If one game has emerged as a real winner in 2016, it's Overwatch. It's on everyone's list of favourite games this year, and chances are you and your friends have dipped into Blizzard's hero-based shooter for at least a few rounds. In a year filled with fantastic AAA titles, it's Overwatch that's stuck in people's memories.
There's a multitude of reasons for Overwatch's massive success. The characters and environments look incredible for a start, with cover character Tracer being a quintessential example of the excellent work Blizzard has done. Tracer is unique to play in the game and genuinely quite funny out of it. If that's not for you, you can opt for Gorilla scientist Winston, or moody edgelord Reaper.
There are 20+ characters, and each is tonally unique. Most players will find one that resonates with them, in terms of play-style, maybe even design, quite quickly, which helps them buy into the game as a whole.
Once invested it doesn't take long to realise what's central to Overwatch's success: it is a completely stripped back and reworked first-person shooter, which gets rid of things many shooter fans have come to take for granted. Overwatch basically re-invents the first person shooter (FPS) and, in play, it's fantastic.
Take ammunition, for example. Before Overwatch came along it was hard to fathom an FPS in which players couldn't run out of ammo. Since the very earliest shooters, ammo, with both its conservation and acquisition, has been a key part of play. As shooters have grown more complex, layering mechanics on top of each other, this remained until Blizzard decided to just toss out the concept entirely. Players still reload – unless you're playing Korean eSports pro D.va, whose combat mech has shotguns that fire infinitely – but you never need worry about how much ammo you have left.
Overwatch is full of tiny tweaks and changes designed to minimise the heavy lifting that makes multiplayer shooters so impenetrable for those without great knowledge of the genre. It lets players focus on what's in front of them without worrying about a slew of smaller mechanics.
With this total rework of what it means to make an online shooter, Blizzard have shown that they've got a real understanding of the genre, despite this being the first time they've even made one.
This isn't the first time the studio has taken a genre and stripped it back before reshaping it in their image. 2015's Heroes of the Storm took a genre even more complicated than the online shooters – that of multiplayer online battle arena games (MOBAs) – and distilled its essence down into a game that you can play casually in roughly 20 minutes. It's not for everyone, but again, Blizzard took a game-design machete to a genre's core – the concept of levelling, and items – to clear the way for something else. They've been so successful with this that DOTA 2 – one of the two monolithic MOBA's on the scene – adopted some similar elements in its recent 7.0 overhaul.
Making a MOBA made more sense for Blizzard than a shooter however. After all, the original DOTA was a mod for one of its real-time strategy titles Warcraft 3, and the studio has been making those since 1994.
Overwatch is Blizzard's first shooter, rising from the rubble of infamous cancelled MMO Titan, but you never would have guessed while playing it. Since its launch in May, Blizzard has worked on smoothing over rough edges, introduced two new characters, a handful of maps, countless cosmetic items, seasonal events, ranked play and released several animated shorts to expand the fiction. Provided you don't buy a stack of the micro-transactional loot boxes, all of it is available without spending a thing.
In the last few years, Blizzard has resembled the Apple of video games. The studio has a deep understanding of what it's trying to do, and what makes its products attractive to the biggest group of people possible. It might make a couple of bad plays from time to time, but everyone buys its games regardless, and they are all of a high quality.
Furthermore, just like Apple, when Blizzard does something the rest of the industry takes notice: World of Warcraft and Diablo both launched a wave of pretenders to the throne, and I've no doubt that many games riffing on Overwatch will pop up over the next couple of years.
If you look at Blizzard's currently supported games – Diablo 3, Starcraft 2, World of Warcraft, Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone – each is a bold reinvention of their genre. There have been missteps – Diablo 3 had a lot of glaring flaws at launch and was totally reworked before coming good in the game's Reaper of Souls expansion – but each of Blizzard's current titles offers something different and new.
Overwatch isn't going to be the last killer new property we see from the company. Can Blizzard make another game that feels as important as its current stable? Absolutely. It's just that, now they've shown it can turn its hand to just about any genre, it's hard to guess what that might be. A third person action game? An open world creation game? A platformer?
Perhaps it might even be a reboot of RPM Racing, or a The Lost Vikings MMO. A man can dream, right?