Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
The Overwatch open beta was last weekend, so by now there are plenty of first-hand experiences floating around. A lot of people talk about how Overwatch isn’t really a shooter, and they’re partially right. But I would say that it’s still a shooter, just not a modern-styled one. FPS games have changed in many subtle ways over the years, and nowadays there’s a certain feeling that players have just started taking for granted in a shooter. When you play a game like Overwatch and those little pieces are gone, it can be a little jarring. There are plenty of things in that vein that are ripe for discussion, but here, I want to talk about recoil.
How Does Recoil Work?
From a gamer’s perspective, recoil is when you have less accuracy when you keep shooting. But from a developer’s perspective, there are many different ways to handle recoil. Nowadays, viewkick recoil has become a norm, and Overwatch goes back to the roots with cone recoil. So what do those terms mean? (Note: I’m making up my own terms for the sake of explanation, but there’s a lot more documentation out there.)
Viewkick recoil (shown above in Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 by Drift0r) is when your camera actually moves as you shoot your gun. Usually, it will move up and to the right. Your bullets will continue to act as if you had manually aimed at that new location. In a game with perfect viewkick recoil, shots fired will always hit the center of the screen no matter what: it’s just that you don’t have full control over where the center of your screen is.
On the other hand, conespray recoil (shown above in a modded version of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare by probaddie) is a little more subtle. Imagine if your weapon’s accuracy was represented as an invisible cone in front of it, and your bullets shoot to a random point within the cone. Your first few shots will hit close to the center of your screen, but as the cone widens the shots will spread further away. A target will take up a certain area in the cone, and it will be less likely to hit them as the cone gets bigger, even if your reticle is pointed right at them. Recoil is represented by widening the cone as you shoot.
The majority of modern shooters use a combination of these two types of recoil, except for a few (like Black Ops 3) which uses perfect viewkick recoil. Almost no shooters use perfect conespray… except for Overwatch.
In the past, there were plenty of shooters with cone recoil. Team Fortress 2. Doom. The early Halo games. But as time went on and Call of Duty became the face of FPS games, more and more titles started mimicking their formula. This isn’t meant to be disrespectful, because Call of Duty‘s recoil mechanics feel great and are a large reason why the series has been so successful.
That’s not to say there weren’t shooters in the past with viewkick recoil, either. CS:GO is a prime example, and it’s actually very interesting because each weapon has a very predictable form of viewkick, called a spray pattern. If you learn it, you can manually move your crosshairs to keep your shots on target. Great CS:GO players will take a lot of time to learn their weapon’s spray pattern, and then modify their aim to compensate. Theoretically, a perfect CS:GO player could almost completely nullify the effects of recoil this way.
Even if you’re playing a shooter without predetermined spray patterns, as long as its recoil is at least partially determined by viewkick, you can counteract it. The most basic way is to slowly start looking down as you shoot. Your camera goes down, but the recoil knocks it back up, hopefully to the point you were originally aiming at. This can be very difficult to do if both you and your target are moving, and this gives FPS games a higher skill ceiling.
Overwatch’s Perfect Conespray Recoil
In a game like Overwatch where recoil is completely based on conespray, you don’t have as many ways to counteract it. You can burst fire, or you can just try to move closer to your target. But viewkick recoil can be mitigated by either of those as well, and it goes one step further: it can also be mitigated by sheer player skill.
Here’s an interesting thing: there are almost no heroes in Overwatch who have long-range hitscan semi-auto weapons. Hanzo’s arrows, Mei’s icicles, and Genji’s shurikens all have projectile flight speed. If you want a weapon with the power and range of a semi-auto, you have to nerf it somehow, and in most cases you would use recoil. But conespray recoil won’t work, because semi-auto fire naturally acts like burst fire, and burst fire naturally reduces recoil. You need viewkick to force the player to reorient their aim after every shot… except Overwatch doesn’t have viewkick. Instead, they use projectile flight speed as their balance lever.
Why is McCree one of the strongest offense heroes in the game? Because he has a long-range hitscan semi-auto weapon that acts as a “pocket sniper”. Yes, he’s not as good as Widowmaker for that, but consider that he’s not even meant to be a dedicated sniper in the first place. And it’s all because Overwatch‘s perfect conespray recoil can’t touch McCree. He has no trouble taking down stationary turrets or other immobile heroes from range. All he has to do is look at them and hold down the fire button.
Widowmaker has a long-range hitscan semi-auto weapon too. But it takes up practically all of her power budget. She can’t do anything other than snipe. McCree can snipe, he can burst close-range targets, he can stun, he has mobility, his ult suppresses multiple targets. He can only do Widowmaker’s job half as well, but he can do three times as many jobs.
I prefer viewkick recoil better. It doesn’t even have to be perfect viewkick like Black Ops 3. Even a little bit of viewkick gives players the potential to counteract their recoil, and designers can have more balance levers to tweak. So if viewkick does all of this, then why didn’t Blizzard use it in Overwatch?
This is one of those decisions that pushes Overwatch away from individual skill and more towards team tactics. Say you’re Tracer and there’s an enemy Bastion on a rooftop watching over your objective. There is absolutely no way you can win against him. If you burst fire, you won’t have enough DPS to kill him, and if you go full auto, you won’t have enough accuracy to kill him. You need to call up your tank and make a coordinated push, or try to find a flanking position. But you can’t go out and face that Bastion and gun him down. That decision is simply not available to you.
In a game with more emphasis on viewkick recoil, it is. You could go out and fight that Bastion, and yes, you would probably fail, but as long as you’re skilled enough, you still have a chance of succeeding. If you’re good enough at controlling your spray pattern while dodging enemy fire, you would deserve the win.
You’re in a fight with the odds stacked against you. With viewkick recoil, the question is “Am I skilled enough to win?” But with conespray recoil, the question is “What are my other options?” And usually, the answer is to cooperate with your teammates. Find a strategy that puts you in the situations you want to be in. Go in when you’ve got an advantage, and get out when you don’t.
It’s not like viewkick recoil makes everything a complete murderfest, just like how conespray recoil doesn’t make everything a long-term strategy session. There’s plenty of strategy in CS:GO and there’s plenty of skill in Overwatch. But they’re still pointing in different general directions. So when people say that Overwatch is more of a MOBA than a shooter, there’s some truth to that. It’s a shooter that uses specific FPS design decisions to create MOBA-style dynamics.
To be honest, I have the exact same problems with MOBAs. My design philosophy has always emphasized individual skill over team tactics. I’m simply not that great at working with teams. That’s how I rationalize how bad I am at Overwatch.