Last Week

Overwatch 2 is embracing the future

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Friday, we’re discussing the major free-to-play shift for Blizzard’s Overwatch sequel, as well as what to read, watch and play this weekend.

Overwatch 2 lets go of the past

When Blizzard Entertainment’s hero shooter Overwatch launched in 2016, it was a revelation. The game combined the tight, coordinated team play featured in the fast-growing MOBA genre with classic shooter mechanics, bundling the package with excellent art direction, Pixar-quality character design and esports-ready level of competitive depth.

It’s always been a bit of a mystery, then, why Blizzard felt it needed a sequel when it could have simply adopted the strategy of more forward-looking contemporaries like Riot Games and updated Overwatch in perpetuity. Now, six years and a long-awaited pivot to free-to-play later, we’re starting to see why Overwatch needed a reboot of everything from its business model to its platform distribution strategy, and how that speaks to the changing economics of video games.

Overwatch has always had one foot in the past. In 2016, the video game industry looked drastically different. Fortnite hadn’t yet launched, and the idea of distributing free-to-play games on console still felt like a risky maneuver for even the most beloved of game studios. Loot boxes were also rampant, damaging the relationship between developers and players.

  • Blizzard’s most traditional tactic, though it probably seemed like the smarter business move at the time, was slapping a price tag on Overwatch. At $40, Overwatch still sold tens of millions of copies; Blizzard has never disclosed the exact amount, though it counted a lifetime total of 60 million players last year.
  • Blizzard’s most controversial tactic: loot boxes. Overwatch’s cosmetics economy was almost entirely driven by randomized drops players purchased in bundles, drawing the ire of regulators worldwide.
  • Putting Ovewatch behind a paywall meant the game would never achieve the level of popularity of Riot’s League of Legends or Valve’s Counter Strike: Global Offensive, while at the same time, loot boxes made the game feel increasingly exploitative.
  • A little over a year after Overwatch’s release, Fortnite’s battle royale arrived with a complete digital store and no loot boxes, setting new records for player spending and growth for free-to-play games. Following Fortnite came hugely successful free-to-play shooters like Apex Legends and Call of Duty: Warzone.
  • Another roadblock for Overwatch was Blizzard’s now-outdated approach to cross-platform play and progression. Overwatch cost $40 on each platform you wanted to play it on, and furthermore didn’t let you transfer any of your unlocked character skins or purchases from one account to another.
  • Also, PC and console players were restricted to playing with only those on the same hardware. All of these restrictions, many of which began to disappear from the industry during Fortnite’s rise, disincentivized playing on a new account and made it less likely someone would buy a separate license of Overwatch in the first place.

Overwatch 2 fixes the biggest mistakes of its predecessor. Instead of trying to bolt on new features or roll back longtime restrictions on the original version of Overwatch, Blizzard is starting fresh with the sequel, which launches Oct. 4 in an early-access state. After a developer update yesterday, we now have some critical details about what it’s going to look like.

  • Only the game’s competitive multiplayer will launch this fall, with an all-new cooperative campaign mode coming some time in 2023. It’s a similar strategy to Microsoft’s Halo Infinite, which launched a free-to-play version of its multiplayer before selling its campaign mode for $60.
  • We don’t know yet if Blizzard will charge for Overwatch 2’s campaign, though the developer has said in the past that owners of the original Overwatch will get access to the full sequel regardless.
  • Overwatch 2 will now have cross-platform play and cross-platform progression across PlayStation, Switch, Xbox and PC.
  • Blizzard is also shamelessly (and smartly) borrowing from its competitors. There will be customizable character skins and a battle pass, both of which were popularized by Fortnite, as well as gun charm cosmetics featured prominently in Call of Duty.
  • Perhaps the best move, however, is the elimination of loot boxes. Blizzard confirmed yesterday that it would be following a more modern seasonal model like that of Fortnite and others that relies entirely on direct sales of cosmetics and the battle pass.

