Playing Producer: An Overwatch RPG Character System

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Taking a break from my more dramatic posts to do a bit of game analysis here –  I’m playing Product Owner and Producer in my head asking just what an RPG of hit game Overwatch would need.  I’ve noted that it’s probably viable (if the target date is 3-4 years from now), that it’d have to be highly personal – so now let’s get to the final question.  Also feel free to use any of these ideas.

What would the Character system be like?

Overwatch as noted is a Superhero story through a sci-fi lens with some mysticism thrown in. This means characters people play have to be UNIQUE. When you create a character in an Overwatch RPG they should feel just as unique as the characters in the game. That’s a tall order, but I actually believe it can be done.

In addition, there’s certain gameplay challenges for this uniqueness; loot and crafting. But again, I think this can be handled.

So let’s get to it.

Characters: Backgrounds Must Matter

Character’s need to be able to have some kind of background and have it matter. Uniqueness comes with history, and a paragraph of charcter description doesn’t cut it. That means you need some kind of way to portray backgrounds so they matter.

I’d suggest the followin:

  • First, cover different basic characters – human, altered human (like Genji or the Soldiers), Uplifted Animals (like Winston) and Omnic.  These should alter options and maybe offer benefits and disadvantages.
  • Ensure factions matter (let’s face it, there will at least be Overwatch and Talon).
  • Give those characters some background choices that flesh out history, some bonuses, and probably initial reputation. Maybe even a short almost choose-your-own-adventure type thing.
  • Allow the final summary of said choices to be made so they can be tweaked.
  • Background affects certain elements like training mission, initial reputation and NPC reactions, and so on.

Imagine you start Overwatch the RPG, and try to get wild by playing an Uplifted animal with healing technology. You pick an Uplift and get a few species choices, and pick a Bear. A few more choices and you decide you were created by an independent scientist and have healing abilities due to some kind of biology-altering process (nanites, cybernetics, whatever). With your story in place, you design your character, and your first mission might be a test of said abilities (taken from a stock list of missions, or a stock mission altered for you).

The choices would be deep in that you might get bonuses to certain aspects and a few summaries on your character profile, and the first mission and character reactions are different. One change to your choices would result in different experiences, but meanwhile every scientist NPC is cautiosu around your bear because they know he had a hard upbringing and they don’t want to anger several hundred pounds of traumatized muscle.

It’s not that the individual choices may be that radical – but they must add up.  In fact, this is a major theme you’ll see . . .

Characters: Appearance Matters

Overwatch presents a diverse cast of characters because it is basically a Superhero game.  Therefore it must have a very diverse character appearance engine and option.  The original game contains a robot monk, a genetically engineered gorilla, a giant dude in a suit of armor, a skinny time-jumping soldier, a plump scientist, and more.  Each character looks unique – as must any created character.

This means a few things:

  • Actually different builds.  No more “skinny, muscular, and average.”  Let’s have a range of heights and weights and builds.
  • You should be able to build someone that looks like they’re from our world – a range of skin, hair, face, eye types and so on.  Hire actual experts to ensure all the differences among humanity are represented.
  • Makeup, hair, jewelry, and clothes options that represent a range of past, current, and projected future cultures.  Every character has their own look, and many characters in the game call back to their culture, to legend and history, and so on.  Sometimes Blizzard has been a bit ham-handed on this, so again call some experts.
  • Ensure there’s also plenty of superhero-ish and sci-fi-ish options because hey, it fits.
  • Make sure missions and levels and purchases let you get really unique cosmetic items and choices.  Let people’s appearance reflect their experiences.
  • Don’t do anything insensitive.  Again, consult the experts.  Have this game have a bibliography.

I figure Blizzard can do this easily.  But to have something allowing diversity while keeping the aesthetic?  That’d be an achievement.

Also if you can get people to sit in a game for 30 minutes playing with options?  You win.

Characters: Characters Must Be Iconic And Individual And Easy

Now let’s get to the challenge and the chance for glory – the character creation system.

An Overwatch game has to let you make iconic heroes that are unique individuals with a system an audience can understand – as an Overwatch RPG may attract people of diverse gaming background.  It also has to be something a team can actually develop and test and patch.

How do you let people make characters as unique as a vigilante techno musician and a crazed life-manipulating scientist who looks like a Sailor Moon Villain?  How do you code and test this?

As I look over various Superhero games, game systems are always a challenge to develop.  You need a system to reflect the ability to do anything, while needing to make it understandable, createable, and testable.  But in my gaming over the years I’ve noticed a few trends that give me an idea

