Overwatch had a busy BlizzCon. Not only is the hit team-based shooter receiving a new hero, the healer Moira, but we’re also getting Blizzard World, a new map that’s like Disneyland meets Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo.
Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s game director, made both announcements during BlizzCon’s opening ceremonies on November 3. That same day, we were able to sit down with him. We learned more about Moira and how Kaplan expects people to play (and kill) her. We also got to delve into the inspiration for Blizzard World.
But our Overwatch talk went beyond the recent announcements. We also asked Kaplan about Mercy, her problematic resurrection abilities, and how Blizzard is trying to fix her. Kaplan also talked about how Blizzard is combatting toxicity inside the game.
And we defended Hanzo mains, because Hanzo is good and people need to stop being mean to him and the people who love him.
GamesBeat: Overwatch has a new healer.
Jeff Kaplan: Moira Odoran, yeah. Don’t ask me to spell it.
GamesBeat: Players have been clamoring for a healer. I know these characters are in development far in advance, but did it just happen that this was the next one to come out? Or did it come to a point where players were saying they wanted a healer and maybe you needed to push healer a little faster?
Kaplan: We have a pretty good instinct for the game. Our instinct was toward a healer. I felt like there are some cases where we get to a place before the community does. It’s funny, because they rage at us and feel like we’re out of touch with the game, and we’re like, we know. We’ve been there all along. Moira’s been in development for months, way before people were making noises about another healer. We felt like that’s what the game needed.
GamesBeat: Is it fair to say she’s more a hybrid healer/attacker, like Zenyatta?
Kaplan: What’s interesting — when you say hybrid healer, a lot of people get nervous and go, well, then she can’t main heal? She can’t keep a team up? This character can, especially with the right team comp. On the one hand, her healing that she does is cone-based, similar to Mei’s freezing spray. It hits everyone in an area. If you have a group all together, you’re doing a lot of healing on all of them. It also leaves a heal over time on them, in addition to just the throughput healing it’s doing. But if your comp has someone like a Genji who’s always flying in front of everyone….
GamesBeat: Those Genjis need healing.
Kaplan: They need healing, and they’ll let you know, four times every few seconds. You can send out her Biotic Grenade. It’s a choice, damage or healing. It’s awesome with someone like a Genji. You send it bouncing down that hall and Genji knows, if I follow this ball I’ll do devastating damage and get healed the whole time. Even though she has a lot of hybrid elements to her through the damage she does, she still can really keep a team topped off.
GamesBeat: She has this Fade ability, this short teleport. How do you make that feel different from Tracer’s Blink?
Kaplan: You’ll see when you try fade out. First of all, it’s super fast, but you have full control of your character. It’s almost like a mix between Tracer’s Blink and Reaper’s Wraith Form. Reaper’s Wraith Form is kind of slow and very deliberate. You know where you are and you’re in control. With Moira, it’s super fast. That player right there was controlling exactly where she went. You go into this phased-out version of the world and actually move Moira to her next location. Blink, it’s just directional. You point and you’ll blink in that direction, but you’re not in control of the character while the blink is happening. It’s an instant 10-meter teleport in a direction, versus being able to move wherever you want. That’s part of the game with her. We’re showing a lot of times where she’s blinking behind someone, but it’s really a great disengage mechanic for a support player. You know when Winston or D.Va jumps in on you, a lot of times you fade, and you can go back around a corner. They’re not even expecting — they can’t find you after that.
GamesBeat: What do you expect to be the counters to Moira? What characters will perform well against her?
Kaplan: With all healers, I think dive is very powerful. Ironically, I think Ana, with the biotic grenade….
GamesBeat: And that new extra damage with her buff.
Kaplan: Yeah. You counter the healing. Genji is pretty interesting. He can deflect when she throws out the Biotic Grenade with the decay, the damage version. D.Va can defense matrix that ability. She’ll have a lot of counters from people like D.Va, Genji, Ana. They’ll all work against her pretty well.
GamesBeat: Do you think healers are the hardest characters for you to design?
Kaplan: I wouldn’t say necessarily the hardest. They’re a lot of fun for us to design. The challenge with any new hero is, how do you do something different that’s unlike the other heroes? Lucio’s really that radius-based, aura-based healer with high mobility. Mercy’s a single-target beam attach. Zenyatta is putting orbs on people. Trying to come up with a new mechanic — if you’re the type of player who only plays healing characters, you don’t want to touch any other characters in the roster, you still have a really diverse selection to pick from.
