If you follow Overwatch at all, you’ve probably heard that back in April 2019, the team at Blizzard decided to drop in a funky new feature: The Overwatch Workshop. Like many other companies in recent years, they’re acknowledging the members of their community who want to use their tools and programs to create their own Overwatch experience. The question is, will developers keep watching the community now that it’s dropped? And could the modding community be direct influencers of the future of the franchise?
It’s not unheard of to see developers pull direct inspiration, if not assets and employees, from their modding community. Development company Valve is notorious for this. They have their Half-Life modding community to thank for their entire Counter Strike franchise, and even went so far as to hire the duo behind the mod to lead the development of the full games. Quake, another Valve title, also kicked off another franchise thanks to its Team Fortress multiplayer mod, which we now know as the classic foundation for games like Overwatch and Smite.
This is a very fine line to walk, however, and developers should be careful not to pull too directly from their modders, who often do their work for free and for the pleasure of the games. A Fallout: New Vegas mod by the name of Autumn Leaves is a great example of this. The mod revolves around a vault in the mojave wasteland that houses a library of Alexandria of sorts, a collection of humanities best art, history and science for the sake of historical preservation. The proprietor of this library was trapped in the vault alone when the bombs dropped and built sophisticated robots to keep him company and continue the work of preserving the library. The mod author filed a complaint against Bethesda, however, when the Fallout 4: Far Harbor DLC was released, because there is a quest line in it, titled Brain Dead, which bears some eerie parallels.
You can read more about this situation here, but the crux of the issue lies in how far a developer, or any creator really, can go in terms of using their beloved community to their own advantage. What rights do the modders have, given that developers are making their toolsets and engines accessible to everyone for free more and more often these days? Ad when is it OK to take inspiration from what your players want to see in their games? It’s one thing to see your community rally behind a mod that fixes your jetpack flight mechanics, or makes jetpacking more accessible in-game, and use that as incentive and inspiration for improving jetpacking in future titles or updates, but its a much different story when you see your community enjoy a special, lore-friendly quest mod or outfit, and then rip it off by copying their work and placing your name (and price tag) on it.
So what does this mean for Overwatch and Blizzard? That remains to be seen. We’re already seeing unique game modes being created that aren’t unlike Overwatch’s original arcade modes. It’s entirely possible that the development team will see these modes and use them for inspiration for their own new game modes, streamlining them into the game as a regular feature. They just have to be careful not to be too obvious about their referencing, or at the very least, acknowledge the original idea/creators in some small way, be it in promotional material, social media shout-outs or a job offer. Not to instill false hope in the modding community, there’s no guarantee anyone, much less the developers, will see your mods and be so floored they offer you a paid gig, but it does happen, and even when it doesn’t, it’s a great resume building opportunity for people who are serious about game and level design. Don’t be afraid to show your work, flex your skills and who knows, maybe someday you’ll make video game history!
Sarah Nowack is a senior professional writing major who is minoring in graphic design. Her days are spent haunting the local library, consuming copious amounts of coffee, playing unpopular video games, and making terrible puns. She can be found at @battlerouge on Twitter and @shiverbound on Instagram.