Let me be clear about something up front: I don’t really care if you buy Overwatch. This story isn’t about using my influence to try to get a large number of people to purchase the game. I love that you’re here, but in terms of your decision to buy or not buy Overwatch? I don’t give a shit.
My friends are another story.
I, like many people, assumed that Overwatch would be a free-to-play game. I play with the same core group of five or six people on most nights, and getting them to try games when there is no money to risk is pretty easy. They’ll try anything once, even if time being at a premium means that one of us has to step up to champion the game to get people interested. If that doesn’t happen? The evening is spent with Diablo 3, or maybe Rocket League. Heroes of the Storm is also a popular choice.
Telling my friends Blizzard was creating a hero-based shooter was enough to get them interested, so I thought my job was done. Then everything changed.
“We really made the decision on the business model based on what we thought was right for the gameplay,” game director Jeff Kaplan told Talkgamer in a previously conducted interview at BlizzCon. “If you’ve played a lot of Overwatch, you know that hero-switching [mid-match] is a core part of it — it’s a really fun dynamic part. The difference maker between … Overwatch and other games is the fluidity in the team compositions and matching what the other team’s doing.”
I wanted to play Overwatch. I wanted to play Overwatch with my friends. But now I would have to convince them to not just download the game and give up an evening to try it, but to actually pay money upfront for something that can only be played online. I was struck by the sudden feeling of disappointment that the game wouldn’t be free-to-play, and worried about trying to convince enough of my friends to buy it that I wouldn’t be stuck playing with strangers online.
It’s a strange problem to have in 2016. We tend to assume that most online games will either include a campaign so you can play by ourselves or, especially in the case of something that’s hero-based, be a free-to-play release. Blizzard seemed to be swimming against the tide with this decision, and it changed the way I looked at the game and my strategies for trying to get my gaming group interested in playing.
My friends, fairly enough, aren’t always interested in trying things I mention. We all went through rather expensive Hearthstone addictions. There was a short-lived but intense love affair with Hawken. We’ve also spent at least $40 on characters in Heroes of the Storm, but the entry point was free, so it was a simple thing to get enough people together for the game initially.
It’s a fascinating dynamic. My friends and I don’t seem to care about how much we spend on a game once we like it, but the cost of the first taste? We’re sensitive about that. You can argue about the merits or detriments of free-to-play game design; from a social point of view it removes the risk of not liking a game, and that makes it simple to get everyone on the same page for at least a night or two.
And there are risks to this behavior. The last game one of us pushed on the group that was premium? Evolve. I won’t say which of my friends championed that particular release, but I will say they got the least comfortable chair at the next few LAN parties. Many of us paid full price for that game as well. Imagine being the person who convinced their friends to pay full price for Evolve. Think of the shame.
So I changed up my strategy. I made sure everyone in my group played the beta. That helped. I talked about the freedom of not having to pay for each hero, and it’s true the first few rounds felt like one could get drunk on the different heroes, a freedom that rarely happens in this genre of game.
Imagine being the person who convinced their friends to pay full price for Evolve.
We’re used to paying serious money for our characters, and waiting on sales or earning enough in-game currency to pick up our favorites. I found myself making an argument that sounds dumb, even to myself: By playing a premium game like this together we could actually save money!
Overwatch unlocks at 7 p.m. tonight in my time zone, and I can’t wait. Almost all of my friends have purchased the game, partially due to my urging. It’s a strange dynamic; releasing a game in this genre as a pay-once product changes how you value it, and how you interact with it. It had the strange effect of turning me into a pitchman for the game among my close friends, in order to make sure I have enough friends to team up with online.
We’re planning on meeting up tonight to celebrate the launch and play together, to get a few rounds in after the kids are in bed but before we go to sleep ourselves. This whole situation drove home how differently I value time, cash and the company I keep in multiplayer games. For now though, I’m happy I was a good salesperson. I won’t be playing Overwatch alone.