Overwatch's metagame has fluctuated throughout the years, sometimes moving rapidly in response to a new hero or adjustment, and other times stagnating for seemingly eons. Now, it looks like the balance team is taking a much more deliberate, hands-on approach to handling Overwatch's competitive balance.
In a Developer Update released today, Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan discussed several big changes coming to the multiplayer team-based hero shooter. As Kaplan notes, the community has often been vocal about balance in Overwatch.
"In the past, the Overwatch team has faced some criticism for being a little bit slow when it comes to our balance patches," Kaplan says. "We've often heard that players want to see balance more frequently, they want us to try more things, they want us to be more aggressive with changes. They want us to be willing to revert changes that the community perceives as not being good."
Well, it sounds like Kaplan and his team will start doing exactly that. In what Blizzard characterizes as more frequent and impactful updates to the game, the Overwatch meta will start changing a lot more often. As Kaplan says, the team will be more aggressive and even reverting changes in an effort to deliberately affect the meta.
Key to this effort is a new play mode, dubbed the Experimental Card. Like the other cards you see when you boot up Overwatch, the Experimental card will be a new option under the Play menu that will allow the team to test "major changes" to the game that might not ever roll out to the standard modes.
Though it sounds similar to the PTR, or Public Test Realm, the Overwatch team specifies that the two are separate. While the PTR is meant for bug testing, the Experimental Card will be used to test out balance updates and game modes. Despite being a testbed for new features, it will still let players earn Loot Boxes. It will also open the tests up to console players as well.
On the truly competitive side, Overwatch will be implementing "Hero Pools" with its 21st season of Competitive Play, a.k.a. Overwatch's "ranked" mode, in March 2020. While it's a test for this season only at the moment, the idea is that a selection of heroes will be available for a short time, though Kaplan says the team is open to changes as the season goes on.
Kaplan said last week that banning heroes is not a "silver bullet" for game balance, though this Hero Pool would exclude certain heroes from the pool of available characters. This change will only happen in the Competitive mode, so Arcade and Quick Play will still continue on as normal. Kaplan says this is meant to encourage hero diversity, specifically in the competitive environment.
Kaplan expands on some other concepts the team is working on, like pinning replays and sharing them with other players. Overall, it sounds like the Overwatch team is trying to take a much firmer grasp of the steering wheel when it comes to competitive Overwatch-an interesting decision, given Overwatch is ramping up to its eventual PvE-focused sequel.
This sort of hero pool rotation could possibly prevent issues like the GOATS meta from dominating the game once again. But it's also a little artificial, if pick diversity is enforced simply by developer whims rather than player ingenuity. And while the Experimental mode sounds like a fun way for the balance and design departments at Blizzard to really let loose with some wild changes, I'm also a little worried about it being too tuned into community feedback.
Competitive balance is a tricky, fickle thing, and for Blizzard, Overwatch is their most visible game at the moment. These rapid changes could put the spice back in the now-aging game, but it could also turn sour.