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Jeff Kaplan on Balance

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The Game Director himself talks in-depth about the state of balance in OW today.

In what can only be described as a gargantuan post, Game Director Jeff Kaplan takes on the topic of balance and how it applies to pros, regular players, competitive players and specific hero mains. In general he doesn't feel there are any OP heroes that break the balance, but there are many issues that need to be addressed, so let's get right into it.

Blizzard LogoJeff Kaplan (source)

I’ve been reading the feedback regarding the current metagame and a general desire for “radical” balance changes to mix things up. I’ll offer some of my personal perspective but I’m a little nervous doing that for a few reasons. Even though I am the Game Director and a spokesperson for OW, I don’t make decisions in a vacuum and I am only one part of a very awesome team. Not everyone on my team agrees with me and we have different opinions on the state of game and balance overall. We do have a lot of alignment, but we talk things through – a lot. And we don’t always agree. So I know this will become the “official” response on the subject but I am really offering this from a very strong personal viewpoint first and foremost.

The most controversial thing I’ll say here (hopefully) is that I believe the game is currently balanced. What I mean is that I don’t feel like there are any heroes who are way too strong to the point of breaking balance. That doesn’t mean that I personally don’t think there are some problems with heroes. While I believe moving Roadhog away from a 1 shot combo was a necessary thing we had to do, I’m not entirely satisfied with where he’s at right now. I also think we need to do some brainstorming when it comes to Mercy’s resurrect, for example. The ability is extremely powerful in a very unfun way for both Mercy and everyone playing against that Mercy. But it’s not doomsday. These aren’t game breaking issues. They are better fixed slowly and carefully as the overall game is not ruined by them. I’m just using these as examples.

But I think the game is balanced. Statistically, the things that are most unbalanced aren’t what you think they are. Symmetra and Torbjorn win rates are not balanced. They are too good. But this is why we don’t balance on statistics alone. I don’t sense a great community uproar over the fact that Torb and Symmetra are “overpowered” right now (at least, statistically).

As I said last week, the perception of balance is more powerful than balance itself.

I really do not like summarizing the feedback from a large community because I think it’s unfair to so many people. But in general, I am getting the sense that the real issue people are feeling is that the “meta” does not shift as frequently as they would like. My sense is that players start with the pro scene and work their way down and base this feedback mostly on pick rates. In the pro scene, it’s true that the teams settle into using a subset of the hero pool. We tend to see high level (let’s just say the top 3rd of all players) competitive slowly catch up to the pro scene with some considerable lag of weeks if not months. The rest of us – the vast majority of us – don’t really play this meta at all but we’re aware of it either through community discussion or because we enjoy watching the pro scene.

There are a lot of ways the meta can change but if I had to boil it down to three main ways (that we see in video games at least) I would point to 1) something changes with the balance 2) players innovate new strategies 3) the game forces meta change through mechanics.

To comment on all 3…

I like when the meta changes on balance only when the game is not balanced and something was adjusted to make the game more balanced. Another way of putting this is, I do not agree with the philosophy that we should just make balance changes solely to shift people off the meta. The game team should be constantly evaluating balance and making changes that are actually needed because a hero is unbalanced. But making changes to a hero because their pick rate is too high or too low is not my idea of responsible game balance. Symmetra’s pick rate is very low right now. We could make changes to make her a “must pick” in the meta (and thus shifting the meta) but I feel like, if anything, I am concerned about Symmetra’s balance and worried that when she does eventually make her way back into the meta she is not balanced properly. So to summarize: balancing heroes who are unbalanced is good, balancing heroes just to make them picked more or picked less is not good (in my humble opinion).

Regarding the meta changing because players have innovated a new strategy – well – this is the best-case scenario. We’ve seen this happen time and time again. This usually happens in a pro tournament where a team pulls out a new strategy and performs well. This was how triple tank rose into fashion. Innovating out of a meta is extremely hard. All players are very different. Some are highly creative and some are excellent at executing. Some at both. Having the time and freedom to innovate on strategy is difficult no matter what level of play you’re at. Pros have busy schedules and it’s not always easy for them to practice new, out of the box things – especially if their tournament schedule is hectic. But when all is said and done, to me personally, the meta shifting because players innovate is the best possible outcome.

Lastly, a game can force a meta shift through mechanics. The MOBA genre has huge hero pools yet without pick and ban systems teams would inevitably play the same comps over and over. The game – through the mechanics of picking and banning – is forcing variety. We could do this in Overwatch. We could prevent certain heroes from being played some or all of the time or we could let your opponent prevent you from playing your desired hero. We could also force you or allow your opponent to force you to play a hero you don’t want to play. Personally, I am not a believer in these systems for OW (while I understand and respect why they use them in MOBA). I prefer to think that OW allows you to be creative which is different than forces you to be creative. I don’t want to watch the best Genji player in the world play Zarya – I want to see him/her play Genji. And also, seeing how many of you “main” heroes because you love them, I don’t want the game – or your opponent – telling you you’re not allowed to play that hero.

We recently added 6v6 Elimination to the Arcade and I think the mode is strong enough to exist in Quick Play and Competitive. That mode is a good example of a mechanical “forcing function” where the game causes shifts to happen in pick rates and team comps. The winning team is forced to play 18 diverse heroes. I would be willing to bet that if that mode was considered competitive, eventually a meta would settle in where 18 heroes were mostly picked and 7 would be rather neglected. Again, I don’t think this is horrible or the end of the world – I think it’s reality.

