The Character Conundrum: Can there be too many?

There are 136 Champions in League Of Legends. Dota 2 has 113 Heroes. In Smite you can play as 86 Gods. Heroes Of The Storm features 67 different characters from across Blizzard’s varied universes. Overwatch, meanwhile, currently has 24 – with only three of those being added to the game in its first year.

It’s a critical point for many Overwatch fans, and it’s easy to see why: in a world where League Of Legends receives a new character practically every two months, Smite manages one a month and even Blizzard’s Heroes Of The Storm has gained six new characters this year already there’s an expectation that multi-character games are due regular new additions.

So why are new Overwatch characters released so slowly?

The obvious point to make would to draw a conclusion between the genre: the MOBA relies on a distinctive roster of characters, each interacting with the game in their own unique ways, but the FPS does not.

The FPS, as a genre, often emphasises class-based competition, still keeping the differences distinct but similar enough that there’s a level playing field. There’s less to change, and up until Overwatch there weren’t many FPS games that beat Team Fortress 2’s nine classes.

It’s true that the MOBA suffers from its constant upheaval of the meta, each new character requiring a certain degree of balance – though many will argue that’s not true – to ensure that they fit smoothly in with the existing characters.

That’s why there are so many patches for these games, the underlying numbers shifting to keep the balance of the game as even as possible. But is that such a problem for Overwatch? It seems there are just as many patches for this FPS as there are for any MOBA, so that can’t be a reason.

Overwatch’s game director Jeff Kaplan recently said in an interview with Gamespot that Blizzard doesn’t intend to increase the rate of character releases, meaning we’ll likely see only 3-4 new characters added to the game in a year.

Orisa is the latest addition to the Overwatch roster.

That might seem incongruous to similar titles, but ask yourself why MOBAs typically release characters so often. They’re all free-to-play, and the release of a new character – in any game – builds a bit of excitement and gets players reinvested. For a League players it’s a chance to discover something new in a game that – at its base level – doesn’t differ from game to game.

Overwatch has the bonus of different maps, different modes, different objectives. That keeps it fresh enough for players, for a MOBA the addition of a new character is the best way of keeping players hooked.

As a paid-for game Overwatch doesn’t need to rush out characters to keep its playerbase coming back to buy add-ons, relying on different means – such as events, like the recent Uprising – to keep players involved, invested and interested.

This has an added effect, something that Kaplan himself draws attention to. This means that each new character that is released is a more significant addition. The character is free so anyone can play them, but that new hero will more dramatically affect the way a game is played.

Part of this is because, as an FPS, the characters have a wider range of interacting with the world than they might in a MOBA. One might be able to swiftly dart around the map, another can block off entire routes while another can fly through the air – there are more options to make characters unique than in a top-down game.

Blizzard wants its characters to maintain this special moment, and you’ll notice that through the way it builds the lore around the game through subtle changes to maps in-game via patches. A lot of the games’ fans are drawn to its subdued approach to story, and so each new character release makes that important to them.

But on a competitive level it provides so much more. The release of Orisa meant that many were speculating different ways she could adjust the meta: perhaps we’d see a rise in impenetrable barrier defense compositions? Will shield-destroying characters become a necessity to deal with the strategy?

No MOBA has a new character added to the game that can this broadly affect the way the game is played. Team builds and compositions shift and change as new characters are added, of course, but the way a single match plays out is rarely affected.

That’s Overwatch’s real difference between the genre it is often so commonly compared to. A new character provides new tactics and strategies to play with, and if they were released on a monthly basis there wouldn’t be time for the meta to settle into these new avenues.

Overwatch’s meta isn’t just about which character is the strongest to play as and which match up together, it’s as much about these varied strategies that are just as map dependant as they are the different abilities.

Pros need time to devise these new strategies, and look for ways to use each new addition across the range of other characters and existing maps. A new character each month wouldn’t be enough time to solidify any of this, and would make for unbalanced competitive games.

Esports draws us in because we’re watching players at the top of their game, if those players are constantly finding themselves having to learn simply because of one new character then Blizzard is right to limit the release schedule – though that doesn’t seem to be the company’s intention.

Overwatch Game Director Jeff Kaplan told Gamespot that he doesn’t intend to increase the rate at which Overwatch adds new heroes.

So does that mean there’s an end-game? Will Overwatch one day finally have no new characters added, or will we one day see 100+ heroes to play as? And, if so, would that be bad for the game on a competitive level?

As it stands that’s a tough set of questions to answer. This is a paid-for game and, one day, there will become a saturation point, where the cost of development doesn’t gain anything more for the company. Blizzard could switch Overwatch to free-to-play with great ease, and maybe that’s their strategy once they reach a high enough character count.

But it’s also fair to note that Overwatch doesn’t seem to need any more characters. Players are excited when they’re added, of course, and it helps revitalise interest in the game – however temporarily – but since new characters don’t slot in quite as unnoticeably as they do in MOBAs it’s a safe bet to think there can be such thing as ‘too many characters’ in Overwatch.

For now it’s not something we don’t need to worry about, but it’s tough to imagine an Overwatch with 25 distinct characters for each of the game’s four roles, and with that many individual moving parts the competitive scene would likely struggle.

Categories: eSports,Overwatch