GamesBeat: When you’re making a lot of the damage characters, you can look back to FPS traditions. With healing, there are only so many examples of what a support character in a shooter can be like.
Kaplan: Absolutely, but we take inspiration from other game types. Lucio was a great example of that. A lot of us played classic RPGs where they always had the bard with his auras around him. More of Lucio’s inspiration was from RPG than traditional shooter mechanics.
GamesBeat: Mercy has been through a lot of changes this year. Her Mass Resurrection was a problem. Then you changed it to the single-target res. Did you think that would be a nerf or a buff?
Kaplan: The goal — I’m about to tell you the goal and it’s going to make us sound like miserable failures. But the goal was to lessen the impact of resurrect overall on the game, and then also change Mercy’s play style so it was never wrong for Mercy to heal her teammates. We felt like we were in a situation — we had created a mechanic where a lot of times the correct thing for Mercy to do was stop healing, disengage, protect herself, and then res en masse. That was more effective than her going out and single-target healing one person. We felt like that was kind of broken gameplay, both for Mercy and for — honestly it never really felt great on the other end, if your team gets a graviton surge with a rocket barrage into it. “Wow, we just combo’d every ult in the game!” And then Mercy’s like, “No you didn’t, they’re all back.” So that was the goal, to lessen the impact of resurrect.
It was really interesting, because we put the changes on the PTR (public test realm), and the PTR feedback we got when we had Valkyrie now was twofold. We heard from non-Mercy players, now all Mercy is is a DPS damage machine, killing machine, and that’s all she’s gonna be. That’s why the changes on the PTR weren’t good. And what we heard from the Mercy community was just, the character’s unplayable now without five-person resurrect, she’s useless and nobody will ever pick her. Nobody was really identifying, hey, res happens really frequently now, maybe it’s actually more powerful than it was before? Obviously, quickly, as a community, we got to that point.
Our goal now is to lessen the impact of resurrect. We’ve had times where we’re just trying to change a character without changing the power level. We are very intentionally trying to bring the power level of resurrect down. We want the top two things you notice about Mercy to be, “Oh my God, she’s an amazing throughput healer,” and “Wow, look at that mobility, she’s just flowing back and forth through the map.” And we don’t want her to be the resurrect bot that’s just erasing kills.
GamesBeat: Resurrecting a dead ally is such a strong ability. Have you ever thought about just getting rid of it?
Kaplan: I think it would be unfortunate if we got to that place, where we just gave up on the ability. I do think it’s really cool. It feels great to be resurrected. It’s such a play style change. At first, your first instinct — if you’ve played a lot of Mercy, your instinct is to play it the old way. You’ll guardian angel into some 6v1 and hit your button and be like, “Oh, that was a big mistake.” It takes a big adjustment. But once you do adjust, there’s some really cool gameplay now. Suddenly a Reinhardt shield or an Orisa shield or ducking behind the payload, these become very interesting strategic choices.
Also, the team on the other side of the resurrect, where you don’t have the Mercy but they’re res-ing on the other side, it feels much better for them too. It’s less likely you’ll get that dive in and res Winston who dove into the [enemy team], and now he’s back rampaging. More likely, if Mercy does get a res off, it was somebody who was on her side of the front to begin with. There’s less of a sting to it. I hope these changes are right. If these changes aren’t right, I do think the direction of Valkyrie over the five-person res is correct for Mercy. We’ll just keep iterating our way to the perfect spot.
GamesBeat: Do you think that some of those Mercy players will transition to Moira as a new character?
Kaplan: I think there’s a lot of different types of players, but if I had to put them into three buckets, there are people who play everything: when I play tank I play this, when I play DPS I play this, when I play healer I play this. Then I think there are people who are role mains: I’ll play any tank, doesn’t matter what tank it is, I love all the tanks, whatever tank is meta or needed, I’m playing that tank. Then I think there’s a type of player who are just mains. This is my main. I’ll play this hero whether you like it or not. For people who just main a single hero, they’ll stick with that hero no matter what’s up. The players who main support and just want to play fun cool healers, they’re certainly going to try Moira out and have a great time playing her. Those of us who play everything and just flex with what the team needs, you’ll see lot of Moira play. Like Ana and Zenyatta, I think you’re going to see a lot of players who don’t normally play support very attracted to this character, because there are damage options on her as well, and you can play her very aggressively.
