Class-based shooters and the roots of Overwatch
Overwatch is an interesting beast. Despite being Blizzard’s first attempt at a first-person shooter, and their first new franchise in a very long time, it received glowing reviews, massive sales, and is already building up one of the largest competitive scenes the genre has seen in a long time. It is a bonafide hit.
But it's not a hit that came out of nowhere. Overwatch uses mechanics and concepts from other titles to build a palatable patchwork of a game. To understand why this works, we have to understand the history of class-based shooters.
The class-based shooter as a subgenre of first-person shooters can be traced back to one game: Team Fortress. This Quake mod changed the way we look at multiplayer shooters by allowing characters to pick specific classes with unique pros and cons. It was so successful, in fact, that Valve bought out the mod developer and cranked out two more games with the Team Fortress name: Team Fortress Classic, and Team Fortress 2.
But class-shooters didn’t just stop evolving after Team Fortress 2 launched. Even TF2 has evolved over the course of its lifespan. Once a straightforward competitive shooter, TF2 now boasts too many items to count, detailed stats tracking for bragging rights, a virtual economy, and even a co-operative mode. Still, its legacy as a simple, but nuanced, game remains in the form of your actual match objectives. All you must do is capture a point or move an object by standing next to it.
Valve wasn’t the only game in town either. Splash Damage, creators of the seminal Enemy Territory franchise, have also done much to advance class-based shooters. Where Team Fortress played it safe – objectives were never too difficult to understand – Enemy Territory reveled in creating more complex scenarios for players. In a single match you could go from capturing a point to planting a bomb to rescuing an NPC to repairing an emplacement.
This complexity would continue with Enemy Territory’s sequels: Quake Wars, Brink, and Dirty Bomb. Despite flaws in each game – usually relating to balance and issues with map chokepoints – Splash Damage continued to iterate upon their formula, adding more and more mechanics such as RTS base-building (Quake Wars), separate body types and gun modification (Brink), and characters as classes (Dirty Bomb).
Characters as classes didn't originate from Splash Damage, though. That particular design approach was pioneered by Dota, the mod-turned-phenomenon that birthed two extremely popular F2P games and a horde of imitators. Every character in Dota is a unique class with abilities shared by no other characters, but similar characters perform similar roles. Thus, while TF2 only has one healer (Medic), Dota 2 has a few (Witch Doctor, Omniknight, etc) that all approach the core mechanic of "heals things" in different ways.
By merging Team Fortress’ objective design, Dirty Bomb’s class design, and Dota's ability design, Overwatch feels like a fusion of every class-based shooter of the past five years while remaining its own thing. But Overwatch isn’t the only new class-based game on the field, and with its success other developers are no doubt looking to Blizzard as the behemoth to dethrone. Paladins (Hi-Rez), Paragon (Epic), Lawbreakers (Boss Key), and Quake Champions (id) all incorporate character-centric class design in some way, and a few even hew a little close to Overwatch’s general design as well.
Being a good class-based shooter is more than just having shooting with character classes, though. Overwatch succeeds because it is so simple, so straightforward, so cartoonish that anybody can start playing and understand how it works. It's a collection of Saturday morning cartoon characters blasting each other with sound waves and punching each other with gorilla fists.
In fact, it's this silliness that ends up making Overwatch so appealing. By centering each class around both a unique visual aesthetic and an interesting, if stereotypical, backstory, Overwatch provides players with enough lore to keep them invested in their favorites. These lore connections are further explored through machinima, comics, and in-game character dialogue, but are never made so concrete as to disrupt fan interpretations of each character. Blizzard built a framework for each character - personality traits, aesthetics, etc - and then encouraged the fans to flesh the characters out.
If this sounds familiar, it's because this is exactly what Valve did with their own properties. Many character-centric videos (such as Meet the Spy) and comics later, players now have a distinct investment in the personalities and playstyles of the TF2 classes. Thanks to dialogue between characters as you play each level, Left 4 Dead conveys story and relationships without cutscenes.
By using these narrative tricks in combination with a meticulous level of polish, Blizzard gave Overwatch the one thing it really needed to succeed: a fanbase invested in the characters they play. As such, Overwatch is the fastest growing competitive game in the world - it even eclipsed League of Legends as the most played game in South Korean internet cafes, which is no small feat - and has a massive and vibrant fan community already. These are the sorts of metrics most companies can only dream of.
Overwatch heralds a deluge of new class-based shooters, but it will likely outlive the gold rush it helped to start. After all, it's not doing anything new, but rather tweaking old design in a way that's approachable for a general audience without sacrificing the high skill ceiling that attracts a dedicated competitive community.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go get play of the game for missing four shots as Widowmaker.