Overwatch is new territory for Blizzard. The company, chiefly known for its role-playing and tactics-based games, hasn't released a new franchise in over 17 years. Now it's rolling out a new first-person shooter, and one that hopes to challenge the existing paradigms that define the genre.
Chris Metzen, Blizzard's vice president of franchise management and one of Overwatch's lead creators, says the game will be less about killing and more about teamwork and "context."
"We're trying to build this thing that feels evocative, fun and inclusive, not something where you log in and get killed straight away. In Overwatch, you can use abilities, aid your teammates and get into more tactical situations. It's not just shooting. You get a lot more up time, so have a bit of context.
"It's possible to make a shooter that doesn't feel cynical or nasty. We've been making videogames now for 20 years and sometimes the business can look like a damn mess. We want to be part of the solution. We want to do something that's hopeful."
Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch's lead designer and one of the original creators of World of Warcraft, is equally optimistic. Despite Blizzard's track record of strategy and fantasy games, he believes the company is uniquely equipped to handle a team-based FPS:
"When I started on World of Warcraft, we'd get a lot of comments like 'what business does Blizzard have doing a massive multiplayer game? You guys make strategy games'. Now it's the same, but with a first-person shooter. There are probably a lot of nerves, but what we do is look at the genres we revere and try to bring out their best elements.
"We focus on giving you things to do aside from putting crosshairs over targets. We know a lot of people aren't good at that, and it drives them away from shooters, so we want to find ways to welcome everyone into this. You will die in the game – that's still part of it – but we're hoping you'll die less frequently than in modern military shooters. There are people in WoW who always want to play a healer, so why can't we do that in a shooter?"
A shooter not about killing
Overwatch's story and characters are, according to Metzen and Kaplan, conducive to that goal, of making a shooter that's less about killing, more about co-operation. The pair are cagey about exactly what shape the game's narrative will take and acknowledge that working heavy plot into an online, player versus player shooting game isn't easy. But like with World of Warcraft, which is sprinkled with small, tangible plot points, and has a lore that exists online and in trailers, Overwatch's competitive games will have some narrative context.
"We know that we can't have a big linear narrative driving through a PvP game," says Kaplan. "But we love the characters and the setting so we're going to make as much effort there as we can."
"After developing stories for online strategy games for 20 years, I can tell you there is no bigger pain in the ass than trying to keep themes and characters consistent over all these different levels and matches," continues Metzen. "We try to take the best and most important bits that we have and find ways to make them breathe. In Overwatch, we'll have maybe short form animations and things that will indicate that the world is moving, some kind of clear messaging. But we'll also try to make sure our story isn't compromised by gameplay, and vice versa."
Overwatch will be Blizzard's first new intellectual property since 1997's Starcraft. The company was working on a new online role-playing game, tentatively dubbed Titan, but after seven years in development, in September, 2014, the project was cancelled.
Putting out fires
Publications such as Kotaku have speculated that Overwatch is merely a part of Titan which has been repackaged into a full game. However, Metzen and Kaplan insist it's a wholly original IP:
"We do take inspiration from our games and put them in our other games," says Kaplan" and so, there are themes from Titan in Overwatch. But it's still its own game."
"I don't want to get into what Titan was going to be," says Metzen "but I'll tell you what it was. It was frustrating. It was this big thing, like six videogames in one, and it sucked. We couldn't figure out. We had this amazing team but we couldn't crack it. It was like trying to thread a chord, write a song, find a harmony and we couldn't get it. Then we had this thing, Overwatch, and Jeff said 'why don't we do that?' And it was like a tidal wave – the music just hit. The characters and the world came and it's been the most fun year I've had for a long time.
"You know, World of Warcraft blew up insanely and we sort of became the World of Warcraft company. After that, the spark seemed to go out – we were just putting out fires in WoW and holding that tiger by the tail. But over the last few years our energy for smaller scale projects has been rekindled. I hope people look at Overwatch as a very clever game but I'll tell you, under the hood, we needed this, just to feel that lightning coursing again."