EX Skills—An Overwatch proposal to create a deeper and more nuanced gameplay
Overwatch is a game that is, generally speaking, a bit more simplified in nature while the difficult aspects are hidden behind the core gameplay mechanics and the ability to change heroes at any stage of the game. Adding another subtle level of difficulty not only slightly increases the novelty of the game, but it helps to continuously add to the skill ceiling of any game.
A potential addition to the game which could help remedy the lack of niche tools that certain characters have could be to add what are called “EX Skills” to the game.
To set the tone, here are the parameters I’ve worked within throughout this article. To make the implementation a bit easier, I’ve tried to work within what already exists in Overwatch. This means Blizzard would not have to come up with a brand new tools and systems to add to the game, just tweak existing ones. Something I feel that Blizzard as a company does very well is market their games towards a competitive and casual audience. That being said, I’ve tried to keep in mind both sides of the argument in my examples. The goal is to find the fine line where a system is both epic while also maintaining a sense of accessibility and complexity.
Some very popular heroes such as Tracer or D.Va have many choices in terms of how they can approach different situations while also being designed in a way that balances simple mechanics that require high proficiency and knowledge of the game. With a limited options of skills and hero abilities, it keeps a new player interested in the game because there is not a detailed skill tree that you have to learn for 120+ heroes, or talents that start to jumble up the game with passive abilities that are set outside of the match itself. And yet, people still can push the game to its limits and make it a very difficult and skilled masterpiece. Now, with that being said, Blizzard has been very lenient with what they consider a “core gameplay mechanic.” Let us not forget that “no hero limit” was considered to be a core mechanic of Overwatch.
This just shows us that Blizzard is open to changing things that they believed to be key to how the game should be played, both at the top and bottom of all skill ladders. That being said, where is the line that Blizzard cautiously approaches with each and every new hero that is added to the game? At what point does Blizzard say “no, we have to scrap this idea; it may be a little too broad and overreaching in terms of mechanical depth and resources we have to spend on said project?” What I am proposing is a functional way to add a bit more depth to Overwatch, while leaning on pre-existing mechanics as a foundation to support fun and entertaining changes, while also adding a bit more niche to each hero.
Welcome to EX-Abilities.
There is one tool that is underutilized in Overwatch and it is called “Ultimate Charge.” Not only is the economy of Overwatch starting to become more openly understood, but this could be extrapolated in the same fashion that fighting games such as Street Fighter. Comparing Street Fighter and other fighting games to Overwatch’s resourced based ultimate system is not that far fetched.
An “EX Special Move” is an augmented ability that the character already possesses that is given an additive property to increase the skill’s utility and in certain cases, its power. For example, the iconic character Ryu has the signature Special move called the “Hadoken” or “Fireball” (directly translated into “wave motion fist” or “surge fist”). This energy projectile can be amazing for keeping opponents at a distance, but the EX version of the Hadoken has noticeably increased damage, a noticeably faster travel time and can have (depending on which Street Fighter we are talking about) an increase to its utility, such as being able to combo into itself or have the added effect of knocking down the opponent. While all of this sounds fantastic, it comes at a price. The price is exactly 25% of your Super Meter or 1 bar.
Even if you don’t understand the nuance here and the specific terminology, I’m sure you can synthesize down the general idea - your actions build a resource and that resource is spent to perform abilities.
Let’s dive into the details here. Using Street Fighter 4 as an example, (mind you that within the multiple editions of Street Fighter, this remains approximately the same) the ways to build your “Super Meter” are as follows:
- Hitting the Opponent with a Normal Move Attack
- Getting the Opponent to Block a Normal Move Attack
- Performing a Special Move Attack
- Hitting the Opponent with a Special Move Attack
- Getting your Opponent to Block a Special Move Attack
- Hitting the Opponent with a Focus Attack
- Getting your Opponent to Block a Focus Attack
- Getting Hit By Your Opponent's Attack
- Blocking an Opponent's Attack
- Focus-Absorbing an Opponent's Attack
- Throwing the Opponent
Barring the movement of your avatar or character, most of what you do in Street Fighter generates your “Super Meter”, which in the case of Overwatch would be comparable to your “Ultimate Charge.” Now, we have to take into consideration how you can build “Ultimate Charge” in Overwatch. You can build “Ultimate Charge” by:
- Passively heroes gain 5 charge every second.