There are games with a set meta that evolve very slowly or remain stable for long periods of time and this doesn’t mean the game isn’t balanced or fun or fun to watch. Most of the pro sports fall into this category. TF2 was largely played Demo/Medic/Scout/Scout/Solider/Soldier and that was sort of just… accepted. It was fun to play and fun to watch. Baseball isn’t terrible or broken because every team puts their strongest batter 4th in the lineup.

But maybe I am off on what the expectation is from players here? I know the desire – and mine too – is that during every match of Overwatch all 25 heroes are viable at any time. The reality of gamers and video games is that any perceived (whether real or not) advantage is going to cause players to assume that they must play hero x over hero y. A professional Overwatch player will not player hero x if he/she thinks hero y is even 1% stronger. We can balance the heroes to equality but if there is the slightest perception of advantage, it won’t matter.

Looking at the perception of the meta, it’s obvious that “dive” is the predominant strategy. Correction. It is the predominant strategy being used in the professional scene. The majority of Overwatch players play Quick Play as their primary mode. The top 6 picked heroes (over the last month) in Quick Play are Genji, 76, Hanzo, McCree, Mercy and Junkrat. For the statistical majority of Overwatch players who are not pros and don’t play Competitive, this is your meta.

It drives players crazy when I post stats like that because they want to know about Competitive and not Quick Play. The point I am trying to make by posting Quick Play is that the numbers show that that is what the majority of players are *actually experiencing* which is different from *perceiving*. But looking at Competitive only… here are the top 6 picked heroes: Mercy (by a long shot), 76, D.Va, Lucio, Ana and Genji. Interestingly, number 7 is Reinhardt. Next tank after that is… Wi… no Roadhog. So in the past month in Comp, that’s what you’ve been actually playing.

But let’s talk about the elite players… maybe the top 3rd of all MMR. Their top picked hero over the past month was…. Ana. Yes, Ana.

I don’t mean to discount your fatigue with the “dive” meta but I also want us looking at from a realistic standpoint. Dive itself is an interesting comp. It’s fun to play and watch. It features super high skill heroes doing very OW things. Watching top Genji’s and Tracers is fantastic. I don’t think dive comp is bad but I think what players want is to see more comps in addition to dive comp. I too would love for this to happen. But in a non-forced, non-damaging way. I don’t think we should just throw a balance grenade at the heroes to change pick rates. And I don’t think long-term for the game it’s good to start imposing restrictions on you as to what hero you’re allowed or not allowed to play. I think we also need to be careful about demanding drastic change. A few months ago we nerfed D.Va and we faced the ire of many very upset players who thought we “ruined” the hero and she would never be played again. There was mega thread after mega thread demanding she be buffed. We held our ground because we believed she was fine. We did not touch her. And now she is one of the dominant heroes in the dive meta – clearly not in need of a buff.

Players think that every change we make to hero has the intent of buffing or nerfing that hero. Changes to heroes are usually made to make the game better. That’s what we were trying to do with Roadhog. Our goal wasn’t a nerf – our intent wasn’t a nerf. Our intent was to try to remove a behavior that had become “not ok” with our player base – the one-shot combo. Maybe he needs to be adjusted again? Probably. I am just using this as an example that not everything is super black and white. There is a gray area in making the game feel good. Sometimes we need to hold our ground and not make dramatic swings to the game.

I know this post will be met with a lot of disagreement. The desire for dive comp to go away will not be satisfied from some of you until Winston and D.Va are nerfed into the ground. But we’re not going to do that. We are going to make balance changes to heroes when they need it – and we do this more frequently than you give us credit for. 3 months from now there will be a new meta. If you’re the type of person who feels like the meta should shift every 2 weeks, then you’ll probably be sick of that meta and wishing it was back in the good ol’ dive comp days… I just caution against wanting change for the sake of change. The meta will shift soon enough.

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I don't really get why people are against dive. It sure beats the ol' triple (even quad) tank meta with Ana. Dive is fun.

That said, and as Jeff points out, the "meta" rarely actually goes into comp play, especially not at lower ranks, and you can basically watch any GM/top500 streamer and see that it's rarely dive even in top500 games.

From an esports perspective I'm way more interested in watching dive 'cause the heroes involved are usually way higher skillcap (genji/tracer), downside being that it can be really hard to see what's going on.

It would obviously be best if a variety of different comps were meta at the same time, but that seems really unlikely.

Edited by Weltenfeind

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Funny, maybe it's all the HotS that I do, but I find myself honing in on what's super annoying to play against in OW very quickly. Symmetra and Torjborn are both incredibly obnoxious to fight against, especially while entrenched on maps that provide favourable conditions for it, such as Hanamura and Lunar Colony defending. 

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On 8/7/2017 at 3:29 AM, Oxygen said:

You have to add up about a year's worth of comments from Heroes dev to get as much as this. Lucky OW players you!

Jeff has always been amazing at this. It's a shame reading the replies in the source, Many of them are toxic (and people even seem incapable of actually reading what he wrote). Stuff like that might make him less inclined to actually post in the future. Damn shame.

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I agree with this 100%.  I have read too many posts of people who want the meta to change radically and every two weeks.  You think you want that but you don't. It would be impossible to practice a team comp.  One week Roadhog is the king and the next he isn't but Ana is.  Then just as fast, she isn't Torb is and on and on.  I perfer time to size things up, and work with a team comp that people are familiar with and can use as opposed to just getting settled in to really work on finer details and have to change.  Its the same with those who want a new hero every month.  New heroes change the meta and so if you combine new meta with new heroes it equals a ton of chaos that is not fun to play. 

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