Everything Blizzard has released since StarCraft all those years ago has been spun off from the 1998 game, 1994’s
Warcraft or 1996’s Diablo. Sometimes series have jumped genres, notably with World Of Warcraft and the more recent offshoot,
Hearthstone: Heroes Of Warcraft, but the new universe of Overwatch feels fresh, even if it sees Blizzard aiming to do what it does best: take the familiar and polish it until it glimmers. In this case, it’s the team-based shooter, with a clean, bright look and an emphasis on welcoming action that resembles one game in particular.
“When I hear Team Fortress 2 comparisons, nothing could be more flattering. TF2 is one of my all-time favourite games,” Jeff Kaplan,
Overwatch’s director, tells us. “I think, though, that as we saw at BlizzCon, people who play the game realise that while there’s inspiration from there, it’s very different. It’s about abilities, the mobility factor, there’s elements like the tank characters with their shields, and the team dynamics… It’s really its own game.”
That game is a six-a-side shooter set in a near future where once-retired heroes are returning to continue the fight for the world, the cast ranging from offensive specialists such as the skull-mask-wearing Reaper and cruel sniper Widowmaker to rather more unusual combatants such as Winston, a gorilla from the Moon armed with a Tesla cannon. In the first of many deviations from shooter convention, the heroes are built along the lines of MOBA characters, with abilities, rather than guns, defining their playstyle. Thus, Winston has a jump pack for getting around, while Widowmaker gets a grappling hook and Reaper has a mark-and-recall teleport for yanking himself out of battle.
Overwatch isn’t a MOBA, though, Kaplan explains. “In Overwatch, you can switch hero with every death. Multiple people on the team can be the same hero. Also, the key feature of MOBAs for me is a progression and PvE element, with things like minions and towers, and we’re not focused on any of that.” Instead,
Overwatch is intended to push the sense of character and heroics, Kaplan referring to Blizzard’s approach as an attempt to be the ‘hero factory’, in that it’s not simply providing characters, but inspiring players to be heroic.
It’s also intended to appeal to everyone, rather than targeting hardcore shooter fans. The aesthetic is part of that, but the ethos runs deeper. The true genius of Team Fortress
2 is that even now, years after release, its audience primarily treats it as a place to have fun, rather than having shrunk into an insular shell. And Kaplan is taking pains to avoid MOBA-like hostility bleeding in here.
“One of the goals of Overwatch is to create a community where players feel safe and where the game itself is very approachable,” he says. “Something we learned as a team while making raid encounters for World Of
Warcraft in the early days is that the more you place players in a dire situation and ratchet up the importance of individual contributions and the pressure, the more players would turn on each other and make the game unpleasant.”
The catch is that without any pressure, something equally important is lost, and so Blizzard’s 6v6 format is a very specific choice. “We explored really big teams early on: the 8v8, the 10v10,” Kaplan says. “When we hit those team sizes, though, everyone got lost. The game was just chaos – a deathmatch, rather than a team objective game. As we tried teams of 4v4 and 3v3, that sense of hostility that I mentioned started appearing.”
Not being locked into specific characters for the whole match is intended to help too, though specific abilities will have their ideal counters. But there will be flexibility: a turret could be taken out with a rocket from outside its range, you can use ricochet shots to hit it from safety, or you could blink in and place a bomb and then get out again. Map traversal is a huge part of this, with Overwatch harking back to the freedom of early Quake mods full of jetpacks. “Now, when you’re approaching part of a map, you’re looking at every part of it and looking at combinations. We wanted to give players a lot of agency and choice, and a lot of really fun decisions. Plus, it’s cool!”
All of that said, Kaplan points out that six on a team is no magic bullet. “It’s not [a number] I think you could just plug into
Heroes Of The Storm or StarCraft or another game, but it was right for Overwatch. The way we’ve got it is that if you are a real disaster for your team, or having a real off day, or the doorbell rings, or the cat walks in front of the screen, your team isn’t going to lose because of you. If you are a really great player, though, you can still excel and maybe even swing a mediocre team to greatness.”
Along with being Blizzard’s first step into the FPS, Overwatch is also its first game set on a recognisable Earth – even Rock N’Roll Racing, from when Blizzard was Silicon & Synapse, was set on other planets. “The choice to be on Earth in the near future was one that didn’t come easily to the team,” Kaplan admits, adding that there was brief discussion of doing something else, like a StarCraft shooter, or perhaps even bringing existing characters together for an FPS, as Heroes Of The Storm is doing for Blizzard’s in-house take on Dota.
“We started to explore the options with our existing franchises, but we didn’t want to get into those spaces again. Add to that, we thought we could do something different with Earth – that instead of just doing the usual postapocalyptic stuff, we could apply our own aesthetic, tone and vibe. We’d ask ourselves, what would Blizzard do with London, with Egypt, with Japan? We’ve explored fantasy worlds, and we’re now excited to explore our own.”
Blizzard hasn’t yet announced which business model Overwatch will use, though
“We wanted to give players a lot of agency and choice, and a lot of really fun decisions”
given that it’s in a genre in which F2P has been proven to work, and both Hearthstone and Heroes Of The Storm have embraced the model, Overwatch might follow. So far, 12 heroes have been announced, but more are coming, along with expansions to the universe both in and out of the game. Movies such as the reveal trailer are designed to build the world without putting narrative restrictions on play. For that, Blizzard’s approach – in the words of Chris Metzen – is a shrug of “What the hell?” If players want to field two mortal enemies on a team or have multiple Teslawielding apes, that freedom takes priority.
Certainly, early impressions are positive, especially with the results already being playable and a beta due next year, as opposed to several down the line. It’s likely to be a long beta, however, with Blizzard well aware of the challenges ahead. “We know how important it is to our fans that we do it right, and how high the expectations are,” Kaplan says. “We really want to make this game with the community and hear what they have to say.”
Symmetra is a light-bending support hero, her turrets slowing enemies as she shields her allies from harm
Jeff Kaplan, director
Blizzard has taken flak for its female characters of late, and wants to fix that by being as inclusive as possible in Overwatch