Overwatch’s first competitive season has officially wrapped, but principal designer Scott Mercer and the rest of the developers at Blizzard don’t sound like they’re taking any breaks. Instead, they’re talking up some of the major differences Competitive Play’s sophomore outing will boast — changes they’ve been pitching directly to fans since shortly after the onset of the first season’s debut.
"For season two, there was a lot of player feedback," Mercer told Polygon during Gamescom 2016. Overwatch’s staunch fanbase has been communicating what it liked — and hated — about the tier-based mode’s first season since right after it launched in June, and it didn’t take long for team members like Mercer and game director Jeff Kaplan to respond to their concerns, oftentimes directly.
"The sudden death change [which made the tie-breaking mechanic appear less frequently than in beta], we thought that was going to work," Mercer said as an example of a major point of frustration for dedicated Overwatch players. "That was the situation were players were like, ‘No!’ We were like, ‘Well, okay, we read you’ — [on] forums and team members and Reddit and so forth."
Other changes include a revamp of the skill rating system, which will replace vague numbers with more identifiable tiers, like "master" and "gold." Drawn from direct competitor feedback, season two’s new features are meant to help players foster deep-rooted attachments to the game, Mercer told us. That’s a top priority for the team behind the multiplayer-focused franchise that’s already found a massive audience.
"Well, okay, we read you"
"We’re building a relationship [with the players[ over time," he said. "We're gonna keep on updating the game. If you wanna keep on playing it, we’ll be there for you."
That includes on community forums and in developer update videos. Blizzard’s Overwatch team makes it a point to keep abreast of what’s working well or not for the game’s 15 million players, Mercer said. Players will often see them pop up in Battle.net forum threads, answering questions and detailing plans to address any issues. After Competitive Play launched, Kaplan wrote in a post that sudden death would be going away in the fall, based on just days of feedback.
Mercer can be found online as well, talking back to his game’s fans on a regular basis. When he’s not interacting directly with the community, he’s reading their comments, he said. As the mastermind behind Overwatch’s competitive game mode, it’s integral for Mercer to keep up with players; it’s essentially part of the job.
Part of that means following along with the alternate reality game that’s emerged within the most dedicated subset of fans over a possible new hero coming to the game, Sombra. "Game detectives," as they call themselves, have been seeking out clues that they suggest point toward her existence in myriad places, from warped screenshots to tweets from Blizzard itself.
"Whatever might or might not be happening with Sombra is good for her," Mercer said by way of acknowledging the game’s biggest mystery.
Between the possible new hero — who would be the second to join the game following the introduction of Ana last month — and the first additional map that’s out next month (Eichenwalde, a German castle town revealed, appropriately, during Gamescom in Cologne), it could seem like Overwatch fever has grown at a wild pace.
"It's going to be a challenge" to keep the fans from burning out on new content
The game’s been built up by players even before they had their hands on it; although it went through several beta phases prior to its May launch, both closed and open, Overwatch fans had already become so devoted to its lore and universe — little of which appears within the first-person, hero-based shooter itself — that Polygon had a timeline tracking it all ready to go before the game even hit shelves.
The bigger picture concern, then, may be whether Blizzard can sustain the community for the longterm. As the developer of long-lasting titles like World of Warcraft and StarCraft, this may not seem like an issue; certainly the speed with which the team addresses complaints about Competitive Play and weak or overpowered characters inspires confidence. But Mercer admitted that keeping the millions of Overwatch fans from burning out on the game too soon was on his mind.
"It’s really, for us, a matter of appropriately pacing out the content we’re creating," he said of the tweaks and additions that the game will continue to receive throughout its lifetime. "We want to make sure it doesn’t come out too fast. It’s just timing and appropriate content. Some of those [decisions] are based on how long it takes to make [the content]. I think it’s gonna be a challenge, going forth."
In other words, don’t expect the Sombra mystery to be cleared up so quickly or new maps to arrive on a regular basis.
"We’re gonna be releasing new heroes and maps for free," Mercer said. "How long it takes between those is something we’ll have to adjust over time, we believe. We’ll just have to see."
At least Overwatch players know when they can jump back into the shaken up Competitive Play season; it begins Sept. 6.