds more involved than in the past, but risk on the sales front is that the new PVE experience won't be enough to entice purchasers.
Michael Pachter, who studies the video game market for Wedbush securities, pointed out that the motivation for a sequel, as opposed to focusing solely on the live service aspects of the original, is tied to revenue.
"You don't need a new game," Pachter said. "You can drop a new map every six months. But if you did that, you're not making enough money; you're just making the existing install base happy."
The belief is that Overwatch 2 will be more of an expansion to a familiar blueprint rather than a true sequel, and that both games will continue to receive live updates.
Kaplan disputed a recent report that suggested Overwatch development had suffered because of the sequel. "In one of [our] developer updates we were very upfront with our audience and said, 'We are no longer going to focus on the seasonal events. That's not going to be what's driving our development. We're going to focus on quality of life features, other big social features that we're interested [in]' and that's exactly what we did," Kaplan said.
Kaplan said the team has more than doubled in size to accommodate for development on the sequel, and that there's "really cool content and plans" for the upcoming year. "It's a challenge, but it's one that we're excited to meet," he said.
Similar arrangements have aroused player scepticism in the past. Ten years ago, Valve faced a minor uprising within its Left 4 Dead community. After the announcement of Left 4 Dead 2, thousands of players pledged online to boycott it. Fans felt the sequel came too quickly after the original release, lacked substantial changes, and could mean a new entry would come at the expense of support for the original. Valve addressed some of these concerns and vowed to continue updating the original. Valve did so, with smaller updates and patches continuing for Left 4 Dead, but dedicated its larger post-launch content for Left 4 Dead 2. Despite the controversy, the sequel performed well, receiving positive reviews and selling two million units only two weeks after launch.
How this plays out for Overwatch remains to be seen, as, in the days since Left 4 Dead 2, new business models have gained traction with the rise of esports and microtransactions, which has made the live service model more lucrative to game publishers. However, microtransactions, and in particular loot boxes, have also had a tendency to grate on consumers, even as they've proven to be financially successful.
To complicate matters, sequels in the games-as-service space are tricky as resources can be taxed to support updates across multiple titles. Most studios end support for the previous title and focus their efforts on the next game. Rockstar and DICE, for example, have opted for traditional routes: Grand Theft Auto Online and Battlefield V's predecessors have largely been abandoned. Bungie similarly focused its energy on Destiny 2 upon launch and ended support for its predecessor.
Moving forward, Pachter believes it would be in Blizzard's best interest to make Overwatch 1 free-to-play, thereby broadening its user base and increasing the potential for those new users to purchase additional in-game content, or the sequel. The free-to-play model has been financially successful for titles like Fortnite and Apex Legends, and more live service games are experimenting with it, like Destiny 2′s New Light.
"I think they're taking baby steps with Overwatch," Pachter said. "By announcing Overwatch 2, which sounds like [it would release in] 2021 at the earliest, or more likely 2022, you've got a year or two to play around and maybe move Overwatch to free-to-play and see how it works. And I think that if you make Overwatch 1 free-to-play and Overwatch 2 costs money, then in 2024 or 2025, you make Overwatch 2 free-to-play. And then you have Overwatch 3 coming out. I think that's the model."
It's unclear exactly what Overwatch 2's business model will be or what price Blizzard will place on the new game. Kaplan said those talks haven't begun in earnest. When they do, Blizzard wants to consider what benefits players best, he said.
"We are constantly studying different business models and different games," Kaplan said. "We're fans of many games out there. Fortnite and Apex Legends, those are fantastic games. And then we're really lucky here at Blizzard that if you look across our portfolio, we have almost every business model represented.
"Ultimately, what we want to lead the discussion is what creates the best player experience. And that's going to be the theme that we've put in the forefront when deciding what the right business model is."
© The Washington Post 2019