With Overwatch, Blizzard Interactive will introduce its first new IP in nearly two decades. For the studio that produced such beloved worlds as Azeroth and Sanctuary, that’s a big deal. Bringing the world of Overwatch to life takes more than just interesting character designs and appealing map layouts; it’s about making characters that players care about. Overwatch is filled with a cast of playable heroes and villains, each with their own motivations and desires. Supplemental media products, like animated shorts and comics, help to flesh out the stars of the game. We spoke with Blizzard’s director of story and creative development James Waugh and senior game designer Michael Chu on where and how story and gameplay intersect in Overwatch.
What role do you feel plot and narrative play in multiplayer games like this?
Chu: At Blizzard, we're storytellers. What we do is tell stories in any medium we approach, whether it's in game, out of the game, in animated shorts, or in comics. So when we were approaching making Overwatch, it was definitely something we were focused on. We knew we didn't want to just make a multiplayer shooter. We also wanted to introduce a new Blizzard IP, the first one in 17 or 18 years.
That stuff's important because even in a multiplayer shooter, you're gonna make these heroes, these levels, and you need that layer of story to help inspire and define what the experience is going to be. For us, it totally makes sense, even for a game that doesn't have an explicit linear narrative, to still have all these elements of context and story from a greater universe.
Waugh: I think one of the things that's been super cool about working with Mike on the other story and transmedia side is that there's been a really great synergy between our two groups. We'd both build a story and it would kind of reverse inform what would go in the map and vice versa. It just made the maps feel so much more real and lived in, as if there was a whole world that was realized.
Did any character designs come from backstories, or was it generally the other way around?
Chu: It's pretty interesting. On the team, we say that ideas can come from anywhere. We generally break them down into three things: One is there is a specific gameplay role the game needs. We think the game needs an easier to learn, more approachable hero like Soldier: 76. Another way is that one of our really talented artists, Arnold Tsang, will just draw this idea for a different hero, and he shows it to us and we immediately go, “We want to make that hero.” And we figure out what the abilities are going to be and how they fit into the universe. Then I think the third inspiration is if there's something in the story we want to get across.
Actually, the character of Soldier: 76 is a really good example of when all three of those things came together at the same moment. We wanted to tell more in the story of Overwatch, and Soldier: 76 is a character who's seen the different eras of Overwatch, leading it and being a part of it and afterwards. At the same time, we wanted to introduce this more approachable character to fill a niche we thought we had, and also Arnold drew this character who was just so cool. I think the best characters come from when they're inspired in all those directions.
Can you talk about the decision to flesh out this media in comics and animation? Why those forms?
Waugh: Like Mike was saying before, when we set out to do Overwatch we realized we had a world on our hands and each character felt like they were their own franchise. And I think that was a guiding tenet in developing them. What we realized was that we wanted to tell stories. We had something bigger than the multiplayer, which is amazing on its own, but at Blizzard we have a kind of tradition of building out worlds that many games can populate and many media types can populate.
At its core it comes down to passion. We wanted to tell this story. We wanted to know more about these characters. On the other hand, we also look at it as a development philosophy. In some ways it helps us incubate ideas while we're working in different media types that make us ask different questions about these characters, different questions about the world. So, again, we've done it with WoW and all our franchises. They feed into each other, and they make us better in all realms.
But ultimately it comes down to telling stories and giving each of these characters the richness and depth that we think the art and gameplay justifies.
Going off that idea of world building, the setting in Overwatch is almost a utopia. It's a very clean, near-future Earth. Was that always the intended setting for this project?
Chu: When we started to think about the world these characters would live in, this idea of Earth, but in the future, jumped out, and we really just ran with it. I think what we always wanted to do was do the Blizzard version of Earth where it's this optimistic, inspirational, bright, and vibrant vision of the future.
I think the reason we set it in the near future, which is where we always imagined it, was so that we could take advantage of science-fiction concepts like smart robots, artificial intelligence, battle suits, etc., but we could still have stuff that was familiar from the world we inhabit. When you're in King's Row, you see Big Ben. You see familiar landscapes. Basically, that way you have familiarity, even when we're in the future.
Waugh: Early on, I remember being in a meeting with Jeff Kaplan and he was saying there were a bunch of ideas on the table and a bunch of directions we could take, but I think everyone was most excited when he said he liked the near-future Earth because it was a world worth fighting for. And that crystallized the project in many ways, and the decision making about where we wanted it to go. We didn't want it to be a dark, grim sci-fi. We wanted it to be aspirational and hopeful, and many great stories could be told and heroes could rise. I think the game quickly coalesced around that notion.
You mentioned a "Blizzard version of the Earth." Could you both talk about what that means to you? What are the ideals in a Blizzard version of the world?
Chu: At its core it's the idea of taking the things about our Earth, the cultures, the environments in it, and finding the ones that pop out and adding to them, and in some ways, it's the Earth we wished we lived in. An example we always use is Hollywood. We want to capture that feeling of what you imagine Hollywood is on your way to L.A., stepping off the plane and thinking, "Wow, this awesome place!” And I think when we're going around we're looking for things like that, touchstones and things that speak to us and we just try to make them bigger and larger than life.
Waugh: I think Chris Metzen and I talk a lot about the storytelling values at this company and the type of worlds we want to build, the type of stories we want to make and touch people with. We see Blizzard as a hero factory. We want people to feel aspirational and noble and really aspire to do greatness. That ethos is woven into our culture and the type of content we make, in Warcraft or even Diablo which is a bleak universe where noble characters rise. Same with Starcraft.
I think it's a future filled with heroes and hope and optimism. Now, keep in mind you don't get heroes without adversaries and some darkness here and there. It's not like we're creating heroes to the exclusion of evil. But I think we're most attracted to talking about hope and building characters in a world people aspire to creating. "Don't accept the world as it appears to be – dare to see it as it could be." That line really inspires us as we were working on the story, cracking the script. I think that line was excavated early on from the development process and became a way we look at this universe from the start. I think it's the way we hope to inspire others to look at the world. I hope our games bring forth that sentiment.
Next: Find out about Overwatch's adversaries and some of the developers' favorite characters.