Jeffrey Kaplan got his first job at Blizzard Entertainment in 2002, as a quest designer for World of Warcraft. He was hired in part due to his achievement as guild leader of EverQuest’s “Legacy of Steel.” Before Kaplan lead this notoriously successful guild, Blizzard game designer and eventual Chief Creative Officer Rob Pardo had the reigns. It should be no surprise then, considering how valuable of a connection that community built, that Project Director Jeff Kaplan said in a developer update, “We’d rather have you be angry at the game… rather than be angry at one another as players, we’d like it be a fun community where you make friends.” I was already excited for Overwatch from my experience playing in it in the beta, but when I heard this, I knew the game was for me.
I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing competitive games like Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2, but eventually abandoned them both after growing detached or frustrated with the social element involved in play. With Team Fortress 2, friends on the main server I played on switched games and I never found a new server, so I moved onto a different game. Dota 2’s infamous community toxicity finally caught up to me when I realized how quickly I was willing to attack other players on my team for poor performance or a rude attitude. Learning that Overwatch was designed to reduce player frustration and infighting was what made me want to commit to playing it. Frustrated players often contribute to the toxicity of a game’s community by engaging in harassment during games or sabotaging their own teams. Toxic communities discourage newcomers from dealing with the initial hurdles of learning a competitive game, and long-term players are still exposed to this toxicity after developing their skills.
Kaplan has been considering how players interact with each other since his days designing quests for World of Warcraft. In an interview with Gamespot’s Danny O’Dwyer, Kaplan said that his favorite quest that he created was “The Green Hills of Stranglethorn,” one of the quests with the worst reputation in World of Warcraft. The quest had been designed with the intent to get players interacting with each other, but instead resulted in players spending excessive amounts of time grinding on their own. Stranglethorn offers two lessons: players don’t reliably engage each other without some sleight-of-hand or direct encouragement, and a common source of frustration is the sense of wasting time.
Wasting time in a game like Dota 2 or Overwatch seems unlikely, considering the lack of direct progression models or unlockable advantages, but players can often feel halted by a stark difference in skill level between themselves and their opponents. To address this, Overwatch implements a complex matchmaking system designed to assemble the most equal teams possible based on who is queued for a game and react to required inequalities (example: if a more skilled player has to be assigned to one team, the matchmaker will find a skilled player to put on the other team). Another way a player can feel like they’re wasting time is if there are secondary goals within a game that depend not just on the player’s performance, but also their team’s performance.
Within a multiplayer setting, one of the best incentives for play is the opportunity for players to distinguish themselves with cosmetic items. While randomized distribution of cosmetic items after sessions, a system used in Dota 2, might avoid the risk of teammates denying each other cosmetic items with poor play, this can also lead to jealousy or frustration as some players will feel they should be rewarded for their performance with specific items that are instead randomly assigned. Overwatch resolves this with a progression system that rewards a player with one item box per level. There are also configurations within the experience points system designed to prevent team performance from slowing individual progress.
Overwatch avoids a common trap of progression systems. Its interior values prioritize performing within a team over winning; players can acquire more experience points through the medal system than are offered through the bonus for winning a game. Medals give the best performers in specific categories extra experience, but players are only compared to their teams. This means that if one player on a losing team is outperforming their teammates, they’re not losing out on progress to their next item box. Players are given more experience points the longer a match lasts, which prevents a systemic bias for quickly and harshly defeating opponents. There is also a medal dedicated towards healing, so players who choose harder supports are also likely to receive an experience bonus (though adding a medal for blocking damage would reward those who choose to protect their teammates, also). Players also receive an experience multiplier for grouping with friends, and a bonus for consecutive matches in the same lobby in casual play.
This incentive to play repeated games with the same group of players is important because it’s one of few ways the game can encourage players to spend more time with each other. Unlike Team Fortress 2, there aren’t persistent servers in Overwatch. Without dedicated servers, players aren’t able to easily return to the same digital spaces, because those spaces aren’t persistent. Team Fortress 2’s use of community-run servers allowed players to return to digital spaces that acted as centers of community, which assists in players forming friendships in-game. Because Overwatch lacks this architecture, it instead needs players to spend more time with each other. While the lobby system can’t allow nearly as many players to interact with each other at once as the server system does, and thus players can’t form social groups as large as they can in other games, it can still help them assemble a clique of friends to group with. Overwatch also encourages repeated play by having players vote on the best performance in the match; secretly, players are more likely to be matched with those they have voted for. This means that players may group with those they have specifically respected.
Preventing player frustration can often be as simple as reminding players they did well despite the conclusion of a match. Later in my Dota 2 career, I became more prone to insulting whoever I thought was the anchor holding me back. Overwatch avoids this feeling of being brought down by teammates both with its experience system and also by having character-tailored scoreboards that prioritize certain statistics over others. These character-tailored scoreboards are configured to inform players if they are performing well whether or not they are winning fights, and keeps players focused on team objectives instead of individual accomplishments. Overwatch’s heads-up display also emphasizes its eliminations over direct kills, so players feel valuable for assisting in fights.
It’s not possible to tell whether or not Overwatch’s design will prevent toxicity or help build friendships, but it’s clear that its systems’ values are designed to encourage positive social interactions instead of impede them. Kaplan and his fellow designers made efforts to build a more neighborly environment, and that’s apparent even if these efforts don’t ever yield visible results. Maybe these systems could even lead to strong communities, like EverQuest’s Legacy of Steel.
Delilah Sinclair is a shy writer based in the Pacific Northwest. You can follow her @vorpalfemme on Twitter.