If Overwatch fan culture is anything to go by, there's only one thing people want to see Overwatch characters do more than fight: date. That's where fan games come in. But with lawyers hiding in bushes and trees, waiting to spring their DMCA traps, making video game characters kiss ain't easy.
Loverwatch is one of the biggest Overwatch dating sims. Yes, there's more than one. Despite still being in development, Loverwatch has a colossal following on networks like Tumblr. The project is the brainchild of Lucy Morris, a game designer who's worked on projects with companies like Ubisoft and Adult Swim, as well as her own independent ventures.
I spoke with her and writer Damon Reece (who's also worked on games like Starbound and Staxel) about the ups and downs of strolling up to the video game zeitgeist and declaring, "It's high noon." Upside: lots of attention! Downside: tons of pressure... and probably no sex scenes.
Kotaku: How did all of this get started? Going from "Hey, someone should make an Overwatch dating simulator" to, "Let's actually do it." That's quite a leap!
Lucy Morris: Originally there was this game jam called 'I Love You Jam' run by [occasional Kotaku columnist] Amanda Cosmos on Twitter. And it happened to be in the period between the Overwatch beta ending and the month-long wait for Overwatch to come out. So I was kind of sitting there, twitching my thumbs, like "what am I supposed to do?" in this month before the game comes out.
DOOM's multiplayer was kind of satisfying, but because this visual novel dating sim jam came out, I was like, "OK, we may as well just make an Overwatch dating sim." Because a lot of people caught on to the fact that that should be a thing. And I just recruited a ton of people. Damon was one of the writers that joined the fever dream.
Kotaku: What is Loverwatch's overall premise?
Lucy Morris: So the game is set before everything goes to shit, basically. And the characters that we're doing the routes for so far, their age hasn't really been affected by that. Someone pointed out on Tumblr, "What would happen if D.Va was put in?" Because she'd be like five years-old or something, so there'd have to be a time skip if we continue. But yeah, we were just trying to go back to when everything was like glorious and set the story then. And each story has kind of a different premise. It's based in the Overwatch HQ and, then, going forward.
Kotaku: Who is the player character? What are they trying to do?
Damon Reece: The player character is a new recruit in Overwatch, and you start out talking to the commander, being like, "Oh, you've signed up for this job or that job." And we're doing our best to have the player character be very ... fluid in how you can interpret them. Because we don't have a lot of budget for writing a shitload of dialogue variations. So we're doing our best to make it so that we can have players see themselves in the player character without having to do a lot of work [laughs].
Lucy Morris: Yeah, so the game starts out: you arrive on base, you're given this form, and you've got to select what profession you've turned up here for. That decides which route you're taking, because you'll have a different supervisor or partner on the mission.
And when you start making really customisable player characters, narrative just goes off the charts. And we've already made the script insanely long. I think doing any more customisation would literally kill the writers, all three of us. But we have tried to make it kind of customisable. So, you can obviously choose your name. But we've also worked with an adaptive script, so you can actually choose your pronouns at the start of the game as well. That will change how characters refer to you so people can play which gender they identify with, which is kind of cool.
That's basically the doable customisation that we could scope for, for what's essentially a free fan project.
Kotaku: How big is the development team at this point?
Lucy Morris: Oh, good question. We wanted to keep a really small team; we had a lot of people asking to join. But because we're all professional game developers, we've worked in triple-A and independent development, we don't want to have a big team because it's just going to go nuts.
Currently it's ... eight people? Yeah, eight people.
Kotaku: And you were saying you've already got quite a few words in this script. How big has it gotten at this point? When you first envisioned the game, were you expecting the script to balloon this much?
Lucy Morris: Everything is my fault. I teach game development, and I always tell my students not to over-scope. But each route [in Loverwatch] is about 60K words. And there's three routes, so it's going to end up at, like, 180K words or something, which makes it longer than Final Fantasy XIII.
The reason why this happened is because I followed other fan projects like Love Is Strange. I know a couple of people that did that. It's just this amazing little fan game. And I didn't want it to seem cheap or for laughs. To build up an emotional attachment and establish a story properly, I felt that we should give it a little more depth. So it's really focused on characterization and the development of the plot and everything.
