A Commentary About Blizzard Entertainment’s Recent Game Design Philosophy

Blizzard has been often criticized for making their games to be “unoriginal” and “watered down” versions of the other games in the genre. With the recent release of Overwatch, many people have been criticizing it for its similarity to Team Fortress 2. Hearthstone was widely criticized as a Magic the Gathering ripoff, Heroes of the Storm was labelled as a heavily dumbed down version of a MOBA, Diablo III was considered to be too simple by many Diablo II players. Despite all of these critcisms, all of these titles are still performing well and it is clear that the obscene levels of Blizzard polish is making their games shine. It makes you wonder how these so-called “unoriginal” and “watered down” games could possibly be successful. I won’t comment on Diablo III because I haven’t been a long time fan of the series however for the rest of the games, are these criticisms really justified?

Go

An example of a completed Go game on a 13*13 board.

Let’s take a moment to think about the game of “Go”, where the objective of the game is to control more territory than your opponent by zoning off sections of the game board and capturing the opponent’s pieces by surrounding them. Go is a game played between 2 players using black and white pieces called “stones” and in a standard game the game board size is 19*19 lines, and each player takes turns placing a stone anywhere on the board. The mechanics are very easily understood however playing it is anything but simple and it was once considered to be a game that no computer can be programmed to play effectively until the recent AlphaGo victory against a Korean professional player “Lee Sedol”. This game is considered to be one of the most well-designed games in history, with its conception dating back over 2500 years ago. In gamer terms, the game is easy to learn but it has a high skllcap because mastering the game will be well over a human’s lifespan. So what does this have to do with Blizzard games? If you compare Go to Blizzard’s recent games, we see that there’s a clear similarity to the apporach of how the games are designed; Blizzard is going with the easy to learn but hard to master mentality.

To make their games accessible to a wide range of players of various skill levels, Blizzard will simplify the game so that they’re intuitive to play and feel streamlined. One of the ways of doing this is to remove excessive and unnecessary mechanics or what I like to call “fluff” from their games. For example, in MOBA type games there’s this mechanic called “Last-hitting” which requires your character to deal the final blow to an enemy mob so that you can gain extra gold and/or experience points. Once learned, this gives you an advantage over the opposing players who haven’t gained as much gold or experience as you, so in a way this allows more skilled players to win more often. However this mechanic presents a few problems, if both teams are similarly skilled, then the last-hitting mechanic is pointless because players on both teams gain the same amount of gold and experience points at the same accelerated rate. Not only that, the last-hitting mechanic is annoying and time-consuming to learn for newcomers. Other examples of fluff mechanics include the individual spray patterns in Counterstrike that will require hours and hours of target practice before you can control the erratic nature of the gun you’re shooting and having to juggle over 2 weapons on a character like in Battleborn. For many of us with responsibilities such as work and education, we certainly don’t have enough time to spend to worry about improving our mechanical skills to play well in the game and thus a mechanic like “last-hitting” is a barrier making the game inaccessible. Also for many casual players, they simply do not enjoy spending time to “practice” the game and would much rather play the game and get better as they go along. Thus to make the games more accessible for many players to enjoy, the game has to be easily picked up and learned within minutes.

Learning from the decline in popularity of StarCraft II and the unprecedented success of Hearthstone, Blizzard has designed Overwatch to be “short and sweet” allowing you to fit multiple matches in quick succession. A game of StarCraft II lasts approximately 20-50 minutes on average and could potentially go on to well over an hour. The problem with long games is that they require constant attention without any short breaks to keep your mind fresh. For eSports professionals and people like me seeking a challenge, this is not necessarily an issue however for new and casual players this could be a daunting chore. I’ve played so many games of StarCraft II and often after a few matches of moderate intensity I was tired, and after a single match going all-out, I would’ve used so much energy that I would be too tired to play anymore. There were many requests from the Korean professionals to make the game easier and thus there was an overhaul to the macro-mechanics of the game which promptly shifted focus from the game being heavily focused on how well you can keep your economy running efficiently to how well you can micro-manage your units. Now here’s where I personally think StarCraft II – Legacy of the Void has failed in its design, it has units that have a lot of overlapping roles with each other, and the game is filled with many gimmick spellcaster units and units that require you to micromanage them for the sake of adding more options for micromangement in the game. The game was once like Go in its nature of being simple but difficult however now it’s mostly a convoluted mess of micromechanics. I could go on about how the mismanagement of StarCraft II has led to it becoming vastly unpopular, but that’s a story for another time.

