A short preface
This was originally part of a longer essay, and to be clear: I have no idea to what degree Team Overwatch’s plans have changed since we last heard about it. The direct reason for this essay is the proposed character leveling system which was proposed for Overwatch 2’s cooperative PvE game mode, which to my knowledge remains closely held to their chest–it was not demonstrated much and not released during the multiplayer beta, earlier.
The idea put an immediate–dare I say instantaneous–sour taste in my mouth, and I took a nice long time to sit and think about exactly why that was, and how best to explain it. I wrote a nice essay about it, started adding other things to that essay, and then set it on a shelf because I wasn’t happy with all of the things I was trying to say. Thus, the part that I most wanted to say got left behind entirely. This is that part of the essay, more or less.
The MCV Problem
Overwatch 2 will, if they go ahead with the character leveling plans they proposed, suffer from a problem I’m calling the “Most Compelling Variant” problem, though there are a few other good names for it: “Most Complete Variant”, “Most Customized Variant”, as well as calling it the “Least Compelling/Complete/Customized Variant” problem. All of them are saying, essentially, the same thing: Games that depend on grinding improvements for a character can’t also rely on the vanilla character as a selling point.
It goes back to, essentially, the very definition of a character level. If the game designers have done their job, you will never want to have a level 1 character when you could have a level 2 character. For levels to matter, a higher level character must be a more compelling, more complete, or more customized version of the character. While it is also common for there to be thresholds of high enough level–levels at which you can beat the game, for example–we’ve all gotten used to the idea that many players will continue grinding until they reach the level cap, until they’ve gotten everything they can get. They search for the most complete version of the game, obsessively.
This happens even when it isn’t necessary. In a leveling system with a branching path, you will often find that there is a version of the character you most resonate with, either in the absolute, or relative to a particular task you’re set to. And this is good–it’s part of the game designer’s job to give players a set of tools that does everything they need, and which provides a sufficiently skilled player exactly what they need. As long as there are more tools left undiscovered or untested at the bottom of the toolbox, some players will search for the most customized version of the character, obsessively.
That obsession is a clear indication that the most complete and most customized variants are also the most compelling. And that, on its own, isn’t a problem; the problem is that the vanilla, unmodified version of the character, is by definition the least complete and the least customized. Consequently, if the game developers are doing their job correctly, it is the least compelling.
This becomes exceedingly problematic for a game based on competitive multiplayer.
To be fair, there are solutions. The MOBA genre has proved that there are ways to complete and customize characters over the course of play while retaining game balance, but by all accounts, this is not Overwatch’s path forward. Competitive multiplayer (meaning PVP, ranked or unranked) will be done with vanilla characters, and–to be clear–competitive multiplayer is the entire reason the existing player base cares even one insignificant bit about Overwatch. It is what brought them to the first game, what kept them there, and what brings them to the sequel. Anything that ruins competitive multiplayer has a solid chance of driving away that existing player base.
Now, to be fair, it’s in no way a given that this is exactly what’s going to happen. I’m not writing or posting this to say, “I know the future; kneel before me as I reveal the coming apocalypse.” However, I suspect that unless someone lays this problem out in so many words, people won’t understand what’s happening even if it is happening, and I’m fairly sure that it will. I’m fairly sure that people will play the cooperative game mode, level up characters, and then return to find the competitive game modes… lackluster.
There will be a pervasive sense that something is missing. That characters are less appealing than they were, than they should be. Because they were taught, directly and intentionally by the leveling system, that the vanilla character variants were inadequate. They were taught that the character should be better than this. They were taught that the game will reward them with this character becoming better. That this character will be more compelling in the future.
But it never will be. The version you use to play the competitive game will never get more compelling. It can’t. Competitive game balance is already balanced on a razor’s edge; slight tweaks to damage-per-bullet, reload time, ammo counts, and so on, have decisive effects on the competitive meta-game. To introduce multiple, higher-level variants of the characters would, first, be a terrible PR move, and second, it would be an absolute disaster in terms of balance.
Perhaps there are solutions–I’m tempted to wax philosophic about it–but I didn’t come to this blog post to claim, falsely, to be an experienced game designer. While I’d like to have a job in game design, I’m no salesman. I’d like to think that this post is a novel description of a problem that may, perhaps, already have occurred elsewhere, and which may happen again if it’s not recognized moving forward.
All I can really say is that this content grinding model–where you string people along by offering them “better” as long as they keep playing–is incompatible with a game design based on people not being able to access those rewards. If I had been in charge, I would never have allowed this direction–and if I had been in a position to argue, I would have argued strenuously against it. There are other ways to keep people interested, and while “character levels” appears to be a mechanic with near-universal applicability, there are still cases, like this, where it is wholly and entirely inappropriate.
Hopefully, it will be revealed that they either already figured this out and have a solution, or that they have backtracked on the mechanic without telling us. And, of course, it’s possible that I’ll be completely wrong. We’ll have to see.