‘Overwatch 2’ director Aaron Keller on balance battles and what lies ahead
“I‘ll be honest with you: I’m still trying to get my mojo back,” laughs Aaron Keller, game director for Blizzard‘s competitive shooter Overwatch 2. He’s referring to the terror he feels when Overwatch 2 allocates him the damage-dealing DPS role of his team, but there’s a small parallel to be found with the game itself, which suffered from lengthy delays before launching in October.
Months later, Keller and Blizzard have learned a lot about the game they created. Yet even before the shooter was playable, the studio faced a difficult decision regarding the game’s campaign: the single-player mode was originally meant to launch along with Overwatch 2‘s multiplayer but was relegated to a post-launch update months before the game was released.
Keller says that although it was a “really difficult” decision to split the game up, it was the “right call” to make. “We found ourselves in a position where we couldn’t release all of the content that we were building for Overwatch 2 until the campaign was finished,” recalls Keller, who says that development on the campaign was “going slower than we wanted it to.”
“We couldn’t release all of the content that we were building for Overwatch 2until the campaign was finished […] We found ourselves saying ‘we’re going to keep withholding content from our players so we can release everything together with our original strategy – the campaign – or we’re going to have to change the way that we think about releasing the game.’”
As a result, Overwatch 2‘s campaign will be released gradually starting later this year, and Blizzard is “still finalising” how its content will be rolled out. A chance to tell Overwatch‘s “big, overarching narrative” is something that Keller is particularly excited about, as he points out that it’s “not something you can really do in the middle of a multiplayer game.”
“We can go into a lot more depth with not just the characters in the universe, but all of the big events that are happening inside of it – that’s something the team is incredibly passionate about,” says Keller, who adds that Overwatch‘s “bright, hopeful, inspirational future” is a setting the developer is keen to explore further.
Until then, Keller has his hands busy with the segment of Overwatch that players do have – competitive multiplayer. “I have a hard time finding ways to get enough time to play the game, while also trying to run my game,” bemoans the director, who says learning better time management has been one of his biggest takeaways from the last few months.
For Blizzard, Keller says its lessons have been more widescale. The director admits the studio still has “a lot of work to do” in addressing feedback regarding the game’s reward and progression systems, and recalls Blizzard realising in Overwatch 2‘s first season that its original plan – to issue one major balance patch per season – would “not be enough” to stay on top of the shooter’s rapidly shifting meta.
For players of any multiplayer title, balance can feel like an exhausting game of whack-a-mole, as the same patch that dials back one overpowered monstrosity can just as easily raise up two more in its place. Right now, Overwatch 2‘s monstrosity is Roadhog: a beefed-up tank that can dish out one-shot kills while boasting wild amounts of health. Keller has bad news for Roadhog mains – his damage is on Blizzard’s chopping block – but the beefy boy is a good example of how balancing Overwatch can be tricky. As Keller points out, Roadhog was never changed to be this strong: he’s overperforming because other heroes were changed, enabling him to ” move into the place that he’s at right now.”
“It would be very easy for us to change him so much that he becomes unplayable, or nerfed so hard that people would think he was a throw pick,” he explains, referring to heroes who the community dub weak enough to guarantee a loss if they’re picked. “We’d like to avoid that, so we’re trying to be careful here but at the same time we want to make our change meaningful enough to actually have a real impact on him and the game.”
Keller adds that because the community will always try to find the strongest heroes to increase their chances of winning matches, Blizzard has to juggle a “hands-on approach” to balance with letting the community shape its own meta.
“There’s a lot of nuance that goes into balance,” Keller explains. “It can feel like there are certain heroes that are allowed to be strong or popular, and others that, when they do become really strong, the community has a pretty adverse reaction to it. I think it’s all very natural. One of the things we’ve been talking about internally is…what happens when heroes that have mechanics that can be frustrating, or stifling to play against, become really powerful?”
The director points out that the same topic can be applied to current discussions around Roadhog, who opponents can find stifling due to his ability to one-shot more fragile heroes while still being difficult to kill. “When heroes like that become really powerful, the community can have a pretty big reaction to it – while there are others like Orisa, who is fairly powerful as well [but] her kit feels fairer, or more steady,” Keller points out. “I think the community will look at a hero like that and if it becomes the new dominant tank, it’s more accepted.”
It’s a discussion that Blizzard is “wrestling with” at the moment. “We don’t want all of the heroes to feel samey, we don’t want the tempo of every fight in the game to feel the same every month,” says Keller, who adds that although the team enjoys the variety of abilities and mechanics in Overwatch 2, they are “acutely aware that many of those can be pushed too far – there’s a push and pull, and a lot of nuance, to the way we do this.”
When he’s not chasing down unruly hogs, Keller is looking ahead. There’s a lot to unpack, and he gets giddy discussing it: aside from the campaign, the director says there are multiple heroes and “a lot” of maps planned for 2023, along with “a lot more” events like the game’s ongoing Battle for Olympus event. Keller also teases several new and returning game modes – including an entirely new one he’s “so excited” to announce – and a mysterious Season 3 skin that he thinks the community is going to go wild for.
In the immediate future, Keller says the team is focusing on fleshing out Overwatch 2‘s roster of support heroes, which he admits offers “the least amount of choice” compared to the game’s tanks or damage-dealing roles. “We’re really focusing on supports right now – the next two heroes we’re going to be released are support heroes,” says Keller, who teases that “they bring some things to the game that we haven’t seen before – some new mechanics and really exciting ways of interacting with your own team.”
With all of that in store, it seems likely that Keller will be putting his newfound time management skills to the test. “I could talk about the future all day,” he beams. Keller may still be finding his mojo on the battlefield, but the picture he paints of Overwatch 2‘s future suggests the game has found its own – and what lies in store will be a busy, less Roadhog-dominated year for fans. Sorry, Roadhog.
Overwatch 2 is available on Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch and PC.
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