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Jeff Kaplan on Overwatch balancing and player perception

In a recent post on the Overwatch forums about Tracer and balance issues, Game Director Jeff “Jeff from the Overwatch team” Kaplan had some interesting insights to share about game balance and, more importantly, player perception of it.

He made the point that often, it’s not that a character is more or less strong that determines whether or not players flock to them. Rather, it’s the perception of their power. He used Reinhardt and Winston as examples. A few months ago, Reinhardt was so dominant as a tank that everyone demanded he be nerfed and Winston rarely saw much use. Now Winston is the dominant tank and Reinhardt is much diminished, despite no actual balance changes to buff or nerf either of them. Instead, the characters are affected by people’s perception of them, by buffs and nerfs other characters undergo, and by changes in strategy other players determine to be effective.

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It’s an interesting idea that’s hardly unique to Overwatch — ask any PVP player in WoW what class needs to be buffed. Half the time it’s the class they play, which is never OP no matter what. But the idea that making balance changes to other characters can have such a strong effect on perception of class balance and thus shape what players actually play is one that really shows in a game like Overwatch. There’s no mechanical differences  — i.e. no gear — between two different Tracers or Genji’s.

Here’s the complete post so you can see his argument in full.

Originally Posted by Jeff Kaplan (Official Post)

The perception of balance is often more powerful than balance itself.

All heroes are affected by changes to other heroes. Even if nothing changed, players would adapt new strategies and tactics that would cause the balance of the game to shift.

If you look back to a few months ago, a lot of people were demanding Reinhardt nerfs because he was a “must pick” hero in the meta. At that time, Winston was literally the least played hero. Fast forward to today, and we’re seeing Winston as the dominant tank choice in the tournament scene (along with D.Va) and Reinhardt’s play time has dropped significantly.

Short of the adjustment to Earthshatter (not intended as a huge balance nerf but rather more of a “that doesn’t seem right” fix), we did not touch Reinhardt’s balance. But changes to other heroes and changes to the “accepted” strategy of how the game should be played at a meta level has changed which tanks are perceived to be “right” or “wrong” to play.

You can make a similar argument about Zenyatta’s increased play time. Zen’s new prevalence is due to adjustments to other heroes — not Zen himself — as well as a shifting meta.

So Tracer’s balance — beyond the obvious tuning knobs that we have — is greatly affected by the balance of other heroes as well as the “perception” of how good she is at any one time.

It’s always fun to study how people innovate to “break” a meta. In the NHL in the 90’s teams developed an overly defensive strategy (think 3 tank meta) called “The Trap” which was later evolved into “the Left Wing Lock”. Teams like New Jersey and Detroit won championships using these methods. Eventually, the NHL had to make rule changes to “change the meta”.

There was also an example of a contestant on Jeopardy playing the game differently that caused the “meta” to break:

http://kotaku.com/meet-the-man-who-hacked-jeopardy-1516792430

Fun stuff.

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