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How to use Lean Principles in Overwatch Workshop

Marco Louters

Last update: March 27th, 2022 | Read time: 8 minutes

Lean Principles in Overwatch Game Mode

Marco Louters

Last update: March 27th, 2022
Read time: 8 minutes

Creating a game mode in an existing game is actually quite similar to setting up a startup. I came to that conclusion a while back when I was playing around in Overwatch.

Yeah, Overwatch. This game, released in May 2016, grabbed me – just like other games from Blizzard Entertainment – for quite a few hours. The heroes I play the most? Widowmaker (sniper) and Pharah (jetpack and missiles).

Here is a short video of some of my highlights from 2018 by the way.

On April 24, 2019 Blizzard released the Overwatch Workshop. This is a program that basically puts the strings of the game in the hands of the players. With this Workshop, players can create their own game modes and make a lot of adjustments, from game mechanics to hero powers, and so on.

When I started playing some Overwatch again in December 2019 and discovered the Workshop, I of course got started. After all, it’s an old hobby of mine to make my own games. A good moment to pick up that hobby again. So, from Christmas until the end of April 2020, I experimented around. At first only in the basic form, but later also in the visual coder.

Overwatch Workshop Basic and Visual Coder
Overwatch Workshop Basic and Visual Coder

The past four years, I’ve been studying the world of startups. It struck me that making a custom game mode is actually very similar to setting up a new product in a startup.

Fun to explore this in a blog. But yeah, we obviously will begin with a trailer from the game mode that I use as an example:

1. The basics of lean

Lean is about creating value and eliminating waste. In the world of startups, lean has become the philosophy in setting up new companies and products.

It is a way to avoid unnecessary waste of time and money. You don’t know for sure if your intended target group is interested in your new product.

Instead of working on a product for years and pumping a lot of money into it, with a possible – and real – outcome of nobody using or buying your product, a different philosophy is applied.

Start with a MVP to test first assumptions

With the emergence of this new way of thinking – the Lean Startup way – new entrepreneurs are working on evaluating as quickly as possible whether there is interest in what they want to create. Of course by doing good research first, but also by starting with a minimal version of the final product.

By starting with a quick minimal version (also called MVP – Minimal Viable Product), these entrepreneurs can quickly determine if their product is indeed something the market would want. This could be built in just a few days or weeks, instead of working blindly for years on a product that is ultimately never used.

The same mindset works when creating a custom game mode in Overwatch (or any other game). You could choose to complete the game mode before giving other players the opportunity to experience this new game version.

But what if no one finds your idea interesting enough?

Good to start with a basic assumption and test it as soon as possible.

Start with the most important assumptions; assumptions that can break your idea if they turn out not to be true. Then work through your list of assumptions, from the most important to the least important to test.

Let’s use my game mode as an example. I’m a big fan of Death Matches. Everyone against everyone else. I thought it would be a nice idea to create a Death Match where every hero is OP. OP stands for overpowered (which means that something is way too strong).

Maybe now you’re thinking, “But if every hero is OP, then no one is OP.” That’s actually true. Unless every hero is OP in a different way and every hero has their own weaknesses.

My first two assumptions:
Some of the Death Match fans like to play a different version, in which all heroes have different mechanisms, strengths, and weaknesses that need to be rediscovered.
These Death Match fans like to explore these new heroes by changing at each respawn to a random new hero.

The above assumptions are the absolute basis of the concept and can be tested very quickly. I don’t have to code anything for this yet. I simply set the bar “Respawn as Random Hero” to “Enabled”.

Then I go to the tab “Heroes” and for all individual heroes I adjust some bars. The one hero I give a bit more speed and health. The other one unlimited ammo. And so on. This way I give each hero its own new way of playing, in an extremely basic way.

Takes maybe an hour to do.

Now you can test your first assumptions.

Overwatch - You Are OP - Review

2. Build -> Measure -> Learn

From this base point (the MVP) we can then continue to develop. The book The Lean Startup from Eric Ries was the first to mention the cycle Build -> Measure -> Learn.

You create something. You measure the results. You learn from the results. You create something again.

It’s a fairly simple concept, where you can test each time how your users / clients / players experience the new updates. By continuously searching for feedback, you avoid working on something that nobody is interested in.


Keep testing

For example, in creating my game mode, I was able to continuously test how players reacted to different changes. Fortunately, the average gamer’s opinion is fairly easy to gauge. 😉

And so, players leave or become anger in the chat box when:

  • …players die from something they don’t understand;
  • …players find something too unfair;
  • …players have to deal with a bug;
  • …players find something too [fill in], or if
  • …players had different expectations.

As administrator of the game, you can find out very quickly what the culprit is. Sometimes you need a better explanation: “What’s going on now?” Sometimes a certain hero’s ultimate should occur less often. Sometimes one hero is too weak compared to another.

Keep testing assumptions.

Look closely at the behavior of players.

