Activision Blizzard has been having a rough few years. From the Blitzchung controversy causing outrage regarding the Hong Kong protests in 2019 to the ongoing accusations of sexism and gender discrimination, the company’s PR team has had a lot of work to do to restore Blizzard’s previously-well-regarded name.
One bit of positivity the company has had in its corner is the upcoming Overwatch 2. Set to release later this year, the game will be the sequel to 2016’s highly-regarded online shooter Overwatch. After the popularity of the first game, a lot of attention has been directed toward what’s to come. However, while a lot of fans are very excited for the next stage of this IP, several recent announcements have revealed changes that run the risk of alienating an otherwise loyal and stalwart fanbase.
How Did We Get Here?
Overwatch 2 was announced all the way back in November 2019. In typical Blizzard flare, this announcement was accompanied by one of the team’s stunning trademark animations.
While the animatic certainly garnered attention, anyone excited about the upcoming title was in for a long wait. It is set to finally release this autumn, so fans have had three years to pick apart any news. This length of delayed release isn’t unheard of in the games industry, but it is unusual. Less sympathetic observers have suggested that the reason for it was announced well ahead of time was to distract from the company’s then-recent scandal surrounding the Hong Kong protests. Others have defended Blizzard, citing complications due to Covid-19 throwing off the team’s work schedule.
Whatever the reason, the long build-up has led to a lot of critical speculation. In particular, recent announcements and previews have raised concerns around the game’s new approach to monetisation.
Whatever else Overwatch 2 may be, at its heart, it is a product designed to make money for the people who produced it. This is true of any game and it’s what keeps the industry going. As a result, it’s entirely fair to expect some degree of monetisation within the game. Where Overwatch 2 risks alienating its core fanbase, however, is with the sheer scale of the changes being made to how that monetisation affects players.
Free to Play
One of the biggest changes coming to the series is the switch to free-to-play. Overwatch had an upfront cost – $40 at launch – but all subsequent character and game mode additions were free. The sequel, by contrast, will be free for all players but will implement a paid seasonal battle pass system for a more continuous revenue flow. It’s easy to understand why Blizzard is making this change. After the overwhelming success of Fortnite, which made $5.8 billion last year, it has more than been proven that a F2P approach can generate profit.
Overwatch was far from a disappointing release with regards to revenue; inside of the first year following release, the title had already cracked $1 billion in sales. In 2019, it also hit the milestone of $1 billion in revenue from in-game purchases, the sixth of Activision Blizzard’s titles to do so. However, as time has gone on, the game’s profits have understandably decreased. Without substantial new content to keep them hooked, the company’s active monthly users have been decreasing since 2017 and in the last three years, Overwatch revenue has accounted for less than 10% of the company’s overall income.
For a game with a buy-once-play-forever model, this isn’t a particularly surprising decline. Over time, sales are going to decrease and dedicated fans are going to run out of things to buy. There is also a reduced incentive for new people to join. As an online PvP title, late-joining players end up fighting people who could have years more experience.
In response to this disappointing return, Blizzard has made the decision to go free-to-play. This should bring in more new players and opens up new opportunities for other revenue streams. In this regard, it is a positive change for fans. At the same time, the decision opens the door for those that are likely to be more confronting.
A Farewell to Loot Boxes
The other major change for Overwatch 2’s monetary system is the pivot away from loot boxes. While Overwatch allowed all players who had paid an upfront cost access to all playable content, it did also offer in-game purchases. These took the form of loot boxes, from which players could unlock a randomised assortment of cosmetics.
Obtaining loot boxes could be done in several ways. The most direct was to buy them with real-world money. With several different package options available, players could spend anywhere from a few dollars to over $30. However, if a player didn’t want to pay, they could also be obtained in-game through standard gameplay. Completing games in the arcade each week, levelling up, and filling certain roles in quick or competitive play were all easy, free routes to obtaining loot boxes. With a bit of time, it was possible to collect hundreds of loot boxes without ever spending a cent.
Although this system allowed players to quickly unlock new cosmetics without spending money, it wasn’t perfect. In particular players disliked the randomness. Each loot box provided four random cosmetics (or credits) which meant later-game players started seeing constant duplicates. Each duplicate was automatically traded for a small number of credits, which could be used to buy specific cosmetics, but it took a lot of the excitement out of the whole process. Worse, the system was also faced with the long-standing criticisms of loot boxes acting as a form of gambling.
In response to these concerns, Blizzard recently announced that Overwatch 2 would not feature them. Any loot boxes players accumulated in Overwatch will be automatically opened and their rewards added to the players’ accounts.
Introducing a Battle Pass
Without loot boxes, Overwatch 2 needed a new system for in-game purchases. In this regard, Blizzard has taken notes from Valorant’s recent success in the online shooter category and is implementing a seasonal battle pass system. This will include two ‘tracks’: a free progression path available to all players, and a premium path, accessible to paying customers. In both tracks, players will be able to unlock new cosmetics. The seasons will run for nine weeks and then all battle passes will be reset.
