While chatting to Jeff Kaplan about Overwatch this week, we didn't just want to know about the status and direction of the progression system - how about the game itself? Who is cruising for a nerf-bat bruising and where else do they see changes being necessary? In beta phase two, the most complaints have been pointed at turret-placing Torbjörn and his auto-locking friends, as well as Bastion, the form-switching robot with the endlessly powerful minigun. Both will get nerfs this week if the team can work out the best way, but elsewhere they don't think changes are as necessary as the community does.
We also talked Overwatch ranked matchmaking and how it could make it into the beta.
"I think there’s a couple of things for us to keep an eye on. I have a little bit of concern about where Torbjörn and Bastion ended up." Kaplan begins, "What we were seeing in the last phase of the beta was high end players never played Torbjörn and Bastion, and low-end players were extremely frustrated [with them]. We tried to make some changes to bring those characters in line a little bit, I think some were more successful than others and I think we solved some problems and created some other problems."
For the unaware, the regular complaint is that, on defense, the pair of these heroes are extremely difficult to counter effectively, and even when you do it takes a lot more effort from the attacking side with regards to coordination and skill than it does from the defensive one. Games with them in, especially if there are multiples of them on one side, are also far less fun than ones without, at least in the broadly held opinion of the vocal community. That's why they're Blizzard's main target right now.
"The thing that concerns me the most is I want to make sure that when you fight Torbjörn or Bastion, even if they beat you, it feels fun and fair. I think we need to go back and look at what some of our goals were and do a few balance and tuning tweaks to Torbjörn and Bastion to bring them a little bit more in line, if nothing else with an eye towards [making] them fun characters to play against. Let’s not make it be a frustrating experience for people."
So, how to do it? Well, Kaplan tells me, it's not quite as easy as those complaining would like to believe, "The trick is - a lot of times when you read player feedback, if the players don’t play the hero that is annoying them, they usually ask for it to just have its legs swept out from underneath it. The key is to recognise that there are a lot of players who enjoy playing those heroes, so we need to make changes in a way so it’s less frustrating to fight against but doesn’t take the fun out of the hero for those who like to play it."
"Obvious things that we can look at are health, damage, turn rate - these are things that I think are easy adjustments." Kaplan says when I ask where the nerfs might hit, "We have a fantastic lead hero designer named Geoff Goodman who’s extremely good with hero balance. So we’re gonna have a discussion later today [our interview was on Tuesday morning - Time Ed] and brainstorm about what we think the best thing is. The nice part about our toolset is it’s extremely easy for us to try some changes, have some playtests internally, see where we’re at. If we come up with something good, we’ll hopefully push something to the beta later this week to tune up those heroes."
I also asked Kaplan who he felt was too far down on the spectrum and might get bumped up - he says they're a bit less keen on immediate changes there at the moment and more testing is required.
"I’ve read that people think that Mercy is too low. I disagree. I think a lot of the perception of Mercy that we’re seeing is a reaction to how she was tuned before, and I think she was greatly overpowered before, in particular with her resurrect [which] I think was causing one of the biggest issues. I think Mercy is playing really well right now."
It's a similar situation for personal favourite and Korean all-star D.Va, the mech-driving teenager who also got some light nerfs between beta phases, directly to her abilities and indirectly through a change to the way characters build charge for their ultimate ability. Kaplan says he still believes she's very strong, "I think she’s an extremely powerful skirmishing tank, she has mobility like nobody else. If you ever want to break a choke, you send D.Va through. She’s also great against static defenses with her [Defense Matrix] and ultimate."
It's a matter of patience on these characters, and seeing how they do through week two, three and beyond, "I think we need some of the dust to settle. We’ll get there. I have confidence that we still have time before launch. We’re really actively and aggressively chasing down tuning and balance changes. It’s funny - if you look at phase one of the beta compared to phase two, in phase one everyone was claiming Torbjörn and Bastion were useless and D.Va and Mercy were overpowered. We made some tweaks and now the tables have turned."
With the beta coming back also came a new mode that incentivises large, packed groups. It's a lot of fun, but I personally felt that certain heroes created a very strong composition that was close to necessary for wins - particularly Lucio, with his healing song for those around him, and the tanks more capable of protecting their team, Winston and Reinhardt. Kaplan agrees they're powerful but says that this too will take time to figure out, not only because they need more data, but because players will change their tactics as we go.
"Right now it’s very difficult to tell. It’s only been a week - player strategies really evolve over time. I think we need to soak a little bit more to know. We had the mode up for about two months internally and we saw an interesting trend where some of our internal testers were claiming that Roadhog was a must pick on the mode." This wasn't something I'd even considered, or seen present in games, but now I have a plan for my next few.
"I think Lucio’s the obvious one, why he’s so powerful. You’ve got the speed to run back to the point, or the initial capture which is huge, but that AoE healing is really amazing in that mode. But I think that strategies have not fully baked yet in the beta so we wanna keep an eye on it just yet before making any changes."
It's a similar story to what Kaplan told us while speaking about progression - a mix of quick reactions to obvious problems (such as the various map glitches that have already been fixed since videos starting circling the community of easy out of bounds exploits) and patiently gathering data to avoid knee-jerks. It may surprise some that the team have no plans to buff characters while nerfing others, but making too many changes at once doesn't actually help - it can become difficult to tell which changes were correct and which weren't.
For more from Kaplan, do check our Overwatch progression system rundown, with a combination of my thoughts on page two and Kaplan's reactions plus Blizzard's general strategy one page one.