Overwatch Free-for-all deathmatch has opened my eyes a bit to something which might actually drive me away from Overwatch in the end. It may not really be their fault; I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, and certainly they have been trying to make the best game possible. But playing Overwatch for the first time without any semblance of being on a team made me realize just how lonely I feel playing Overwatch in general.
Before I get too deep into that, let me take a dalliance which will, in turn, end up on a complete tangent. I very much enjoy the “Total Mayhem” alternate ruleset in the arcade, and my favorite thing to do in that mode is to take a “lasting character” such as Zarya, who is frustratingly difficult to kill, and just sit on the point taking all comers and, usually, keeping the round going for a good long time past the point of overtime. Usually, this takes the form of me as Lucio constantly hopping back and forth over a payload and using every weapon at my disposal as often and effectively as I can.
I went on this tangent to say that after a while playing Lucio like that, I realized that I was really, really bored of normal Overwatch. Either I die and spend as much time getting back into position as I may spend on the point (or trying to attack it), or I don’t die, successfully get or hold the point, and I have to wait around for the enemies to make their next move. The majority of the round is tedium, and most importantly, it can be reasonably predictable, even when I’m losing, and even when I’m losing in new and interesting ways.
I sometimes find myself having silent, one-sided arguments with people that gamers grudgingly call “try-hards”--people that are so interested in winning that they no longer seem to care whether the game is fun or not. An example of this is people who instantly and aggressively go after team healers; in a round where one side hunts healers and the other does not, almost certainly the healer-hunters win. The problem is that I (being one who frequently pulls support characters) am often hamstrung by my team. I have to go where they go and stay there while they stay there, or else I am simply not doing my job. There are simply too many ways to kill a soft character, and you can't reasonably expect a pick-up group in a public match (PUG in a pub) to prioritize protecting the healer, especially when that isn't the fun part of the game.
Which brings me back to my discussion of Free-for-all Deathmatch. I have felt the same playing support characters in FFA as I do in team assault, in that I fully expect nobody to come to my aid, and for my life to be brutish and short. I feel like I am personally and individually facing great odds in order to contribute to a greater “team” win--except there is no team in I. Dropping into FFA as Mercy can be upsettingly like playing Mercy in a regular round; no fanfare or appreciation, no support; I am just another player on the field, and one that can be laughably easy to trounce (although I have won some satisfying duels).
Ultimately, the difference between characters is in what circumstances they CAN make the big plays. A McCree can get an excellent ultimate ability shot in FFA as easily as in a round, but a big Mercy play depends entirely on the team all falling dead at the same time, and you not having been picked off or area-denied, and therefore being able to make it to the pile of corpses while they are still fresh. In FFA, Mercy has two very weak weapons and two passive abilities: She can still float by holding jump, regenerates health, can melee, and can shoot her secondary blaster. Her heal staff, boost staff, jump to character, and ultimate are all useless. Everything that made her capable of big plays is gone.
The fact is that most people don’t set others up for a big move, unless that is their big move itself: Reinhardt stuns, Zarya pins, Orisa and Ana buff, Sombra debuffs, Mercy resurrects, Zenyatta heals, Widowmaker scouts, and Symmetra teleports, but all the other Big Moves in the game are kill moves. I bring it up like this because part of my interest in Overwatch, in the abstract, is strategy. With so many different kinds of abilities--big moves, but also movement abilities, trumps and counter-trumps, and terrain to facilitate their use--you would expect to see team strategy be a big thing. And maybe it is, when you are part of a six-man team that always plays together. But on the ground as a casual player, it feels like the six-man per side layout of the game is a promise of a cozy together-ish attitude that has never really panned out.
And goodness knows it might be me--I am no good at making friends or making teams, but I always want to be part of one, I always want to contribute. I like winning, and I do a bit of it, but I am never thinking that I am worth two or three players, nor do I think I can go it alone against a whole team of lesser players. Part of that is that I can’t really shoot as well as I’d like, and part of it is that my brain is slowly rusting to pieces, but however you look at it, I don’t have the kind of ego that lets some players go way out of position to duel players sight unseen while not giving any thought to what happens to the rest of the team while they’re gone. The team’s goals are mine, and I am part of the team.
