Overwatch, Battleborn, and the Value of Simplicity

On first glance, it's perfectly understandable to mix up Overwatch and Battleborn. They both have visuals that lean heavily on the "80s G.I. Joe cartoon" aesthetic, they both channel MOBAs to design their characters, and they both emphasize cross-media promotion - cartoons, comics, shorts - to tell their stories.

But where Battleborn is an unwieldy mess of visual noise and confusing mechanics, Overwatch is accessible and straightforward. To understand why, we have to learn about MOBAs, class-based shooters, and the design inspirations powering both games.

A History of Class

MOBAs first originated with a Starcraft map called Aeon of Strife. However, they languished in relative obscurity until a map called Defense of the Ancients (DotA) started to dominate the custom games of Warcraft 3. From there the genre exploded outward, and two of the most popular games in the world are MOBAs: League of Legends and Dota 2.

The MOBA genre is built around two core tenets: characters should be unique in everything except the most basic movements and attacks, and players should learn how to manage strategy and tactics on an individual scale rather than hurling armies everywhere. Learning match-ups - which characters can fight which other characters - and numbers - gold, health, damage, stun duration, etc - matter the most.

Class-based shooters are a bit older than MOBAs. The initial flashpoint for the genre is Team Fortress, a mod for Quake which allowed players to pick classes with specific pros and cons. This combination of twitch-based reflexes and class-based abilities turned out to be a winning one, and most modern shooters now incorporate classes in some form or another, whether it's the create-a-class system of Call of Duty or the defined classes of Team Fortress 2.

Class-based shooters, funnily enough, fit the same basic tenets as MOBAs. Classes are unique in what they can do, and teams must work together and understand basic tactics in order to claim victory. The difference is in the details: where MOBAs focus more on number-crunching and optimizing your play, class-based shooters focus more on reflexes and understanding basic mechanics.

So while Overwatch and Battleborn share similar DNA, and even similar cartoon-y art styles, they are fundamentally different in the most important respect: Battleborn is trying to be a MOBA, and Overwatch is trying to be a class-based FPS.

Battleborn's Unnecessary Complexity

Unfortunately, Battleborn is a mess because it tries to replicate MOBAs so slavishly. By replicating the leveling, resource collection, and general strategy of a MOBA, it devalues the action-based combat at the heart of being a first-person shooter.

Battleborn utilizes three separate character-enhancing systems, all of which are clearly inspired by League of Legends. You have traits – one per level – which tweak and change your abilities over the course of a match. You have currency, which can be used to buy things such as health refills or combat pets from stations located around each map. Finally, you have gear, which is earned randomly and further customizes passive attributes, such as shield strength or currency collection radius.

This emphasis on RPG-like customization and strategy-like resource collection devalues the shooting part of Battleborn. Characters change over the course of a match, which means match-ups are unpredictable. Currency collection requires you farm minions and other easy creatures, which is little more than busywork. Gear makes you stronger based on random chance, which is a huge red flag for a competitive game. Above all, being good at shooting in Battleborn isn’t as important as being good at all the MOBA skills: optimizing your income so that you can spend currency on things, knowing what the meta is like for particular traits, and so on. Battleborn could’ve been a top-down strategy game and nobody would’ve batted an eye.

The most egregious League of Legends-style design choice, though, is that you don’t even have access to all characters or traits at the start of the game. You must grind each individual character to unlock new traits and gear. This means people have to stick with particular “mains” in order to have the most options for a character, which fights the natural flexibility of first-person shooters and is abysmally bad for getting people involved in competitive play. Good competitive games give players choices without limits.

Battleborn isn’t just mechanically confusing, though. The visual design emphasizes lots of bright primary colors, rather than a few bright colors that accentuate what you should pay attention to, which makes it difficult to parse what’s going on in the average fight. All enemies, thanks to the RPG-like structure of the average match, are bullet sponges. The UI is a jumble because it's trying to track approximately fifty things at once, which only ends up confusing matters even more.

Confusion, of either mechanics or visuals, is the bane of quality competitive first-person shooters. Good competitive shooters are predictable and simple, as it makes them both more watchable and allows individual player skills to shine. Long-term strategizing is not the genre’s forte, and in FPS games that flirt with it (such as Natural Selection 2), there is almost always a player who acts as the commander to free up everyone else to worry more about the immediate, visceral experience of shooting. People generally just want to shoot things, sometimes in weird ways; requiring all sorts of meta knowledge to have even a chance of success is not preferable.

Overwatch's Careful Simplicity

Overwatch, by comparison, provides a much more streamlined experience by staying focused on the “shooting” part of being a first-person shooter. Characters and environments have simple color schemes that are easy to distinguish in the heat of battle, which is important for a first-person shooter. There are no team or personal resources to track besides health, allowing you to focus on objectives and combat instead of minutiae such as farming for resources. The same character will always have the same tools, as there are no levels or traits. It's a class-based shooter where each character is a class, rather than a straight porting of MOBA mechanics to the first person.

Where Gearbox ended up crossing their wires and making a game which is both confusing to watch and annoying to play, Blizzard managed to realize that shooting is what matters. You don't have to figure out how to spend your resources, or which traits to pick to optimize your style, or any of the things that you have to do in MOBAs (and, by extension, Battleborn). You can simply pick it up and go shooting, learning as you go. It's extremely accessible and player-friendly in a way that Battleborn is not, entirely because it has no interest in directly mimicking the MOBA genre that inspired its character design.

Overwatch's character-centric game design is by no means unique, either. Both Destiny and Black Ops 3, two of the most popular shooters on the market, incorporate an "ultimate" mechanic in some way; supers in Destiny, specialist abilities in Black Ops 3. Dirty Bomb, the free-to-play shooter made by Splash Damage, organizes its classes by characters rather than class, and gives those characters unique abilities suited for their playstyle. Overwatch is not the first game in this unique space between competitive RPG and class-based shooter.

Overwatch, like its predecessors, provides an accessible, character-centric experience which strips away the cruft to make a focused and coherent game. Battleborn, with its traits and resource management and messy art style, is too esoteric to be accessible and too devoted to its MOBA roots to strip away what doesn't work.

It's too much MOBA, not enough FPS.

If you wish to support my writing on games, please consider donating on Patreon.