Overwatch’s Public Test Realm has just blown open the gates to infinity with a new Custom Server Browser. Players are now free to share their extravagant mutations on the beloved class-based FPS formula with other players. While it’s still in its early stages, I can’t help but think this guarantees the game a long and happy lifespan. By busting open the padlocks on cooldown timers, you can have Junkrats, Winstons, and Widowmakers whose feet never touch the ground. You can set Mercy to Goldeneye mode with one-shot kills from her pea-shooter. Or turn Reinhardt’s ground-smash ulti into his primary fire. Kinda.
THE INVENTION OF FLIGHT! GUEST ILLUSTRATION BY MY GIRLFRIEND TUNA OVER @ https://artbytuna.com/personal/
In just a few hours I played Laser Dodgeball: 3v3 Symmetras with no special abilities — nixing her left-click was honour system, as it’s not yet possible to do with the current tools — but the idea is a bunch of skinny Indian architects hopping around hurling slow-moving Megaman charge-balls at each other. Randos cycled in and out of this public game as I played. It was obvious one or two had stuck it out for awhile, as they rekt every single match. Of course, every time somebody new hopped on: “dude no left clicks” in all-chat. I played Zombie Survival, a roster of squishy heroes on one team, and six Reinhardts on the other. I can’t remember the last time I stared down 6 rhino-sized German Don Quixotes with rocket hammers, and I don’t want to, either. What was funny with this one was the “hotfixing”; players on both teams were giving feedback to the server host, not to fetch an advantage for their side, but to make the face-off more fair. Even here, on the PTR, where nothing counts for anything, and on Custom Servers, which explicitly encourage rampant silliness, players assembled themselves into a little spontaneous game design committee, and took rather seriously the task of creating a weird — but fair — (d)evolution of a well-known game. How interesting that in the midst of collaborative creativity, salt evaporates. How can you troll a game… when the game itself is trolling?
To be honest, though, the most fun I had was designing my own servers. I’m not very skilled, but ever since I was small, I’ve loved balancing and articulating game systems. These weird and colourful little abstract models of competitive fairness have always fascinated me, and as soon as I saw the Developer Update for custom servers, I dove into my notepad and began scribbling down design ideas. Healers Never Die! is a 3v3 Elimination map. One Zenyatta, one Lucio, and Mercy per team, with all healing effects doubled. Kills are hard-won, and even then, if you didn’t chip the Mercy down…. I noticed quite a few players opted for an “Omnic Crisis” meme, with a bunch of Bastions fighting a bunch of Crusaders, an in-game lore re-enactment, the nerdiness of which may know no rival. My version focuses on a raid-boss-style Balderich himself, though. The map is Eichenwalde and it’s 6v1. Six Bastions, all with half health, half clip-size, and shortened ultimate duration, have to push against the biggest, meanest Reinhardt I could think of: a 10,000 HP shield, 200 extra armour, and a slowly regenerating healthpool. I mean, is this even balanced? I don’t have a clue. But it sounds exciting, and it makes me excited to explore the weirdest possibilities of Overwatch.
The next two I was actually able to test out with friends. In Shogun Assassin, Twin Hanzos face off a deadly Genji with extra DPS and Deflect on a 1.5 second cooldown — headshot in that window or die! But it was Dwarf Fortress that legitimately surprised me. The idea was a 6-on-6 Torbjorn battle where all that mattered was a dog-eat-dog battle between the turrets. The Torbs move at 150% speed on any King of the Hill map, with no Rivet Gun, and a few extra thwacks to upgrade the turret. I was thinking a kind of competitive tower defense game, where you and your team need to leapfrog each advantage in order to gain ground onto the control point. While running around like a devil-dwarf with two friends was hilarious, my mock-up didn’t work as I’d expected. Torb still had his gun, only it did minimal damage… and his turret’s damage got neutered as well. While I was in the settings trying to readjust this (you can’t yet), I got kicked from my own server. So I quickly searched it up again and joined as a guest, and in that window, nine strangers had joined. Everywhere I looked, I saw nigh-unkillable, lightspeed dwarves, half of them screaming with molten energy, a dozen turrets exploding and reassembling and exploding again, the chk-chk of armour packs and thrashing of hammers and Swedish cries of “MY BABY!!” deafening my ears. The review of my game in all-chat: “WHAT IS THIS”. Even as a total mistake, my design produced fascinating results.
I took to the Blizzard forums to account for what I wish I’d been able to change, but of course, a brigade of more conscientious nerds had beat me to the punch. Like me, many server hosts wanted the ability to modify ammo clips, ultimate durations, to tweak the damage ratios of individual weapons and abilities on each character. They wanted the option to adjust Health and Armour values separately, and animation delays and… well, they want to be able to patch the game themselves. When the Custom Server Browser goes live with all of these new options (and I’m certain it will), there are going to be immortalized versions of every patch in Overwatch history. I mean, Dwarf Meatgrinder aside, there are going to be very serious, very subtle Balance servers that the real devs will probably closely monitor. When the players are invited to make up their own shit, they become collaborative co-designers with the actual developers of the game, iterating and testing all at once the kinds of changes the devs might consider too bold to implement and test themselves. In a funny way, this is a throwback for Blizzard as a company — I think I remember playing in Brood War’s Campaign Editor and User-Made Settings games more than playing the base game itself. Keeping the tools out of the players’ hands seems criminal to me. I don’t think any entertainment medium has an audience quite so itching to get their hands messy as gaming does. Soon enough, you’ll be able to do so in one of the most popular games in recent history. Looking forward to the next DotA?