- Heroes gain 1 charge for every 1 point of damage done.
- Heroes gain 1 charge for every 1 point of self-healing done.
- Soldier: 76, Ana, and Sombra gain 1 charge for every 1 point of healing.
- Lucio gains 19 charge for every 15 healing.
- Mercy gains 4 charge for every 5 healing and 2 charge for every 3 damage done by the target of her damage boost.
- Zenyatta gains 33 charge for every 25 healing.
- Heroes do not gain any charge while their Ultimate is active.
Each move or attack in Street Fighter is given an arbitrary value by the developer. Overwatch has a bit more nuanced approach to generating the resource in question, but has infinitely less ways to use said resource. Let us again return to the Street Fighter example to look at how Capcom has developed ways to use the Super Meter. Again, using Street Fighter 4 as an example, you can expend your Super Meter by performing the following actions:
- Performing a Super Combo (4 Blocks)
- Canceling a Normal Attack into a Focus Attack (2 Blocks)
- Canceling a Special Attack into a Focus Attack (2 Blocks)
- Performing an EX Special Move (1 Block)
Allow me to translate that for Overwatch fans: A “Super Combo” is similar to an “Ultimate Ability.” You expend 100% of your Super Meter to perform a devastating attack — Again, very similar in Overwatch, where once you meet 100% ultimate charge you unlock the opportunity to use a devastating ability. Now, the differences lie within the amount of each resource needed within each game. In Street Fighter 4 every character has the same regulated 1000 point Super Meter, whereas in Overwatch, the Ultimate Charges differentiate between characters. For example, Tracer needs 1125 Ultimate Charge for her Pulse Bomb while Lucio requires 2625 Ultimate Charge for his Sound Barrier.
An EX version of Fan of Blades (mouse 2, right click) could help assist with assassinating targets and busting through tanks.
Another great example of a resource based game similar to Overwatch is a game called Battlerite. Battlerite is based off an older game within the same genre of “team arena brawler” called Bloodline Champions. Now, for the sake of simplicity, we’ll quickly go through this, sparing some of the finer details. Each champion in Battlerite shares a similar resource meter to Overwatch and the Street Fighter franchise. Not only are they similar in that same regard, but they also have implemented an EX Skill system very similar to Street Fighter’s, where each EX Skill costs you 25% (1 bar) of your Super Meter bar and augments your one of your abilities. For example, the champion Jade’s Stealth ability (Q) allows her to become invisible for 2.4 seconds while also gaining movement speed and removing any movement impairing effects. The EX variant of this same skill, called Smoke Veil (shift+Q), not only grants her the base abilities traits, but also add in the ability to grant nearby allies a small shield to help better defend against enemies attacks.
With this comparable resource based system between these two examples, we then can start to imagine what Blizzard might be able to offer as a similar system. Giving players more options and tools allows them to crack open Overwatch mechanically, allowing for new and exciting ways to play the game. This also still fits within the parameters that these proposals are all extensions of pre-existing gameplay mechanics, meaning that Blizzard has less work ahead of them in terms of creating brand new abilities from scratch. Now, everything is not peachy keen; with changes come risks, but I believe that the risk is far worth the reward.
The first step to implementation is “how.” How do we perform an EX Skill? As for activation of an EX Skill, it can be as easy as a shift press with the normal button used for the said ability. As I’ve stated above, Battlerite has a very ergonomic and easy way to activate their EX Skill system, but seeing how most heroes have skills and abilities bound to “shift” by default, that would not work unless Blizzard wants to rebind skills that people have become accustomed to. As for a console implementation, that is where things get a bit more tricky. I suppose one of the easier solutions I’ve come up with is a double press of a specific button or a specific button held down for a certain amount of time. This way you can donate to the console and the player that this action is similar yet different to the normal command.
With the amount of ultimate charge Moira builds, think of the possibilities with EX Biotic Orb or perhaps EX Fade.
