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Talking Overwatch with Blizzard's Scott Mercer
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 03:06pm 19/07/18 | Comments
Celebrating its Second Anniversary we recently had the chance to sit down with Blizzard's Scott Mercer to discuss the most recent Overwatch Patch.

In addition to a major rework of hero Symmetra, Patch 1.25 for Overwatch introduced fundamental changes to the social side of the game. Namely in part to combat negative or toxic behaviour within the community, the sort of situation where a minority can impact the overall enjoyment and fun associated when playing the team-based shooter. How Blizzard chose to approach this was by introducing a new Endorsement mechanic, where players can reward others and receive similar rewards themselves for good behaviour. With the hook being that players will be able to view someone’s Endorsement level during a quick profile glance.

This fundamental shift to incorporating a system that has the required effect of reducing negative behaviour but also one that encourages teamwork, is something the team at Blizzard has been slowly building toward over the past two years. “Trying to encourage better player behaviour is something we've been actively working on for quite some time,” notes Scott Mercer, Principal Designer of Overwatch. “There's a lot of things we've been doing in terms of feedback when players do report someone. They received an email and they knew that the report actually did something.”

“But I think Endorsements was really an opportunity for us to provide a much more positive reinforcement for members of the community,” Scott adds. “To be able to say, ‘Hey, you're awesome, and I really enjoyed playing with you. Here's this endorsement.’" Built around the idea of a player being able to assume positively instead of assuming negatively – instant access to someone’s endorsement level promotes a clear tangible record of past behaviour. While promoting an ideal.

“We didn't want to have a huge number of categories, we really kept it to three core focuses,” Scott continues. “In addition to good teamwork we wanted to encourage people that were shot-calling and helping out their team in a direct way. And because Overwatch is a competitive game, we also wanted to encourage sportsmanship. So that formed the three main things to endorse.” From there players receive and maintain an Endorsement level, where in typical game-progression fashion the higher the better.

“You can see that as a badge of honour and all of the sudden, we've created this sort nice positive feedback loop where people have a better reason to be nice,” Scott explains. “Not just because it's more fun to play Overwatch this way, but they have a way to sort of show off. They can be proud of the fact that they're a nice person.”

With Endorsements having been live for a little while now, recently Overwatch Game Director Jeff Kaplan took to the official forums to announce that based on internal metrics abusive chat in Competitive Matches is down 26.4% in the Americas and 16.4% in Korea. And so even though it’s still in its infancy, the Endorsement system is having a major impact on the social side of Overwatch.

Another social feature, one that is associated with many co-operative multiplayer titles is the introduction of an official in-game Looking for Group or LFG feature into Overwatch – which also arrived as part of Patch 1.25. Where the class-based hero shooter can be fine tuned for those looking for a specific team-composition. It’s something that has existed for many years now in the multiplayer space, even across Blizzard titles, which makes its addition a few years after Overwatch’s initial launch feel like a case of something that was long overdue.

“All our designers, including myself and people like Jeff Kaplan who worked on World of Warcraft, were all aware of looking for group systems,” Scott reminds me. “For every game it's a little bit different in terms of what LFG actually provides. I think for Overwatch, initially, I don't think it was as necessary or it wouldn't have been as useful a feature early in the game's life cycle.”
“After two years, there's just a lot more information and knowledge about how the game is played,” Scott adds. “The meta, what people like to play, who they want to group with, whether or not they want to set up a competitive group that has two tanks, two supports, or two damage healers or do they want to find a group that plays Quick Play. Over the last few months we've worked on it, it became pretty obvious that we needed to do it.”

A hero that has seen several fundamental changes to her design since over launched over two-years ago is Symmetra – and in terms of gameplay overhauls the complete rework of the hero is perhaps as big a change as the social focus of Patch 1.25. According to Scott, this again all boils down to the way the game is played and the team’s understanding of Overwatch. “With Symmetra we initially thought the game might be a little bit more defensive in nature,” Scott tells me. “So, we wanted to build these characters that had strong, defensive sort of placements. As players have played our game, have been enjoying it, initial ideas that we fully thought might've worked out two and a half years ago didn’t. And it's not a bad thing, it's natural. Our predictive ability is certainly not a hundred percent for how things like a game meta might develop.”

This defensive side of Overwatch is also present in another hero found at launch – Torbjörn. “That’s another character we're looking to rework in the near future,” Scott adds. “With Symmetra, the changes we made to her really just were an acknowledgement of how Overwatch has changed over two years. She doesn't require this strong defensive presence, where you must win a couple defensive fights and only then are you able to set up a teleporter or shield generator. We wanted to make her a character that could be much more successful on offense as well. And we're looking at doing, maybe not as extensive, but similar kind of changes to Torbjörn as well.”

This switch away from a pure defensive design for heroes was recently changed in the hero selection screen where separate Offense and Defense categories were removed in favour of a single Damage descriptor. A change that happened once Overwatch got put into the hands of player, as Scott recalls. “We found that our game was much more fluid, and there was even more movement than we imagined. The lines between Offense and Defense were not just blurred - but completely rubbed out.”

And when coupled with the new social features like Endorsements and LFG, it reflects a recent change in community engagement one where feedback and communication can happen in an instant and continuously evolve. “The nature of the community has changed somewhat in terms of how connected people are,” Scott explains when looking back at his long career at Blizzard that began when he worked on the Brood War expansion for StarCraft. “Back when I first got hired at Blizzard, we still had a BBS you could call into. It was this old school forum. From then up to now, with social media, how easy it is for players to connect with each other and players to connect with developers, that's been sort of the biggest change.”

“It's really hard to compare something like StarCraft and World of Warcraft and Overwatch as they're very different genres. But all of them, you're just trying to do right by the player. As designers, when we make a decision, one of the first things we ask is, what is the right thing to do by the player?”