I fundamentally cannot agree with the changes made today to Mercy in Overwatch. She might have been underpowered before, and better now. She might even be more popular after these changes. I might even enjoy playing her more with these changes. These points have nothing to do with my argument. The problem is that Blizzard undermined their own fantastic design by changing Mercy’s play style, and how she appeals to a specific player persona.
You see, Overwatch did something absolutely brilliant with its class design that doesn’t get nearly enough credit. Classes were designed not just to present a variety of aesthetics, and play styles. They specifically cater to a wide variety of player personas while all feeding the core Overwatch experience: a dramatic, team-based shooter.
The most well known here is Soldier 76 whose design is clearly aimed at Call of Duty, and Battlefield players. Overwatch is full of these, and I’ll get into more depth in a moment. But first it’s important to understand what this concept is, and how to approach it. “Personas” are not just a hit Japanese RPG series, but a term in HCI (human computer interaction) or UX (user experience) design for profiling distinct, imagined user types for your product. The idea is to identify all the different people that might want to play your game so that you can codify, and reference their needs as you create that game. A great, and well known example of this in games is Magic: The Gathering’s self-described player types. (https://mtg.gamepedia.com/Player_type ). Overwatch took this a step further than most by separating many of these personas into discrete playable classes.
Let’s take a look at some of those likely personas, and matching designs here. For all of these I am assuming a relatively casual player. Though certain characters have higher skill caps than others, there doesn’t appear to be any 1, or limited set of characters designed only for competitive players. A wise decision in a team-based game that was originally intended to place importance on changing classes mid-game.
This player comes from other shooters that feature assault rifles, sprinting, regenerating health. For years he’s been playing solo. He wants to be primarily offensive, but self-sufficient. In the context of the more cartoony Overwatch he might feel a bit of superiority for his more serious origins, and years of experience in the genre. He is used to fighting on relatively flat maps with little vertical movement.
The Veteran might be more easily frustrated by the learning curve of Overwatch since he has obvious alternatives he can return to. So Soldier 76 copies, or recreates most of the mechanics he’s used to with built-in sprint, assault rifle with grenade launcher. The healing station serves several purposes: giving self-sufficiency, but also team utility that the team can react to to take advantage of so that the Veteran can contribute without needing to be a conscious team player. Soldier 76’s ultimate, temporary auto-aim, compensates for any lack of comfort aiming at targets moving suddenly, and in all 3 dimensions. Even if it only scores 1-2 kills, it gives the player a feeling of power wrapped in the window dressing of aiming and shooting, things the Veteran is likely to feel they should already be good at.
A collection of others more briefly:
Persona: Fantasy Archer
Sees self as careful, planning, precise. Not a competitive gamer, so may not possess these actual skills as applied to gameplay.
Has tools to see, and shoot through walls. Basic attacks have a very forgiving hitbox, and high damage. Gives the illusion of better aim than the player has.
Persona: Absent-Minded Friend
May be experienced in games, but is not necessarily highly skilled. Mainly plays games for the carefree fun, and is not concerned with playing ideally to win.
A very reactive class. Signature weapon encourages tunnel visioning, and chasing a target at close range. But Mei has multiple reactionary tools to save herself if she overextends. Lends itself well to this player that may not be concerned with planning ahead, or being cautious.
Likes being a nuisance, and messing with people. Enjoys the feeling that they are driving an enemy mad, or paranoid.
A harasser that is extremely difficult to pin down. Multiple teleporting options enable confusing enemies. Rewind can negate enemy actions, further frustrating. And ultimate bomb offers unexpected burst damage if ignored. Also the stuck feature enhances the feeling of causing confusion.
May be a fairly good player, but is either unskilled in, or unconcerned with precision. He just wants to cause as much chaos, and disruption to the enemy team as possible.
Heavy emphasis on splash damage serves lack of precision, and chaos by acting as area denial. Remote bombs disrupt by tossing the player, and enemies. Trap disrupts fast characters running wild. And ultimate tire bomb is powerful, but obvious, causing enemies to flee it.
Is a helper and team player, but doesn’t like the pressure, or design of needing to ‘make the shot’ or any other individual critical actions. Yet he wants to be able to lend a hand to anything the team is doing. Energetic, and just enjoys the fun of taking part.
The most important basic part of playing Lucio is just being in the middle of your team. He can heal, help people escape, and contribute damage, and displacement too. Much of the time his main focus is movement.
The list goes on. Most, if not all, of Overwatch’s classes appear to have been designed with a player persona in mind. Keep in mind that these are not absolutes. These classes will appeal to many people outside the scope of these personas. But they serve as a guiding force to creating a hero’s kit so that it serves as a natural starting point for players of these types. Comments about skills they may lack does not reflect on their players, but is meant to accommodate players that do lack those skills, and still want to enjoy the game. With this in mind, let’s look at the original design of Mercy.
Not interested in the shooting aspect of shooters, especially not the frenetic pace. Is a team player, and likes to help others. May be playing the game just to enjoy time with a friend. Unlike Mei, may be more easily discouraged by repeated failures. Mercy wants to be of consistent help to a team.
Much of her time is spent following other players, so she can piggyback on their map, and fight knowledge. Boosts other players’ performance with a weapon that requires extremely minimal skill aiming. Few tools to keep track of. Pistol is minimally effective. Her ultimate group resurrect gives Mercy a way to still contribute to game-turning plays relatively easily, and often at a safe distance.
And these are the changes that were just made to Mercy:
- Group Resurrect removed
- New ultimate: Valkyrie, grants high mobility, and improves all other abilities/weapons
- New ability: Resurrect, resurrects 1 ally at close range, on a moderate cooldown
All together these changes raise the skill ceiling on Mercy by giving her more to do, more varied gameplay, and more reliance on fast, and precise action. For a lot of players, that’s great. In a vacuum Mercy might be a better designed class now than she was before. But let’s look back at the persona she was so expertly designed to appeal to. These changes don’t serve that design goal, because added complexity, and reliance on fast reaction time, and skills are not what that character was designed to appeal to.
While an unfairly broad stereotype, there is some truth to the idea that Mercy is ‘the class for your significant other’. If you are a person that isn’t usually good, or doesn’t enjoy most action games, but wants to spend time with a friend, or loved one, Mercy is indeed the perfect choice. She lets you participate in the game, closely attached to another player, with minimal practice, and skill in first person shooters. But an important thing to note is that this player may not be naturally attracted to this kind of game. So it’s very good for Mercy’s design not just to be easy to pick up, but to still be rewarding at lower skill levels. You don’t want the person already playing to spend time with friends to have their patience tested too much, nor for them to get bored.
As I stated Overwatch’s core is “a dramatic, team-based shooter”. The sudden, game-changing effects of the ultimates are a big part of what provide the ‘dramatic’ side. This is what keeps the game exciting for veterans, and relatively unskilled players alike.
Mercy’s original ultimate filled this need perfectly. It was a big, dramatic, and genuinely important thing that a Mercy player can do that can change the outcome of the game. And it’s relatively easy to pull off too. Mercy gets to share in the excitement of winning games, and even having plays of the game featured for doing so. With the way the play of the game system works, that will never happen with the new Mercy ultimate for a brand new player.
I worry that changes like this come from the very modern problem of responding to online feedback. Many players on the official forums, and Overwatch Reddit responded very positively to these changes. And there has been a history of posts suggesting changes like this to ‘make Mercy more interesting’.
But the reality is most players of any given game don’t even read online forums or Reddit, let alone post. The persona Mercy appeals to resides solidly in this silent majority. I think these changes may be deceptively unpopular among Mercy players in addition to undermining the integrity of her design.