Was the popularity of Blizzard's hero shooter all but inevitable?
A mere five weeks after launch, Blizzard's newest IP has garnered such global goodwill that its success appears to have been a foregone conclusion. Has the gaming world gone insane, or is Overwatch really that special? A bit of both, you might suggest.
From the ashes of an ill-fated MMO has risen a glorious team-oriented FPS, at once bearing all the hallmarks of a Blizzard blockbuster, at the same time resembling nothing of the sort. Overwatch lineage isn't as clear cut as Warcraft onto Starcraft, then WoW onto Hearthstone, and in the meanwhile let's have the landmark Diablo series too. It's the quality of production, though, that identifies Overwatch as distinctly Blizzard in origin.
An unusual situation, perhaps in part born of the desperation of a talented design team in search of validation. A unique nothing-to-lose mentality, maybe. A genuine affinity with the calling to do something, to be somehow, heroic; to become shining and glorious. Infuse a team as potent as Messrs Kaplan, Keller, Petras, Mercer, Craig and Chu with a tonic such as this, and a wise person knows only to step back and admire the inevitable fireworks.
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The game, you have to say, speaks for itself. An astonishing degree of polish. Admirable restraint in order to allow important elements to breathe, for the superhero experience to feel so alive. The game is apparently dead simple on first encounters, and rather limited compared to the mod-heavy alternatives in the form of Call of Duty, Battlefield, Battlefront, Destiny, Halo or you name it. But after repeated excursions involving rock-paper-scissor scenarios among 21 heroes, gameplay complexities reveal themselves to be quite terrifying.
At times, playing Overwatch feels like a live performance of a Disney Pixar movie, in a much more satisfying way than licensed Toy Story or The Incredibles games have ever succeeded. You grow to love the heroes: Tracer the chirpy British skirmisher, Hanzo the noble Japanese archer. Their behaviour effortlessly personifies narrative roles. The stories are articulated via secret details in their surroundings, woven into curious happenstance conversations.
We cannot begin to break down all the components of the incantation, but for a sure sign that the charm is indeed working you only need to look at the proliferation of amateur artworks, cosplay and, well, Overwatch porn to realise that a mighty spell has been cast.
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The porn situation has been noted to have challenged the assumed 'Rule #34' of the internet (if it exists there is porn of it) since NSFW material began appearing before the game was even released. Yet it shows how deeply Blizzard cares about its creation that it is seeking to clamp down on the various purveyors of exploitation. Because animators are using Source Filmmaker (SFM) to acquire the actual in-game character models, Blizzard is pointing to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to enforce legal action.
Judging by Blizzard staff Twitter feeds, the cosplay audience is quite another matter though. There's a wonderful snapshot of senior game designer Michael Chu at gamescom 2015, flanked by Widowmaker, Zenyatta, Tracer, Reaper and Symmetra. Such elaborate costumes, based on the heroes that were shared during the game's lengthy (months long) Beta phase, ready to roll nearly one year ahead of the game's eventual release. Again, the success of this game was preordained because evidently members of the community kind of demanded it.
Indeed, barely a day goes by without Chu RT-ing or drawing attention to blogposts from artists whose interpretations of characters and themes caught the designer's attention. You can see some stunning artwork over on DeviantArt.
Influential gaming forum NeoGaf started the thread Overwatch has developed quite a fan art following... in May, currently approaching 2500 posts over 48 pages, comprising playful plot-twist cartoons describing relationships between characters alongside more detailed portraits showcasing some simply incredible talent. Fan communities that originally grew in support of the earliest super heroes, anime shows and computer games have presented Overwatch with a ready-made geek-out recipe for its bold character-centric universe.
Fan activity surrounding Overwatch has been such that it feels almost as though the game has been with us for decades, akin to Street Fighter, Dragon Quest or any number of JRPG and life-simulation favourites. But this alone isn't enough to cement the game's place in history just yet. However, recent news out of Korea posed a sign that it quite certainly is.
Earlier this week, Polygon reported that Overwatch has overtaken League of Legends in Korean internet cafes in terms of percentage of customers paying to play Blizzard's game at the expense of all others. According to statistics from data-tracking website Gametrics, League of Legends has been the most popular online game since August 2012. Swooping in like Overwatch's own StarCraft pro-gamer D.Va to steal that crown is undeniably impressive.
Soon this bizarre euphoria is sure to settle down and Overwatch will find its appropriate place alongside other high profile perennials Battlefield, Call of Duty and Destiny. With the honeymoon over, the grind will be real, and all but the most dedicated players with an eye on esports glory will be wondering when the next DLC will arrive to deliver the new maps and heroes promised to inject new excitement. To get what we paid for, or else.
Competitive Play mode, released last week on PC followed by consoles, is the first true test of the game's core mechanics. An argument still rages about whether or not hero stacking should be allowed, or if - as Blizzard upholds - restricting creativity of choice goes against the game's ideology of constantly counter-picking powers to combat those currently in play. When this first competitive season ends on August 18, Blizzard and its audience will have clear sight of whether Overwatch has the stamina of StarCraft or World of Warcraft, and the accessibility and artfully manipulated compulsion of Hearthstone to which it also aspires.
Though it is astonishing how Overwatch caught fire so quickly, the more frightening thought is how meticulously engineered this would have surely been. Any upcoming iterations will be locked to the expressed desires and unarticulated needs of a 10 million strong audience. No matter what happens next, Overwatch is already a case study in how to get things right, seemingly overnight, but in fact owing to years of talented people's blood, sweat and tears.