One of the most important calling cards of Overwatch has always been its unique and creative cast of characters. From Reinhardt to Widowmaker to Tracer, each hero has their own style, look and personality all wrapped up in carefully constructed back stories, in-game interactions, and even their kits. With all this care and detail going into each new hero, it’s no small undertaking for Blizzard to add to its cast, so it’s important that they make the most of the heroes they already have.
Reworks have always been a part of Blizzard’s design philosophy with Overwatch, from the earliest of the game’s beta tests. But the reworks have often come with controversy. While the reworks of Hanzo and and D.va have done a great job of updating the heroes in ways that the community approves of, Mercy’s rework came under scrutiny for being entirely too powerful, even though it took her from being one of the game’s most unrewarding characters to play against, to a character with plenty of interesting opportunities for skill expression. In the end, Blizzard righted the ship with a few balance changes, even if the community was forced to suffer a few months of Mercy being way too strong.
The latest rework kerfuffle is more than a question of numbers, but one of philosophy as well. Later this year Symmetra will become the first Overwatch hero to go under the knife a second time. This could, pretty fairly, raise a few questions about why Blizzard is so focused on these reworks, when we have gotten so few new characters for the game. This is where the conversations about hero identity intersect with the idea of reworks.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that reworks were easy, but it’s far from unfair to say that they are easier than creating an entirely new hero. To Blizzard’s credit, most of the heroes in Overwatch have identities that aren’t particularly tied to what they do in combat. They almost exist as two separate entities, the version of a hero in their lore and the version in the game. That frees up an incredible amount of leeway when it comes to actually creating reworked abilities and kits, and is another reason for them to take advantage of improving the heroes they have.
The new Symmetra rework looks like it’s moving her in a great direction, and hopefully one that has a little less to do with supporting her teammates and a little more with defending them. But even if the rework misses the mark, it’s still worth doing, and not just because it’s easier than making a new hero.
For each new character, Blizzard has to choose a theme, like a primary hook for the character. For Roadhog it’s a literal hook, for Reinhardt it’s a shield. In some cases these things are a little more defined, in other cases, it’s their secondary abilities that really help characters shine. Ana for instance is mostly built around healing her teammates with her bullets, which is alright, but the things around it, like putting enemies to sleep, or giving her teammates a powerful boost are what make her character exciting.
When Blizzard makes a new champion, they have to find a whole new anchor for that character’s abilities. But for a rework, all Blizzard have to do is refine the themes a character might already have. In the case of Symmetra, she didn’t really have much definition to her kit, she was being pulled in too many directions. Now, with her rework, her kit is likely to revolve around her teleporter. It’s a fairly new and exciting ability to Overwatch and each of her abilities should compliment it well.
If you want to see just how well this can work, look at Mercy. Originally, she was more or less a revive bot with a few other uses, but Blizzard recognized that her character was best if it centered around sticking to one specific player and providing personal support, like buffs and heals, thanks to her Guardian Angel ability. So, revive got reworked to better fit that theme, and her ultimate provided a way to slightly increase her teamplay, something that is a designed weakness of her new theme. And sure, when Mercy was released, she was entirely too strong, but that wasn’t the kit’s fault. Mercy went from a character with a weak identity and tentative place in the game to a strong identity that helped her find her established spot. All without new art assets, a new personality or new lore.
Keeping a solid balance between reworks and new heroes is, in large part, a lesson that Blizzard has taken from another popular multiplayer game: League of Legends. In League’s case, there are almost 140 champions and until recently, Riot’s primary focus was on making new champions, rather than attempting to improve the champions whose designs simply felt out of date. As of about two years ago, Riot realized that if it wanted to keep these champions in the game and in a manageable place, they needed to start updating them to feel more modern and complete, a philosophy that Blizzard has, smartly, adopted from day one.
Don’t get me wrong, I love new characters as much as anyone, but reworks are important. They are a low cost, high impact way for Blizzard to shape Overwatch and breathe new life in the existing characters that need it most.