Overwatch is, at its heart, a passion project. A recent post by Jeff Kaplan gives us a good deal of insight into what the development of Overwatch looks like. There’s a lot to digest there, and it’s definitely worth giving the entire post a read. The first few paragraphs are certainly inspired, and it’s clear that Kaplan and the rest of the development team are involved and dedicated to the game as they say they are.
The latter half of the post, however, begs the question: is that dedication a good thing? Is it healthy? Is it sustainable?
Crunch has been widely discussed in the games industry since the EA Spouse blogpost in 2004 led to a class action lawsuit against EA. Despite the fact that crunch is becoming increasingly visible, it’s still often written off or excused as a product of passion.
Even indie developers, like Christine Love on Ladykiller in a Bind, or Night in the Woods’ Scott Benson have spoken candidly about the pressure to ship a game. While these games have smaller teams, they also have less resources.
Here’s where the Overwatch situation gets concerning. In his forum post, Kaplan writes:
Since the day we have launched, we've only increased our efforts and dedication. Overwatch is a 24/7, 365 days a year affair for us. Overwatch doesn't stop because it's 5 o'clock on a Friday evening. Overwatch doesn't stop because it's our kids' birthday.
Do we do everything right? Certainly not. The 100 members of the OW team are *far* more critical than most of you of the game on a good day (although we're a little more professional about how we express our criticism). You will never meet one of us who says, "the game is perfect". We have no shortage of ideas of how to make the game better and we are lucky enough to show up to work every day and try to make those things happen.
This has, understandably, raised concern.
Tbh I feel Overwatch would be better if they let their devs fucking rest pic.twitter.com/pGX0m9bqtP— Jay Castello (@jayplaysthings) September 30, 2017
Therein lies the next problem—Overwatch developer statements are analyzed, critiqued, posted, and catalogued. This isn’t to say that people concerned about the possibility of the Overwatch crunch are wrong, but that Blizzard clearly has a problem connecting with the community in the sustainable way they want to. Kaplan writes:
We try to do other things to let you know that we're part of this community as well. We make Developer Update videos so we can talk directly to you and explain what we're doing and why we're making decisions. We do not hide behind online handles or layers of Community Managers and PR Spokespeople.
Developers speak to you directly, using our real names.
And if you'll allow me to speak openly for a moment -- it's scary. Overall, the community is awesome to us. But there are some pretty mean people out there. All of our developers are free to post on these forums. Very few of us actually do because it's extremely intimidating and/or time consuming. It's very easy to post the wrong thing and make a "promise" to the community that no one intended to make. Once we say we're working on something, we're not allowed to "take it back". It's set in stone.
Also, because we are open with you and do not hide behind an anonymous handle (like all of you have the luxury of doing), we often times get personally attacked and threatened.
Most great developers I know just love being head's down making or playing games. The "public speaking/posting" part of the job is downright scary and intimidating. It often feels like there is no winning.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Kaplan and his team are as passionate as they say. They will happily work these hours and put the time into the game because it is something they love, and even though it is hard work, it is also healthy and something that they can do.
There’s still very clearly a problem with how Blizzard communicates with the community. Developers posting very carefully and living with fear is an odd concern for a studio like Blizzard. The fact that there is no team dedicated to this specific thing who can, say, take over without a beat when Kaplan and company go on vacation, seems unusual.
This ties into the recent Developer Update, where Kaplan encourages the community to be involved in maintaining a positive update. He notes that developers have taken time off “core” features to work on anti-toxicity measures. While having a small team is great, is it working for Blizzard?
Granted, there are challenges with having a bigger team. It’s possible that the Overwatch team are intentionally staying small to avoid bloat and communication issues. There’s likely a certain appeal in running fast, lean and hot.
That being said, Overwatch is run and maintained by human beings. Even if we remove the fact that I’m an Overwatch fan who would like to see good Overwatch content being released for years to come from the equation, I still want the Blizzard development team to be happy. I don’t want to see them turn into husks of human beings, cranking out updates while battling off the community.
The recent Play Nice, Play Fair Developer Update and Kaplan’s post suggests that expanding the Overwatch team may be a good thing. That being said, it takes the right kind of employees to properly navigate issues like anti-toxicity online or community management.
And, of course, it’s worth noting that Blizzard are currently hiring for the Overwatch team.
There’s a kind of irony in taking a statement Kaplan made on how the community tends to analyze and pick apart developer posts, and, well, analyzing and picking it apart. At the same time, there’s a very real value in seeing how the sausage of Overwatch gets made, and ensuring that the process leads to not only a good game, but happy developers.