Overwatch's Hollywood Design Philosophies

I spectated today, as my cousin played Overwatch. She isn’t much of a gamer, and has nearly no experience with first person shooters, but has about five - six hours of Overwatch under her belt. I heard a squeal and turned around: to see her pick up a quadra-kill with D.va’s ultimate. Of course, it was play of the game, and we both whooped loudly with excitement as the highlight was replayed after the round ended. “Overwatch is really fun!” She exclaimed as I kicked her off my computer. “I think it’s less complex than League, and a lot less stressful”.

 

Now, I’m not calling my cousin a liar, but I have my own suspicions that there is more to it than what was said. In short, I believe Overwatch makes excellent use of a certain philosophy of Game Design, one gaining increasing popularity over the last five years. It is what I would call “Hollywood Game Design”. It is a philosophy of Game Design that bills the players as stars, and sets each game as a new scene. You can be loud, unique, and unforgettable. Everyone will know your name! At its core, I would define it as a philosophy of Game Design that aims to give players the temporary feeling of “Stardom”. Overwatch does this by employing it’s mechanics to create what I would call, “Moments of Stardom”.

                           Overwatch, the popular first person shooter from Blizzard.

 

In Overwatch, most characters have four to six abilities, with one being their Ultimate ability. The Ultimate ability charges up over the game, and can be unleased only at 100%. All of these abilities are incredibly powerful: I would weigh most of them as being far more impactful than League of Legends Ultimates, for instance. When a player unleashes their Ultimate, it often forces the entire enemy to play around it: whether that be dodging, hiding or even taking advantage of the long cooldown. They therefore give all players moments where they are the boss, and they can feel powerful for a moment even in a game where they are losing, or playing poorly. They are also designed to be very easy to use (one of the characters straight up gets an aimbot!).

 

Ultimates charge quickly with better play, but even the worst player on the worst team will have theirs ready eventually. Blizzard chose to limit the impact of ultimates by giving many of them a global audio cue. This is likely intended to help give enemies a chance to survive, but in the context of "Moments of Stardom", it's a loud boast to the world that for now, you're the big man on campus.

 

Perhaps the most obvious “Moment of Stardom” is the end of round Play of the Game. After each game of Overwatch finishes, players are treated to a short highlight (set to epic music) featuring someone from that game. It's the evolution of Call of Duty's round winning kill, but Overwatch’s version favours big moments over final moments.

The post-game screen also shows off various players' accomplishments during the round.

 

It’s a mechanic that accomplishes many things: It makes the featured player feel good about the game, and can help them salvage some positivity after a loss. It gives them attention, and ensures that everyone sees their skills in action. Also interesting, is that certain types of kills are prioritised higher: Environmental kills (pushing people into pits) and kills featuring Ultimates are shown more often. Combined with the easy-to-use, high power Ultimates, and you’ve got a formula that means that anyone can get Play of the Game. It’s something players can strive for knowing that they’re in with a chance, even if their team is losing.

 

The concept is also embedded in the game’s character customisation. Not an original mechanic, but Overwatch combines many less-popular ways to customise, such as V.O lines and a Spray image, place-able in-game. Skins are another way to showcase individuality and prestige. Players can also select a custom victory pose, or one of multiple intro clips to their future Play of the game sequences. There is a real emphasis on showmanship and style within the Overwatch customisation: If “Teabagging” players is styling on them, Overwatch is the equivalent of taking players into a tea shop and asking them what flavour they want their enemies’ defeat to taste like.

                                        Hey, are the cameras on me?

 

Such a philosophy has evolved in recent years out of multiplayer games, most notably from the FPS, MOBA and MMO genres. Character customisation, for instance, begun as a statistically-inclined choice. From there, purely cosmetic customisation evolved (helped by supermassive MMO’s of the 2000’s like Maplestory). And while it’s always been about showing off, Overwatch has taken it to the next level. Kill cams were originally designed to educate players about their deaths. But it was actually players who took that next step, and began “Teabagging” and using them to style on their enemies. Overwatch embraces this, and encourages players to do so at every opportunity. It also plays into the growing popularity around short, punchy videos. It offers the gaming equivalent to a Vine, and is perfect for sharing on sites like Reddit.

