Overwatch is a competitive team-based shooter — not exactly the genre people go to for stirring tales and convincing characters. Blizzard wants to change that.
For now, there's no plan for a single-player Overwatch campaign. How, then, can Blizzard tell a story without tossing up roadblocks to the fast action people seek in these sorts of games? To start, they're taking a multi-pronged approach. During a BlizzCon panel, Blizzard briefly touched on the tools they will use to dole out stories set in Overwatch's crayola box explosion of a universe: a series of animated shorts, promo videos, a graphic novel, digital comics, and in-game levels and character interactions.
Some of those things might seem pretty disparate, but they have one element in common: they don't detract from gameplay.
"We don't necessarily design around, 'just because Tracer and Winston are friends, they need to do something special together gameplay-wise,'" principle designer Scott Mercer told me during an interview. "There are synergies that happen between certain characters because of the way they're designed, though. Zarya launches a big black hole that brings multiple enemies together, and then a bunch of other characters can use that to their advantage. So are there direct gameplay implications from [character relationships]? No. It's more about fun and building character than building specific game mechanics."
That does not mean, however, that Blizzard's shoving their storytelling ambitions in a box that reads "save for next game" and locking them in a closet. They want to tell a lot of interesting tales, and they want to do it in a future that is, rather atypically, utopian. Where many games indulge in end of the world blues, Blizzard's trying to sing a different tune.
"We're definitely pushing it in lots of directions," explained art director Bill Petris, "but I think one of the core things we've come to understand is that it's about heroes who are fighting for a better world. The world is actually pretty positive. It's not super dark. You go to the various locations around the world, and things are doing OK. You go to [Middle East-inspired city] Numbani, and Omnics [the AI race whose revolution was put down before Overwatch began] and humans are working together to build this towering city that's just gorgeous. There's a lot of good happening, and that's the direction we want to work towards."
While stories in other mediums — from Plato's The Republic to Star Trek — have tackled utopian ideals, games have tended to shy away from them in favour of more conflict-friendly alternatives. Blizzard's own library includes StarCraft, which takes place in a future in which everybody is at war all the time — itself something of a riff on Warhammer 40K, a universe in which everyone is at war even more all the time and trillions die each day. Setting an action game in a utopia? That makes it a little tougher to drum up drama. Blizzard, though, finds the challenge to be a refreshing change of pace.
"Sometimes it's fun to approach something where everything is bright, to examine how fast something could fall apart," said Petris. "A certain hero might have a dark side. It's a balance of light and dark. I find it exciting to do that bright world and have a twist on it."
So maybe it's not a super deep dive into the political and social ramifications of a utopia (again, it is, first and foremost, a lighthearted action game), but there's room for some intriguing meat on this one's bones.
One of the game's more overtly utopian elements is its cast of characters. People (and apes and robots and I guess Reaper is some kind of space wizard?) of many shapes, sizes, and backgrounds are represented — all as equally capable heroes. That was a goal from the get-go, Blizzard told me, for both story and gameplay reasons.
"There's a gameplay element to it as well," Mercer told me. "We want to have all these silhouettes, all these different body shapes. It allows you to identify them on the battlefield really quickly. So we do have female characters who are six feet and shapely, but if that's all we had, how would you tell them apart? Having diversity — whether it's male vs female, human vs robot... or Winston, an ape — is something you need. It's not just something we feel compelled to do because it's the right thing socially. It's also the right thing for the game."
Blizzard recently added three new heroes to the game's beta, rounding out the game's initial cast. There's Ginji, a cyborg swordsman, Mei, a climatologist fighting to preserve the environment, and D.Va, a former eSports pro who now pilots a mech to defend her homeland. And yet, they still face a degree of criticism, for instance for a relative lack in variety of women body types (something they addressed, to an extent, with Zarya, a buff, badass soldier lady). Character diversity is an ongoing process, and Blizzard acknowledged that they still have work to do.
"When we started doing the art," said Petris, "that was one of the focuses: to create a really diverse, unique cast, whether it's a hero, a background story, or even a location in the world. That's something we believe in. But I also think we're still working on it. There's gonna be more and more coming."
He added that the Overwatch team tries hard to keep an ear to the ground, to understand what fans like and don't like. "We like to be connected," he said. "We always like to know what the feedback is."
Right now, Blizzard is working toward Overwatch's launch in spring 2016 and putting together all the story materials that entails. What about afterward, though? Last year, Blizzard told me Overwatch might host story-driven events that tie in with various levels and environmental elements. This year they were a bit cagier on committing to that, but they're definitely still interested. "We would love to do those kinds of things," said Mercer in reference to a question I asked about Team Fortress 2 and its big, days-long update events. "We love world-building and storytelling."
They also have some wackier ideas — like Blizzneyland, a level set in a Blizzard-themed amusement park.
"There's a lot of ideas — not just the ones that come to fruition," said Mercer. "Sometimes we have crazy ideas, like, 'What if it's an amusement park?' And there's something to it. We were like, 'Could it be a Blizzard-themed amusement park?' And then everyone was like, 'Ohhhhhh.' That's just like, what could we do with that?"
Overwatch is in closed beta right now, and it's set to launch in autumn of next year (spring in the US). Speaking personally, I can't wait for the storyline that explains why Winston, a gorilla whose genes were engineered so precisely that he can speak and do science things, has shitty eyesight. You'd think they would have done something about that.