3. Less is more

This is another concept that is used a lot in the world of startups. The bottom line is that pure essentials are better than adding a lot of extra unnecessary things. Read “things” as: code, text, abilities, information, etc.

For example, I’ve had regular discussions with a few people who helped me create my gamemode at one point or another. “But it’s great to add this!” “And this!” “And definitely this!” It’s good to find a balance. Sometimes not adding something is better than adding it.

Less text = more reading

Adding certain text is necessary to inform players about what is happening. For instance, Orisa has the mechanic in which she has 15 seconds after spawning to find a steady position. After those 15 seconds, she can no longer move and has to defend her position.

A timer starts: 50 seconds. When the timer reaches 0, Orisa automatically kills all other players. In short, other players have to work together to kill Orisa before the 0 is reached.

Something like that requires some explanation – while the game is running, because nobody reads a handbook beforehand. It is important that this mechanic is made clear to all players in a way that they immediately understand how it works.

See the example with Orisa also in this video:


Nobody likes to read very long sentences. Certainly not in a game that revolves around speed of action. You just don’t have the time to read long sentences. You have to be able to scan quickly.

The video above does not explain that Orisa has an icon above her head. However, this is immediately made clear by placing the white icon in the sentence next to the Orisa icon. Nor is it told that the only way to prevent the Orisa explosion is to kill Orisa. That explanation is not necessary, because players see this as obvious.

Maintain purely the essential.


Sometimes players don’t read text until something happens that they don’t understand. In the Orisa example, this helps with the warning that Orisa wins the game if she is not killed within 70 seconds. That’s the only text players see after Orisa just killed everyone in one big bang. It’s nice to see that all of a sudden everyone goes after Orisa.

Color difference in text also helps. Give each theme its own colour. This helps players to scan text. For example, white text is a standard explanation of the hero, blue text information about a special ability, purple text information about reaching level 2, and red text is a warning.

By the way, in the Orisa example I came to the 50 and 70 seconds after going through the Build -> Measure -> Learn loop several times.

After some testing these turned out to be the right numbers to create a certain tension and a real possiblity for both parties to overcome the timer.

Less abilities = more clarity

The more different abilities, the more chaos. This can reach a point where the game becomes too chaotic. Players must be able to understand to some extent what is going on. A degree of clarity is important.

For instance, in my gamemode, Bastion is pretty clear: sick damage, but can’t move very fast -> stay away. 😉

If Bastion would have many different mechanics, it would take longer to understand this hero, in playing, but also in playing against it. If you multiply this to 32 heroes, you get a game with a friction-filled entrance. Something we want to avoid.

Maintain a clear theme per hero.

4. Frictionless entry

Frictionless entry means entry without friction. Friction can also be seen as resistance and difficulty. A friction-filled entrance is something that every company wants to avoid. Maybe you recognize it from certain apps. You downloaded an app and then it was so unclear what to do, that you just deleted it.

The best scenario is when a user immediately understand an app / product / website / game without first having to follow a tutorial or explanation.

As an example, let’s take a quick look at our well-known gamemode.

Find a custom game mode in Overwatch
  1. A player sees the title: “You are OP… But in what way? Re-discover your heroes!”
  2. Certain expectations arise: “Every hero is very strong and different, and I have to explore them again.”
  3. The player clicks on “Join”.
  4. “Ah, so I can’t choose which hero I am.”
  5. “Oh, this hero is very different from what I’m used to! So I have to figure it out for myself.”

The title of the gamemode is important. This name is actually the stand-alone explanation of the game.

Make sure the game is immediately understandable from the first entry.

5. Kill your darlings

At the end of 2015, early 2016, I followed the minor “Creative Entrepreneurship” at Breda University. One of the teachers was an expert in the field of creativity and coming up with new ideas. He shouted “Kill your darlings!” several times a day. I suppose you understand now why I haven’t forgotten the sentence.

The bottom line is that sometimes you have to kill your favourite ideas (your darlings) in order to come up with even better ideas. The same goes for the hero abilities you created.

Sometimes it is better to kill your darlings in the sense of “Less is More” or to come up with even better ideas. 

6. Mastery

Mastery is about getting better. What’s the degree of depth? Games that quickly reach the limit in how far players can immerse themselves and how good they can become, quickly become boring.

In our example, the depth lies in several points:

    • Getting to know the 32 new heroes. One hero has more depth than the other.
    • The different heroes against each other.
    • Different situations in which the hero finds herself. For example with slow rising lava.
    • The challenge in achieving a level 2 version of certain heroes (Soldier 76, Orisa, Moira, Bastion, Roadhog, Ana).
    • The challenge in achieving the ultimate of the hero in question (Tracer, Mercy, Lúcio, Torbjörn, Zarya, Zenyatta).

So think about mastery when developing the gamemode.

Of course, there are many more comparisons to make. By applying a number of principles from the startup world to the creation of a custom game mode, you can improve your own game version by at least a few notches.

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