Balancing Craziness: How Overwatch Balances Heroes

Scott Mercer and Geoff Goodman talk Widowmaker and Mercy changes, design philosophy, and more.
Mercer (pictured above) and Goodman talk balance © Blizzard Entertainment
By Barrett Womack

As the Overwatch beta pool has continued to expand, new people have continuously been getting their hands on Blizzard’s latest shooter. This weekend will spike those numbers even higher: the first large-scale Beta Test Weekend will be going on, opening the floodgates to tons of new players who will be entering the world of Overwatch for the very first time.

When the beta first came out, we talked about how Overwatch can be an overwhelming experience early on. So when brand new players get mowed down by a Bastion in turret mode or helplessly watch an enemy Reinhardt advancing with his massive shield this weekend, it’s likely that many people will say to themselves, “This is insane. How could anybody balance this?” Here to answer that question and more are Scott Mercer and Geoff Goodman from the hero design team. Stick around to learn more about how they approach tweaking heroes, including some new balance changes added in today's patch.

Tuning for balance and feel

Since the beginning of the Overwatch beta, Blizzard has been vocal about their intent to iterate quickly and experiment with character changes aggressively. Some changes have already been made: McCree’s damage at long range has decreased, Pharah’s rocket fire rate has been slowed, and Mei’s Endothermic Blaster no longer stacks, meaning three Meis can’t insta-freeze a target (thank goodness!). But the last change is the most interesting of the bunch – Symmetra, the hero with the highest win rate at the time of her change, received a bevy of buffs that allow her to construct turrets and give shields to her allies more regularly.

Even as a strong hero, Symmetra has been buffed © Blizzard Entertainment

This is no blunder. The design team is aware of Symmetra’s current strength, but the prior limitations of her long cooldowns made her unsatisfying to play at times. Goodman believes that nailing the feel of a hero first is more important. “Symmetra’s an interesting one because she doesn’t get played that often, but she has the highest winrate. That’s definitely somewhat of a red flag for us, because we want our characters to be really fun. We can’t just try to convince people that ‘no, trust me, you win’ if people are like ‘well… I don’t really want to play her.’”

With Symmetra’s changes explicitly strengthening her kit, she will continue to be under the microscope. But for now, the design team wants to see how the hero feels while she’s firing on all cylinders before looking into ways to dampen her power. This early on into Overwatch’s life, relying on winrates to determine strength may be a bit premature. “From a stats perspective she has a great winrate, but some of that stuff you have look back at and say, ‘well, does she have a great winrate because of the knowledge of the people that play her?’” said Mercer. “Especially during early beta where there’s still a lot of external factors like team composition and character knowledge, there’s going to be some oddities.”

Changes like this are also supported by another important fact: that the Overwatch team has been playing the game for a long time themselves. The experiential knowledge the team has gives them a better understanding of what numbers are valid, and which may be biased towards mechanical ignorance of a hero. Goodman used the example of two other heroes whose public performance hasn’t matched up with the development team’s impressions to illustrate this point.

“We think Zenyatta and Zarya are both amazing in our eyes. Arguably, even before we got in the beta, we said ‘these might be a little strong, but let’s get them out there.’ But they’re so different than a lot of the archetypes that are already out there that people haven’t been able to fully understand them in the way they’re able to with Widowmaker or McCree.”

Widowmaker and Mercy are both getting toned down © Blizzard Entertainment

One shot, not as many kills

Along with the Beta Test Weekend, there are a few balance changes incoming as well, aimed at a pair of heroes. Widowmaker and Mercy are absolutely devastating when they work together - with Mercy’s damage boost, Widowmaker can one-shot body-shot 250 health heroes, making mincemeat of enemies intended to be more survivable than their peers.

Instead of heavily nerfing down Widowmaker’s high damage or Mercy’s damage boost, both are getting softened up a little. Widowmaker’s damage is going down slightly and her scoped shot costs more ammo, while Mercy’s damage boost won’t be quite as powerful as before. The latest patch that goes live today will make the aforementioned boosted body shot do less than 200 damage – meaning Widowmaker players will need to be shooting for the head to get that satisfying one shot kill she’s always talking about.

Both of these heroes have both been very strong throughout the Overwatch beta individually, so nerfing them as a pair just worked. “It’d be one thing if Mercy was not very strong and Widowmaker was, but because they’re so both individually so powerful, it made a lot of sense to do it this way,” said Goodman. It also makes situational awareness even more important for Mercy, meaning smart players will outshine their peers. “The ability is such that there are times where actually you could heal, but still want to damage boost ... by having the knowledge to say ‘in this particular matchup, the character that I’m boosting will actually get more benefit out of damage than healing. That sort of gameplay is really core to Mercy – she doesn’t have the twitch headshot skill that Widowmaker has. She has this different sort of skill in there, and I want to maintain that.”

Blizzard is looking to fix up Zarya's readability © Blizzard Entertainment

Under construction

Outside of traditional numerical balance changes, there are also smaller quality-of-life changes incoming to help make characters more readable at first glance. Zarya is a prime example of a character who could use a little bit of love in that department. “Zarya’s in a pretty good spot, but it can be really hard to determine how much power she’s built up [with her barriers],” said Goodman. “It’s very unclear, especially as an opponent of hers, to gauge ‘well, is she really scary right now?’ That’s really high on our polish list right now.”

And that’s not all. Bastion and Torbjörn have emerged as polarizing characters – both can completely dominate in the right situation, but can also be frustrating to play when an enemy team knows how to properly deal with them. Goodman didn’t have any concrete details to share, but he made it clear that these two will be receiving changes that are further-reaching than any we’ve seen thus far. “The characters are actually really fun, when you actually get them going. The core is there, the fantasy is there, it’s all really fun – it’s just a matter of evening them out a little bit. These guys in particular are not so much about [tweaking] numbers as much as they are about some of the core designs.”

By next year, the current Bastion may be obsolete © Blizzard Entertainment

Keep it crazy

Balancing a game like Overwatch can be a hectic experience. With several heroes exhibiting drastically different types of power, it’s not always clear what’s strong, what’s not, and how that might change over time. But at the end of our chat, Goodman reassured us that no matter how hectic it gets, Overwatch is meant to be a game where players can do unbelievable things. No matter which characters are tweaked and tinkered with, that won’t change.

“We are going to be tuning things up and down, of course, as we go - we’re in beta and that’s a major part of it. But … we’re not going to get to a point where we’re balancing everything down and keep balancing things down to where we could say ‘okay, it’s technically balanced, but everything feels kind of medium or weak.’ It’s very important that everything feels really strong, and I think it feels way right now when you play a character.”

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