Overwatch Overjustification

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I’ll tell ya: sometimes I write an article about some concept and try to come up with a great illustration from a video game to make it current. And then immediately after I publish the perfect example of it shows up in the news or in a new game. It happened again. A few weeks ago I wrote about the overjustification effect and then talked to my podcast guest about it.

See the thingamabob below for links to both of those, but in case they’re not fresh in your memory, I’ll recap.

The overjustification effect is when somebody offers an extrinsic reward (like money or in-game currency) for a task that people were initially just doing for the fun of it, like playing a game. Then, after a while, you take the reward away. When you do that, it tends to hurt people’s motivation to do the task (that is, play the game) because they had shifted their focus towards the external reward as their main motivation for doing it.

Along those lines, the competitive online shooter Overwatch recently released a big patch. Among the additions was an “Arcade” mode that let you try out a bunch of different rulesets such as brawls, random character selects, and dueling. Some of these are really fun modes. I particularly like the 3v3 mode where you fight for the best of 3 rounds with another trio of players without the benefit of respawns or health packs. It’s great!

Also included in the Arcade mode is the ability to unlock bonus loot crates: get three wins in any Arcade game and get a loot box! These boxes are valuable to players because they contain random cosmetic items and in game currency. Normally the only way to get one is to grind out experience points by playing full matches until you level up. Upon seeing this, I was excited and played game after game of the 3v3 elimination mode to get my boxes.

Notice the bubbles in the upper right that fill in as you earn loot boxes.

Notice the bubbles in the upper right that fill in as you earn loot boxes.

However, there was a catch. Blizzard capped the number of loot boxes you could get in this way at three every five days. After you get those three, you can still enjoy all the Arcade modes you want, but you stop earning the bonus loot boxes for five days.

So what happened after I got my three loot boxes? I switched back to the regular objective based matches in Quick Play. Because I had stopped earning the extrinsic reward of loot boxes and had focused on that as my motivation for playing in the Arcade, thus falling prey to the overjustification effect.

Sometimes even knowing about this stuff doesn’t insulate you from it.

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2 thoughts on “Overwatch Overjustification

  1. Hey Jamie,

    my guess would be that Blizzard added that loot mechanic deliberately to make player less inclined to to play that game mode too extensively.
    Sometimes, as a developer, you want to add small features that players can use on the side to give them “more to do”.
    These session extensions often exist out of the core-progression-loop of the game, but lets players interact differently with the game. More time is spent in the game world/context and players are more invested.
    They have another “thing” on their internal todo-list for their session.

    By adding this loot mechanic, they make sure you have a cool thing to do every X days, but still focus on the core of the game. It paces the players and makes them set themselves a schedule (in the real world), that incorporates the game. That’s a high aspiration of a lot of games: Make your players think about your game while they are not playing it.

    Keep up the good work!
    Best regards,


  2. Similar to Phil’s comment above – I imagine that this was a design goal of the system.
    If everyone shifts over to playing a relatively lucrative (and smaller, more fragmented, etc.) Arcade Mode, it will reduce the population on the primary game modes. When a game feels “more empty”, it can start a vicious downward trend where people get the subtle social signal that they shouldn’t be here anymore.
    “This game isn’t as cool anymore, because it feels more empty. Everyone else has decided to leave (even if in reality they’re just playing a different mode), so maybe you should leave to!”
    You see it in a variety of places – whether it be popularity of certain sports, video games (who even plays WOW anymore?), music scenes, etc. Humans are herd animals by and large.

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