When Overwatch fans realized that developer Blizzard Entertainment planned to restrict access to new Overwatch 2 heroes — like the just-revealed support ninja Kiriko — behind the game’s battle pass system, they (rightfully) had strong concerns. Blocking all players from accessing all heroes seems to run counter to the original game’s design. In the first Overwatch, players had unfettered access to the entire roster, enabling them to switch up a team’s lineup and counter-pick heroes on the fly.
But Blizzard believes that the switch to charge for new heroes, or ask players to spend time earning them, in Overwatch 2 does not inherently imbalance the game. Overwatch 2 will remain competitive and fair, in Blizzard’s opinion, if some players get access to new heroes later, and the studio also believes that there are important distinctions that separate the original, 6-year-old Overwatch from its upcoming free-to-play sequel.
“We do believe that Overwatch is a highly competitive game, and we think that that’s something that resonates with our players,” Overwatch game director Aaron Keller said in a Zoom call with media on Tuesday. “And even with this change, we think that it will continue to be a highly competitive game. We know that that’s really important for our players, and we have heard [that players] are worried about the difference in access to heroes per team. We think that there are a lot of changes to the game and a lot of details in this system, where we think that the game will still be highly competitive after we go live with this.”
Keller pointed out the five-hero structure of team compositions in Overwatch 2, certain hero reworks, and new passive abilities for some roles will have a substantial impact on how players pick characters and switch them out midmatch. Overwatch 2, he said, is less of a “rock, paper, scissors” game than the original that launched in 2016.
“One of the big differences with 5v5 combat is that we’ve tuned a lot of the heroes in the game, and we’ve made changes to reduce the amount of hard counters that Overwatch has,” Keller said. “We want the game to be a little bit more organic. We want people to have more impact, but we also want them to have more freedom in what hero they’re choosing for any particular situation.
“If you think of some of the old matchups that we had in the game, if a Tracer player was harassing your back line, and going after your supports, somebody on your team could switch to Cassidy,” Keller continued. “Cassidy is a great counter for Tracer. And if the Cassidy player was good enough, the correct response from the Tracer player was to just swap to another hero. They didn’t really have a good answer for that. Going forward, what we’ve done is, we’re trying to take some of those really hard rock, paper, scissors interactions out of the game, and replacing them with more player choice. So for that particular interaction, we’ve buffed our support heroes to make them more survivable so that they now have the ability to resolve that situation with Tracer with a higher success rate on their own.”
Keller also said that some of the rules that applied to the original Overwatch — which launched with 21 heroes — are no longer valid after six years’ worth of updates, roster additions, and balance adjustments.
“When we were originally making Overwatch, we had considered making it as a free-to play-game with a limited hero roster and limited hero pools available to players,” Keller said. “In that world, players would have had a very small choice of heroes available to them to play at any time, unless they put money into the game.
“We’re in a really different situation right now. When [Overwatch 2] launches, there will be 35 heroes available to pick from. If you’re a new player to the game, and season 1, without putting any money into the system, you will have 34 of those heroes available for you to pick from. Over the course of season 1, you can unlock that 35th hero if you play regularly. So it’s a completely different situation that we have right now.”
Blizzard has player data that supports its decision — data indicating that many players only play and switch between a subset of the broader roster, according to Keller.
“The majority of our players play a relatively small number of heroes,” he said. “When they do switch heroes, we believe it’s because they’re switching to a hero that they’re familiar with, a hero that they’re effective with, and a hero that they are having fun with. And as the players get to be a higher and higher skill level, that band of heroes they play, it actually narrows, because it takes a really long time to get good at a hero to play at that level. We think that the higher level a player is, the more time they’ll be putting into the game. So the chances of them having either unlocked the hero on the free track of the battle pass, or just using coins that they’ve collected in previous seasons to upgrade to the premium battle pass, is pretty high. We want players to catch up and unlock all of the heroes. If you were to come to the game late a year down the line, we have a lot of avenues for you to play.”
Jon Spector, commercial leader and vice president for Overwatch, said that Blizzard has “put a ton of time and energy into discussing how to make this system fairer for players, how to make sure that we’re preserving the competitive integrity of our game.”
“That observation that Aaron made — about how hero swapping works in reality — was pretty eye-opening for me when we first started working on this,” Spector said. “What we actually see in the data is that a majority of players in Overwatch have a majority of their play time on two or fewer heroes. And you can get to 99.9% of play time for a majority of our players with 12 or fewer heroes. They have a cast of 30 right now, and [when] you look at how people are actually playing the game there, they’re using a couple of heroes for most of how they play. Sometimes they’ll swap and they’ll add in a couple more heroes.
“So when we say, ‘Is it actually going to impact the play experience if someone has 34 out of 35 heroes?’ when we look at the data, we feel really confident that it’s not going to.”
Keller said that as Blizzard has designed and rebalanced heroes for Overwatch 2’s 5v5 team composition, it has strived to make the game “a little bit more organic and a little bit more fluid,” and to “decrease the reliance on hard counters.”
“There will still be some of those in the game,” Keller said, “and there will probably be times in the future where we develop a hero that might have a new mechanic on it. It could take us a little while to get our head around the right way to handle that hero. But generally [...] we still think that team compositions, hero picking, and counter-picking is an important elements of the game; we just don’t want it to be the only correct answer.”
“Even with this change of putting heroes in the battle pass, we think that with all of the other systems that we have in place, and with the additional ways of unlocking heroes and some of the ways that Overwatch has changed over time and the way that we’re changing Overwatch for Overwatch 2 [...] we will still have a highly competitive game, even though some of the systems and some of the decisions that we’ve made to get there are different than what we started with.”
Of course, there’s also the business reality facing Overwatch 2. It’s free-to-play, and Blizzard needs to generate revenue somewhere. Why not try to make some of it on the content that players care about the most and is far and away the most expensive and time-consuming content to make?
“When we looked at making the transition to free-to-play, one of the great goals we had was to be able to give [original] Overwatch players what they wanted, which was just continuous delivery of content,” said Walter Kong, general manager for Overwatch. “We know [that] because players have been telling us that that’s what keeps them engaged over the long term. At the same time, as part of long-term franchise goals, we really want to be able to grow Overwatch to broaden its reach to many more players and fans. And in doing so, in being able to deliver that abundant content, we’ve made decisions to continue to grow our team.
“Our core development team has roughly tripled in size since the launch of Overwatch, and we have many more folks working on the game on partner teams, and we want to be able to continually invest in this live-game service,” Kong said. “So from the perspective of the business, this isn’t free. We spent a long time knowing how important this would be to players; we spent a long time thinking through how to be able to fund our continuous development of the game in a way that would still present fair and enjoyable experiences for all players, whether they choose to pay, or whether they choose to play for free. And our approach in terms of players who pay is to deliver a tremendous amount of value.
Added Kong, “Why put heroes into the battle pass? Well, the heroes are the single most engaging content that we have in the game. And as we designed this model, it seemed to be a very strong fit, to put those heroes into our new engagement systems. There is this goal to be able to not just deliver a great experience on launch in October, but to be able to continuously deliver content and experiences for years and years to come.”
Overwatch 2, and its debut season, launches Oct. 4 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. A second season is expected to go live in December.