Overwatch and Negative Feedback (Day 5)
So, no name still – sorry! It’ll happen when it happens, hopefully sooner rather than later. If you’re wondering why I include the day number, it’s largely for my own benefit. WordPress records dates by a different time zone to my own, so it can be hard to figure out if I’ve done a post every day or not – they blur!
Today’s post is about Blizzard’s Overwatch. Released last year to critical and commercial acclaim, it’s a brilliant shooter, wonderfully showcasing Blizzard’s signature level of polish. I even reviewed it! Though if you follow the link, be warned that changes to the website have since deleted my images, so it’s a bit of a wall of text until that’s sorted.
My point is that I’ve played a lot of Overwatch and loved most of my time with it. One thing that really struck me – and what this post is largely about – is how it makes every player feel skilled and powerful, and why this can be a terrible thing. It’s worth mentioning that I’m not going to talk about the specifics of Overwatch much. If you’ve never played then you may not get much out of this post, but I don’t have the space in this post to give in-depth descriptions on everything.
Justice Rains From – Argh!
Overwatch makes use of negative feedback as much as most games, on a traditional level. By “negative feedback”, I essentially mean that the game is telling you when something bad is happening – when you’re being shot, when the enemy is capturing an objective and so on. Where I think the game broadly fails is that it doesn’t accurately portray when you aren’t playing well.
Where I think the game broadly fails is that it doesn’t accurately portray when you aren’t playing well.
“But you just said-” I hear you begin to say, but I’m going to cut you off right there, you hypothetical wanker. The game tells you when an objective is being captured, when teammates are dead and when you’re being shot in the face, and all of that is great.
These are all forms of feedback that are essential to shooters, but Overwatch is something else – a strange hybrid of team shooters and MOBAs that’s kind of become it’s own thing. It’s this second point that I have an issue with.
My Team Sucks!
“My Team Sucks” is not only something I hear in every other match of Overwatch, it’s something that I fully believe, often. And it’s not – usually – true.
The problem is that the game is so goddamn good at making you feel like a successful player. Every hero feels overpowered, in their own way. The positive feedback – hitting enemies, healing teammates and so on – is extremely satisfying. Seeing an objective “pop” as you capture it is amazing.
But none of this helps you improve as a player, because precious little of it is related to team play or strategy in a game that focuses almost exclusively on those things. The enemy team overextended, and you managed to wipe them all out with a well-placed D.Va ultimate? Good job, loser – the entire enemy team will come back at the same time and block the objective capture. You’d be hard-pressed to see this as a bad thing when you’re busy looking at all the points exploding onto your screen behind the gratifying “TEAM KILL”.
The point is that the positive feedback often gets in the way of strategies that are actually effective, and the negative feedback doesn’t address a lot of the problems that teams face. This leads to a lot of team blaming – “I just killed their entire enemy team and they still blocked the point? What was my team doing?”
“You either kill Mercy 1st, or 11th”
I’m using this section to quickly address another couple of simple but important mistakes players will make, but the game encourages or otherwise fails to discourage.
The first two are entirely about Mercy, the angelic healer character with the ability to resurrect dead players. I haven’t exactly done a case study on this, but I can guarantee that many other players do the same thing as me – hang on to that resurrect ability until all your teammates are dead, ensuring you don’t heal them in the interim just to get the sought-after “5 player rez”, which practically guarantees the illustrious “Play of the Game”.
A similar example is from the enemy point of view. See an enemy Mercy, and you’re fairly sure or positive that she has her ultimate ready to go? Ignore her, so you can re-kill the other players once they’re revived (preferably with an ultimate of your own). This one’s trickier because it can be a legitimate strategy as a way to “waste” Mercy’s ult, but more often than not it seems to be a mistake.
There are a few more similar examples, and I think anyone who’s played a few hours of Overwatch can think of more. In short, the ideal way to improve your personal score is rarely to play alongside your team. Even the reward system – medals – is based on your performance compared to your team’s, encouraging you to outperform rather than work with them.
Now, I need to say a couple of things quickly –
- These aren’t necessarily problems. At low levels of play, players feel good about themselves even when they’re playing badly. At high enough levels, players have learned what works and what doesn’t regardless of the feedback systems.
- Proper, fully fleshed out solutions are beyond the scope of this post, but I’ll offer a couple of thoughts.
One of the most glaring problems – and one Blizzard is aware of – is the “Play of the Game” system. At the end of each match, the most impressive or impactful play from any player – winning team or not – is displayed. While the system isn’t perfect, the fact that it focuses on a single player at all is an obvious issue. Why not a system that focuses on team play? This is likely something that’s currently in the works, but it’s a confusing oversight either way (or, just as likely, something they wanted but couldn’t achieve in time).
Heatmaps are another popular idea that could do wonders for teaching players what they’re doing wrong. Being able to review maps of how you’ve performed in various areas of the game would be invaluable – knowing where you and other players die most frequently, for example, would be a quick way to learn the most dangerous spots for various heroes.
Team scoring could also do wonders. The game already gives you points according to how much you’ve damaged an enemy when they die – do 30% of an enemy’s health in damage and have a teammate kill them, and you’ll earn 30 points. That’s great!
What I’d like to see is a system that took this further and encouraged teamwork. Imagine if killing enemies caught inside Zarya’s gravity surge rewarded more points, or even more Hero-specific score bonuses.
For example, Genji is famously a “noob” character, despite having a very high skill ceiling. Part of the problem seems to be that newer players don’t try to flank with him, or manipulate the environment and enemy placement to make him as effective as possible.
While the only thing that’s really going to help with that is practice, I can imagine a scoring system could help. Giving extra points for hitting an enemy in the back while they’re engaged with another player, for example, or rewarding less (or no) points for hitting tanks with his ultimate (because it’s usually worthless).
That’s admittedly a heavy-handed solution, and nothing I’ve suggested is without flaws or things worth further consideration, but I hope it’s helped you understand my thoughts on the subject. Overwatch is a fantastic, well-polished and solidly designed game, and the fact that I’m picking on it for imperfect skill building tools probably says a lot.