In Real Life

That Time I Visited Blizzard HQ (And Played Overwatch On Consoles)

Despite my unkempt ginger beard and questionable body odour, I’ve been let into a lot of fancy development houses in my time.

I’ve seen an entire movie multiplex repurposed to weave the destiny of a great many million gamers. Then there was that dog kennel housing the most sophisticated mo-cap studio in the northern hemisphere. Last but not least, I once visited a Bond villain lair tucked into the mountains of Japan.

It had a crisis room worthy of the Pentagon, and an elevator powered exclusively by the active volcano beneath us. Not even making that shit up. Who the hell could?

But of all the fancy, needlessly-expensive places I’ve ever been to, none has impressed me quite like Blizzard’s home base in Irvine, California. It’s one-part Pixar art academy (yeah, I’ve been there too) meets a high-tech-hippie commune.

Fun factoid: the planned city of Irvine was the filming location for San Angeles, the hyper-picturesque, super politically correct city that Stallone and Snipes tore up in Demolition Man. Looking around, it’s eerie to see how little those set guys needed to change things. The streets are so clean. Everybody is chill. The joy-joy feelings are palpable.

I keep waiting for someone to notice my jetlag-induced resting bitch-face and ask “what my boggle is”. I’m also half expecting to be auto-fined for violating the Verbal Morality Statute, and for the hotel toilet to have nothing but three seashells in there.

Smack bang in the centre of Irvine is Blizzard’s sprawling campus, a gated complex that gathers some of the finest video game craftspeople in the world today… and their dogs (company policy welcomes canine familiars of all breeds). Plus, judging from the unmistakably laid-back vibe that permeates every room I visit, BlizzHQ is also well stocked with +10 peace, love, and mungbeans.

Lunchtime groups of likeminded employees of any and all rank meet to pursue extracurricular hobbies as equals. Dog-walkers do laps around the large grassy areas between buildings, all the while giving wide berth to “zones” signposted as beast-free. I watch a dozen people almost pastier than myself slowly practice kendo on the lawn.

Just beyond them, an intense, mostly shirtless volleyball game is in full swing. I’m tempted to blast “Hangin’ Out With The Boys” on my phone, but chicken out. I don’t want to be zerg-rushed by the ronin.

I kid, of course. Everybody I meet here is way too lovely to murk a guy. Even a ginger who obviously deserves it. This is a place that clearly holds the virtue of mutual respect, perfection of craft, and a shared love of nerd culture above all else. You’ve got to love that. Nobody will murder-death-kill me for easy XP.

In truth, one can’t even get in the door without learning the lofty values of this place. There’s a collection of phrases set in bronze, artfully sunk into the concrete around a 12-foot statue of an Orc riding a bad-ass wolf. “Every Voice Matters”, “Play Nice; Play Fair”, “Think Globally”, “Lead Responsibly”, “Learn & Grow”, “Embrace Your Inner Geek”, “Commit To Quality”, and “Gameplay First”.

Regardless of what type of person you are, the lobby beyond the orc will impress you further. Folks who value industry plaudits will soon have their jaw on the floor after they see how many awards and medals are in a nearby display case. Artsy types will appreciate the nearby museum / shrine dedicated to fine sculpture, beautiful concept art, and amazing fan submissions which most likely resulted in recruitment.

Material types who covet overlarge objects to selfie near, you’ll be in snapchat heaven with a Gorehowl axe large enough to cleave a taxi. Face-swappers can’t go past the Grommash Hellscream statue.

Anybody currently employed by a rival developer will feel a little jealous, too. Examples of the company service awards Blizzard employees can earn are scattered everywhere. You’ll get a pimping beer stein at 2 years. 5 years nets you a proper sword. Push that to 10 to complete the ensemble with a shield. 15’s a ring. 20 is a helm. And I’m told that Blizzard only recently came up with a reward for a quarter-century of service; our guide describes it as “a lovely hammer”. (The weapon isn’t on-hand, so I cannot confirm that Loveliness stat).

Speaking personally, the item in this lobby that affects me the most is a small, black, A3 folder sitting inconspicuously in the waiting area. The tome is branded “Blizzard Fan Mail”, and it’s a loving curation of early correspondences from Blizzard fans. It is weaponised adorable.

