Is casual Overwatch better in silence?

Opinion
August 16, 2016 by Bruno Dias

Why does Overwatch even allow strangers to speak to one another casual play if the experience is so frequently terrible?

Overwatch tells me I’ve played 413 games in its Quick Play mode, at the time of writing. Exactly once, when I wasn’t grouped with anyone, did I find myself in a team that had someone making useful callouts over voice chat. (I noted at the time that they were grouped with someone else on the team and were really only communicating with that person.) Most matches proceed in silence. When that silence is broken, it’s mostly so that someone can complain or just scream one of their favorite slurs into the voice channel.

Voice and text chat, in casual play, is worse than useless. Your chances of having your experience worsened by it seem enormous compared to your chances of it being useful.

Most players don’t seem to use the communication features at all. Text chat was always useless in action games because stopping to type something isn’t really feasible. Thus, voice chat was born. But in Overwatch, players aren’t really encouraged by the circumstances of the game to use voice chat. First, you have to get over the creepily intimate thing that is sending your actual voice over the internet to the randos on your team. Some people don’t think doing this is a big deal at all; others are uncomfortable at the prospect. And if you have a feminine-sounding voice, using voice chat will often let you know exactly who on your team is going to react to that in an unpleasant way.

For players in some regions, there’s the language issue: In Overwatch specifically, you don’t manually pick servers, so players in some regions will often be placed on servers that are geographically ambiguous. Depending on the time of day and phase of the moon, Overwatch can put me in servers that are seemingly located anywhere between Argentina and the east coast of the US; meaning that, if I wanted to use voice chat, I usually don’t know which of three languages I should be trying. Players in Europe probably have it even worse.

And, of course, there is no guarantee that anyone is listening. People drop out of voice chat. People play the game without sound on or with their volume turned down. I admit that often these days I’m turning off the game’s own soundtrack and listening to, say, Janelle Monáe instead. This is a dramatic improvement, partly because it does stop me from really hearing your “constructive” criticism about my play choices.

Even barring that, using voice chat can often feel like you’re inviting criticism, argument, or hostility. Given that the default tone seems to be hostility already, it’s hard to fault other players for taking your well-meaning suggestions as hostile demands, too.

But even if you get across all of this and still push that button and talk, the chances that people will listen to you are slim. Given Overwatch’s fast pace, it’s almost impossible to communicate effectively with people you don’t know, and the visual cues that accompany the game’s quick communication barks are often much more informative than anything you could say. Competitive teams will develop a language to be able to call out game situations to one another, including a heavy dose of map knowledge; Overwatch’s maps tend towards sprawl, and often there’s no obvious way of referring to a part of the map by name. Communicating with someone quickly and effectively relies largely on shared context and deliberate choices about vocabulary, which are accessible to play groups and teams but not really to lone players.

In casual play, voice chat is a misfeature. The game would be better without it. In fact, you can improve your experience measurably by switching it off at the start of every match -- if you can withstand worrying that someone on your team is, miraculously, trying to be useful and you’re not listening.

Why, then, is it still included by default? Why doesn’t the game just reserve voice chat for grouped-up players, or competitive play?

In a lot of ways, Overwatch feels to me like a rare example of a game where the resources developers have access to outstripped their vision. We often see games where vision far outstrips actual resources (Spore, Black & White, and other games touted as world-changing usually fit the bill). Most game that we regard as good are ones where there is a good vision, and resources to realize it, from Tetris to Skyrim. Overwatch often feels over-produced; it has the feeling of a game where no expense was spared, even at times where perhaps they should have been spared for design reasons. There certainly was a budget to make the world geometry in the game’s maps overly complicated, as I note every time I get stuck in some alcove. There certainly was a budget to make a preposterously huge roster of heroes that are perhaps too difficult to balance against one another.

So of course Overwatch has voice and text chat. That was a foregone conclusion, given that the game is such a maximalist design. It has those features because its predecessors had them, too, and Overwatch is nothing if not everything its predecessors were, except even bigger and louder. Removing those venerable features from the game would have shown remarkable restraint, and restraint isn’t really something Blizzard does well.

But at the same time, I think there is a deeper reason to include chat in a game that so clearly doesn’t need or want it. Imagine if voice chat was restricted to groups: Players in quick play would still communicate, but all of their communication would be mediated by the game’s systems. You wouldn’t be able to bypass them, cut through the system to talk directly to another player. In the confines of casual play, I genuinely think this would be a better experience. But the idea is somewhat frightening; it seems like a great loss of control on the part of the player.

