Between hacker hero (and boop monster) Sombra, Overwatch League and a new selection of Arcade modes, Overwatch is about to change a lot. At BlizzCon, I spoke to lead hero designer Geoff Goodman and artist Rachel Day about what the future holds and also Roadhog's damn hook.
Nathan Grayson: People's first impression of Sombra seems to be, "She's super fun, but also really powerful and sometimes a pain in the arse to play against." What's your response to that?
Geoff Goodman: Definitely we get the overpowered thing pretty much every time we reveal a new hero, which is actually good. I really hope for that, because it's very intentional, and we want to make everybody feel overpowered. We got this a lot with Ana too, "She can do all that. She can sleep dart people. She can heal. It's ridiculous." That's good to see. The question is, is she actually overpowered? That's the real question.
Grayson: Playing against her, though, even when you get on a kill on her, it's not necessarily as rewarding as it is against some other heroes. You still might be dealing with the effects of a hack or something. You're like, "I can't use my abilities. I beat her, but I'm STILL ANGRY."
Goodman: I mean that definitely was a concern [when we were balancing her]. But I remember when we were working on Ana that was also a big concern with her, because you have the sleep dart.
We're lucky we have tools we can pretty quickly prototype, so I prototyped it and the immediate response from team was like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, I don't know if we want to do this." We're like, "Well, let's play test. We'll see how it goes."
Rachel Day: It took a lot of play testing.
Goodman: There's a lot about Ana's sleep darts that makes it feel a lot more fair than what could have been. It's got this really slow wind up. And anybody who gets damaged wakes up. We learned a lot from early play tests, and I think we did a lot of that with Sombra as well. A lot of abilities are really strong for a short period of time on certain heroes.
So Sombra's really powerful, but every time she takes damage, it breaks the hack. And it takes a while to hack someone, so you have to be in the right position. So if you're playing against her, you're just like, "If I can get this through the door, I'm good." Like I was saying before, people started to realise her vulnerabilities and realised if you focus on her, she can't hack you. You're safe.
Grayson: During a panel, you said that an earlier version of Sombra was gonna be more about speed and throwing knives. Ultimately, though, Genji and Hanzo got a lot of her abilities, and you decided to emphasise the hacker element. What other iterations has she gone through?
Day: In this iteration cycle on what Sombra is now, we took a lot of time to go through her stealth. For a while, it was completely, 100 per cent stealth. When you get up close, you get knocked out of stealth. That kind of thing. Then we found this happy medium.
Goodman: I remember there was, just to name a few things we tried, originally her stealth was just passive. She would just be stealth as long as she wasn't doing anything, which was too strong. Then I tried a version that's almost the opposite extreme. In that version it was still passive, but it only activated when she was standing still for a little bit of time. Then she couldn't move, so you would kind of ambush people.
It was almost like WoW Night Elves, their passive ability. It was kind of disingenuous, though, because the point of the character is we wanted a stealth character, right? It's not really fair to be like, "Here's our stealth character. Kinda!"
Grayson: Does she have a boop emote? Is she gonna get a boop emote? The world wants to know.
Goodman: We were talking about this.
Day: We were just talking about this the other day. She doesn't, but I am very interested in approaching our animation team about adding it.
Goodman: Sometime next week. It's probably being worked on already.
Day: We did not anticipate people enjoying the boop as much as they did!
Grayson: You guys ran a months-long ARG in advance of Sombra's big reveal. I think by the end a lot of people were pretty fed up. It certainly seemed that way on Reddit and your forums. Was there ever a point where you were like, "Maybe we should release her sooner," or, "What if we concluded the ARG sooner"?
Goodman: No. But we were definitely taking the feedback. I think it was fair, the feedback. We're not very good at ARGs. We've never done one before. This is our first attempt at it, and I think we definitely learned a lot from it. Overall, I think it was a huge success. We got to engage the community in a whole new way. We got to show off Sombra in ways that we wouldn't have otherwise been able to. People get an idea of who she is and a little bit of her personality before we even unveiled her. Which is super cool.
Grayson: When you first decided to do the ARG what was the stated goal of it? I think a lot of people were disappointed that they didn't directly unlock Sombra, that she just got unveiled at BlizzCon as she would have even if they did nothing.
Day: The goal was to show off her personality a little bit. We have this new and interesting character that's all about hacking, but what does that even mean, right? We're sitting around saying, "What does hacking mean?" Going through this and showing the puzzles and how intelligent she is and how strong she is. Doing all of this stuff on her own, I think, this was a really great way for us to display that.
Grayson: Was there ever a point at which you were like, "Uhhhh, maybe we have too many countdowns"?
Goodman: That's what I mean about the lessons learned. I think the biggest thing was the timing maybe could have been better on it. That was the biggest lesson.