Kotaku: So is your goal to really evoke a reaction from people playing this game? Because I could see a lot of people seeing the words "Overwatch dating sim" and thinking, "Oh, you know, it's going to be a little funny thing, and it will probably be a lot of jokes and references and things."
Damon Reece: Insert evil laugh here.
Lucy Morris: Yeah it's definitely a mature narrative. There are a lot of in-jokes and some comical moments, but I think on the whole it's kind of mature, not always serious, but it's definitely not comical.
Kotaku: I saw the recent Tumblr post about the fine line that you guys are walking in regards to making something that you feel is a mature narrative, but you can't do R-rated stuff. No sex, despite how many dating sims include it. When did you realise that was going to be an issue?
Lucy Morris: I think that we decided it was going to be PG-13 at the start, because sexuality is also kind of assuming sexuality of characters as well. Also, we didn't want to create free porn with Blizzard's IP. I'm pretty sure they don't like that, because it's a pretty all-ages game. And also it kind of assumes a lot about the character which may or may not be canon.
Kotaku: To go more into that post a little bit, Damon, why did you decide to make that post? Why did you decide to communicate that?
Damon Reece: Because we had a content drought on the blog. Because we've had a bunch of delays. Just because life has really kicked us in the arse recently ...And we've had a ridiculous amount of support. It's been mind-blowing. And we really wanted to let everyone that was following us know that we're still here, we're still working on it, and we want to share this journey with you.
Kotaku: When you say that life has kicked you in the arse, what do you mean?
Damon Reece: My dog died. Just a bunch of shit has happened to all of us.
Lucy Morris: And a lot of us are also working full time jobs at the same time, so also making a big project really becomes — especially when it's a free project — kind of a lesser priority.
But Damon's totally right, a lot of our posts have gone viral on Tumblr, and we've had a huge outpouring of support. We also get a lot of people messaging us, saying like, "Hey why isn't it done yet? Like can you update us? Games don't take that long to make."
I mean it's OK; the public is kind of uneducated about what goes into making a game. So we've tried to communicate the actual work that goes into this and how long it takes us, and the steps in that process, so they can kind of understand a little.
Kotaku: I imagine that the reaction has been much bigger than you expected, because you started making this shortly after the beta and it was only around then that the fan culture surrounding Overwatch really took off. And now I think, pairings and stuff are this huge part of it. Everyone's really into their favourite imagined Overwatch couples.
Lucy Morris: It was kind of funny when we announced the project, because we did announce it almost straight off the beta end, and we had a lot of comments saying, "Oh my god, someone's doing it already. Wow that was fast." So I guess we got on it kind of quick.
But we're also avoiding a lot of the fandom stuff as well because it's not pairings between characters, it's more like a self-insert I guess. I think there might be a bit of dashed expectations between the players and the game, because new people come to the blog and they think that every one of the 21 heroes is going to be in it. And with the length of the script, that's simply not possible for us right now. And we might work on that going forward and add one route every now and then, but I think that one or two people might be disappointed that their love interest was not included.
Kotaku: In doing this, how much are you drawing on established fan canon versus creating your own re-imaginings of these characters?
Damon Reece: I'd say we're not really doing that at all. We're doing our best to stick to Blizzard canon and where we're not, because we do have to improvise a bit, we're doing our best to sort of guess what Blizzard would do.
Kotaku: Which characters are you going with off the bat?
Lucy Morris: We selected Genji, Mei, and Bastion. And the reason was, we kind of wanted a spread of different stories and also obviously quite different characters. I'd say it's really cool that we have a Bastion route, for instance.
Kotaku: Yeah, how do you even romance Bastion?
Damon Reece: It's 100% beeps and boops.
Lucy Morris: But you also interact with the bird, right?
Damon Reece: Yeah, so Bastion communicates through beeps and boops, but also a lot through body language. And writing that is really interesting, especially when we don't have the budget for assets.
Lucy Morris: Yeah, a lot of the stories are quite dramatic. Not like melodramatic, but I definitely think that there's going to be some strong feelings by the ends of the routes, some vocal opinions that emerge from that.