GamesBeat: Even with the new PTR changes for Mercy, some people were immediately saying that Mercy’s dead. Overreacting seems normal on most gaming message boards. How are you able to go through all of that feedback and sift through it?
Kaplan: When the feedback is loud and vocal, it’s because people come from a place of passion. They love the game. It’s not because they hate the game. They want what’s best for the game and their perception of what’s best for the game. The same goes for their hero. There’s a lot of ownership over a particular hero that everyone has. I think all of the feedback is valuable. It’s how you process the feedback. I think solely focusing on forum feedback is not the correct avenue. In general, the forums for example — if people agree with something or think something is well-balanced or super fun, they don’t make a forum post about that. They’re in the game playing. They tend to make forum posts about things they disagree with. I like to use the forums almost as a gauge, a barometer. I can use this to gauge where Mercy mains are at on this particular change.
But the really important thing to do is for us to play it ourselves. Not only were we playing the Mercy changes extensively before we put them on the PTR, then we just anonymously go on the PTR and play a bunch of matches. Sometimes we were the Mercy, sometimes we weren’t the Mercy. We were also checking out Ana. Sometimes we just — we’ll just play tanks and see, “Am I frustrated? How many resurrections got off that match? How many did our Mercy get off? How many did the other team’s Mercy?”
And also we look at statistics. We’re doing what I call the balance triangle: community feedback, dev team feedback, and then analytics. Paying attention to all of it and making sure that nothing’s out of whack. At the end of the day, we have to make a judgment call as game developers. It’s subjective. It’s a craft and an art form. It’s not just science. There aren’t right or wrong moves. As creators we sometimes just have to make a choice and say, we think this is going to be okay. Even if they’re being very vocal about it right now, let’s get over this idea that all change is bad and see if we move the game in a better direction.
GamesBeat: The new map, Blizzard World, is a theme park based on other Blizzard games like Warcraft and StarCraft. So Blizzard is canon in the Overwatch universe?
Kaplan: It is! Or, well, it already was. D.Va was a pro StarCraft player. Blizzard existed. Now, Overwatch is not a part of the Blizzard canon. That would be super weird. But Hearthstone exists, Warcraft, Diablo, StarCraft, Heroes of the Storm, they all exist in the Overwatch universe.
GamesBeat: I see a little bit of Walt Disney World. I even saw a Jaws reference, to the old Universal Studios ride. Are you drawing from a lot of different theme parks for these ideas?
Kaplan: For me personally, growing up in Southern California — Team 4, the Overwatch team, the development team behind the game, we’re stationed here in Orange County. We have amazing theme parks all around us. There’s no point in working on all these great properties if you don’t stop and think about, “What would it actually be like?” Can you imagine the theme park where you walk in through the gates of Stormwind, but then there’s a StarCraft Nexus right across in the next area? I don’t know if they’ve shown it yet, but we have this awesome map — we did a map of Blizzard World. I think they’re going to sell a lithograph of it here at the show. But it’s really cool. It’s just a fun fantasy experiment to do. If you really love these universes, could you imagine what the theme park would be? The Overwatch team doesn’t build theme parks, but we do build maps, and we said, this could be it. Let’s show everyone how cool and how fun to play in the environment it could be.
GamesBeat: Do you make geometry for a level and then think about what to theme it with? Or does the theme idea come first, and then you start putting in the blocks that become the map?
Kaplan: This map was built by our assistant game director, Aaron Keller. Aaron — it was actually one of our concept artists, Peter Lee, a long time ago he drew this picture. But it showed that shot at the gates of Stormwind as a theme park. Aaron Keller fell in love with that. Aaron is an amazing world builder. He just convinced the team. This would be the most killer Overwatch map ever, we have to do it.
The amount of love that the team poured into this — every little detail — I can’t wait for people — they have it here to play on the show floor, but I can’t wait for it to go up on the PTR next week, because then they can just run around the empty map and explore. You can shoot those drones out of the sky. Even the little balloons. The balloons, if you shoot the strings, they start floating up, and if you shoot the balloons themselves, they pop. But all the little Blizzard Easter eggs — we have the voice actors. Deckard Cain is all over this. Uther. The Adjutant from StarCraft. We have all these little sound triggers. The actual actors from the other properties — it’s really fun.
