The “perception of balance is more powerful than balance itself” in Overwatch

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A year after release, and Blizzard’s latest IP is stronger than ever. It has its fans, it has a community and its thriving online thanks to regular events and an even playing field. That last point might be hotly debated however, because plenty of players still reckon that Blizzard has a way to go in giving all players a fighting chance.

Blizzard disagrees with that sentiment though, as the “perception of balance is more powerful than balance itself”. That’s according to Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan, who addressed recent complaints over how Overwatch is painfully slow to react in terms of updating the meta side of the game with new tweaks and balances. “The most controversial thing I’ll say here (hopefully) is that I believe the game is currently balanced,” Kaplan wrote in a lengthy post on the Overwatch forums.

What I mean is that I don’t feel like there are any heroes who are way too strong to the point of breaking balance. That doesn’t mean that I personally don’t think there are some problems with heroes.

Kaplan reckons that players are wanting the meta-game to change more frequently to better suit their tastes in playing Overwatch, a solution that doesn’t exactly benefit everyone but rather a select few players instead. “There are a lot of ways the meta can change but if I had to boil it down to three main ways (that we see in video games at least) I would point to 1) something changes with the balance 2) players innovate new strategies 3) the game forces meta change through mechanics,” Kaplan wrote.

I like when the meta changes on balance only when the game is not balanced and something was adjusted to make the game more balanced. Another way of putting this is, I do not agree with the philosophy that we should just make balance changes solely to shift people off the meta. The game team should be constantly evaluating balance and making changes that are actually needed because a hero is unbalanced.

But making changes to a hero because their pick rate is too high or too low is not my idea of responsible game balance. Symmetra’s pick rate is very low right now. We could make changes to make her a “must pick” in the meta (and thus shifting the meta) but I feel like, if anything, I am concerned about Symmetra’s balance and worried that when she does eventually make her way back into the meta she is not balanced properly. So to summarize: balancing heroes who are unbalanced is good, balancing heroes just to make them picked more or picked less is not good (in my humble opinion).

Regarding the meta changing because players have innovated a new strategy – well – this is the best-case scenario. We’ve seen this happen time and time again. This usually happens in a pro tournament where a team pulls out a new strategy and performs well. This was how triple tank rose into fashion. Innovating out of a meta is extremely hard. All players are very different. Some are highly creative and some are excellent at executing. Some at both. Having the time and freedom to innovate on strategy is difficult no matter what level of play you’re at.

Pros have busy schedules and it’s not always easy for them to practice new, out of the box things – especially if their tournament schedule is hectic. But when all is said and done, to me personally, the meta shifting because players innovate is the best possible outcome.

Lastly, a game can force a meta shift through mechanics. The MOBA genre has huge hero pools yet without pick and ban systems teams would inevitably play the same comps over and over. The game – through the mechanics of picking and banning – is forcing variety. We could do this in Overwatch. We could prevent certain heroes from being played some or all of the time or we could let your opponent prevent you from playing your desired hero. We could also force you or allow your opponent to force you to play a hero you don’t want to play.

Personally, I am not a believer in these systems for OW (while I understand and respect why they use them in MOBA). I prefer to think that OW allows you to be creative which is different than forces you to be creative. I don’t want to watch the best Genji player in the world play Zarya – I want to see him/her play Genji.

And also, seeing how many of you “main” heroes because you love them, I don’t want the game – or your opponent – telling you you’re not allowed to play that hero.

I kind of agree with Kaplan. While the ideal strategy in Overwatch is one where you never stick with a single hero for the entirety of a match, there’s something special about having that one character who you keep coming back to. Heroes never die, not on the field or in your heart. And for the player who wants to just have a good time, that feeling is amplified even further.

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It takes time to subtly balance Overwatch’s cast to keep as many people as possible satisfied. After all, this isn’t something that you want to see rushed and Blizzard has no intention of releasing half-baked updates to their latest game.

Last Updated: July 11, 2017

Darryn Bonthuys

Something wrong gentlemen? You come here prepared to read the words of a madman, and instead found a lunatic obsessed with comics, Batman and Raul Julia’s M Bison performance in the 1994 Street Fighter movie? Fine! Keep your bio! In fact, now might be a good time to pray to it!

  • Original Heretic

    I like that quote about “the perception of balance”. A lot.
    Isn’t that from the Cold War?

  • Hammersteyn

    “Symmetra’s pick rate is very low right now.” But she’s the one I use the most with Reaper being a close second.(One for defense and the other for offense) No wonder people are complaining. She’s probably one of the best defensive heroes if used correctly but she’s being snubbed.
    https://masteroverwatch.com/heroes

    • I play Dva. I like Dva regardless of how powerfull she is. I am having fun. I have no complaints.

      Then again it is most likely more on the E-sports scene where the complaints lie.

      • Yeah, competitive pro scene and matchmaking are two vastly different environments
        I see Symmetra very often in our games, because the non-pros don’t deal with her as easily as the pros do.

      • Hammersteyn

        Probably, game is fine as is. Except for the seasons, I see no point in playing that unless one’s interested in grinding for those gold skins and a few sprays.

  • Deceased

    There’s only 1 hero that’s most certainly unbalanced in the game at the moment… this is further reinforced when you notice this hero is IN EVERY SINGLE COMPETITIVE game…

    PHARAH, ladies and gentlemen…

    There’s nothing broken about the hero per se… but the game lacks in defending against her. SURE there are 2 hard counters ( Soldier76 and Mcree ) and there are some heroes that counter her ( Winston, DVa, even a skilled Zenyatta )

    But, the game as a whole makes her overpowered. If you’re lucky, ONE of your DPS players in the team picks a hard-counter to Pharah, and if that guy is unskilled with hitscan heroes ( I’ve seen this tonnes of times ) Pharah can just mow down your supports ( which is what she’s supposed to do – seeing as how she’s a DPS hero )

    That last point raises the second concern – so now you’re stuck with a Soldier76 with poor aim, so your second DPS switches to Mcree to help counter Pharah – now you’ve got effectively nobody to hunt down the enemy teams’ healers – which is a problem in its own ( and ultimately, Pharah then singlehandedly carried their team to victory )

    The above scenario describes a SEMI-COMPETENT team… in most cases you’ll end up with a Hanzo and Junkrat 🙁

    EDIT: Didn’t mention Widowmaker as a hard-counter because a good Widow doesn’t exist in my eyes at the moment 🙁

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