Figured I’d do a writeup of an issue I’ve experienced in Overwatch pretty much since release. I call it the Reinhardt Problem, and I think it’s a neat challenge for game designers to wrangle with. I’d love to hear how everyone reading would tackle this!
When I’m not grinding various fighting games or cursing at Clash Royale, I like to get in a few friendly rounds of Overwatch. It satisfies the team-competitive itch that I scratched with League of Legends for a long time, and since Irene is a huge FPS nerd, we’ll often spend our evenings Pharmercying it up in Quick Play.
Now, I don’t play at a particularly high level — I played my placements last season and barely got into Gold, and I spend most of my games playing QP with friends all over the skill spectrum. But even at this skill level, I can tell that Reinhardt occupies a central place in the Overwatch ecosystem, and there’s a strange dissonance in there which often ends up having a serious negative effect on the player experience.
Reinhardt is a Rad Character
Reinhardt plays how he looks — like a knight in shining armor. First he shields your team through tricky choke points, and once they’re all through and his barrier is about to break, he charges in and swings his hammer around until he dies or your team wins.
If you’re playing as or alongside a Reinhardt, there’s a lot of potential for highly emotionally charged moments that come from this kit — protectiveness and gratitude coming from the shield, growing amounts of stress and tension as the shield starts to wear down, all boiling over into cathartic aggression when he lets the shield down and charges in. It’s not hard to imagine that how you feel about your team’s Reinhardt, for better or worse, is exactly how his Overwatch teammates feel about him in any given mission. That’s cool!
“Do we have a Reinhardt?”
So what’s the problem? Well, let’s start from a common player experience and work our way back from there: When you start a match and choose a character, one of the first questions you’ll ask yourself is “Do we have a Reinhardt?”
That’s because the presence of a Reinhardt has a dramatic effect on your team’s play experience. Without a Reinhardt, you’re forced to use the map’s geographical features for cover, greatly restricting your ability to move safely and making your position in any given moment more easily predicted and covered by your opponents — and since Reinhardt’s shield allows friendly attacks to pass through, it’s actually much better than map cover. So if you have a Reinhardt on your team, you’re free to pick from a whole bunch of characters, but if you don’t, you pick a dive comp, pick Reinhardt yourself and take one for the team, or you pick what you want and hope for the best.
For reference: Last time I checked Overbuff’s stats, Reinhardt was the most popular pick in competitive Overwatch, at 11.77%, averaging 1.4 Reinhardts per game. In Quick Play, he falls to 5.34% (8th overall).
And that’s where The Reinhardt Problem comes in. Teams need Reinhardt to win, but most people don’t want to play Reinhardt, because he’s a knight in a game about guns. Overwatch is a game that tests several different skills, but it’s first and foremost an FPS, and Reinhardt doesn’t reward a player’s point-click-and-move efficacy. If you like being good at FPSes, you probably aren’t going to like Reinhardt. Every team needs him, but your most enthusiastic players probably aren’t going to enjoy playing him — hence the drop in popularity from Competitive to Quick Play.
Friction in character choice negatively affects the player experience
I feel compelled to stress that this isn’t, strictly speaking, a “balance problem.” Character balance isn’t an inherent virtue in competitive games; it’s useful insofar as you want players to feel like their time investments in their favorite characters are rewarded in their game results, but you can have highly enjoyable, competitively valuable games that are highly imbalanced (Marvel vs. Capcom 2 says what’s up).
It might not even be a “game health problem”; I could imagine a dev team that thinks that the fact that Reinhardt’s existence allows for a wider variety of team comps and strategies than a world with a worse Reinhardt (maybe every game without Reinhardt just comes down to which team can shoot through a choke better).
The problem as I see it is: if you don’t have a Reinhardt on your team, you have to choose between playing Reinhardt when you don’t want to, asking someone else to play Reinhardt when they may not want to, or going without and putting your desire to play not-Reinhardt over the team’s collective desire to win. I have the most fun in Overwatch when the following conditions are true:
- I am playing Pharah, Soldier 76, or Zenyatta
- My team is winning, or at least showing up competitively
- My team is behaving neutral/friendly to each other (more likely if everyone is playing the character who they want to play!)
When any of these factors aren’t true, I’d rather be playing a different game. (Your own conditions for Overwatch happiness may differ!) But broadly speaking, your character choice in any given match reflects your capacity to balance a few different factors:
- Who do I feel like playing in this match? (Personal preference/mode of engagement)
- Which roles/characters would provide the most power to the team? (Team comp/meta/map knowledge)
- Which characters am I most comfortable/competent playing? (Character pool)
This frequently puts an individual player’s desires at odds with the team’s needs. Ideally, a given player would never find themselves in a situation where they had to choose between Who I Want To Play and Who I Should Play To Help My Team Win; however, it’s a team game with limited room for a single player to carry, so we accept that “character flexibility” is an attribute that leads to a player’s success over the long run. What’s more, since Overwatch allows you to switch characters mid-match (most likely to make balance issues around counter matchups easier, I’m guessing), this kind of friction persists into the game session.