I think that with only six people on a team, though, it happens far too frequently that most if not all of them are only really here to play a shooter, and not really here to play at strategy in any respect. Yes, people will pick up support and builders and blockers, but with teams so small, everyone is put in a box. If you leave the box, and are not pushing or defending the point, then the enemy has a numbers advantage. If you have a plan, by all means try to get others on board, but be prepared for the idea that a majority of your team won’t be game.
I often end up coming back to the Tribes franchise when discussing first-person shooters, which is probably unfair for a lot of reasons, but it is the game I know best, and it is also a delightful mix of strategy and shooting in a way that few if any other games really are. When discussing the difference between Tribes (here specifically classic Tribes and not the recent version, Ascend) and other shooters, one thing I like to point to is the existence of team assets as distinct from player or character assets. In Tribes, for example, you may have a specific number of deployable turrets available to the team; in Overwatch, you have a limited number of characters who can deploy turrets, and a specific number each of those can deploy. This contrast is stark: in Tribes, one person (or a few) could deploy all the team’s turrets while managing several other matters of base or point defense; in Overwatch, Team Fortress, and Tribes Ascend, characters must devote themselves to currently being defensive players in order to maintain assets. Changing their character type changes the maximum number of assets of the team, and will instantly destroy deployed assets.
I bring it up because it is non-team-oriented play on a fundamental level. I made a similar argument in an essay on Tribes Ascend, which can be summarized this way: the player might say “If you give me X, Y, and Z, I can do A, B, and C,” but unless the game designers specifically give you the ability to have X, Y, and Z at the same time, the player simply has no choice but to do without. Soldier, for example, cannot give one of his heal beacons to another character for them to *literally set down on the floor at a later time*. Nobody can pick up one of the shotguns that Reaper *discards with a mostly full clip of ammo* and use it. Widowmaker cannot have a sensible loadout where she trades her venom mines for anything useful. Sombra can never choose to carry a rifle, in spite of being able to get to a number of sniper's perches. Pharah cannot carry mines for deployment behind enemy lines. Winston and Reinhardt will never let someone else hold their barrier-creation gizmos, even under duress, even to save the world. In every case, the players might wish to act as a team, but the characters never, ever will. They will not adapt, cooperate, or do anything more than begrudgingly coexist.
I will not argue, that Overwatch should be Tribes, with its flexible loadouts and team assets. But the only real reason why I can’t argue that is that Overwatch has a consistent, cartoonish feel which you can kind of take at face value. Characters are what they look like, and will never be anything but what they look like. This is useful for players, because it lets you identify a character’s abilities. But it ends up being the shallow end of the sandbox, and that’s okay, but it’s not really the game I wish I was playing.
Because I enjoyed playing in the deep end of the sandbox, where you found out what someone had when they shot it at you, and you got a feel for what a player, not a character, would be equipped with by seeing them over and over round by round. I enjoy teasing out the particular defensive strategies of an enemy team, but sometimes that means taking the time to get out of position and really just look at them. Sometimes you sacrifice lives to figure out an enemy setup, an enemy plan.
But when the teams are so small, everyone plays in the shallow end of the sandbox where things are predictable. Players stick to the point or the chokepoints that the developers put in. With small maps and small teams, there are no grand strategic map weaknesses, or not for me; maybe someone who can better execute on the characters of the game could make use of the holes I see, but me, when I walk through a hole in the enemy defenses, they just turn around. I can’t execute good ambushes as Tracer or Reaper or Sombra, nor snipe, nor duel people when everyone else on my team is out of position and someone has snuck in the back. And I don’t want to. I want to be in the deep end of the sandbox where I can call an opportunity and watch someone better take it. I want to set someone up to take advantage of a weakness. I want deployables and loadouts and maps and all the accouterments of a strategic shooter.
Most likely, the reason why I am not enjoying Overwatch as much as I want to comes down to me not being good enough, at playing or leading or just basic socializing. But I do end up feeling lonely, and that lonesome feeling makes me wonder if Overwatch is really the game I want to play.