Day: Sure. Maybe a shorter window next time.
Goodman: People are voracious with these things. They solve things so fast. You're like, "Wow!"
Grayson: Was there ever a point in which the plan for the roll out of the ARG was different? Like, were you ever going to unveil Sombra as a result of progress in the ARG as opposed to BlizzCon? Or was it always, "We're going to do this at BlizzCon"?
Goodman: BlizzCon was the goal for a long time.
Day: I think we were anticipating it taking a little bit longer.
Goodman: They were just on the ball every time. I think that made those windows a little longer than the others might have been.
Grayson: Did you end up having to add unplanned segments to it? Things to justify keeping it going until BlizzCon?
Goodman: I was involved a little bit at the beginning and then other people took over. As far as the details, if they added more, I wouldn't be surprised if they did, actually. I'm not sure entirely.
Grayson: I'm guessing other heroes won't get ARGs. Instead, it will be whatever suits their story or abilities.
Goodman: We don't always just want to do a new ARG. We don't want it to be like, "Oh, here's your new hero. Here's a new ARG."
Grayson: Haha, I think people would go insane.
Day: It's like we did with Junkrat and Roadhog, right? We had the whole Moment In Crime thing.
Grayson: So you've got Overwatch League now. Obviously, Overwatch is a game you're constantly re-balancing. Are you worried that could hurt Overwatch League and vice versa? Are you gonna try and hold major re-balances until the off-season?
Day: Sure, it's a concern.
Goodman: That's one of the benefits of having our own league, actually, because right now a lot of these tournaments are being run anyway, but they're being run on independent schedules, and we can't really plan around that. We're like, "Well, we want to get the content out there," because it's super cool and we're happy with it, and we want people to play it even if they're not in the tournament. But we don't want to drop it right in the middle of the grand finals.
Day: Now we'll have more control. We can actually pace the patches correctly within the league. We don't want to try to delay a bunch of content for the competitive side, though. We're talking about other solutions for that, because if that becomes a concern we could do something like a separate tournament server or something that has separate rules or something. There's a lot of ideas out there.
Grayson: I think some people are wary of the state of Overwatch's meta. They tune in to eSports matches and see a bunch of teams running Triple Tank or whatever, and it's not super exciting. What's your take on that? How do you plan to keep things moving so that the pro side of the game doesn't get stale?
Goodman: I think it's always a concern, but some of that is a little bit inevitable to the degree that teams will tend to create a meta and other teams will see that and then they will copy that. But there's also flexibility. I saw a team run Symmetra as a counter. That kind of thing.
Beyond that, there are some big changes coming. Changes are coming to Torbjom — he doesn't get a lot of play — and Widowmaker. Hopefully that will shake things up. But the biggest change is gonna be Sombra. She's gonna really shake up the meta.
Day: We saw that with Ana too: The way that throwing her into the game just mixed everything up. I'm really excited to see what's going to happen.
Grayson: And then she ultimately became the backbone of the meta.
Day:You never know.
Goodman: Ana is a great example, too, because we put Ana out and, for a while, she wasn't used in high-level play very much. Then suddenly, she's the backbone of every team comp. Everybody discovered what you can do with her. But sometimes it takes a little while.
Grayson: For a little while, you guys were a go-to example of top-notch communication with your community. You still post on the forums more than a lot of developers, but it seems to have dropped off in recent months. The community seems to be getting a bit restless over it. What's going on?
Goodman: Yeah, it's BlizzCon pretty much. It's mostly me and Jeff Kaplan post a lot on our official forums. I try to, and Scott Mercer does occasionally too, on the competitive side especially. I try to jump on there a lot.
But because BlizzCon was coming up, we were cramming to get the stuff done as quickly as possible. It's really just my fault. I try to jump on there as much as possible, but I should be better at it.
Grayson: Over the past couple months, there's been a lot of talk of gay characters. Or lots of arguing, I should say. Some people really want a character who's canonically gay, and others want to yell at them because their hearts are gnarled, angry knots they are deeply afraid to untie. It's a big thing, not just in the forums, but in the fandom and places like Tumblr. What do you do with that information?
Day: We're here to build a very diverse game. We're looking globally, we're looking for all different kinds of people, different body types, all of that. Maybe we're not telling any romantic stories at the moment, but it's a possibility for the future for sure. I don't think that we'd want to exclude anybody from that kind of interaction.
Goodman: There is an LGBT character in the game. It's difficult, because we don't want to just be weirdly heavy-handed with this. We have comics and a bunch of other media to show this. We don't want to force something in the game that is just going to feel like it's in people's face. We don't want people to be like, "This just doesn't make sense."
There is a character, though, and we're going to go into that more soon.