Something simple like holding the desired key for a certain length of time, using “left Ctrl” or “left Alt” as a function key similar to how Battlerite uses “shift” as a function key press, or even extending skills to the number row could be a possibility. I think it’s safe to say that Blizzard would want a simple and ergonomic button layout that would allow for new players to better understand exactly how to perform these more advanced moves while still remaining intuitive.
Blizzard does not have to look incredibly far for inspiration on how to implement these changes. On the mechanical backend, I’ve already explained that they have unintentionally built the framework that many game developers have used in the past for this very system. The problem lies in how Blizzard assigns a standard cost of resources for an EX Skill, while the ultimate charge rate is varied across the cast of Overwatch.
This is where it gets tricky. You could argue that 25% of Tracer’s maximum Ultimate Charge and 25% of Lucio’s maximum Ultimate Charge are exactly the same - 25%. The problem is that each of them build Ultimate Charge at a different rate. Every hero in Overwatch generates their respective ultimate charge in their own timely fashion.
One solution could be that Blizzard standardizes the amount of ultimate charge needed to reach 100% ultimate charge to 1000 ultimate charge across the board and homogenizes the rate at which you gain ultimate charge, replicating both Battlerite and Street Fighter. This would entail an entire retooling on each and every different way each hero gains ultimate charge. Having a baseline 1000 point maximum ultimate charge bank allows for more clarity for the user while keeping the unique and creative ways each and every hero gathers ultimate charge.
Another solution that I assume wouldn’t require much backup work, but needs a bit more creativity from the balance team: If you were to leave the heroes ultimate charges alone, you could in theory balance around the fact that certain heroes have lower base costs for the ultimate ability. Again, for example, Tracer needs 42% less ultimate charge than Lucio to perform her ultimate ability. Allowing her to not only generate more ultimates per game, but with these proposed changes, this drastically increases her tool kit once we give her an EX Skill. If Blizzard gave her something that would increase her utility, while also keeping in mind that she would garner this ability at a much quicker rate than some of her other cast members, you could easily have this work out. The more your ultimate ability costs, (ultimate charge maximum) the less effective your EX Skill “could” be, in theory.
In terms of a graphical representation of an EX Skill, Blizzard can be incredibly creative with how they would like this to work. You could go the same route as Street Fighter and have the character flicker with a bright, noticeable color. Now, mind you that Overwatch is a very visually stunning game, in all definitions of the word. It is a bit cluttered, but the particle effects are incredibly appealing to some and I wouldn’t want to upset the balance they have crafted. Something that I think might be an interesting idea would be to add audio cues to when a hero uses an EX Skill. This follows a pre-existing idea that Blizzard has instituted around auditory recognition being a huge factor within Overwatch.
Games like Overwatch and for example, League of Legends, are built upon the fact that they are deceptively easy to get into. The ease of access continues to evolve with the player base, but once you implement one to many changes, is it really the same game? Take for instance, League of Legends. With how long the game has been out, how wildly popular it is, combined with the fact that every year or so the game is met with some outstanding changes to its core gameplay design leaves many longtime players confused. They’re confused because the game they fell in love with doesn’t exist anymore. With that said, you also don’t want to implement a change that would turn off a new player from getting into a game that has been designed to be easy to access.
I don’t wish for Overwatch to take the same route other competitive titles have in the past, but I do believe that a stronger use of the resources within the game creates multiple layers to the the skill ceiling. This still maintains a deceptive entry level while accentuation just how far the game can be pushed. The intention here is to spark some discussion and ignite some interesting theorycrafting about where Overwatch could go in the future. Slippery slopes aside, I think adding some similar to EX-Skills into Overwatch to better flesh out the economy of ultimate charge, while also adding more tools to the rooster of characters available could be incredibly beneficial to the games future.
Joseph “Volamel” Franco has followed esports since the MLGs of 2006. He started out primarily following Starcraft 2, Halo 3, and Super Smash Bros. Melee. He has transitioned from viewer to journalist and writes freelance primarily about Overwatch and League of Legends. If you would like to know more or follow his thoughts on esports you can follow him at @Volamel.
Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.