The Genius of the "Overwatch" Workshop Feature

Activision Blizzard's (NASDAQ: ATVI) Overwatch is a very popular game. After being released back in May 2016, the game passed the $1 billion revenue mark in the first quarter of 2017. Blizzard prides itself on investing in games for the long haul and is known for improving and updating games for years after their release. The company is famously still updating and patching StarCraft II (released in 2010), among other games.

A recent update has guaranteed that Overwatch will remain innovative and interesting for some time to come, even if Blizzard's own developers slow down a bit. Overwatch's new Workshop feature allows fans to create their own sets of rules for Overwatch matches.

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Custom matches are nothing new, but the scope of the new Workshop feature is remarkable: Overwatch fans are able to change not just basic parameters like the length of the match or the type of game, but complex things like the ways in which characters attack or whether certain parts of the map do damage to characters. The system even allows players to create scripts that govern the video game logic of the matches. The interface is essentially a visual coding client that helps Overwatch's fans modify the game.

Fans make the game

The idea of fans changing how a game works is not new. In fact, there has been a healthy community around "modding" -- coding additions and changes to video games -- for nearly as long as there have been consumer video games. One remarkable example is the modding community surrounding Electronic Arts' MVP Baseball 2005. Now nearly 15 years old, MVP Baseball 2005 was, in the view of many gamers, the last great baseball simulator for the PC and fans have been modding up-to-date rosters into MVP Baseball 2005 year after year.

The relationship between modding and video game studios has at times been complex. EA doesn't make any money off of the annual unofficial MVP Baseball 2005 mods, for example, nor, for that matter, do Major League Baseball or the modern-day players who are being modded into the game. Some developers have cracked down on modders, and the fight continues on some fronts. In particular, online gamers who use mods to cheat or steal in-game currency and items that developers want to sell for real-world money find themselves in the crosshairs.

But other developers have sought to condone, and in some cases profit off, their unofficial counterparts. Video game studio Bethesda, for instance, worked with gaming platform company Valve to create a marketplace for approved mods. This troubled some modders, but it has worked out nicely for Bethesda and Valve, both of which are now essentially profiting off of fans' work.

But modding has its drawbacks. Bethesda approves the mods for its marketplace carefully, because it's not necessarily a good idea to let your customers download code you didn't write; it could break the game, or worse. And modding is also something that only those with a certain skill set are capable of.

Modding for everyone

While not everyone can mod on their own, some developers have come up with ways to let their customers create the games they play.

Nintendo has done this very well. Super Mario Maker and the upcoming Super Mario Maker 2 allow armchair game designers to build complex side-scrolling Mario levels and then play and share those levels. The tools are all in the game -- in fact, the tools are the game. Super Mario Maker is not the sort of Mario game that, say, Super Mario Bros. U is. In the latter, there's a whole game provided by Nintendo; in the former, gamers play levels designed by themselves and other users.

Overwatch's new Workshop feature is noteworthy in part because it occupies a space somewhere between the unrestricted but daunting world of DIY code modding and the structured level creation of Super Mario Maker 2. Overwatch's Workshop has a visual interface, and it doesn't allow players to mess with the game's code directly. But Workshop does allow fans to create scripts that use logic computer programmers would recognize, like loops and if-then statements.

Perhaps it's appropriate that Blizzard -- famous for updating its games with new game modes and features, not just visual tweaks and "skins" (outfits) for in game-characters -- is allowing its players to make meaningful changes in areas that go far beyond the cosmetic. And the move is certainly paying off. Fans are already creating incredibly complex new game modes: The shooter has been turned into a racing game and a strategic stealth game, among other things.

Overwatch's developers are harnessing the ingenuity of the game's own players to create entire new game modes that keep the 3-year-old game feeling fresh, and keep players coming back for more.

Is this the future of game development?

Blizzard's relatively complex visual scripting system won't be a great fit for every game out there, but it is certainly the new standard in game-sanctioned "modding," to use that term loosely. Blizzard may not have been the first studio to find a way to please fans while simultaneously outsourcing some of their game design and upkeep work to those very fans, but it is raising the bar in terms of what it allows players to change about the game. Blizzard's take on fan customization will likely be emulated, and it will be a long time before Overwatch starts to feel stale again.

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Stephen Lovely has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Activision Blizzard. The Motley Fool recommends Electronic Arts. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.