  • Skill Trees are a great way to provide customizable characters, but in ways that don’t become an overwhelming system.  The Borderlands series does this very well, with iconic characters that have three “trees” that allow them to be uniquely customized.
  • A lot of superhero games – and indeed games period – put characters into broad categories with options – even Champions pen and paper eventually acknowledged there were only a few major archetypes.  City of Heroes/Villains did this well, having you pick a character role (Ranged, Tank, etc.) with a variety of power options within it.
  • Interacting Iconic Ideas” is something I’ve seen work well – give people a few kinds of iconic choices that together produce a unique character.  Wildstar Online did this in a marvelously simple way – you pick a fighting class (Stalker, Warrior, etc.) and a profession or social role (Explorer, Scientist, etc.)  Even these two simple choices would yield unique characters – like a Medic who sought out combat, or a brawling Warrior who build settlements.
  • Categorical Choices” – DC Online’s superhero system is brilliantly simple, even if I have issues with the implementation.  A character choses a way to fight, a type of superpower, and a type of movement.  You can be a magician with pistols who flies, or a high-tech martial artist who can run up the side of building.  Simple, elegant, effective.
  • For clarity, some options should be simple either/or choices.  Make it easier on everyone.
  • Make simple characters choices customizable.  If your character has a plasma rifle that’s nice, but maybe they have options to tweak the speed of fire, ammo capacity, and so on.  Sure you can not change it, but maybe in time you want to make it “your own.”

From my years of playing different games, I think I see an ideal Overwatch character system:

  • People pick a Field Role based on the four groups in Overwatch – Offense, Defense, Tank, and Support.  These represent (to an extent) your combat role in the field.
  • The Field Role gives you a range of Weapon Specialties and you pick one.  This provides your basic weapon or weapon set.  Much like current Overwatch, it’s what you usually are shooting or hitting with all the time.  There’s also probably a skill tree associated with the choice, letting you customize your choice over time.
  • The Field Role also gives you a range of Field Skills to choose from.  These are individual and highly iconic like “Explosives” or “Stealth” or “Healing”  You’d probably get to choose one or two – these are more or less your special powers and gadgets.  Like current Overwatch, these are special abilities you use – and should be customizable.
  • You then select a Profession role – your noncombat role.  This would be general professions like Scientist, Doctor, Engineer, etc.  This is for non-shooty adventure elements.
  • Your Professional role gives you optional skills – like Biology, Botany, Computers, Deception, and so on.

So the idea I see is that you pick how you fight, what combat abilities you have, how you function professionally, and a specific profession.  These would give you a few skill trees that are simple and clear.  So your character is already pretty unique from the start – and more customization can follow.

Yet at the same time you can sum your character up easy – “I’m an Offense Type with a Shotgun that uses Explosives and Scanners, and a  Survivalist specialized in healing and salvage.”  There you just summed up your characters – a person who likes big booms and setting up gizmos to find enemies, but they’re also good at helping people heal and salvaging cool stuff from combats.

(It’s not hard to imagine even a few sets of options would yield thousands of basic character types).

Character progression would be handled by expanding and customizing skill trees.  Take that Crusader Hammer and add extra impact.  Jazz your healing skill with an option that draws health from enemies as you heal.  In fact . . .

Characters: Handling Loot

Loot is a big part of RPGs, but also in Overwatch it seems kinda an odd thing to have.  I mean Overwatch is a semi-military organization and they probably, you know, have equipment.  Talon may be a criminal organization but they’re an organiziation.  You don’t exactly want people to be constantly trying to unlock treasure and hoovering up loot when they’re busy saving or stealing from the world.  It doesn’t fit the scene for most characters (looking at you, Junkrat and Roadhog).

Also a superhero game shouldn’t be about managing tons of loot.

I think this can be addressed in a few ways:

  • First, ditch money.  Go for the classic “reputation” system where doing actions gives you a spendable reputation.  That’s . . . well, like money.
  • Character weapons should be iconic – IE they can’t swap them out.  Like JRPGs and some other games your weapon choice is very narrow – classic Superhero.
  • Skill trees should allow for customizing skills and weapons – representing leveling up technical skills, being cleared for new components, etc.
  • Specific missions and amounts of reputation would let you upgrade your core weapon or purchase a new one.  This represents your increased reputation an rewards.
  • You may also get rewards for certain actions that let you customize your skill trees.  A mission may yield a new barrel for your rifle or an “insight” you can choose to enhance a non-combat skill.  City of heroes did something similar – people would find icons that represented new technology or mutations that you “dropped” onto a power to make it customized.

So in short, money that isn’t money, standardized weapons that are otherwise customizable or replaceable under some circumstances, and “customizable” skill trees that represent new technology and unique learnings.

This is fuzzy, it’d require thought.

Characters: Handling Crafting

And finally the hard part – crafting.  In a game that is highly social, but also has iconic characters and doesn’t focus on loot, how can you handle crafting?

I’m not 100% sure to be honest.  You want people to be able to make stuff and share it, but inventory management isn’t a big part of superheroes.  So a few thoughts:

  • Crafting unique clothes and items for one’s room/personal base is de rigeur.
  • Crafting “items” seems to either be out or something that should be onerous.
  • Maybe add “resource” missions that let people go into the field to get valuable resources – of course it’d be a challenge.
  • Crafting powerups and special one-use items would fit well, especially if it fit certain skillsets.
  • Crafting the “components” I mentioned above seems very viable.

This one is a bit hard for me to figure out – it may be the hardest part of the game.

I would add, finally, that if the game could add crafting-only and/or non-combat professions for people to play it would expand the game’s reach.

In Closing

So there we go, my large-scale analysis where I play Product Owner and Producer and ask about an Overwatch MMO.  It can be done with the right mix of simple ideas and complex interactions.

– Steve