WHAT IS THIS MADNESS?!

WHAT IS THIS MADNESS?!

I’ve told many Dota players about ETC’s Mosh pit which is one of his heroic/ultimate abilities which stuns the opposing players in a certain radius around him for 4 seconds and they all immediately told me that it was broken. When I told them about how the ETC player can get a talent or ability modifier at level 20, to extend the duration of that stun, they were absolutely horrified. It is written all over their faces that they were asking the same question “How could such an overpowered ability exist in Heroes of the Storm whilst maintaining game balance?” What they didn’t know is that many “heroes” in Heroes of the Storm also have abilities that would be considered utterly broken or overpowered if it were another game such as Dota or League of Legends. If all heroes are overpowered, then it wouldn’t be too farfetched to say that the game would be balanced. Now if we think about this approach, this is where the recent Blizzard games shine because the developers have been given a lot of freedom in their design choices and not limiting themselves to what has been working for other games so far. Powerful abilities are fun to use because when every player has the ability to turn the tide of the game with these very abilities as it makes the game more dynamic and suspenseful. There’s also the satisfaction of being able to keep your team alive, or wipe out the other team entirely which keeps the game addicting. In Overwatch this addiction is fueled by the desire to be featured in a small clip shown at the end of the game known as “Play of the Game” which in turn makes the player strive to do their best.

YZ4w2ey[1]

The logo is essentially an O and a W with a high five in the middle. A simple yet effective design, just like the game.

To create something new you could try coming up with a completely new concept without basing it on what already exists but that’s extremely difficult to do if not borderline impossible. Creators and Artists do this all the time, they draw inspiration from the things around them and use them to make something new. Just like how the MOBA genre is derived from the RTS genre, or more specifically it evolved from “Aeon of Strife” which is a mod for the original StarCraft. Simply trying to create something completely new and unique is an act of reinventing the wheel, so the more effective approach to game design for Blizzard is to focus their attention on making their games the best they can be. Overwatch looks and feels like a Disney Pixar film, with the story being something like the movie “The Incredibles”. We also see a nod to Marvel’s “Civil War” in the feud between Jack Morrison (Soldier 76) and Gabriel Reyes (Reaper). We see characters adhering to some stereotypes for example Tracer’s catchphrase “Cheer’s Love, The Cavalry’s here!”. There’s also the gameplay which many people have simply labelled as a Team Fortress 2 ripoff which is an opinion that I honestly find a little harsh and ignorant. Despite all of this unoriginality, the characters and story of Overwatch are one of the best aspects of the game, and many of us are willing to overlook how people call it unoriginal. What Blizzard has done for Overwatch is to not be new but instead rely on its countless references and homages to what we’re all passionate about.

All in all, Blizzard’s design philosophy allows them to have the most freedom in developing their games, and also to cater to a wide range of audiences. Combined with the obscene amounts of polish they are known to put into their games, and all the passion they have for their work, what we’re left with are games that are designed with their players in mind. I would imagine that Blizzard has considered that many of us students and those working in full-time employment have very tight schedules so trying to sell us a long and tiring game would be hard to justify. Personally I would argue this approach to game design is one of the best I’ve seen so far, and I hope Blizzard would stick with it for all of their upcoming games in the near future. So a huge congratulations to Blizzard for their successful launch of Overwatch and thank you so much for bringing us these fun and enjoyable gaming experiences. I can’t wait to see what you crazy people make next.

Well, I’ve got to go now. The world needs more heroes, are you with me?

Good Luck, Have Fun!

~Neul

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