Blizzard's sophomore effort on the Switch is not the sort of port you might have expected. Where Diablo 3 was a natural fit for the console, Overwatch seems less so. Blizzard's team-based hero shooter is multiplayer-centric, played from a first-person perspective, and has many moving parts—yet it launches today on Nintendo's handheld console.
If any of that was supposed to dissuade anyone, it was never told to the Overwatch team. As producer Matthew Hawley tells USgamer, the team fell in love with the Nintendo Switch at first look. Overwatch was already on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One—so why not Switch?
"The Overwatch world really fits in with a lot of the other Nintendo titles out there," producer Wes Yanagi adds. "Very strong characters, very colorful, future-type things. Just a really good match."
Yanagi tells us that fundamentally, the game is the same. Heroes, modes, maps—everything's in its right place. But obviously, bringing Overwatch to the Nintendo Switch required some compromises. Rather than the PC's unlocked graphics, the Nintendo Switch is locked to 30 frames per second, both docked and undocked. Making Overwatch work was about more than just graphics, Yanagi says.
"A lot of people kind of focus on the visuals when they think about optimization, but it was really all our game systems," Yanagi says. "We have a real-time physics system in the game, and a really intricate audio system that prioritizes sounds around you based on whether it's an enemy shot or a friendly shot, things like that. All of those things needed to be looked at and optimized."
The Overwatch team even brought the footprint of the game down to scale for the Switch's smaller storage capacity, to just 11 and a half GBs. While the team had to scale back in some aspects, Nintendo's hybrid handheld also opened up new avenues of design.
On the Nintendo Switch, Overwatch will have some new control options that are similar to ones used for Wii games or Nintendo's offbeat squid-shooter Splatoon. Gyroscopic controls and pseudo-laser-pointer controls were first suggestions from Nintendo, Blizzard tells USgamer.
Yanagi says one of the team's designers had played a "ton" of Splatoon, and would play using the right Joy-Con like a Wiimote. It was odd, but it became a learning experience for the developers to see a new approach to handling Overwatch, which has always been controlled using either a mouse and keyboard or traditionally dual-stick controller. In their first playtest with the Splatoon-seasoned veteran, the squid-schooled designer dominated.
"Everybody went, 'Wait, what are you doing?'" Yanagi says, "because everyone else was just holding the Switch and using mainly the sticks, just trying to nudge it with the motion controls. He just totally had this different way of approaching it that was awesome."
And so, Nintendo's suggestion to include gyro-aiming came to the Overwatch universe. While it won't affect the PC or console players—Overwatch still doesn't have cross-play, though it's something the devs say they are investigating—it puts Overwatch on Switch in a new paradigm, where stylish squid-kids and Metroid Prime 3 vets can feel at home as Junkrat or Widowmaker, playing against the joystick-wielding old fogeys.
Hawley says the experience of porting to Nintendo Switch, optimizing and exploring new control schemes has been eye-opening for the Overwatch team because Blizzard is a traditionally PC-oriented company. "We still consider ourselves a PC development studio," Hawley says. "But as the technology has changed and grown over the last five or 10 years, it's been really fun for us to explore new ways to play our games."
Now that Overwatch is on every major console and PC, the question now is where can Overwatch go from here? There is the rumored Overwatch sequel, as well as a steady rollout of new heroes and maps. The team has maintained a steady cadence of updates over the months and years since Overwatch's launch in 2016, from major updates to minor, micro-level adjustments.
In that respect, the developers say there aren't any plans in the works for major hero overhauls, like those Torbjorn or Symmetra have seen in the past. Most of the changes have been micro-adjustments, tiny numbers, or mechanical tidbits changing to cause a ripple effect. They note one specific change to Soldier 76's reticle spread; while it didn't change much at lower levels, where players spray and pray, it helped balance the hero at a higher level of play.
It's an important balance to strike, as Overwatch is both a competitive game with its own Blizzard-run Overwatch League and a casual play game. On Switch, it looks to fall squarely into the latter category. While the highly competitive players are sure to continue flocking to the mouse and keyboard, the high point of the Switch version—for the Overwatch team, at least—is gathering in one room and playing together, everyone with their own Switch. It was another eye-opening moment for the team: that Overwatch could be a social experience, not just over comms and virtual hero warfare, but in real life.
"Even now it's been odd, because whenever we do our internal team playtests, we could all do it at our desk or whatever. [With Switch,] we all congregate to that side of the office and play with each other," Yanagi says. "And to me, that's kind of telling on how different playing on the Switch will be."
Whether this second Switch port from Blizzard makes a splash remains to be seen, and right now, it's fighting an uphill battle with itself. Recent controversies in the Hearthstone scene over the punishment of a player for pro-Hong Kong sentiments have spread out across Blizzard and even affected today's launch, as Blizzard canceled its New York launch party for Overwatch on Switch with little warning.
Regardless, the developers of the Overwatch team seem confident and excited to have achieved their pie-in-the-sky dream. Overwatch is playable on a Nintendo console, and that's pretty cool. Of course, there is one lingering, Super Smash Bros. logo-shaped question mark hanging in the air. And when I asked, the developers were unsurprisingly cagey, though one did offer a suggestion.
"If I had to pick, for me, I play a lot of Winston normally," Yanagi says. "So it'd be kind of awesome to see a Winston - Donkey Kong matchup. That's just me."