Looking at the sheer force that is Blizzard’s Overwatch, it can feel a little strange to realise that it’s only been out for a year. Thanks to an all-round open-arm embrace by the public at large, a universe that has extended its reach to animated shorts and comics, the continued support and community-driven focus of Blizzard, and the exciting competitive side seen in seasonal play and the first Overwatch World Cup — for many people out there, a world without Overwatch would be hard to imagine.
It’s also worth mentioning that while we’re officially a year in, this was a game that had a full head of steam well before release. Overwatch hit the ground running the moment it was announced. “Come release time, honestly, to me it kind of felt that we were out already,” Overwatch Principal Designer, Geoff Goodman confesses. “Even at that point we had being seeing cosplay and the public had embraced a lot of what had been shown.”
Since then, Overwatch has seen numerous updates and revisions: from regular balance changes to the introduction of new heroes, modes, competitive play, and a few memorable seasonal events. In many ways, the Overwatch of today is very different to the one that launched in May 2016. I ask how much was planned out from the beginning. “Not as much as you might think,” he responds. “We have plans for stuff sure, but really just a lot of ideas. We can’t do everything so it’s mostly a matter of picking what we think are the strongest and going with those. We have so many ideas happening all the time that we have a whole Excel sheet filled with tonnes of them.”
If you tried to break down what drew people to Overwatch in the first place, one of the key pillars would certainly be its incredible cast of characters, and by extension, the living, breathing universe Blizzard has created alongside them. Since being introduced to the expansive release roster, we’ve only had three additional characters join the ranks: Ana, Sombra, and more recently, Orisa. I ask what’s involved with the creation of each new hero, and what drives their design.
“For Ana, she was a character that we had thought about from a design principle of shooting to heal. And that was a long time ago, quite a bit earlier actually,” Geoff tells me. “We had been playing [Overwatch] for quite a while in beta, and people were playing it too. And from that we thought that we really needed another healer. So, if we were going to put another hero in the game they needed to be a healer.” This realisation for the team occurred before launch, and from there it was matter of looking up some of the ideas that the team had stored up. They discovered an old shoot to heal prototype called The Alchemist. “It wasn’t a character yet, just some gameplay mechanics to try out.”
But if Ana isn’t the Ana we know, or Orisa isn’t quite the robotic creation of a prodigious child, then what exactly does the process of creating a new Overwatch prototype look like? “Orisa was born from gameplay just like Ana. Where again we looked at the game as a whole and asked ourselves what we thought the game needed to have right now,” Geoff explains. “And the idea of another tank came up. When you look at a character like Winston, who’s a very aggressive tank who jumps in causing a lot of disruption and allowing your team to come up behind him, D.Va has a similar role where she can fly in ahead or even with Winston. So, we began by thinking it would be great if Reinhardt had a similar situation where there was an alternative to him, or even another tank that had the same strategy, but also played well with him.”
“Not knowing who she was, she was using Zarya’s gothic skin,” Geoff continues. “And I always try to pick a unique skin, because we don’t playtest with all the skins – [so] as to not confuse people that it’s actually Zarya. And from there I took an old Bastion gun, a mini-gun, and stuck it in her hands. So, in first-person you had this Zarya hand holding a mini-gun. And it looked super, super cheesy.”
Cheesy look aside, the tool the team uses to create a new Overwatch character prototype and get them into the game relatively quick is powerful and constantly evolving. Its flexibility is also crucial. Take an Ultimate like Zarya’s Graviton Surge as an example. This ability sucks everyone into a central location, and in the tool this single action is broken down into several building blocks. This means that a designer could then manipulate and use those blocks to create an entirely different ability – a skill that moves characters from one spot to another, for instance.
Geoff’s eyes light up when talking about the team’s in-house character creation tool. “It depends on the character of course, but I’ve been able to make one in a single day before we’ve played it. Depending on how complicated they are sometimes it takes a little longer. The longer we go and the more we add to the game, the easier it is to spin stuff up. It’s very powerful like that. Orisa was built pretty quickly, probably in under a week.” With a statistic like that you might be wondering why Overwatch hasn’t seen the introduction of dozens of new heroes, but it’s the experimental and creative nature of the game’s ongoing curation and creation that means only the best ideas see the light of day. And they need to contribute something meaningful to the gameplay.
Once the team feels that an idea or prototype feels right, only then are artists involved to help shape the look and feel of the final hero. “We want to get art and story involved as early as possible so we can have as much lead time as possible. Especially when we’re working on character abilities.” From there the testing, revision, fine tuning, and collaboration can either be a short, medium, or long process. Whatever happens the results are basically magic, with every Overwatch character’s look, abilities, background, and play-style culminating into a singular force. It’s almost impossible to even think about them as a simple prototype built primarily for gameplay mechanics.
