Overwatch is a game where ostensible superheroes fight each other to the death over payloads and control points. It features cybernetic ninjas and hamsters in mechanized death orbs. And yet in the Overwatch Workshop, creators are turning a gladiatorial arena into bouncy castles, card games, and jumping puzzles, all to see how far they can take Overwatch's limits.
Blizzard games have a history of mod development. Other publishers have let users run wild with game creation tools plenty of times, yet few have led to the same proliferation of ideas and nascent genres as games like StarCraft or Warcraft 3 did. Overwatch's custom game scene shares that same legacy, developing new game modes out of ramshackle code and sliders.
In April, Blizzard introduced the Overwatch Workshop, which let users alter various rules and conditions within the Overwatch framework. Early examples, like "the floor is lava" mod Molten Floor, begat modes like OverFighter, a fully fledged 3D fighting game inside Overwatch. Users soon grabbed onto the tools available and started to rapidly iterate, taking to forums, subreddits and Discords to share their findings and make even cooler modes. Using strings-essentially sequential line commands-creators have made everything from card games and classic throwbacks to wholly new game modes.
These custom game modes are hidden away in a tab behind more conventional options, like quick play and the rotating arcade options. But in this little corner of Overwatch you'll find developers building games that are already defying what you might think possible within the confines of a team-based first-person-shooter.
Take Overwatch Uno, which is... wait for it... Uno played within Overwatch. It sounds pretty simple until you realize the complexities involved in replacing a shooter with a turn-based card game. It was built by a player named Ochotonida, whose experience in modding comes from a mix of computer science and Minecraft. Like others we talked to for this piece, Ochotonida came to custom game modes because they enjoyed Overwatch, but wanted a new experience from it that modes like competitive weren't providing. The final push was seeing someone post an attempt at Overwatch Space Invaders.
"It was somewhat fascinating to me that someone stripped every core gameplay mechanic of Overwatch and made something entirely new," Ochotonida told me over Discord. "The first two game modes I made, being Pong and Snake, were based around pretty much the same concept."
As Ochotonida describes it, the hardest part of creating Uno was visually portraying aspects like the cards in a player's hand. "I ended up creating 50 separate actions, one for every possible card that could be displayed in a player's hand," says Ochotonida. "Combined with the actions that display the card on the table and the card a player has selected, there's over 80 different actions for displaying cards alone."
It helps, obviously, having a background in computer science. KevlaR, a developer on several popular mods including Last Man Bouncing, comes from a similar programming background. While by day they study at college and work in the Unity engine, by night they work on Workshop projects. Initial custom game support was slim, but a recent Workshop update has added tools that have allowed programmers like KevlaR to really dive into what's possible with Overwatch.
"When custom games were first launched, it was nice to see, but we weren't allowed much freedom," says KevlaR. "The Workshop, however, brought back a lot of players that have stopped playing Overwatch and, for me, revived the passion I once had for the game."
In the early days, KevlaR says they were spending around 15 hours a week working on projects. Of those they've made, Last Man Bouncing is of particular note. Ochotonida cited it as one of their favorite Workshop games, "possibly the most creative game mode that has been made with Workshop so far." It's the collaboration of KevlaR, who had previously made McCree's Hot Potato, and Jinko, creator of Enhanced Ana Paintball.
Players control their own version of Reinhardt who deals no damage but does knock foes back with attacks. Everyone is bouncing on a balloon high up in the sky, and the idea is to be the last one still up in the air, while sending others tumbling to their terrestrial doom.
It's simple, but incredibly effective. The idea came about when Jinko added a spherical jump pad to their Enhanced Ana Paintball, and decided they wanted a game mode where players try to push each other off a shrinking balloon. Over the course of almost a month, through playtesting, ideating, troubleshooting, and balancing, it came together. And according to the creators, reception has been positive. Generally, the Overwatch community has been very supportive of mod efforts, boosting them on common Reddits and popular streamers sometimes playing custom games on stream.
"When I first saw all the attention my Hot Potato video got, I was shaking with excitement," says KevlaR over Discord. "I am still in a state of surprise today. The other game modes people have released are all doing very well too. I think the community enjoys this new wave of creativity a lot."
Different Discords have become havens for Workshop creators to gather and troubleshoot, or even just playtest. Ochotonida mentions that one great thing about the Overwatch Workshop is that you can add new things while a game is in progress, and then immediately use them in the next match, assuming nothing goes catastrophically awry. This lets creators continuously iterate on small numbers of ideas and fine tune at a much more rapid pace. (Larger gameplay features obviously need a little bit more care and attention.)
There's a fervent community behind custom game creation, and Blizzard's support has been working hard to keep up. They've been responsive to developments within the scene (they've even added some card game-related strings, which Ochotonida likes to think they had an influence on), but there are still some wish list items creators want.
Custom strings to allow more modification of the game and better tools for sharing game modes are good starts. The Workshop uses a system somewhat similar to the recently released Super Mario Maker 2, where you share modes using a custom ID. While you can still find game modes via the lobby tool, discoverability is always an issue with any open customization forum. (Just ask anyone who tried to play a Warcraft 3 custom that wasn't Defense of the Ancients back in the day.)
But even more so, custom strings could allow creators to really push boundaries and innovate. One of the hot genres of the year is the auto-battler, or auto chess as it's popularly known. It's the hot new genre that only came about from modding, but Workshop creators don't see that same liftoff happening with their current set of tools, for better or worse. As it is right now, Workshop games draw more comparisons to minigames in Mario Party. They're short, sweet experiences that usually hit best when played in a lobby with friends, laughing at the ridiculous explosion when two bouncing Reinhardts crash into each other.
Creators aren't really looking for a gold rush similar to Auto Chess, either. KevlaR says they aren't thinking of a Patreon or anything, though Twitch streaming might be a good alternative. But right now they're just looking to make more interesting game modes and find ways to push the tools they have further. KevlaR tells me about ideas like escalating difficulty and levels, which could hopefully lead to new and better modes. Even with a rumored Overwatch 2 hanging just off in the distance, there's still a lot to be done here and now in the Workshop.
"It's one of the best things that happened to Overwatch in my opinion," says KevlaR. "If there really is an Overwatch 2, I don't think it really needs a Workshop. It has just been released in Overwatch and still has a lot of room to grow."