And yet, it’s the clear direction multiplayer shooters have been going. When Overwatch’s precursor, Team Fortress 2, came out, it included voice and text chat, but it also included a pretty extensive set of pre-set character “barks” (pre-recorded voice lines) that you can use to communicate with your teammates. In that game, those barks are hidden behind a couple layers of keyboard shortcuts; you end up having to memorize them. Pressing x then 4, for instance, will tell your teammates that a teleporter is needed.

By the time Left 4 Dead came out, Valve had replaced the memory-intensive “voice menu” with a much more streamlined radial menu. TF2 and it’s descendants also fully automate some communication for players; characters have voice responses to in-game situations which can warn surrounding players of danger.

Overwatch refines the voice command and automated bark systems even more. Compared to the relatively languid TF2, it also hastens the pace of the gameplay significantly. Both of those things incentivize players against hitting that push-to-talk button. There’s no point in warning a teammate of immediate danger if your character is going to automatically shout “behind you;” most of the things you’d want to say anyway fall under the category of “I need healing,” “my ult is ready,” or “please for the love of God let’s actually push the objective;” and in a faster-paced game, effective communication is harder and moved out of the reach of many casual players.

Overwatch is designed to make voice communications less necessary than they used to be. This isn’t inherently a bad thing; again, not everyone is equally comfortable using voice chat, and so diminishing the game’s reliance on it is a fair and good design goal. It very much seems like the game’s designers know that voice chat can be worse than useless, and have designed their game to minimize its use in casual settings. Overwatch is nothing if not furthering the trend away from direct communication (voice and text chat) and towards mediated communication (radial menu barks).

But there’s an unintended consequence: Those design shifts don’t really affect how often people misuse those features to insult their opponents or teammates. But while the level of toxicity seems mostly unchanged from other similar games, the amount of useful voice communication plummets. So, of course, the ratio of misuse to use increases, and it becomes easier for voice and text chat to seem like they’re just a vehicle for people to vent nastily at you or make hostile comments. This makes it even easier to switch them off entirely. Online spaces, like a lot of things, are subject to a form of Gresham’s dynamic: Bad users drive out good ones. Eventually the system approximates a point where the voice chat is nothing but adenoidally-screamed racial slurs.

Overwatch makes the mistake of marginalizing a feature until players are barely using it, and then failing to cut that feature. But voice chat is no mere game mechanic; it’s a feature that seems so culturally ingrained and automatic its omission might have been noticeable, a significant deviation from the default. As a result, Overwatch contains a feature that is misused more often than it is used.

There’s a lesson here about being deliberate in designing things, about actually making conscious choices when choosing what to include. Everything in a design has to be subjected to the question of whether it makes the product better. In Overwatch’s casual play modes, it seems like the answer there is a clear no to text and voice chat. And yet, they’re in the game all the same.

Voice and text chat are an automatic necessity, an expectation that was probably in the design document from the start. Not only has it been present in Overwatch’s predecessors and competitors, It’s clearly a needed feature for some use cases, which is to say competitive players and groups -- I’m not saying that Blizzard shouldn’t have bothered implementing it at all. But the public, open chat is a problem; it creates an online space that is open to anyone yet is barely moderated. And even though Blizzard has vast resources by the standards of a game studio, it can’t really be expected to meaningfully moderate the content of in-game chat. So there’s a misstep, here, in making your game a public space for expression that disincentivizes good use of the space while having few safeguards in place to stop misuse of the space. In a game like TF2 that has a traditional community-maintained server structure, servers belong to communities where accountability and rules of conduct can exist (even though, too often, they don’t). This was always the last line of defense against toxicity over in-game communications; you could play on a server where you knew regular players with admin powers were paying attention and would mute unpleasant people. The trend towards a more curated experience where you are automagically placed in matches by the game, on servers run by the developer, has a lot of benefits and is a big part of Overwatch’s success; but it does remove that last safeguard.

A couple of major game companies have closed down their forums recently, which is a heartening admission that maintaining online spaces is a fraught and delicate business that game companies aren’t necessarily equipped to manage. And I don’t think they should be expected to. It’s not too late to fix this. Blizzard, if you can make D.va viable as a tank, you can save us all from ourselves and silence the public voice chat forever.