 

And so while other games find success with other design philosophies, Overwatch seems to have “Hollywood” built into its core. And so, I find the most notable thing about Overwatch is how well the “Hollywood” Design philosophy is implemented. They’ve also improved upon many of the mechanics traditionally used to create such feelings within players. Better than any game currently out there, Overwatch provides a stage and lets the players perform. And no matter how good or bad you are, or what character you play, you’re destined to have your shot at glory.

Ironically, there is a level in the game based around actual Hollywood. Well played, Blizzard.

Ironically, there is a level in the game based around actual Hollywood. Well played, Blizzard.

Schrodinger's Axe

Hello and welcome to my first blog post. About a small (theoretical, if any) design flaw within the Fire Emblem game series.

I want to preface this post by saying this is exclusively about pure strategy games, and that I consider a pure strategy game to be a game with no elements of “Execution”. Real-time or reaction-based elements are what I consider to be elements of execution.

In the game, your units have a certain percent chance to hit, and a certain percent chance to miss. Most units in most situations have a >85% Hit chance. But sometimes, bad decisions can result in your units having a 50% chance. You are able to see the hit chance before you start the attack, meaning you can back out if you don’t like your odds.

39% is not a good chance. (Wikipedia.com)

39% is not a good chance. (Wikipedia.com)

Let’s say I am in a position where my Unit has an 80% chance to hit. If my attack lands, I win the game. If my attack misses, the enemy retaliates and I lose the game. My options are to either attack or to run away. Most people would agree that attacking is a good idea, as the Risk-Reward is in your favour. Fire Emblem is a game where many such decisions are made, and so over the course of the game, someone who consistently attacked in that situation would be more often than not, successful. Picking the statistically best option is the optimal way of playing Fire Emblem.

Now, onto Schrodinger’s Axe. The next situation is exactly the same, but now I have only a 50% Chance to hit. I have the same two options as before. The problem here, is that choosing to attack can only be severely rewarded, or severely punished. Despite being an average decision. Additionally, there is no statistically better option, which means that there is no best way to proceed. Since there is no best way to proceed, you are basically flipping a coin, and that is not healthy for its design.

This of course makes perfect sense within the scope of Risk-Reward. But within the context of Fire Emblem, a game designed from the ground up to reward statistically advantageous play, it falls flat. It is worth mentioning that over time, a player who consistently makes that decision will be rewarded with equal victories and defeats, and as such, the player will find their average result. But this is little comfort for the player faced with the situation.

Choosing to attack is a decision that is only proved intelligent or dumb after the event. This is similar to Schrodinger’s cat, in the sense you only know the result after you open the box (or execute the attack), and since it cannot be an average of the two, it cannot be rewarded as such.

And so what can Fire Emblem do to fix this? Should they do something?

Truth be told, the situation of Schrodinger’s Axe only rarely occurs, and is more a conceptual problem than a realistic one. If I was working on Fire Emblem and a fellow game designer explained the above to me, I would laugh and tell the programmers to change 50% accuracy to 51% (And thus restoring a statistically better option).

And so we reach an interesting conclusion. A game designed to reward good decisions must enable the player to make good decisions. If a player is capable of making good decisions that means they must also be able to make bad decisions. If a game allows good and bad decisions, that must mean there is an optimal way to play it (Picking 100% Good decisions). And if a game is optimised, that means there is a dominant strategy and the game is inherently unbalanced.

Strategy games are all unbalanced, and the essence of the game is finding out how?

This was honestly a bit of an experiment for me. I’ll write more about real design problems in the future, I promise.