Playing Producer: An Overwatch RPG Character System

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

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

Playing Producer: What Would An Overwatch RPG Need To Be?

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

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.  Last column I identified that it’s probably viable and has good synergy, but it can’t be too much like the core game and probably wouldn’t be good to introduce to the market for at least 3 years.  Also feel free to use any of these ideas.

It’s also a fun look and exercise to think about products like games and products.  So now let’s move on to asking just what an Overwatch RPG would have to be to meet the market we know.

It Must Be Lore Filled

Overwatch has a lot of Lore, individual and worldwide. Any RPG/MMO of Overwatch has to be fairly dripping with lore and details. It should be enough that you don’t feel you’re playing a game, but reading a book or a seeing a movie.

That’s a tall order, but also a place the game can stand out. What an Overwatch RPG/MMO needs to be is the SF/Superhero version of the Fallen London Universe; you have to feel immersed in a place, a lore and a feel when you play or it doesn’t work. It has to be designed down to wording choices and colors.

In addition, Lore has to be everyhwere. Hunting down Lore has become a part of Overwatch fandom, which means sticking it everywhere. You want people crawling through restrooms in Junkertown to discover a photo taped to the underside of a label on a pipe. Then they get an achievement.

If this is done right, then right here you can differentiate it from most games – and get people interested. If you can get people who like Lore but not a frenetic FPS, you win.

This of course drives a lot of other choices.

NOTE: Imagine if the first person to discover new lore got a special item or title, and the first 100 also got some bonus. There should also be some kind of experience gain or benefit for lore discovery for each character.

It Must Be Playable In Chunks

One of the great things about Overwatch is that I can sit down, play for 15 minutes, and walk away. I often don’t but its tight mission structure means I can. When I do. Which is rarely.

A problem with MMO’s is that they can consume people’s time – I think that actually drives people away. But you also want retention. Playable small chunks means you get both – people can grind away, but you don’t drive them away with long slogs or a massive commitment.

Thus every mission should probably be small, or several independent missions strung together, enough for people to get in, adventure, and get out. This of course fits Overwatch’s military-meets-superhero style – go and do the mission and get out. Or if your Reyes, screw them up and then listen to your team complain.

Larger missions, as noted could be strung together – which also provides the bonus that people can play large content how they want. That increases retention, allows your friend to go to the bahtroom before your team starts the next mission, or just finish something off later. Sure we might have some larger/longer raids and such but make this the core.

NOTE: Provide titles, items, cosmetics, etc. to people who complete various numbers of mission. Also, for the people who love marathons, provide the same for people who do various numbers of missions IN A ROW.

It Must Be Social

An Overwatch RPG must be social. Despite complaints about toxicity in the community, I think those complains exist because it clashes with the overall spirit of the community. Overwatch fans love lore, speculation, teaming up, and exchanging fan art and such. I find it surprising positive, cynic that I am.

So any Overwatch game has to be a social engine big enough people can feel part of the community. I’d say if Overwatch RPG/MMO’s social features are so interesting you’re templted to play ONLY to use them then you win.

This almost certainly means:

  • Strong matchmaking tools.
  • Strong social tools to keep up with people.
  • Gift giving and exchanges of stuff in game (or purchased, we need those microtransactions)
  • Toxicity control and blocking tools. I almost wonder if a kind of LinkedIn recommendation system could work.
  • Home/room crafting. That’s becoming de rigeur, so put it on in.
  • Crafting things for others.
  • Bonuses for good social behavior.
  • Social areas and events in the game.
  • Community things like fashion shows, backstories, and art contests.

Social tools have to pretty much appeal to people from Day 1 – you need an embarassment of riches that’s also managable and comprehendible.

NOTE: There should be missions or mission parts that are non-combat where characters solve puzzles or just go and talk to people. This would not only fit Overwatch, but also encourage social activities.

