Metas of competitive games age less like fine wine and more like cottage cheese in a dumpster. When a meta’s overstayed its welcome, you know—because players make stink after stink after stink about it. That’s where Overwatch, with its unpopular “GOATS” meta, is at right now. Game director Jeff Kaplan, though, isn’t sure it’s possible to please the players who’ve been demanding change.
Speaking with Overwatch streamer Fran as part of the new Ana-themed Bastet promotion, the daddest man in game development said he thinks that GOATS—a popular high-level team composition that’s frustrated players due to its reliance on HP-heavy characters and sloggy strategies—has gone through the same life cycle as other metas, and whatever comes after it will, too.
“What’s inevitably gonna happen is, whether the meta changes or not, people will end up not liking the current meta. And I’ve already seen that happening. I’ve seen people say that GOATS is dead, and now it’s just double sniper, and that’s gonna be terrible,” he said, referring to a recent public test server update that significantly re-balanced a handful of characters, seemingly in an effort to make GOATS less effective.
“Or everyone is going to play McCree. At a certain point, what the hell do you people want?”
GOATS is a composition named after the pro team that first saw high-level success with it. The core strategy underlying GOATS is one of attrition: a team made up of tanks and area-of-effect-focused healers smashes itself against the enemy team until one of them breaks. Typically, heroes like Reinhardt, Zarya, D.Va, Brigitte, Lucio, and Moira are involved. Players dislike it because it’s both straightforward and limiting; the best way to beat it is to either mirror it or run a highly specific counter-composition.
Kaplan went on to jokingly suggest that people should just play Overwatch’s Mystery Heroes mode, in which everybody is assigned a random hero each time they spawn. But the calcification of the meta is no joke for Blizzard. Despite cries for a shake-up to the meta, it’s not something the development team can just change willy-nilly.
“Players will always want to play optimally,” Kaplan said. That means that either Blizzard would have to put in “some arbitrary system that forces the meta to change,” or rebalance the game with the idea of changing the meta. Barring that—or players figuring out something to finally counter GOATS—the status quo is what we’re stuck with.
Despite how vocal those players are, Kaplan feels like they represent a very particular subset of Overwatch’s fan base—the top ranks of players. GOATS isn’t as much of a problem for the average player, Kaplan said. “South of, let’s say, Diamond [rank], no one’s playing GOATS.” They might be picking the same characters because they’ve heard that GOATS is powerful, but they’re not actually executing the strategies that would cause that team to actually dominate.
It’s impossible, Kaplan said, for a game to ever be perfectly balanced, and even if Overwatch somehow was, he still believes high-level players would only ever pick a handful of optimal heroes. All the dev team can do, then, is focus on making a game that’s fun to play and watch for as many people as possible—diehards, casuals, and everyone in between.
“At a certain point, what do you expect to happen short of Mystery Heroes?” he said. “It’s not ever gonna be that. It’s not ever gonna be just any random six characters is always viable against any random other six heroes. That’s actually not the design of the game. The design of the game is that you look at the heroes and say, ‘This one is really cool to play as’ and things like ‘Imagine if I Nanoboost that character.’”
“Everyone’s gonna hate me for that answer,” Kaplan said, chuckling. “But I said it.”