Many games try to achieve depth through complexity.
They might include dozens of weapon options, multiple kinds of customizable gear and complicated menu systems for managing everything. They might try to give you multiple ways of solving the problems they throw at you, usually by offering combat and stealth options in different combinations.
But the biggest multiplayer titles are often the best when they’re at their simplest: forcing players to work with a limited set of options, and mandating a certain play style. Repeating the same activity doesn’t have to become boring or tiresome, as long as that action is polished enough.
I’m going to talk about a couple of the most straightforward characters in two popular games — Reaper from Overwatch and Warwick from League of Legends — and discuss what makes them so enjoyable, even though they both lock you into a very particular style.
The Reaper comes for your souls
Reaper is among the least nuanced characters in all of gaming. He wears a black trenchcoat and a skull mask, and he talks about death all the time. That’s his entire personality. He’s like an extra-emo version of Skeletor, but he’s also my favorite character in Overwatch by a huge margin.
Reaper doesn’t have a lot of buttons to press. He offers no alternate fire. He has limited combat mobility.
What he does have is a pair of shotguns that fire hitscan pellets that deal massive damage at close range, although that efficacy falls off sharply at even medium distances. He’s the deadliest character in the game if he’s next to a target.
Reaper has only two basic abilities to help him get into that position: Shadow Step and Wraith Form. Shadow Step allows Reaper to teleport to any location he can see, with a pretty long range, but it’s intentionally designed to be too unwieldy to use in combat. There is a lengthy animation when he begins the move, and another when he arrives at his destination. There’s also a visual effect that shows opponents where he’s going, so he generally only wants to use this move to travel between spots opponents can’t see.
Wraith Form makes Reaper incorporeal for a few seconds. This increases his movement speed, removes most harmful debuffs and makes him invulnerable to damage. He also can’t attack when this move is active. The Wraith Form ability is his only safe way to disengage from a fight; he has no other effective way to escape or mitigate damage when it’s on cooldown.
These abilities funnel the player to a single, but fun, gameplay loop: You use Shadow Step to sneak through, around or over the various choke points on Overwatch’s maps without crossing opponents’ sight lines to tip them off to your location, and then you sneak up behind the enemy team, try to pick off somebody squishy and important, and use Wraith Form to get to safety before the entire enemy team focuses fire on you.
Reaper’s ultimate ability, Death Blossom, is a channeled power that sends massive damage in an area around Reaper for three seconds. Opponents can shut it down by hitting Reaper with a crowd control ability or just killing him, so you want to use it when you can catch your opponents unaware, usually by jumping down into the middle of their team from high ground or by using Shadow Step to get into a favorable position for an ambush.
In other words, most of what you do when you play Reaper is shoot people in the back. Then, when you charge up your ult, you shoot everybody in the back.
Warwick, the Uncaged Wrath of Zaun
His Q ability, Jaws of the Beast, causes him to lunge forward and bite his target. Warwick clamps his jaws onto the other player and swings around to the other side if you hold the button down.
His E ability, Primal Howl, causes Warwick to take reduced damage for a couple of seconds. At the end of the duration, or if the player activates the ability by pressing E again, Warwick howls at the end of the buff, or the player can hit E again, and nearby enemies will briefly flee in fear.
So Warwick can use Jaws of the Beast to clamp onto a player and leap between them and the tower if a player is running toward safety, and then trigger Primal Howl to cause them to run in the opposite direction. Warwick then has a few seconds to tear the other player to shreds. This combo is about as complicated as Warwick gets.
Warwick’s W ability, Blood Hunt, creates scent trails that lead Warwick to the locations of injured enemy players. That means Warwick, like Reaper, has fewer combat abilities than most characters in their games. Warwick moves faster when chasing injured players and he gets a buff that allows him to attack faster when he finds them. He can activate the ability, on a long cooldown, to temporarily gain these bonuses against healthy opponents. Since this ability is mostly passive, Warwick has fewer combat abilities than most League champs.
His ultimate ability, Infinite Duress, feels like an amplified version of his basic gameplay. He can leap toward an enemy from a long range, grab them and pin them in place as he slashes at them. Like Reaper’s, Warwick’s spare but synergistic kit pushes you into a specific play style.
How are these guys alike?
These characters have kits that are highly specialized. You almost have to play a specific way when you select them. Warwick needs to hunt isolated, injured characters, and Reaper needs to flank the enemy team looking for an opportunity to score kills, because so much of Warwick’s power is tied up in the bonuses he gets against low-health targets, and Reaper’s short range means he can get picked off by enemies who see him coming.
These are high-stakes roles. Warwick’s strongest phase is the early game, when opponents are separated for their laning phases and don’t have access to their abilities and items. He tends to fall behind if he doesn’t get kills early in the game, especially if he dies diving a tower or dueling the opposing jungler.
Similarly, Reaper can kill off someone like Mercy to put his team at a sizable advantage. But if he fails and dies in the attempt, his team will have to fight with one player down.
You either make plays or get played with these two characters. Either your opponents fear you or they laugh at you. They’re simple to learn, but playing them well takes skill and judgment.
What’s so good about this?
By locking things down in this way, the developers of Overwatch and League can build a character’s weapon or basic attack, their abilities, and the way they move around the map to work together.
Each character is designed to have a single thing that they’re trying to do in service of the larger objective of winning the game, and this is perhaps most true in the case of characters with minimalist kits, like Reaper and Warwick. It shows a purity of design that ends up being more enjoyable than limiting.
You always have a goal in online games like Call of Duty or in PvP modes in games like Destiny: to get the most kills, to hold a control point or to capture a flag. But things can start to feel unfocused because there are so many potential loadouts and ways to approach the game’s objective, and since they’re each interchangeable, they’re never as coherent as something like Reaper’s or Warwick’s kits.
Your grenades or your mobility weapons are independent of your guns, rather than part of a comprehensive vision of a play style. Even Destiny’s exotic weapons, which are designed to foster unique and distinctive play, don’t bring much personality to PvP. They’re just weapons that are put on top of your character’s abilities, instead of being something that’s designed to be a part of a whole.
Simpler, but not necessarily easier
Compared to characters with more elaborate kits or specific mechanics, simpler combatants in games like League and Overwatch bring core skills and mechanics to the forefront.
Having fewer things to do or focus on makes your performance contingent on positioning, awareness and use of vision in League. Having a very focused role also forces you to rely on your map knowledge and your aim in Overwatch.
The reason these guys can have their entire kits built around their attacking strategy is that they’re designed with the expectation that you will play them proactively. When you’re Reaper or Warwick, you should get to pick your battles, and your opponents have to respond to your actions.
But your whole kit is tied up in “Plan A,” so there is no contingency. If you make poor choices, you will cost your team the game. That means these play styles deliver the power fantasy while still involving enough risk to keep things fair and interesting, and require you to cultivate and express your skill.
It can be surprising how games like Overwatch and League of Legends can offer the player freedom and creativity by almost forcing them to doing the same thing over and over again, and how games that seem to give you a lot of customizability can so often wind up making everything feel homogenous. Developers who know how to create simple but effective characters in complex games strengthen their communities, and give players another way to approach the game. More online games should be taking notes.