Brigitte was designed as the means to an end. She was Blizzard’s solution to disrupt the dive meta by putting a cork in the flanking power of characters like Tracer and Genji.
That philosophy underpins how heroes get made. according to Overwatch’s lead hero designer Geoff Goodman. They might not all be hammers waiting to pound down the nails of the meta, but each is designed with a specific goal in mind. Baptiste, the most recent hero, is another example. He doesn’t provide a clear answer to the current triple-support triple-tank meta like Brigitte did for dive compositions, but he was still built for a purpose. He’s a healer with thicker skin and more punch in his arsenal; he fills a niche in the current status quo.
It’s too soon to tell whether Baptiste will fit into the current meta or be left behind, but designing heroes to fit with current compositions has worked well for post-launch characters like Moira, Sombra, and Ana.
The rare exception to that rule has been Doomfist, who has failed to move the needle since his debut. In Stage 1 of the current OWL season, the usual suspects — Lucio, Brigitte, Zenyatta, Zarya, and D.Va — amassed hundreds of hours of play time. Doomfist sat at the bottom of the heap, having been played for less than 10 minutes cumulatively — even less than Ashe and Symmetra. He was usually only brought out to stall or sprint to the cart for a last ditch push. This highly mobile hero stands as a parable for just how tricky balancing Overwatch can be.
”He’s pretty tough to balance, as we’re finding out,” he told me. “Certain heroes have more of a deviation in their balance from different player skill levels than others. Obviously someone like Widowmaker isn’t as strong at the lower end and is much stronger at the higher end, so there’s deviation there.”
Balance changes have an odd way of rippling out. That is why it is difficult to make targeted adjustments to one thing that works too well at the higher levels of play, or not well enough at lower levels. As Goodman tells it, Doomfist worked too well in the lower leagues and was easily countered by players with a better understanding of counter-picking. “Whereas maybe mid-tier players are like, ‘Well, I don’t know, I just like to play Widow, I’m just gonna play Widow. Whatever happens, happens, I guess.’”
Similarly, when a character is too directly countered, the mere threat of a counter-pick becomes a deterrent to playing said character at all. Goodman used the analogy of characters who can put a pin in Doomfist’s mobility like Brigitte or Sombra, and the mere threat that these hard-counters are such well-known go-to options to stop him that many players wind up not picking him in the first place.
What the hero design team also found is that players often mimic what they see in the ranks above them. “A lot of times the strategies the pros develop start to trickle down to the higher end ladder, which then trickles down into a little bit lower the ladder.”
The performance of heroes like Soldier 76, on the other hand, do not fluctuate as wildly from lower levels to higher levels. Reaper is another very real example of just how difficult it is to make a character viable at all levels, which led to a recent nerf to his durability even though the design team knew he was already not necessarily very powerful at the competitive level. Doomfist, similarly, is a hero lower-skilled players struggle to control, whereas at the higher level it is much easier to shut his mobility down and sap the majority of his strength in doing so.
Doomfist was, like Brigitte, designed to address something — but not something as specific as Brigitte as dive composition. He followed Orisa, and was designed as an antidote to her and Reinhardt. What the team knew from the beginning is that he would be highly mobile and be able to punch through barriers and maybe even knock people around out from behind those protective shields.
Doomfist also provides some unique challenges. For instance, his offense and defense are intrinsically linked because they are both sourced from his mobility. Finding the right balance between damage and cooldowns has proven to be a challenge.
”We’ve pushed that really far in the past, and we’ve had a lot of push back. Obviously it’s not super fun to just come around and get everything one shot into the wall. You’re not having a good time if that happens and keeps happening repeatedly. Tuning his damage numbers specifically is pretty tough,” Goodman said.
For now, they have slightly lowered his mobility cooldowns while keeping hands-off on the damage numbers. A rework is not in the cards just yet, Goodman told us.
They also strive to strike a balance between knee-jerk responses and balancing with a soft touch. The hope, according to them, is to leave the game with enough room for strategies to develop organically and for the meta to grow over time without forcing the hands of players through balance changes. They feel successful to some degree in doing that.
”Even the GOATS we were talking about - The three-three meta - [It] was essentially created, you could argue, with Brigitte’s addition to the game, but it’s not like when Brigitte hit, everyone immediately jumped on that comp. That comp actually took quite awhile for that meta to develop. There’s a lot of movement within the meta game outside of changes that we’re doing, which is ideal, actually. That’s kind of our goal. If all is balanced, everything’s static. It’s more like [we want] the game to have enough answers…” he said.
”I think there’s this dream that is probably permanently a dream and will never actually be reality that we’ll reach some kind of balance point and just be done and be like, ‘Oh the game’s balanced. We did it. We can all go home!’”