Overwatch: How Blizzard’s blockbuster embraces community, inclusivity and creativity

Since launching in May 2016, Overwatch has become a phenomenon. As expected, it became a big presence at BlizzCon, the studio’s yearly convention that aims to bring fans and developers together to celebrate all things Blizzard.

Trusted Reviews was there this year, soaking up all the atmosphere and chatting with fans and developers alike. We also caught up with lead engineer Timothy Ford to discuss new support hero Moira, the passionate community, Blizzard World and all things Overwatch!

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Congratulations on the Moira reveal. She’s a very cool hero!

Timothy Ford: Thanks! Yes she is.

I played a couple of matches and was really surprised how effective she is as both a support and offensive hero. Was there a struggle finding a balance to make her effective against enemies, but primarily a force for helping your team?

TF: I think so absolutely. Did you play her in Blizzard World?

Yep!

TF: She, as an offensive character is very effective in close quarters and very effective against barriers. In that context, she can be really devastating and if you ever get caught one-on-one against Moira in a closet it’s not pretty. 

That balance is tricky because what you’re trying to do is make sure she’s not just a light DPS [damage-per-second] hero. Ana I think has a similar type of approach because you have to focus on one task at a time. You need to make sure they can hold their own in a certain context, and that’s a balance we definitely wanted to strike. She kinda fulfils this fantasy of this, like, health draining wizard science thingy.

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Yeah she’s very wizardy.

TF: At the same time we really wanted another support hero and she has that mobility to get to people who are wounded and use her short-range heal as well as the ability to do some geometry and figure out how to balance the healing orb to your teammates is important as well. It was fun, she’s very yin and yang in that sense.

When is the planned release for Moira?

TF: She’s gonna be on PTR [Public Test Realm] very soon. But for official release we don’t have any dates just yet.

What factors influence you when balancing a hero upon release? A lot of the time, particularly when Ana was in PTR she went through a lot of changes.

TF: She did yeah.

Do you picture something similar happening with Moira?

TF: We’ll see! The way we feel about her internally, we feel like she’s in a good spot in terms of fulfilling the fantasy and what niche she fills in the support-healer realm. We are not a bunch of bronze and grandmaster players, unfortunately, so we really need to see how she plays on a broad spectrum.

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I saw immediately after the reveal that fans were digging into her backstory and there was even some concept art with her all David Bowie-d up.

TF: Oh yeah!

Which is incredibly cool.

TF: Yes! She invites to David Bowie really quickly, so no surprise there!

And some fans, considering the progressive nature of Overwatch, they’ve been wondering if there is a transgender angle in there with her character?

TF: Um, nothing we’ve talked about in any detail. I do love that she’s kind of androgynous in terms of her look. We’re always trying to make sure heroes look different from one and another. Not just, I mean there’s gameplay ramifications for that right, they have to have a unique silhouette so you can spot them on the battlefield real quick.

Oh for sure.

TF: But then like you go to Blizzcon and you see these cosplayers and they love these heroes! So if we can give them a variety of heroes that have an achievable look for you as individuals if you wanna cosplay as her, well that’s just rad. I’m looking forward to the gender-bends for Moira. I’m looking forward to the David Bowie. There’s gonna be one of those!

Progression in Overwatch is primarily linked to cosmetics, and you earn that through coins, lootboxes. I was wondering if you’d ever considered the idea of weekly challenges for certain heroes. Could a challenge earn you coins to purchase skins through other means?

TF: That’s a really cool idea! Yeah, we talked a long time ago about challenge modes as we approached ship but we had to scope features but that’s actually a really cool idea, I like that.

It seems like something that’d be quite cool, and certainly give me a reason to return to Overwatch beyond all the events.

TF: So this is a ‘per hero’ challenge kinda thing?

Yeah, that kind of thing.

TF: That’s kinda neat, yeah.

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Seasonal events are really fun, do you plan to introduce new events or keep revisiting the same ones with new skins and such?

TF: I don’t wanna spoil the surprise!

No surprises!

