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Overwatch has struggled recapturing the joy it once had. Despite the welcome Role Queue system, bevy of unique heroes, and useful balance changes, the same schedule for heroes, events, and maps year in and year out seems to have sucked out the enthusiasm that once surrounded the game. The new Experimental Mode appears like a pointed rebuttal of that notion, aiming to radically and quickly alter the game at a moment’s notice. The first experiment — buffing tanks and only allowing one per team — is pretty bad, but it’s actually a good sign for the game overall.
Jeff Kaplan expressed that this change was to limit the queue times for players who wanted to play damage heroes. Damage wait times are almost always three times as long as the other two classes, which was undoubtedly a little annoying for all the Soldier 76s out there. The Experimental Mode appears to have solved this, given the reduced damage queue times, but it has created a whole other beast.
Tanks are now like mini-bosses as their high survivability has been cranked up even more while their damage output has relatively stayed the same. Almost every tank was already proficient at getting kills and now with the added health, armor, or ability buffs, they’re even more deadly to an unfair degree. Lowering their offensive capabilities would make sense, given the defensive buffs, but that’s not the road Blizzard opted to go down for this experiment. Offense and defense, baby.
The changes also mean tanks have to do more since they have to guard the entire team instead of offloading protection to the other tank. It’s a lot of pressure if you’re the tank, especially as your team quickly crumbles after you fall because there is no one there to protect them. The pressure doesn’t go away if you’re a healer or damage dealer either, as now you have to depend on one tank to cover your ass. Regardless of what role you pick, these changes have a higher probability of resulting in a worse match, especially when players don’t communicate.
The bold Experimental Mode adjustments probably won’t make their way to the live game, but they’re still a great sign because it shows how Blizzard has learned from its sluggish previous ways as well as titles like Fortnite. Blizzard played it carefully before now, which makes sense as knee-jerk balance changes can upset the community. The drip of updates in the game’s early life were serviceable because it was still a hot commodity independent of patches.
But that’s not how you stir up excitement a few years into a game’s life especially when you’re not adding as many heroes to the game. If it isn’t still growing or evolving multiple seasons in, people will get bored. This is especially true in Overwatch as the game’s once-thrilling seasonal events began to repeat over and over while adding fewer and fewer new features with each passing year.
Shiny new toys
While this is different and not as huge as adding Thanos or Batman to your game, Fortnite knew that constantly shaking things up meant more people would pay attention. Limited Time Modes gave something unique for players to try out, if only for a few weeks or days, and that meant it usually had something to entice players to come back.
Being the biggest live service meant that there were some valuable lessons to learn and this Experimental Mode seems like it was formulated from looking at the faster pacing of other games. Sure, players had been complaining about Blizzard’s hesitation for quite some time, but Fortnite’s rapid update schedule probably helped move the needle, too. Experimental Mode is also consistent with Overwatch as a whole as it seems more likely to impact the live game and not be a silly, throwaway gadget, which fits Fortnite’s Limited Time Modes. Overwatch has more of a competitive slant than Fortnite, so it doesn’t make sense to add an Infinity Gauntlet. But it does make sense to do something wacky that might also actually end up changing the live game.
The Experimental Mode also works in tandem with Blizzard’s new strategy of balancing the game more frequently. Blizzard demonstrated this by significantly nerfing plenty of heroes and cutting back on the power creep that had been, well, creeping for quite some time. It was quite extreme, but exciting to see the game reset in such a manner. Old Blizzard likely would have done this slowly over several months after many laborious tests and diluted that excitement.
Throwing in the the new tank mode was also exciting, but it has caused more problems than it solved. Damage queue times might be down, but tanks are incredibly powerful and the person filling the role has twice the pressure on them. It’s one step forward and three or four steps back. But it’s a concrete sign that Blizzard is paying attention and taking active steps to keep the game alive in the run to Overwatch 2. It might work and get more people to pay attention, but it is an honest effort. Big additions have benefited other living games and while these specific tank changes should die, they’re ironically a healthy sign of the game’s push to live on.