Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Genre Domination: Blizzard’s Overwatch

When, as an outside observer, you hear that many gaming review sites have taken to adopting an “in progress” format for some of their reviews, you could be forgiven for thinking that sounds like pretty lazy journalism. It can feel like an admission on their part that they couldn’t get around to writing something conclusive by the time the game came out (and, unfortunately, in some cases that’s quite true). While I would tend to agree that it’s certainly an inelegant solution, I think the constantly-shifting landscape of gaming has made it necessary for us to re-examine how we examine these works – especially when it comes to games like Blizzard’s Overwatch.

Now, the Blizzard detractors out there – which are legion, despite willfully placing themselves in opposition to the developer’s massive fanbase – are already raising their hands to point out that there’s nothing revolutionary about Overwatch; that, like many of Blizzard’s successful properties, it’s a retread of an already-established title by a different developer (Valve’s Team Fortress 2, in this case), and perfectly reflects Blizzard’s evil modus operandi of giving an older game a fresh coat of paint and calling it new. I’m not about to argue this point. TF2 did come first, yes, and nothing Blizzard has done with their own take on the team-based first-person shooter genre stands out as something that demands a re-evaluation of how to write game reviews. But I believe Overwatch’s core gameplay formula contains so much nested variety, and so many possibilities for endless combinations of characters and situations, that the meta-narrative surrounding the game deserves more insight than a simple review can offer. In that light, the whole “this review is still ongoing” thing starts to make a bit more sense, doesn’t it?

To wit, Overwatch is a first-person shooter (FPS) in which you select one of the game’s 21 distinctive characters along with your teammates and face off against an opposing team in a variety of colourful environments. Each character has three unique abilities and an “ultimate” ability, which can be used sporadically as you complete map objectives and eliminate foes. Like a deck of playing cards, this deceptively simple setup disguises a chasm of gameplay depth that makes the game both instantly accessible (since the heroes and their abilities are easy to grasp) and continuously rewarding (since the ways in which those heroes can be used is a constantly-changing learning curve that is deeply satisfying to master). This is the chief thing Blizzard does which I believe sets them apart from other developers, more than their visual polish or charming presentation: they are able to take a style of game, be it a collectible strategy card game, a MOBA, or an FPS, and make it fun for everyone. They skillfully lower the barrier to entry by simplifying (where the games they imitate sometimes needlessly convolute), while retaining the gameplay elements that give their games longevity and depth. They were able to grab my attention in all of these genres, when games like Magic: The Gathering and League of Legends and TF2 simply couldn’t. It’s easy to see why fans of those games would be irritated by a big, triple-A developer like Blizzard muscling in on their territory – but those fans fail to recognize the ways in which Blizzard is opening these genres up to a broader audience, so that everyone can enjoy what they have to offer. And in this case, I think that’s something to celebrate.

It’s quite often that inimitable “Blizzard polish” that catches the eye, though, and it’s easy to understand why. Overwatch’s heroes are the product of painstaking art design that makes them instantly distinguishable even just by their silhouettes (which can be crucial in the heat of battle). They have the kind of sharp, clean, focus-tested appearances – whether it’s Zenyatta the robot monk, Winston the hyper-intelligent gorilla, or Roadhog the apocalyptic wastelander – that gives them a strong, immediate sense of identity and branding. This is actually a rather brilliant approach, considering not only the merchandising and marketing possibilities for these unique, likeable characters, but for the way it fits into the narrative framework Blizzard has established. Through several excellent, beautiful animated short films – all of which are viewable on Youtube – the world of Overwatch has been explored and expanded upon (even though these narrative details don’t enter into the actual gameplay at all). It’s a near future, post-utopic world in which a crisis between humankind and their AI creations, called omnics, led to the rise of superheroic peacekeeping forces such as the titular Overwatch, an Avengers-style team which becomes fractured through a series of misunderstandings and personal betrayals. It’s little more than window-dressing, but it’s done skillfully enough to capture the curiosity and imaginations of gamers who, like me, are excited to learn more about these characters and how their relationships have been formed and broken. In the animated shorts, the aesthetic matches – and in some ways surpasses – the bright, cartoony stylization of a Pixar or Dreamworks animated film, and in-game, the smooth animations and bright visuals, along with the clean, unobtrusive interface, make for a gorgeous and engaging experience.

An element of Overwatch that bears discussing is Blizzard’s marketing approach, which I believe was instrumental in making this game the overwhelming success it has been, both in sales and in continued popularity. Many developers offer fans access to early versions of their games, called beta versions, long before the official release. This provides the three-pronged benefit of promoting their game ahead of time, allowing eager fans to get an exclusive taste, and garnering useful feedback from those players which can be incorporated into changes or fixes for the final release. Blizzard’s Overwatch beta began in November 2015, a full six months before its release at the end of May, and was restricted mostly to Youtubers and Twitch streamers (which they called a “closed” beta), who would broadcast their gameplay live for millions of followers. A few weeks before release, Blizzard also offered an “open” beta, to which anyone could apply, and have the chance to try out the game before deciding to buy it. So what Blizzard had done was effectively cultivate a dedicated following in the competitive scene, generate a large fanbase, and secure millions of copies in sales, before the game even came out. This is a move that only a company as large and powerful as Blizzard could pull off, and saying that makes it sound like a scam, but it’s really not – the success of Overwatch, and the fact that its online communities are just now starting to truly grow, is simply a testament to how great of a game it is in its own right.

The marketing aspect is interesting for its impact on the rest of the industry, as well. A hot-button issue right now is a game by Gearbox Software called Battleborn, which many feel has suffered unjustly in both reputation and sales thanks to comparisons which are frequently drawn between it and Overwatch. Battleborn is a distinctly different game when one bothers to investigate – it’s a team-based MOBA with a single-player component alongside its online matches – but its strikingly similar aesthetic (and release date) invited this unfair comparison from the get-go, which ended up killing the game. It’s not accurate to say that Battleborn was competing with Overwatch in terms of anything but May gaming profits, but Gearbox’s confused marketing, which was unable to clearly differentiate it from Blizzard’s giant new IP, meant that consumers continued to look at Battleborn’s cartoonish characters and FPS combat and see it as a cheap ripoff of Overwatch. At time of writing, Battleborn has been discounted by 40% on Steam and is in the final twitching stages of its quick, inevitable death – and it’s almost all thanks to marketing. I’m not confident that Battleborn could have survived this situation even if it was a better, or even as good of a game as Overwatch.

It all goes to illustrate how cutthroat the gaming industry has become, and how much quality and polish ultimately do matter to a title’s success. Blizzard is in the business of dropping hits – they’ve rarely been met with anything other than resounding success – and while the contrarian in me rankles at the thought, I really do think they earn it. The fact that I could imitate most gaming sites and call this review “in progress,” and then come back six months later and write about what would seem to be a totally different game, is really just proof that there is enough going on here under the hood to justify it. Forums and online communities and streamers and commentators and artists and fans who gather by the thousands to witness Overwatch played in a live competitive setting can’t simply be the product of hype. We’ve seen hundreds of games garner massive attention only to fall suddenly and sharply off the map. No, something tells me I’ll still be playing and talking about Overwatch for years to come, and knowing the effort that went into it – and will continue to be put into it, by the developer and the community alike – it will continue to excite me.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

No comments:

Post a Comment