(As a kind of funny side note: The thought process that goes into character choice kind of encourages one-trick pony players; if I am functionally incompetent with any character besides Pharah, then I can always confidently say that no matter what, my total contribution to the team is highest if I pick Pharah.)
It’s worth pointing out that Overwatch has also run into this issue around healer picks, and has largely solved it by making healer characters that are close enough to the core combat loop that it scratches the FPS itch — see Ana, Zenyatta, and Lucio — and I’m impressed by how well they did that.
Fixing The Reinhardt Problem
So: One of the most creatively successful characters in the game is causing frequent issues with the player experience. It’s not an urgent issue, but it is something that makes it harder for the game to deliver players a quality session, and over time it almost certainly leads to players churning out. How do we tackle this? What tools are available to us?
Game Balance: One of the causes of this problem is that he has a very powerful shield and very powerful combat tools. We could lower his power in the shield to make him a less popular pick over other characters with shielding abilities (D.Va, Orisa, Symmetra, Winston). This will ameliorate the player experience issue, because players won’t feel railroaded into picking Reinhardt specifically in order to satisfy the team need for a shield, and some of these other characters do a better job of hitting the point-shoot-and-move skills better than Reinhardt.
Pros: Cheap and quick to implement; doesn’t drastically change the overall play experience too much.
Cons: This sucks for Reinhardt players, who will undoubtedly have less fun as a result of these changes. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Reinhardt nerfs cause a lot of players to churn out, and since these players are the ones enabling their teams to have fun as well, it’s not a player segment I’d want to lose. Plus, this problem might just be shifted to the next-most-effective shielder, which doesn’t give you a complete fix.
Character Design: The reason players don’t want to play him is because his gameplay doesn’t reward core FPS skills. Let’s rework his kit and thematics to make him fit better with the rest of the game so playing him doesn’t feel like a different game that FPS players don’t enjoy as much.
Pros: If you do it right, players feel like Overwatch is a better game than it was before.
Cons: Creatively speaking, Reinhardt is incredibly successful at promising and delivering a fantasy, and any rework that turns a giant mech knight into some kind of shooter will probably break that. This will take more time and resources for a project that isn’t immediately linked to revenue (how would you show that a specific change affects player retention?). Also, you’ll still piss off lots of people who were fans of his current version.
Content Creation: This is a problem because he’s a clear best-in-class character for this purpose, but we don’t want to take that away from him. Let’s make more maps that don’t emphasize single choke points, and more characters that have different kinds of shield abilities, so players don’t feel restricted in their choice.
Pros: Doesn’t create changes that players have to adapt to other than new content, which is rad.
Cons: Will take a lot of time and content to notice an appreciable difference in the problem. Requires aligning several different teams around a rather specific problem which doesn’t have an immediate effect on revenue. On the map design side, Overwatch has enough single-chokepoint maps that I’d assume it’s something they’ve balanced around for a reason, so this might incur lots of expensive costs elsewhere. On the character design side, you risk releasing multiple characters in a row with shielding abilities, which is memeworthily boring.
Matchmaking/Metagame/Global systems: This problem is reflective of deeper problems around character select friction, and they’re mostly affecting solo players, since premades are more likely to include people willing to play what the team needs. We could rework the systems around matchmaking and character selection to improve our player distribution so no game will go without a Reinhardt (or a support, or whatever).
Pros: Could potentially improve the player experience quite significantly. League of Legends did something like this with Team Builder, which ended up revamping the matchmaking experience entirely. Personally, I loved Team Builder.
Cons: Messing with matchmaking is dangerous. Anything that lengthens queue times will have an immediate and clear cost to the player experience, and you might find that this has minor issues in a popular region but totally shafts a lower-population region. Depending on how you handle the tool, you might be forced into prescribing a meta (like League’s 1–1–2-jungle format, for example). And since character selection is a system that’s pretty deeply integrated into the game, any changes you make (character bans, no mirrors, permanent picks, etc.) will have a LOT of consequences everywhere else in core gameplay.
I’m sure you could come up with any number of fixes (and I’d love to hear about ‘em!). Any given plan is reflective of your design values, your team’s available resources and priorities, and your perspective. Maybe you think of this as a single pain point (Reinhardt), or maybe you find it’s an example of a deeper issue (character select friction) that will continually crop up as a consequence of larger design decisions.
Or: Maybe it’s not actually a problem at all. It makes sense for a game that’s about teamwork to make you feel guilty for making selfish choices. As a player, you might not enjoy that experience — who wants to feel guilty in your free time? But it’s still an emotionally evocative moment for a player, and a potential challenge for them to overcome. Perhaps the players who stick around and deal with it learn things that they can take with them after the game is over. You can’t have an effective team without compromise or sacrifice. Sounds like something Cadet Tracer would learn in during her years in Overwatch, doesn’t it?
(Personally, I’d love to try adding a cooldown to Reinhardt’s shield, so he can’t switch as easily between the shield and his weapons. I think he gets a moderate chunk of power from the fact that his shield is very low-commitment, and if his shield had a cooldown I think he’d have to be more YOLO, which fits his personality and makes him a bigger liability on a team. I don’t know if it’d work, but if it did, it might open up the game a bit without compromising the excellent character design work.)