On the face of it, this set-up should be a much more consistent money-maker than the loot box system. With each season offering new cosmetics only available through the premium battle pass, players trying to unlock every skin or emote may not have a choice about paying for access. This is good news for Blizzard, but it represents a major shift towards pay-gating for players. Until the game is released, it is unclear if premium track rewards will ever be available to free players. If they’re not, then it would be a major departure from the previous model of non-paying players being able to earn almost all cosmetics in time.
Of course, cosmetics are not a necessary part of the game. It’s easy to say that players can simply not buy the battle pass if they don’t want to spend money. Perhaps the more pressing concern here, then, is that the battle pass system is likely to be highly visible. At present in Overwatch, unless you actively go looking to buy loot boxes, you almost never see any monetisation. The only exceptions to this are the occasional event homepages, which advertise new skins.
By contrast, Valorant’s two-track battle pass system constantly reminds free players what they’re missing out on by not paying. If Overwatch 2 follows a similar model, then it runs the risk of driving away players who have previously enjoyed Overwatch’s understated style. Pay-gating some cosmetics is one thing; constantly taunting free players with what they can’t have is entirely another.
The Price of Skins
Supplementing the battle pass system will be a direct purchasing market. Ahead of the game’s release, the exact nature of this system is unclear. However Blizzard has confirmed that players will be able to purchase specific cosmetics directly. This was considered a welcome change by some players, as it eliminates the random aspect that defines loot boxes. However, many also raised concerns about the possible prices of this in-game storefront.
These worries were seemingly justified in July, when a leaked survey Blizzard had shared with some players suggested that rare Mythic skins could cost as much as $45 each. Blizzard was quickly on damage control, assuring players that the prices featured in the survey were randomised and not representative of final pricing. The fact that the question was asked at all, however, is not a promising introduction to the new system for players.
It is worth noting that even under Overwatch’s model, there were a handful of cosmetics that required direct – or at least close to – purchase. Such emotes and skins were in the vast minority, and some would later become available to non-paying players, but they did exist. However, in the six years since Overwatch’s release, these items only account for around ten of the hundreds of available cosmetics. Importantly, such cosmetics were also typically poorly received by players.
Alone, the suggestion that skins might cost more than the original game did at launch may have been brushed off without being taken seriously. In the face of everything else changing, however, it has some people worried.
Not So Free to Play After All
One of the most recent outrages for fans has been the Overwatch 2 beta. Ahead of the game’s release, Blizzard has invited fans to try out the title’s PvP gameplay. In principle, this is a great idea; not only does it give the developers a better idea of how their game will function in the hands of actual players, but it also opens up new advertising possibilities through streaming and word-of-mouth.
Unfortunately, while the intention might have been good, the execution was somewhat lacking. Initially, fans could apply for a random chance at being included in the closed beta. Once the beta was launched, however, access changed so that new players could only join by buying the $40 Watchpoint pack. The pack did feature other perks, including access to the first season’s premium battle pass. However, as the only route into the beta, this approach to access very much came across as charging for a supposedly free-to-play game.
The price tag particularly rankled as the beta featured two new characters. While these characters will be available to all F2P players at release, during the beta they came across as pay-gated content. While Overwatch has previously put cosmetics behind paywalls, it has adamantly never charged for actual gameplay. This has been one of the foundations of the game. It has meant that any player with an account can engage in any type of game with any other player. As an online experience, this level playing field has been paramount to keeping player numbers high.
The beta is almost certainly not an indication that this model is about to change. Unfortunately, with fans already tense about the changes to the game’s monetisation, it’s difficult not to take this as yet another bad sign.
An Unpopular Start
Blizzard is well-known for producing popular, attractive games. There’s little doubt that the gameplay awaiting fans in Overwatch 2 is sure to be as smooth and engaging as it was in the previous title. Even with some inevitable hiccoughs to work out, I’m certain that Overwatch 2 will be another fun online shooter.
That said, it is a game with a pre-existing fanbase that is going in with preconceived notions about what Overwatch is. The beta has already received mixed responses for being both too similar and too different to its predecessor, which is as clear an indication as any that in some ways Blizzard can’t win. Sequels are always hard.
The choices the company is making when it comes to monetisation, however, look primed to turn away long-standing players. Overwatch, almost uniquely among games in the genre, was very unobtrusive about charging players. Even with loot boxes for sale, the majority of players likely never saw a single checkout screen in-game. For a lot of people, this is one of the key things that set the game apart. With no pay-to-win elements, the equality between players fostered a brilliant sense of community.
By contrast, Overwatch 2 is starting to sound like it was built from the ground up with constant monetisation in mind. That might be understandable from the developer’s standpoint, but it may be a tremendously confronting experience for existing players. It wouldn’t even be the first time Blizzard has had to tackle this issue; their F2P card game Hearthstone has long been criticised for its hyper-focus on monetisation.
It is impossible to judge Overwatch 2 on the game’s merits before it is released. That said, Blizzard looks to be testing their fans’ goodwill. With so many controversies already dogging their heels, they may need to be cautious if they want to maintain the fanbase that demanded a sequel in the first place.