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Blizzard’s online shooter hit Overwatch is unlike other shooters in that it’s injected with a lot of whimsy, but the game’s fantastic and joyful nature was born out of a bleak situation.
Jeff Kaplan, VP at Blizzard and game director on Overwatch, explained at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas this morning how the game was “built out of a little hope and a lot of despair.”
Kaplan, who’s been at Blizzard for 15 years, recounted how Overwatch came out of Blizzard’s failed World of Warcraft follow-up MMO Titan. That game was cancelled in May 2013, affecting the jobs of 140 Blizzard developers, he said.
Eighty of that 140 would be permanently relocated to other Blizzard game teams, and 20 would be “long-term loans,” working on other Blizzard projects for six months to two years.
The rest were commissioned with coming up with a new Blizzard concept over the course of two weeks. “It was a daunting, almost devastating concept,” he said.
But over the course of two weeks, Overwatch was born.
While the success of Overwatch is clear today, that wasn’t so obvious in the beginning. Kaplan said he and his team were “very nervous about our future.”
The feeling on the dev team matched up with a phrase coined for Titan, but one that really came together: “A future worth fighting for.” With the game’s setting as planet Earth, the team looked for inspiration in other games about Earth and its future.
The team looked at The Last of Us, Fallout 4, and other post-apocalyptic games to examine other studios’ takes. Blizzard also looked at more realistic near-future games like Call of Duty and Battlefield. They looked at a lot of games, but many were exceedingly bleak.
The Overwatch team went a different approach: one that was more hopeful. “What’s the near-future of earth, but in a positive way?” he asked.
The team looked at other Blizzard games when planning out the world-building of Overwatch. Early World of Warcraft was an inspiration in the way that game had varied environments, an important takeaway that was applied to Overwatch.
"Diversity is a beautiful end result when you embrace inclusivity and open-mindedness."
The Overwatch devs also looked at The Burning Crusade expansion for World of Warcraft, but the team’s takeaway was different. Blizzard had found that Burning Crusade players seemed to be fatigued by the expansion’s oppressive visuals, and they would hang out in less-oppressive parts of World of Warcraft.
“Oppressiveness causes fatigue,” said Kaplan. Players need places where they can take breaks, and he didn't want Overwatch to have the same feeling as Burning Crusade.
With that in mind, and with Overwatch development still in the world-building process, the team turned to other sources of inspiration: vacation spots. This is apparent on maps such as Ilios, Dorado, and Nepal, for example.
“Our goal is to make the game hospitable, to make it inclusive as possible,” said Kaplan. He figures, if you want players to spend hundreds of hours in a game, why not make the place in which they're hanging out a welcoming place?
But it wasn’t just about taking these real-life areas and making them “realistic.” These places were inspirations, but their interpretations in Overwatch had to fit the hopeful “future worth fighting for” theme.
Kaplan pointed out how the portrayal of Iraq in video games is usually one of war-torn streets and bombed out buildings. Not in Overwatch. The map “Oasis” is a futuristic representation of Iraq as “One of the most technologically-advanced places in the world,” Kaplan said.
“Fantasy is greater than reality,” he said. Tap into the fantasy that players are able to create in their own minds as well, Kaplan said.
Kaplan explained how the game’s Hollywood map was created by a multicultural team that didn’t necessarily know exactly what Hollywood was really “like.” Their interpretation of what they thought Hollywood was ended up being better than any realistic version, he said.
Kaplan also had an amusing anecdote about the creation of the Dorado map. The visual inspiration came via a Google image search of “a colorful Mexican town.” The team perused thumbnails and saw one image of colorful houses on a mountainside.
But it wasn’t later that the team found out that the picture that was the source of the visual inspiration was actually Manarola, Italy. It turns out that Overwatch’s Mexico map is actually an Italian town.
The point is, fantasy trumps reality in Overwatch, whether it’s a Belgian’s idea of Hollywood or if a Mexican town is based purely on an Italian one.
Kaplan also explained Overwatch’s approach to character design. The Overwatch team determined that each hero in the game needs very specific game mechanics, and also needs unique player requirements for mastery. Visually, characters must be distinct and immediately recognizable.
“We wanted there to be heroes that would be approachable for each person," Kaplan said. "Embracing differences” between the various denizens of Earth was important to the team.
Due to this approach, “Overwatch began to spark a lot of discussion about diversity,” he said. “It was a hot topic during development.”
“What we cared about a game and a game universe and a world where everyone felt welcomed,” he said. “What the goal was was inclusivity and open-mindedness…Diversity is a beautiful end result when you embrace inclusivity and open-mindedness.”
Character design also was meant challenging stereotypes: Ana, the older Egyptian mother who’s a sniper, for example, is atypical of characters you’d come across in a shooter. (Meanwhile, McCree is an example of a fun way to embrace a stereotype.)
Kaplan was happy to point out how Tracer, a gay time-travelling woman, was on the cover of Overwatch. He pointed out how, while many of his favorite games are shooters, so many of them have the grizzled soldier-dude-type on the cover.
“It’s important to show that normal things are normal,” he said. “What was important about Tracer was that she’s a bad-ass time-travelling hero.”
With all the effort that has gone into and is going into characters and world-building in Overwatch, Kaplan happily sees the community taking over.
“The heroes we’re creating no longer belong to us,” he said. The world-building is now in the hands of the fans, he said. “We love it, that it belongs to them…We’re just the custodians of the universe.”
“We have no political motivations whatsoever,” he said, “but it’s fascinating to see that the values of the Overwatch team are being embraced by the community in its own positive way.”
Kaplan, who stressed the idea of bringing fantasy to life throughout his talk, said that realism and grittiness, and showing the less-positive traits of the world, is still important. But he added, “There is room for positivity and inclusiveness in our industry as well.”