A lot of Overwatch 2’s improvements are now table stakes. Blizzard only deserves so much credit here. As video game journalist Paul Tassi said to me yesterday, “I feel like to do anything *but* this would have felt really archaic.”

  • It’s a salient point. Blizzard had two choices with Overwatch: It could update the original game to put it more in line with competitors like Fortnite, or it could develop a sequel that rebooted the entire franchise but ran the risk of alienating players both old and new.
  • Given that the studio chose to do the latter, there was still an alarming level of indecision around whether Overwatch 2 would be free-to-play and how the two games might be bridged. It all raised the question, why make a sequel at all?

Many players, myself included, worried that Blizzard’s sequel would feel like a fresh coat of paint on an outdated game model with a new price tag attached, especially given the game’s multiple delays, the studio’s severe dysfunction and harassment issues, and the resulting top-level talent departing or getting fired.

But Blizzard’s announcements this week make clear the studio knows what’s at stake and what players now expect from a proper live service title. It’s a lesson the studio behind Halo Infinity learned the hard way. Now let’s hope Blizzard avoids the same traps.

— Nick Statt

A MESSAGE FROM APPDYNAMICS

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TGIF: How to spend your weekend

“The Candy House” — Jennifer Egan: We could all afford to do a little less doomscrolling through the dystopian end of society brought on by technology and the surveillance economy. Instead we recommend an excellent new book about the dystopian end of society brought on by technology and the surveillance economy.

“The Candy House” is Jennifer Egan’s sequel to her 2010 novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” The interconnecting stories catch up with the characters from the first novel, but not at any particular time in the future or the past since both books span decades from the early 1960s to the late 2030s. Through stories told in traditional narrative, emails, texts and tweets, we see the creation of an alternate version of social media that has people uploading their consciousnesses to the cloud and volunteering to let the government surveil its enemies through their eyeballs. It’s a great beach read, if you like your beach reads to scare you half to death.

“The Card Counter” — HBO Max: This gripping and tense thriller featuring Oscar Isaac as a disgraced military veteran turned card player is “Taxi Driver” writer Paul Schrader’s first film in four years. It came out in 2021 but just this week began streaming on HBO Max, and it’s worth a watch just to see Isaac’s chilling portrayal of William Tell and the extent to which the steely gambler goes to keep his past life from catching up with him. It’s a slow burn of a film, and its best moments are when the unsettling direction of the plot seems to hang in the air, with no telling where it’s headed.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge — PlayStation/Switch/Xbox/PC: The turtles are back in a new retro beat-’em-up that channels the arcade brawlers of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Fans of the 1989 TMNT game, or those it inspired like Konami’s The Simpsons and X-Men, will find a lot to love about Shredder’s Revenge, including gorgeous pixel art and up to six-player co-op. Developer Tribute Games also included some nostalgic gems, like the original cast of voice actors from the ’80s TV show. It’s available this week on Xbox Game Pass, too.

“Fire Island” — Hulu: “Fire Island”’s initial marketing push, where there was no mention of its “Pride and Prejudice” vibes, did not do this movie justice. Written by — and featuring! — Joel Kim Booster, the movie follows a group of longtime friends on a summer vacation to Fire Island, the famous gay village on Long Island. Upon realizing it’ll be their last summer making the trip together, the boys do everything they can (binge-drink, fall in love, get in fights) to commemorate this sacred summer place. The project originally began as a Quibi comedy series, but after the company’s shutdown, Searchlight Pictures purchased the script and created this funny, delightful masterpiece.

— Protocol staff

A MESSAGE FROM APPDYNAMICS

Organizations that have already started the move to a full-stack observability approach are seeing results and clear return on investment (ROI). In the AppDynamics research, 86% of technologists reported greater visibility across their IT stack over the last 12 months when implementing full-stack.

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Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to entertainment@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you on Tuesday.



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