It Must Tie Into The Big Picture

The game has to tie into the Overwatch universe in a meaningful way. Characters can’t be sitting on the sidelines forever in the shadows of everyone else – they have to make their own paths.  They can’t outshine the heroes of Overwatch the game, but also have to achieve things.  The Lore of the game has to tie into their experiences to bring the in-game fiction and the player experience together.

To me this means:

  • Things the characters do and missions they’re assigned should fit the Overwatch universe.
  • * Lots of in-game events and special events – maybe even one time – to make it feel like things evolve. STO is a great example of this.
  • Use of proper settings – while exploring new ones. For instance, you know at some point everyone will want to go to Junkertown or the Moon.
  • Evolve the storyline to a point where it allows for people to create masses of new heroes (I figure it’d be set a few years after the Recall) to have their own tales.
  • Have missions and events that let characters “own” their own experiences.
  • Move the story along for the other Overwatch characters – their achievements should change the game for the players, but they players should make their own way.

This’ll take effort – and constant content. But if you make it feel like a living world, that will keep people interested. Plus if it can tie into the game and media . . .

NOTE: This is going to take real work, to truly be a media production with growing lore and a world.  It’ll be like running a TV show.

Characters Must Matter

Overwatch at its heart is about people making a difference. Oh, it may be a terrible difference. It may be for revenge or greed or dressing like a human Hot Topic. But people in the story have impact.

That has to translate to the game. Which will be challenging, but players have to feel their story is important – and it has to be made important.

Some thoughts on that:

  • Have regular events where the winning “faction” get some bonus or achieves some victory. That should create temporary in-game alterations and may give some bonus to those who participated.
  • Have areas that are territorial battles, where factions can take control. Good for PvP.
  • Have people contribute time or resources to non-combat events to get results – like building new areas.
  • Have characters have their own storylines and choices for certain elements that have impact; such as choosing which character to agree with in a conflict.
  • Characters in game must comment on action and character actions.
  • Players must get a chance to make unique in-game choices, such as crafting or getting rare loot or costumes.

NOTE: This will need special attention in the game design – it will need to be core.

It Must Be Personal

The game must have a very personal feel to it – almost intimate. your character’s choices, actions, factions, and so on must make the game feel unique. It should feel that, if you started over, you’d experience an entirely diffrent game.

Many of the common things in RPGs and MMOs do this – character choices, cosmetics, factions. Those, obviously would be here – especially cosmetics, it’s Overwatch.

May of the above items would personalize it – and I’ll cover characters in a separate post.  But I think an Overwatch RPG MMO needs to make most missions personal, unique.

Here’s what I think it’d need.

  • Event/historical missions should have a personal quality or at least a random quality. Maybe an end boss is customized for your loadout.
  • Missions should be multi-option. Choice should matter and bring about different results.
  • Missions must be able to fail and have partial successes.
  • Have a reputation system, but not one that’s simple – your reputation should be a kind of reputation.  You may be popular with Overwatch, or Talon, but what kind of popularity – the killer who gets sent to gun down enemies, or the team player who gets rescue missions.
  • Most missions should be – I’m seriously – randomized, procedural, and/or customized. A mission you play should be unique and unrepeatable. That experience is for you and your team alone.
  • Actions should have effects over time. Maybe your character ends up constantly annoying Doomfist and thus he is swapped in for a boss in another mission as he seeks revenge. Have enough successful missions at Blizzard World and someone mentions it later or it unlocks a special scripted mission.

But what of the Lore, which is a bit hard when you have random missions? I’ve got an idea for that too – Virtual Reality. As you “rank up” in your faction, you can experience “simulated” story missions as “training.” This loads in lore and gives scripted missions – it’s just not the main source of story. It’d be like the Overwatch Archives.

Everyone gets their own story – and everyone gets to relive the same history together.

In A Nutshell

So to round up an Overwatch RPG that I think would succeed would be a lore-soaked social game that provides a lot of randomized missions on top of more scripted ones, has a shifting/changing setting based on actions, and produces a highly personal player experience.

Is this doable? Actually, I think so. Most of the parts are obvious or in place, it’s probably the procedural balance and elements that’d take work.

Next up – characters.

– Steve