GamesBeat: A lot of people talk about Hanzo’s Scatter Arrow, complaining about that. As a Hanzo main, I’m always worried you guys will hear that feedback and nerf it. You talked about this before — maybe Scatter doesn’t feel great to die to, but it’s not like Hanzo is in an overpowered state right now.
Kaplan: I don’t think there’s a world where we remove Scatter Arrow without doing significant other changes to Hanzo to get him to a good place. Hanzo has never — I think he’s one of the most fun characters to play. I love the way the bow feels. I think obviously everything is very subjective when it comes to hero choice. There’s chocolate and vanilla. For me, if I’m playing a sniper, I’d much rather play Hanzo than Widowmaker. I just love how the bow feels. But Hanzo’s never been considered a powerful meta character. In fact, sometimes your team actually questions why you’re playing Hanzo. We need something different right now.
You’ve never seen the team say, well, if we’re gonna win this match, we better have a Hanzo in the comp. Someone switch Hanzo! We’d like to get him there. With that said, Scatter Arrow gets a lot of flak. I said recently on the forums, one thing that annoys me is when people say it’s a no-skill shot. It’s a very well-placed, highly aimed shot.
GamesBeat: Why is it that people can accept getting headshotted by Widowmaker, but if you aim at their feet for a one-hit kill, everyone loses their mind?
Kaplan: There’s a fantasy and an expectation. We have a Blizzard design value that we call “What is the fantasy?” I think Hanzo betrays that in some ways. It’s acceptable when you see the kill cam and Hanzo or Widowmaker has that perfectly placed headshot from 40 meters across the map. You’re like, “Okay, I gotta give that to you.” You earned that. There’s something emotional about, “I got shot in the feet and I died.” Especially when tanks are taking it and getting one-shotted. That’s a problem. I would like to get Hanzo to a more meta place, to a place where I think he’s overall a more accepted character, without changing how great that bow feels. How does Scatter Shot factor into that? I’m not really sure at this point. I don’t think there’s such a thing as just nerfing Scatter Shot. That’s not the correct thing to do with Hanzo. You have to look at Hanzo holistically, in the same way that we look at someone like D.Va or Symmetra or Mercy more holistically. You don’t just tweak a number and then that character’s fine.
GamesBeat: Earlier in the year, you made a video talking about player toxicity and urging people to be nicer. Since making that plea, have you noticed any changes, any improvements in player behavior? Anything tangible?
Kaplan: We did. First of all, there were a lot of anecdotal stories that players posted. A lot of people were just annoyed with me in that developer update, and then there were some people who said, “Yeah, I was annoyed with Jeff, but then I actually — I know I’m a toxic player. I went and tried to be nice to people and here was my experience.” We started to see those stories come out. I always think of the multiplicative effect when you’re talking about something like Overwatch. We have more than 35 million people playing. Even those few anecdotal stories — in every match, they touch 11 other players. If that’s getting out there and affecting more people, that’s a big deal. Internally, we’re doing other stuff. We don’t usually talk about a lot of this stuff or go into detail, but we’ve been ramping up the penalties. We’ve been really trying to weed out the bad behavior as much as possible from the game.
We’re also doing a lot more things in terms of manual searches, just manually kind of trolling through the database and finding outliers. Well, this person didn’t quite trip the automatic sensors that we have in place, but this person is clearly exercising bad behavior. Let’s make sure they get a penalty, and it’s a stiff one, to dissuade them. We had other things going like that pilot program, where we were emailing people. It didn’t reach everybody. We don’t have email addresses for our console players, so we can’t email them. We couldn’t email based on every report type. There were some report types where — we were just mainly experimenting. Does this get positive feedback? I’m really excited.
I think either by the end of this year, or early next year, the reporting feedback will now be in the game itself, so we won’t even have to send you an email. When you’ve reported somebody and it’s had an effect, they’ve gotten an action, you’ll get a message that says, “Hey, thank you, we can’t give you the details obviously, but somebody that you reported was actioned.” I’ve been trying to restore faith for our players that the reporting actually does do a lot. The more that they report, the more it helps us identify and [punish] people who are exercising bad behavior.