Kotaku: You've been developing this game in the public eye, or at least in the eye of Tumblr, which isn't what you initially expected. Have there been any points where that affected your plans for the game? Are you playing to the crowd?
Damon Reece: Well at least from my perspective, I've worked on games like Starbound and Staxel, and that has always been a terrible idea. I for one never felt any pressure, and I've not really had anyone really contact me out of the blue about the Bastion route. So maybe that's helped a lot? But I've never felt pressure to play to people's expectations.
Lucy Morris: No one's really given us that much content input. The only messages we generally get are, "Oh my god is Ana going to be in it? Is Roadhog going to be in it?" We have hundreds of those asks sitting in the Tumblr inbox. And that's basically the only input people want. They just want to see their character, or their most loved character, in the game. We haven't had many questions like, "Oh are they going to be like x," apart from one person who asked what pronouns Bastion had.
So it's been kind of interesting. People were just concerned about their boyfriend being in the game, or their girlfriend.
Kotaku: Fan games have been in the public eye a lot recently, with companies like Nintendo shutting down everything from Metroid remakes to entire game jams. How much of a concern is this pushback against fan games to you? Have you reached out to Blizzard?
Lucy Morris: I actually reached out to them a couple of times, but I haven't heard anything back. I wrote quite a long email stating our intentions and the fact that most of us are professional developers. And we're doing it as a tribute to their IP because we really enjoy it, that it's not going to have any R-rated content, that it's just a thank you to Blizzard for making something that we enjoyed so much. But I haven't heard anything back, and I pinged them a couple of times. So definitely tried to reach out and gauge their reaction. Haven't heard anything.
But a lot of people have messaged us with stuff like, "I'm just waiting for this to be DMCA-ed." I expect it less from Blizzard if the content isn't objectionable. Because I know the people who made [the] Starcraft 2 visual novel, and Blizzard okayed that. But I guess that's always kind of a concern in the back of our minds, because we've spent quite a while on it now. And that's why we tried to reach out and ask them if it was going to be ok. We've tried to be as agreeable as possible, by making sure there's no R-rated content, making sure we treat their IP respectfully, that we do a good job of it.
Kotaku: Yeah, I would argue that Blizzard is atypical compared to the way that a lot of companies handle fan games. There's the StarCraft visual novel, which even got onto Steam. Blizzard also gave their seal of approval to a Kickstarter for StarCraft Universe, the multiplayer StarCraft RPG fan game. That's wild. Meanwhile, companies like Nintendo keep on cracking down.
Lucy Morris: I would probably never make a Nintendo fan game just because I know that's exactly how that company feels about it. The reason why we thought it was kind of OK with Blizzard is because they have been accepting in the past with those kinds of games. So we're hoping that they will recognise that it's just a game made by fans that enjoy their IP and want to explore the narrative a bit further.
Kotaku: What draws you to romance games?
Lucy Morris: I really enjoy romance games, like as my field of research. I think it's really interesting trying to construct a narrative that people can empathise with. And especially when it's to do with such a big fandom, you get a lot of exposure because people obviously want to play something like that. There's already been another visual novel as well, an Overwatch dating sim. So there are currently like three projects doing the same thing, that I know of. It's not like we're the only one.
But I just like romance games in general, not necessary always dating sims. The reason why this one is one is because that was a stipulation of the game jam that we started with, and it had to have some sort of stat management. So that's why it ended up that way.
Kotaku: OK, so who are your favourite pairings in the Overwatch fan canon? I know your game isn't strictly about that, but I'm sure you at least keep tabs.
Damon Reece: Pharmercy. They're definitely not just gal pals, and I love the fanon around Ana being an overprotective mum. Alternatively, Hanzo and his sense of entitlement. It's a fairly unknown pairing, but I'm gonna make it a thing. Hanztitlement.
Kotaku: When do you think Loverwatch will be coming out?
Lucy Morris: We're currently about three quarters through. The problem is that we do need to implement every single one of those strings into the engine. So, that's 160 thousand words that we have to implement into the engine. Which goes pretty quick, but it's probably going to be another... at least a month, I think.