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Overwatch - Accidentally Deliberate: a Chat with Blizzard's Scott Mercer, the Game's Principal Designer
Post by Joaby @ 04:19pm 18/11/15 | Comments
AusGamers' own Joaby Gilroy was invited out to BlizzCon where it was almost impossible to pull him away from Overwatch stations. He did long enough though to chat to the game's principal designer, Scott Mercer. Read on for what he had to say...

Overwatch is Blizzard's new killer franchise. A shooter similar in style to Team Fortress 2, with cartoony graphics and similar game modes, it was revealed at BlizzCon that the game is heading not just to PC -- it will launch on PS4 and Xbox One at the exact same time.

It was the worst kept secret at the convention. All conversation the night before the keynote address, where Blizzard revealed their launch plans, revolved around the likelihood of the announcement -- few thought the odds were worse than 1:1.

This was due to a host of hints left in the game by Blizzard -- aim-assist elements and immediate controller support being chief among them -- but the moment you pick up and play the game you can tell it was built for consoles anyway. It's all in the way the heroes control -- despite having a wide variety of abilities across the roster, no heroes use more than the two mouse buttons for firing types, the shift and 'e' keys for abilities and the 'q' key for supers. Some heroes don't even use all of that, and movement is tied primarily to WASD and the spacebar.

But being built from the ground up with consoles in mind doesn't mean Overwatch is dumbed down -- instead, by ensuring each hero was refined, and to make sure the entire affair was easily digestible.

"We look at all the characters and make sure that how all the buttons map to their abilities makes sense for all of them," Scott Mercer, Principal Designer on the game told us. We were sitting in either a small room or a large cubicle, depending on your outlook, while below us some 25,000 Blizzard fans lined up for all sorts of activities."That way we don't run into situations where it's like, 'Oh, I need to do this move, and I need to hit this button and this button and this button all at the same time,'" he continued, contorting his hand around an imaginary controller as he spoke. "But, wait, I don't have a finger for this button. Part of the console development's going through every single hero and making sure that the controls work for every single one of them."

Certainly some heroes are very casual. Mercy, the healer with angel wings, doesn't even really need to aim to keep her teammates alive -- as long as she's pointing in the same postcode as her comrades her healing beam will find its way to them, keeping them alive. Other heroes are not so easy.

"We have 21 heroes, so some of them have to have different skill ceilings to challenge a player in different ways," Scott explained when we asked him about skill floors and skill ceilings." Like, if you're playing McCree, if you can put that cross-hair over someone's head and pull the trigger, if you've got that skill? He's your character, because that's what he's about."

McCree is actually a contentious issue at the moment amongst the team, almost exactly for this reason. If you've spent years getting pixel perfect with your headshots, McCree's range is basically unlimited at the moment -- there's no damage drop-off over distance so he's an all-range sort of killer. Speaking to fans of the game at BlizzCon we heard conflicting opinions on him -- some thought he was too powerful, while others felt that the skill requirement necessary to get kills at long range was high enough to be left alone. On balance with the other heroes in the game, he's probably over-powered right now -- but we have a soft spot for skill differentiators too.

"You mentioned Zenyatta," Scott continued, animated as he talked. "If you're the type of player that likes to play in the back and have a view of the battlefield and be able to help your teammates, but still, at the end of the day, still wants to shoot some people? He's a very offensive support. If you play him, his orbs hurt. So that's sort of like a mix."

Zenyatta is one of those heroes who is very easy to learn while being difficult to master. His offensive capabilities are tied to his ability to shoot Orbs of Destruction, which fly from his hands semi-quickly. Because they're not hitscan attacks, using him beyond medium range can be extremely challenging for a player. His support abilities, on the other hand, are quite simple -- press Left Shift on a Friendly to slowly restore health, press E on an enemy to debuff them. It's the ease of use of his support abilities which makes him truly powerful as an offensive support -- the reverse of Symmetra, in fact.

Symmetra's main weapon is a short range beam which finds its target on its own (like Mercy's healing beam) and is capable of a fair chunk of damage if connected for long enough. It's unbelievably easy to use -- get in close, hold down mouse, watch a character like Tracer melt before you. Still, she's extremely squishy, and her main use on the battleground is shielding opponents (done with a quick tap of the 'E' key) and setting up devastating Sentry Turrets. This is where the skilled element of her play comes in as a good player needs to find the perfect place to put these turrets -- often while under fire. High traffic areas are key, but making the turrets difficult to destroy is just as important -- and that's where careful manipulation of the placement tool (done by pressing Shift and aiming at a surface within range) comes into play. Where Zenyatta is an offensive support, Symmetra is a defensive one.

"Tracer is super mobile, right? So we don't go out of our way to say like, 'Oh we needed a counter to Tracer,'" said Scott when we asked him if these sorts of mirror match situations were deliberate."It's more like Mei comes around and she's an ice character with a freeze gun, and that's interesting in and of itself. We were excited about Mei and her freezing kit, and it turns out she can also slow down Tracer, which is great for the rest of your team, because it's like, 'She's really hard to hit. She's so fast and so small. If only someone would slow her down!' And then Mei comes along and she's like, 'Got it.' And she freezes and slows her down, and maybe actually locks her in place. So Mei wasn't designed to counter Tracer; it just so happens that part of her kit happens to do well against those types of characters."

Overwatch seems to be all about those unintended upsides. For now, my favourite of them is that low precision/high tactics based characters are perfect for those of us playing from outside the two main regions -- the current phase of the Overwatch beta only features servers in Europe and the US, so it's back to 200+ pings for any Australians who snuck into the first Beta wave. When I asked about the likelihood of Aussie servers any time soon, I was met with "I don't know", but with Australian servers for the rest of their games, it's highly probable.
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