TF: No, no I’ll keep the surprise! Very recently we unlocked a pretty important piece of technology that allowed us to make game modes much faster. And that kicked off with Halloween last year but now we’ve hit our stride where we have, we’re able to iterate and experiment with a bunch of game modes at a much faster clip. It’s gonna be an exciting year I think.

Definitely.

TF: And open some doors.

If Blizzard World exists in the Overwatch universe, does that mean Jeff Kaplan does, too?

TF: *laughs* You know, that’s a weird thing because there’s nothing in Blizzard World that references Overwatch specifically BUT, Jeff worked on WoW for a very long time.

Yeah that’s in there, and you can’t undo the Starcraft stuff?

TF: Yeah you can’t undo that. So, in the Overwatch universe, I don’t know what fork in this parallel reality occurred in which Overwatch was created as a game or was something else. I assume Jeff probably went to go retire on some vineyard somewhere.

Probably!

TF: He retired from games in 2009 post Lich-King.

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One thing I love about Overwatch is the community. Whether it’s people writing fanfics, cosplay, fanart and all that stuff. Working on Overwatch, what’s it been like releasing a new hero and seeing fans react to it?

TF: Immediately, right!

Yeah!

TF: Humbling, I think is the short answer? It’s something we can’t wrap our heads around. You kinda get a taste of the impact you’re having on people’s lives when you come to events like Blizzcon. For me, the most rewarding thing is seeing people actually connect through our game. I grasp onto those moments but I can’t, I’ll probably never be able to understand the scope of it. I won’t be able to picture 35 million people, the population of California playing our game. It’s never gonna make sense in my brain.

It’s an incredible number.

TF: But what will make sense is this! I have a buddy who’s here with his friend and they both play Overwatch. They were friends in school and drifted apart in college but they’re now re-connected through Overwatch, and they live in different counties and they’re here, today, at Blizzcon re-connecting that friendship through the game that me and my friends worked on? That’s super rewarding, and means a lot to me!

You’re bringing people together not just through the game, but personally as well?

TF: Absolutely! That is great, and that’s why I love coming to BlizzCon every year.

Must be something you love about your job as well?

TF: Top of the list! Actually, sorry, top of the list is probably working with my friends, with these incredibly talented people. But, a close second is understanding the impact of these social games Blizzard makes. We make these games where people play with their friends. They stay connected with their families. I play with my cousin, I play with my brother. After my kids go to bed, I’m playing with my friends, and very often they’re Blizzard games.

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Where do you see Overwatch going in the future? Recently a job listing appeared for an unannounced project where you required an ‘intense knowledge’ of the Overwatch universe.

TF: *laughs*

So I’m thinking, what could that be?

TF: I’m unfamiliar with any job posting of that description. But, the Overwatch future in the near term that I can speak to, because past that it gets hazy, is certainly more heroes, more maps, more events and the Overwatch League. I’m really excited to see how people react to the World Cup and see a lot of the energy our team has put into making this a wonderful spectator experience. That’s the next thing on the horizon for us.

One last question, who’s your favourite Overwatch pairing?

TF: Favourite Overwatch pairing? *pause* OH RIGHT, SHIPPING!

Yeah, that one!

TF: Oh man.

Is pairing a British thing?

TF: I dunno, shipping is a term that people younger than I use and I just recently learned it. Umm, oh man, that’s rough. I couldn’t give you a romantic one, but I’d have to go with the Ana/Jack Morrison pairing.

Oh they’ve got a really good story!

TF: Yeah! Cause it’s a deep story and it’s these two superheroes who are away from the game. Jack is clearly cynical and jaded at this point in time while Ana is trying to reconnect with her daughter and try to make sense of a world that needs to operate with superheroes that aren’t her and Jack. They’re outside looking in but they know what it’s like and they know this whole thing has been through. There are very few people on the planet in the Overwatch universe that can relate to each other like Ana and Jack. And Reyes too, except he’s gone crazy.

They’re looking toward a new generation of heroes and they know how all this can go wrong.

TF: Exactly! They know what loss feels like and they have, obviously, a close relationship with these people cause these are their recruits and, in some cases, their families.

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What’s your favourite thing about Overwatch? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter @TrustedReviews!

 

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