Overwatch 2’s director explains why its big PvE mode was canceled

Overwatch 2’s director explains why its big PvE mode was canceled

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Game director Aaron Keller shared insight into how Overwatch 2’s PvE content evolved, grew, and was eventually killed.

Image: Blizzard

Game director Aaron Keller published a blog in which he apologized for the seemingly sudden cancellation of a portion of Overwatch 2’s PvE content. The blog also shared some detail about the origins of Overwatch PvE, the shifting vision for the content, and why the team decided to axe it.

Earlier this week, in a developer livestream that shared the rest of Overwatch 2’s 2023 roadmap, Keller and executive producer Jared Neuss made the shocking announcement that highly anticipated Hero Mode — one part of the game’s PvE content — had been scrapped.

Hero Mode was essentially a single-player version of Overwatch. Keller described it as a “game mode that allowed players to upgrade individual heroes through talent trees, providing a deeply replayable version of PvE in Overwatch 2.”

Screenshot from Overwatch 2’s Blizzcon 2019 presentation featuring the hero Tracer and talents used to modify her abilities

Screenshot from Overwatch 2’s Blizzcon 2019 presentation featuring the hero Tracer and talents used to modify her abilities

Hero talent trees as seen in Overwatch 2’s 2019 Blizzcon presentation
Image: Blizzard

Keller explained that Hero Mode had been in development since Overwatch’s launch in 2016 and that it apparently was part of the vision the team had for Project Titan — the canceled FPS MMO from which Overwatch was born.

“When we launched Overwatch in 2016, we quickly started talking about what that next iteration could be,” he wrote. “Work began on the PvE portion of the game and we steadily continued shifting more and more of the team to work on those features.”

Keller said that as development continued on Hero Mode, the scope simply grew too big.

“We were trying to do too many things at once and we lost focus,” he wrote. “We had an exciting but gargantuan vision and we were continuously pulling resources away from the live game in an attempt to realize it.”

In the first few years of Overwatch prime’s existence, the game was regularly updated with holiday-themed content. New game modes and features, like Deathmatch and the creator’s workshop, kept the game relatively fresh. But around 2019, when Overwatch 2 was announced, the game was starting to feel the effects of Blizzard internally focusing on developing PvE content. It’s why the game went two years between hero releases when they had been previously released every 4-5 months.

As development on Overwatch 2 continued, the team made the decision to essentially bifurcate the game’s release rather than continuing to delay it. The competitive multiplayer part of the game would come first, landing in October 2022, and the PvE portion would come sometime in 2023.

“After Overwatch 2 had launched, we started refining our plans for future seasons,” Keller wrote. “As those plans grew, we tried to find ways to make all of our ambitions fit together in a plan that we believed in. We couldn’t. […] So, we made the difficult decision to cut Hero Missions and started planning for the future.”

Keller then apologized, acknowledging just how much the Overwatch community and development team were invested in Hero Mode while taking personal responsibility for its failure.

“This has been hard for us, but as the director on this project, I have to do my best to make decisions that put the game and the community first, even when those decisions are disappointing,” he wrote. “In this case, I had trouble pivoting away from a vision that just wasn’t working. And for that I would like to apologize to our players and to our team. I’m sorry.”

Hero Mode’s cancellation shocked fans. Players expressed anger and disappointment, with many lamenting that Hero Mode was the entire reason for the “2” in Overwatch 2. Others felt the years-long dearth of updates for Overwatch between its sequel’s announcement and release — a release that was delayed several times — and the unexpected sunsetting of the original game wasn’t worth it.

I’ll admit my own disappointment. I had been looking forward to having something truly new to bring me back to a game that I’ve kept my distance from since season 3. But Hero Mode’s demise is just another day in game development. Cancellations happen even under the best of circumstances and this game in particular underwent monumental upheaval.

Let’s put it in perspective. First, Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s game director and 19-year Blizzard veteran, left the company. A pandemic shifted the way everybody worked. Activision Blizzard was and still is in turmoil over sexual harassment lawsuits, Microsoft’s pending acquisition, the company’s efforts to combat employee unionization efforts, and an unpopular return to work mandate. Amidst all that, Overwatch 2 PvE isn’t even wholly canceled; we’re just not getting the full vision we were shown in 2019. Grace, for the development team at least, feels warranted.

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Ash Parrish

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