Some letters date all the way back to 1995, and a few of the authors and artists are as young as 5 years old. Better yet, every scrawled note, dot-matrix email printout, or fax, bears an office stamp signifying the date of response from the studio. Failing that, the document will bear an almost panicked biro scrawl that states “no return address!!!”.

Each document or drawing delivers unabashed praise of a Blizzard game, or an excitable idea for a sequel (a “Star Wars Warcraft” or simply a third Warcraft are particularly hot topics). Many include a phone number to discuss pitches further.

As heartwarming as this book is, it also makes me sad. That era of innocence is lost forever. Back then, young gamers couldn’t instantaneously harass their betters with 140 characters worth of: “fuk your sequilz take 2 long 2 come out lolllll… Y U no nerf [thing x]? Do it or loose my preorder. send me free shit… can I get a RT 4 my Twitch [insert nonsensical emoticon string]”.

God I miss you, 1995.

After my tour, I enter into Blizzard for a very specific purpose; to view Overwatch for the first time on consoles. Yes, it’s quite literally a trip to see how well the port is going. If you want in-depth details on this team-based multiplayer shooter featuring a cast of dynamic heroes, the PC version has been in various states of beta since October last year.

Console-wise, Blizzard is not taking Overwatch’s PS4 version lightly (there’s an Xbox One version present, but I had to make a choice). This news will not come as a shock to anybody who sampled the exceptional Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition (PS4, 2014), which was a surprisingly enjoyable way to revisit Sanctuary. Nobody outside of Blizzard has played the game on Xbox One or PS4 before, so I’m quite interested to see how it feels, compared to the keyboard/mouse stylings of the closed PC beta.

The controller scheme they’ve gone for is what Game Director, Jeff Kaplan, calls “super basic” and I’m pleased to hear that controls can be remapped specifically for each hero. Bumpers/upper shoulder buttons govern your various abilities. Your 12 o’clock face button unleashes your game-changing Ultimate skill. 9 o’clock reloads (the guns have infinite ammo). And then there’s the crouch button on 3 o’clock.

“Never, ever press that,” advises Kaplan. “Just. Don’t. We’re not like a tactical shooter where you’re scooting behind cover. We want you sprinting around.”

You’re also going to want to mess with the default controls if you’re using the more aerial-inclined heroes, in particular the wall-running Lucio. Having to take your thumb off the aiming stick to hold ‘6 o’clock’ to jump/initiate a wall-run isn’t ideal. Best figure out your own “bumper-jumper” solution here, or die a lot. Alternatively, splurge on that Xbox Elite controller for those extra buttons.

Kaplan also mentions that his team hasn’t made their final pass on their aim-assists / aim-tracking for the console version. It seems perfectly fine for the most part, although I did notice it’s currently quite difficult to track a fast moving target when aiming down sights with a sharpshooter like Widowmaker. (This is something I’ll be keeping an eye on come open beta time – which is just around the corner.)

As for cross-play, Blizzard is in a “wait and see mode”. Kaplan does however remind me that they’ve been pretty vocal about avoiding a PC-versus-console players situation. “We actually think that when it comes to keyboard/mouse against gamepad, there’s balance issues there.” he says. “We are interested in seeing how the cross-system idea evolves, but at launch PS4 and Xbox One will have their own separate ecosystems.”

So what is the lead platform for Overwatch? “I know it’s a lofty goal,” Kaplan says, “but we want to keep all three of equal importance. And [as we’re tuning gameplay] we don’t want to damage one version or the other by saying ‘this one thing has to be standard’ across all. For example, the deployable turrets in the Xbox and PS4 versions are less of a threat, and a lot of that has to do with not being able to flip a mouse 180 degrees to take one of them out.”

Whether you plan on getting it on PC, PS4, or Xbox One, I think Overwatch is a target worth tracking. Will it become a new intellectual property that enjoys a 20 year + shelf life, like many games in the Blizzard stable – an intention voiced to us by Kaplan? That remains to be seen. But I think the team’s aim is looking pretty true right now. Overwatch definitely has a shot.


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