Saturday, April 7, 2018

Player Skill, Agency, and Overwatch

I've been on an Overwatch kick lately, the latest in a long and torrid affair that began nearly two years ago when I bought it on launch day. I keep coming back to Reinhardt, one of the characters in the "tank" category who's whole shtick is that he's a future soldier who follows chivalric code and fights like a medieval knight. He's got a big hammer. It's cool.

I'm fairly certain this is what I drew in 4th grade in response to the question, "what do you want to be when you grow up?"

He's a popular character, so most matches will have one on each team, and that's when the fun begins. You see, Reinhardt has four main mechanics, and each one interacts with the others in a unique way. When two (experienced) Reinhardt players meet in the field of battle, a curious and interesting exchange takes place, one that I don't think is experienced by any other player in the game.

The four mechanics Reinhardt has are Shield, Firestrike, Charge, and Earthshatter. Shield puts up a large barrier that blocks most incoming projectiles, but not enemy bodies or — critically — Firestrike. Firestrike is a large, slow-moving projectile that pierces barriers. Charge causes Reinhardt to rocket forward (pinning anyone he collides with for heavy damage) but a collision with another charging Reinhardt knocks both of them down and stuns them for a bit. And Earthshatter knocks all enemies in a forward cone prone, but does not pierce Shield. This is important.

So, say you're Reinhardt and you come around a corner and see another Reinhardt in front of you. Time is critical: it is quite possible that this fight could be over after a single move. Your options are:
  1. Shield: If the enemy uses Shield, nobody takes damage. If the enemy uses Firestrike or Charge, you take damage. If the enemy uses Earthshatter, you negate damage.
  2. Firestrike: If the enemy uses Shield, you get to deal damage. If they use Firestrike, you both deal damage to each other. If they use Charge or Earthshatter, you take damage.
  3. Charge: If the enemy uses Shield, you get to deal damage. If they use Firestrike, you both deal damage to each other. If they use Charge, nobody takes damage. If they use Earthshatter, you take damage.
  4. Earthshatter: If the enemy uses Shield, nobody takes damage. If the enemy uses Firestrike, you both deal damage. If the enemy uses Charge, they take damage. If the enemy uses Earthshatter, you both deal damage.
Immediately it becomes apparent that Earthshatter is the optimal offensive choice: in three out of four situations, you get to deal damage to the enemy. In this experiment, there is no situation where using Earthshatter will cause you to take more harm than you give, and even the worst case scenario (the enemy uses Shield) is a stalemate. The decision is simple: use Earthshatter immediately, every time.

HOWEVER, it's not that simple. Earthshatter is an ultimate ability, which requires time and energy to build up. Unlike Firestrike, Charge, and Shield, which have either no cool-down time or a cool-down measured in seconds, it could take minutes to build up enough energy to use Earthshatter. And once it's gone, it's gone until you build up enough energy to use it again.

This changes the situation completely. An entire offensive push can be rebuked by a carefully-timed Earthshatter, and a wasted one (blocked by a Shield or simply mistimed) can cost a team precious minutes in recovery. This is where the mind games come into play. Lets pull back the paradigm a bit to see how it plays out in-game. It's about two minutes into the game, and you know the enemy hasn't used Earthshatter yet. You've got it prepared too, but you're being cautious: your entire team is rallied behind your Shield, and a mistake here could cost you the game. What do you do? Should you Charge forward, hoping to catch them off guard and breaking their line so your team can mop up, or will that simply put you too deep and cause you to die? Should you try to bait out their Earthshatter so you can block it with your Shield, or use yours knowing that they could be baiting it out just the same? What about Firestrike? It pierces barriers, so a well-placed strike could hit multiple enemies, perhaps even killing some, but it would leave you and your entire team vulnerable.

This is the sort of conflict that give game designers nocturnal emissions. Everything is riding on you making the correct decision in this very moment, the moment that separates the ten-hour newbies from the hundred(s)-hour veterans. If you've been paying attention to the match — the characters the enemy team chose, their positions, the timing of their last big push, the way their Reinhardt player acts from the brief past exchanges you've had — you may emerge victorious. Or you may die, because in any game involving even the slightest aspect of chance it is entirely possible to make no mistakes and still lose.

When I talk to people about player skill vs. character skill in RPGs, this is what I mean: no matter how powerful or versatile a character may be, they will never have one particular item, ability, or tactic that overcomes all obstacles. RPGs are unique because, while I've never encountered this sort of conflict in any other video game I've played, in (good) D&D, it happens all the time, and in (good) D&D, the true range of possible options is nigh-infinite.

You burst down the door and come face to face with six kobolds surrounding a makeshift fire. They jump up and ready their weapons, but you notice that their initial surprise is quickly replaced by a cunning look in their eyes. The cavern behind them is dark and silent, but you could have sworn this passage was supposed to be blocked off...

... roll for initiative.