This week, Blizzard announced that its next game, the hero-focused shooter Overwatch, wasn't going to be a free-to-play game. That Blizzard would pursue the business model that it employed with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft and Heroes of the Storm was a widely held assumption. But game director Jeff Kaplan said there's a good reason Blizzard is releasing Overwatch as a full-priced game.
"We really made the decision on the business model based on what we thought was right for the gameplay," Kaplan told Polygon in an interview at BlizzCon. "If you've played a lot of Overwatch, you know that hero-switching [mid-match] is a core part of it — it's a really fun dynamic part. The difference maker between ... Overwatch and other games is the fluidity in the team compositions and matching what the other team's doing.
"A lot of the free-to-play models that we were exploring involved people not having access to enough heroes to make those team compositions actually viable. We really didn't want to change the core gameplay and limit it in some way just to make the game free-to-play."
Kaplan said the decision was also in part driven by Blizzard's fans.
"We saw a lot of feedback coming from the community, almost like a fatigue with, like, 'I'm trying to figure out how I'm gonna play this game. I really want [to play as the heroes] Mei, Widowmaker and Reaper, so what formula do I need to figure out in order for that to happen?'"
Releasing Overwatch as a $60 product — Blizzard is also selling a $40 version exclusively for PC — was, Blizzard thought, a "fair deal for the player."
"What you see is what you get; here's the game, here's the 21 heroes, we think they're amazing, we think the the gameplay's fantastic," Kaplan said. "That traditional [business] model removed some of that stress of, if [one player] needs to be Roadhog and [one] needs to be Junkrat, [the team can do that]. They're all going to be available to you — have it all."
Tim Ford, lead gameplay programmer on Overwatch, said it took Blizzard a long time to figure that out, even though it has plenty of experience with both traditional and free-to-play business models.
"We take inspiration from a whole bunch of different games, even our own games at Blizzard," Ford said. "A year ago, we didn't know how we were going to sell this game, it wasn't until we learned what Overwatch was that we were in a position to make that decision.
"It's not our intention to dodge the question"
Blizzard's fans have expressed concern about the developer's plans for post-launch content: Will the studio add new heroes? Will it sell them? How will it sell them? How much will they cost? Kaplan said those are commonly asked questions, but that he doesn't have an answer yet. Blizzard is still figuring that out, he said. And it's looking to the Overwatch community for direction on its future design plans.
"It's not our intention to dodge the question," Kaplan said. "We don't have a concrete answer on what happens after the initial launch in terms of heroes. There was one misconception that we're gonna have 21 at launch and then we're going to have a hero store with additional heroes, and that couldn't be further from the truth.
"I'm hoping that some time next week that we patch in the three new heroes in and then we just want to see the ecosystem with those three heroes in. I think that's gonna answer 'How many heroes can we have? Is there room for a lot more? A little more? How's the game feel? Does it feel solid and balanced?'"
"We're just getting into beta, we are not done with all the game systems yet," Ford added. "The combination of the game systems that we introduced and the feedback from the community is gonna direct us on how we're going to give players access to new content."
"our entire focus is those 21 heroes at launch"
"In terms of if we decide [to add post-launch DLC]," Kaplan continued, "it would be a combination of us wanting for us to make more heroes and the community feeling like new heroes should be added to the game — if they think the metagame's stale and it would really mix it up or we're really excited to add this damage type or that gameplay mechanic. Then I think it's a matter of exploring the health of the game post-launch, what the community's like, what is the community tolerant of and not tolerant of. But our entire focus is those 21 heroes at launch.
"It's not one of those things where we know exactly what we're going to do and we're waiting to spring it on you. We're reading all the feedback right now and taking it into account."
While the closed multiplayer beta will offer a look at the full game's roster, Kaplan said there's still more to come in terms of game modes for Overwatch. Blizzard has been experimenting with new modes, he said, but many of the developer's experiments with traditional game modes just don't translate well to a hero-driven game.
"We do a lot of prototyping on game modes," Kaplan said. "The company, the team and the community are all dying for game modes. We are very hopeful to introduce a new game mode into Overwatch, but the main driving design philosophy behind it to us is that we don't want to do anything that makes the heroes not the main focus of the game or takes away from the hero abilities."
A great example is capture the flag, he said, which doesn't mesh well with Overwatch's game systems.
"We tried capture the flag in Overwatch. We don't like it," he said. "You either have it wind up being a match of all Tracers and Genjis, or you end up putting so many rules in that Tracer doesn't feel like Tracer anymore or there's no reason to play her in the map.
"We also tried both a three- and five-point linear control map where teams would push and pull against each other. We found that what ended up happening is the roles sort of went away... The big point though is we're constantly prototyping. We're always building more of the same maps we know that work and have great Overwatch gameplay, but we have a constant side project of prototyping new maps and I'm very hopeful that we'll introduce one sooner rather than later."