The Whats, Whys, and Hows of the Overwatch Priority Pass
“The most important thing we’re looking out for is: at the end of the day, how can we make Overwatch more fun for our players?” principal game designer Scott Mercer says. He’s discussing the team’s latest idea, as introduced by Jeff Kaplan in the most recent Developer Update video, to do just that. It’s a feature now being tested on the PTR called the Priority Pass that, Mercer hopes, will help equalize the disparate player populations between all three of the game’s roles: tank, support, and damage.
With the Priority Pass, the team seeks to address long Damage queue times by rewarding players who choose to queue as Flex and play another role for a game or two with passes that will decrease their queue times in the future. Before you hop onto the PTR to try out the feature, learn more about what it is and how it came to be from Mercer.
Can you briefly explain what the Priority Pass is?
When you queue for Overwatch, you choose Tank, Support, or Damage. Because Quick Play and Competitive are both Role Queue where you need two Tank players, two Support players, and two Damage players, for there to be even queue times between the roles there’d have to be equivalent populations of players who want to play each role. As it turns out, Damage is very popular.
Because Damage is so popular, it’s the main reason we see longer queue times for Damage players. We’ve been looking to address this issue, and we believe Priority Pass is one way to do that. You can queue up as a Flex player—someone who is willing to play Tank, Support, or Damage—and we’ll provide you with Priority Passes. Then, if you wish to play as Damage, which is the most impacted role in terms of queue times, you can spend those passes to lower your queue times. More players choosing to flex helps equalize our role populations in the queues, which should also help decrease the queue time imbalance between roles that players currently experience.
You’re provided a number of passes based on if you win or lose, and we provide a large number of those, though we might change that number over time. By playing one Flex game, you’ll get multiple games where you have Priority Passes to use for Damage, and you can save up to 40 these passes.
How does the Priority Pass work for teams?
If the players in your group are queueing for an impacted role, for the entire group to be considered as having a Priority Pass, the players queueing as the impacted role (usually Damage) need to spend passes. For example: if I’m playing with you and you decide to play as Tank or Support, and I then decide to play Damage, only I will need to spend the pass, and that will prioritize us in the queue.
What do you think contributes to the longer Damage queue times?
Part of the reason playing Damage has been more popular is that we’ve had more Damage heroes than Tanks and Supports. Over the last few years, players have seen us implement more Tanks and Supports to help with that. The question also often raised by players is: shouldn't you just make Tanks and Supports more fun or more powerful? And, to be honest, they're really powerful, and people have a lot of fun. It’s just a matter of preference and taste.
Overwatch is a first-person shooter, and for a lot of players, that means they want to play hitscan characters. That’s what they enjoy, so some of that is going to exist regardless of how we tune power or specific mechanics. For us, Priority Pass is just one way to help address the imbalance in queue times while also giving players control over how they help themselves by letting them determine when or if they want to queue as Flex.
How does Priority Pass differ from past solutions to solve queue equalization between the roles?
There are some small things we’ve done in terms of tuning and matchmaking and how we put teams together, but that’s like trying to put a band-aid on a larger issue. And that larger issue is that the populations of the three roles are very different. Mathematically, it’s difficult to get around that, so Priority Pass is really about trying to equalize the populations queuing for games.
When we give you the option of whether or not to use a Priority Pass, we’ll display the difference in wait times because we want to provide as much information as we can to show players why they should want to occasionally queue Flex.
How does the team test features like these prior to putting them on the PTR?
A lot of data science and math. Because we’ve been working on matchmaking for so long, we’ve built up matchmaking systems that emulate numbers of players, their skill levels, and what choices they make in terms of roles. We’re always looking to improve and have gotten better by working with our programmers and data scientists. But, at the end of the day, we never know until a system like this goes live how it will perform, and it’s on us to be proactive and make adjustments as needed. Matchmaking is never done. It’s always a work in progress. And we don’t just want to get players into games—we want to get them into great games. We want players to be going against other players of a similar skill level because those are competitive games. They’re fun games, and that’s really what our matchmaking is about.
Once Priority Pass hits PTR, are there any things you’ll be looking out for and any changes you anticipate having to make?
We want to make sure there are no blatant bugs and that, at the very least, players get into games. We want to make sure the system doesn't crash the game. Understanding how the system affects the player population on the live game is something I don’t think we’ll get on PTR because the players who play on PTR are a very small slice of the population.
In terms of tuning and how effective it is, we won’t really know, but that’s why we’re already talking about what our plans are after the feature goes live, how we’ll react to it, what we’re looking for, and making sure we have all of the data we need. Then, of course, there’s the feedback we’ll get from our player base, and that’s important as well. Not just what the numbers say, but the player aspects of: does it feel cool, do they engage with it, do they feel happy about it?