What the team feels Overwatch needs drives just about everything too. One major piece of the puzzle though, Competitive Play, wasn’t there at launch. But it was on the cards, and close. “We always planned on doing competitive play, but when it came to the esports side we were still trying to figure it out,” Geoff recalls. “We knew we needed a space that was supposed to be treated very seriously, but at launch what was happening was the reverse. Quick Play right out of the gate was treated very seriously.” Competitive Play’s introduction resolved that, at least, to a degree. It had stricter rules and a more serious tone, and gave the players that were in it for the competition a home.
“Capture the Flag was something that we talked about from way before we released, but… We have characters like Tracer and Sombra that can teleport so far and fast with the flag, there was a sense that shouldn’t be allowed.” – Geoff Goodman
“When it goes down to the wire, you’re basically sweating after a game,” Geoff effuses, aptly explaining a feeling that many competitive Overwatch players have felt, regardless of skill level. But it’s the clear focus of Competitive Play that allowed the team to free up its concerns for many other ideas that it had in the works, sometimes, for several months. For the Year of the Rooster in-game event, where a take on Capture the Flag was introduced into the Overwatch Arcade, its introduction was only possible thanks to the evolving sense that the game can also be a place where fun is king and, well, anything goes.
“Capture the Flag was something that we talked about from way before we released, but it’s been really difficult because of what the game is. We have characters like Tracer and Sombra that can teleport so far and fast with the flag, there was a sense that shouldn’t be allowed. But then if that’s not allowed do we just turn off their abilities? And if we did that, then it wouldn’t really feel like Overwatch,” Geoff tells me. From there you can imagine that, if abilities were turned off, it would be just a line-up of tanks with a lot of health. Overwatch in name only.
“We ran into so many problems, ones that we felt that we couldn’t really solve. But when we started making seasonal brawls which were a little more light-hearted and not a part of Competitive Play we realised that maybe these problems were not as big a deal as they originally seemed.” And from there, by introducing Custom Games and allowing players to go one step further to shape this more carefree side of Overwatch, once closely guarded rules were effectively broken.
This was a gradual realisation over the course of the past year, and alongside it we’ve seen a gradual shift. Overwatch is now in a place where its serious side lies in Competitive Play and, in an ironic turn of events, Quick Play too. It’s been fascinating to watch.
“We’re watching everything on the heroes, from general pick rates to Ultimate use and generation,” Geoff tells me. “And that’s one that we keep a close eye on, because there are definitely goals of where these characters should be. So we’re keeping an eye on that to make sure that it’s still true. Every time we make a balance change, even if it’s not to the hero that we’re talking about, it could have a domino effect and impact other heroes.”
Overwatch has seen its fair share of regular balance updates since launch, which is to be expected for any game with such a deep roster of varied characters. These are characters, after all, that not only need to work well together, but counter an opposing force too. But every change made has always come alongside a detailed description, even videos, from the team pointing out what the change entails and what led to that decision. Which mostly comes from paying close attention to, well, everything.
“Every time we make a balance change, even if it’s not to the hero that we’re talking about, it could have a domino effect and impact other heroes.” – Geoff Goodman
“I think the one thing that we’re not lacking on is stats. Which is good,” Geoff continues. “We even have a Business Intelligence Team, which is what they’re called. And they gather up all kinds of data for us, and make it all nice and readable for us mere mortals to look at. And from that we also have a nice tool where we can break things down. And it all automatically updates so on any given day we’ll have the previous day’s data and have up-to-date stats.”
This openness that the team has with the community works both ways too, with all feedback taken into consideration. Even when the evidence might point in a different direction. “When it comes to player feedback it feels like different places end up having their own meta,” Geoff laughs. “An example would be if you look at our forums there has been a lot of talk about D.Va, who got nerfed a few patches ago. And that’s a common thread you see mainly there. What’s interesting is when you look at stats she seems fine, and in speaking with pros we get the same feeling. Even with our own intuition and players here at Blizzard she seems fine.”
That’s not to say that the team is always right, as Geoff is quick to add that down the road they’ll probably be able to trace some balance change back to community feedback. “It can become a difficult process. The important thing is to gather from everywhere, even if it’s to ensure that later we can say that okay sure, there was something missing, and it did need changing.”
What the future holds for Overwatch in terms of specifics is anyone’s guess, but you can be sure that the same level of creative freedom, a focus on expanding its content, and listening to the community will all play an important role. That and an ever-growing list of ideas and the team constantly taking stock of what they feel Overwatch needs at any given moment.
“I wouldn’t even want to guess where we’ll be a year from now,” Geoff pauses. “The first year has been so amazing, and the response has been way more than what we could have even asked for.” The global response, in particular, hasn’t been lost on the team. “Basically, we want to do every region in terms of characters and maps, and ensure the entire global community feels represented in Overwatch. It’s just a matter of time and resources,” Geoff tells me. “We’re not done, far from it.”
Now, if only we could take a peek at that Excel spreadsheet.