Blizzard's competitive hero-based shooter, Overwatch, returns in closed beta today after a two-month hiatus. The latest version of the game includes Blizzard's new progression and reward systems, a new game mode, and a host of other changes informed by Overwatch's beta testing.
The newest version of the beta also includes something of a surprise: an extensive list of new custom game options for players to tinker with.
Overwatch's new progression system, how players level and how they're rewarded, is something Blizzard's been working on for a long time. And after a few failed attempts, the Overwatch team has devised something that, they hope, is fun, simple and satisfying for players.
"We landed on a progression system that's been a lot of fun in our internal testing," game director Jeff Kaplan told Polygon in an interview. "You as a player have a level, a single level for your whole Overwatch play experience."
"We didn't want to put anything in there that affected your power advantage"
Players will gain experience and level up in Overwatch simply by playing matches. There's no level cap, Kaplan said, likening Overwatch's leveling system to Diablo 3's Paragon scheme, which lets players level up forever after they've reached a character level cap.
"It also doesn't matter what hero you play; it all goes into one pool," Kaplan explained.
As players level up in Overwatch, they'll earn rewards, like portrait borders for character portraits. Every time they level up, they'll also get a loot box, which spawns with "at least" four cosmetic items. Those items come in four flavors of rarity that will be familiar to any Blizzard fan: common, rare, epic and legendary.
Kaplan emphasized that all that loot is 100 percent cosmetic. "We didn't want to put anything in there that affected your power advantage," he said.
Those loot boxes can drop new character skins, new emote animations and voice-over lines that players can use to customize their Overwatch heroes. Loot boxes can also contain other cosmetic perks, like victory poses, character sprays that can be painted on in-game surfaces and character avatars that show off "the expression of who you are as a player," Kaplan said.
Players who aren't satisfied with their loot drops, whether it be because they haven't unlocked something for a hero they play often or because they unlocked a duplicate item, have some recourse. Overwatch will let players cash in duplicate loot box items for in-game credits, which can then be spent on other cosmetic items. Kaplan noted that some loot boxes will also contain credits.
Overwatch beta players will be able to browse all those cosmetic goodies in the game's new Hero Gallery, a front end that lets players see all those skins, animations and taunts in action.
Naturally, with the availability of loot drops and coveted cosmetic items, comes the question: Can Overwatch players buy this stuff with real money? Not yet. But eventually.
Kaplan said the Overwatch team recognizes the desire to buy these cosmetic perks immediately, instead of waiting for a loot box.
"We're very open to that," he said. "We don't have anything like that implemented yet but what we are exploring is giving players the opportunity to buy loot boxes outright. Right now, we're thinking that at some point, we'll put up a shop — think, like, the Hearthstone store where you can buy card packs, and make that available to you. Obviously if you never want to do that, the leveling goes pretty fast. But if you're the kind of person that says, 'I'm getting that Tracer skin tonight, come hell or high water, and I'm just gonna buy loot boxes until it happens' — that's something we're very excited to try to players at some point."
Kaplan said that Blizzard will continue to develop and release new cosmetic items up to and beyond launch. And it's looking to player feedback for guidance on what to focus on.
"The first stage of this beta is seeing what players react to. We made a lot of assumptions about what we thought was cool, but I'm really looking forward to seeing which items do players value the most and think are the coolest. Let's figure out: Are there new items that we could be making that don't even exist yet, or are there more of certain item types we should be making more of? What types of content do players want?"
In addition to the new progression and rewards system, the Overwatch beta includes a new gametype, Control. Kaplan likened the new mode to a King of the Hill-style gametype, but tweaked "in a particular way that's real fun for Overwatch."
Each Control map will have three capture points and each team's goal is to capture those points. Control matches are best-of-three, so whichever team captures two points wins. But only one control point per round is in play. If the first two rounds result in a tie, the action moves to a third unique point on the map where players have to battle it out.
"It's super fun," Kaplan said. "I think this game mode will really attract players who are into team-fighting. It's a very different flavor than [Overwatch's other game types] Assault and Escort."
Beta players will get to try out Control mode on two new maps in the beta, one set in China and one set in Nepal.
"I think that's the hidden feature that's going to blow players away"
Some of the bigger changes coming in the beta are new ways to play existing maps and modes. Blizzard has added a practice range that's filled with AI-controlled training bots. Kaplan called it a "playground for heroes to experiment with abilities." There are also new custom game options that already sound extensive, though Kaplan said it's just the beginning for Overwatch.
"We blew out the feature list for it," Kaplan said. "I think that's the hidden feature that's going to blow players away...
"Previously we had private games [where] you and your buddies could spin up a match on a single map. When that game was over, it would spit you back to the lobby and you'd press play and do it again or maybe pick a new map. Well now with custom games you can set up a whole map rotation. You can include or exclude any map that you want, so if you only want to play Control maps, you can do that. If you want to play every map but King's Row, you can do that."
Some of the other changes coming in custom games seem aimed squarely at competitive play, while others can make Overwatch ... just weird.
"We went crazy with the rule sets that we put in the players' hands," Kaplan said. "They can make it so they're not allowed to have Tracer, for example, or you can start a custom game where everyone has to play as McCree or Genji or Hanzo, and that's it. You can make it so there can only be one unique hero per game, meaning only one person per game can be Tracer or Zarya. You can set up one unique hero per team, or two ... We have a rule in there where every time your player dies, it randomly respawns you as a hero — you don't get to pick. We have a mode where you can turn hero-switching off if you want.
"And beyond all that crazy hero stuff we have what I call the 'Embrace your inner game designer' rules. You can tweak it so every player has double the hit points they normally have, or one-quarter. You can make it headshots-only. You can turn off the kill cam for everybody in the match. You can disable skins, nameplates ... there's all these features that are coming in."
Kaplan stressed that the beta's custom game options were just the tip of the iceberg and that the Overwatch team has larger plans to support competitive play and esports.
"it's important for everyone to know we're embracing Overwatch wholeheartedly as an esport"
"I feel like these custom game rule sets, it's just the first step toward what we need to do for the competitive community," he said. "We have a lot more planned. We improved some of the spectator camera work, but we have a lot more broadcasting and polish features we want to add. I hope that the competitive community sees this as our first offering. We're really trying to prove through these beta patches that this game isn't done; we're really building the game now and it's going to make a lot of progress.
"We've been working really hard on esports; it's important for everyone to know we're embracing Overwatch wholeheartedly as an esport," Kaplan said, saying that Blizzard hopes to reveal additional details about its plans there soon.
"We're also actively working on our plans for ranked play," he said. "We're doing our best to get that in by launch. If we can't make it for launch, we hope to have those features in shortly after, but we're going to die trying."
Given that the game is still in very active development and that some features may eventually slip past Overwatch's launch date, I asked Kaplan how confident he was in hitting the game's springtime launch window.
"I'm feeling great," he said. "I'm so excited for [the beta relaunch], because I think players are going to be blown away with the progress they see in the game. I hope they recognize why there's a good reason we've been keeping the beta small. And there's a good reason we went dark for two months. I'm hoping they see these changes we've made, and the features we've added, and how much development is going on with the game."