It's not necessarily Zarya, though she has become a gay icon in Russia.
Grayson: Like, very soon?
Day: Actual soon.
Goodman: Yeah, actually soon.
Day: Not "soon (TM)".
Grayson: The fandom has really taken on a life of its own. What are the Overwatch team's favourite fan interpretations of characters?
Day: I love Dad Soldier 76. It's so good. It's so funny, because I feel like that character is really not fatherly at all. I love that the community has kind of taken ahold of this crotchety old, "I guess I'm hanging out with the kids today," kind of thing. It's so cool.
Goodman: It's like in The Summer Games he's got the golf club. It's perfect. And of course, we love Gremlin D.Va. There's a bunch of stuff for Sombra I saw before she was even announced fully. I saw a little Sombra kid in a carrier or whatever.
Day: Reaper carrying around a baby Sombra.
Goodman: It's so funny. I love it.
Grayson: You recently ran the Junkenstein's Revenge Halloween event, and it seems like people really dug it. More PVE stuff is on the way, right?
Day: We were really excited to be able to do this event, because it was kind of our toe in the water to what could Overwatch PVE look like, and we're really happy with how it turned out and how everybody was responding to it. We had a lot of fun playing and making it, so it was a really good exploration for us.
Goodman: I could definitely see us doing more in the future. We don't have any specific plans right now, but everyone loved it on both sides. There'd be no reason not to.
Grayson: It gives you another avenue to tell stories, too.
Day: We got some really cool story elements out of the Junkenstein's Revenge with Reinhardt narrating. I saw a lot of threads where people were like, "Man, I want Reinhardt to say everything I'm doing."
Grayson: Where are you at with Play of the Game these days? I think it works sometimes, but it usually misses the plays that really change the course of the game, and sometimes it's just, like, Torbjorn running down a hallway.
Goodman: We are tweaking it regularly, but not massively revamping it. There is a plan to do what we're calling "Play the Game 2.0". It's been on the books for a while. It's just a matter of prioritising everything. That's always a fight, right? We have a lot of really cool ideas. We want to do a lot with camera work. We've had ideas for doing cooperative Play of the Games, because right now Zarya could ult, and then Genji gets the credit. And that's like, 'Come on!'"
We want to highlight the combo play itself, to show both. There's some tricky things there, like how do we handle Play of the Game intros, and how do we decide who gets credit.
Grayson: A little while back someone did a mock-up of a cooperative play of the game. It was nothing too fancy. Just a split image with both people doing their thing in a single play. Did you see that?
Goodman: Yeah, that's pretty interesting.
Day: I didn't see that.
Goodman: It could be cool with Mercy too, if she gets a res and then her team kills the other team.
Grayson: Then you can have a little team Play Of The Game intro with everyone high-fiving and hugging and stuff.
Goodman: I hadn't even thought about that. That's cool.
Grayson: Yeah. There you go. There's an idea.
Day: There it is. Let's take that.
Grayson: You just announced the Arcade. Do you think it's going to impact the way you release stuff from now on? I think the implication is, there will be more frequent modes and things like that. Will that also speed up the release of maps?
Day: Maybe it will speed up iteration on things we want to try. We've got our safe three modes right now that we've tested and played, but there's other things that we'd like to explore and do. Having a place in the Arcade to try things out when it's not in the middle of competitive, it's not going to mess with anybody's numbers or anything. It's really cool.
Grayson: Are you thinking that you can try out an element of a mode in Arcade and then say, "OK, that worked pretty well. Let's feed it back into a larger, new official mode for later."
Goodman: Also, not only just how well did it work, but there's a popularity gauge in there too, so you can see how much people are gonna like it. We're gonna get feedback from people. We have the 1v1 mystery duel, the 3v3 elimination. Let's say the duel takes off, and there's just like a whole subreddit about it. Sure. We'll definitely support that.
Grayson: I know we're just getting Sombra, but any word on when we can expect another hero? I think Jeff Kaplan said early 2017 is a fairly safe bet.
Day: That's the hope.
Goodman: The heroes are so disparate in their times from inception to in the game. We've had characters like Pharah and even Ana where they were both really fast. We got prototypes up. Everyone really liked them. Small tweaks here and there as we're iterating on the art and everything.
Day: Good to go.
Goodman: Everyone loved it. Then characters like Genji and Bastion and Sombra...
Day: Sombra. That took a long time!
Goodman: Yeah, they were just brutal. Huge shifts early on like, "OK, that's not working. Let's try something else completely different." It really depends right now. Our future hero is looking pretty good unreleased, so I'm hopeful.
Grayson: Radically different from the other heroes?
Goodman: We try not to make heroes that are similar to others. I don't want to make another super long-range hitscan sniper character that's like, "OK, why is this here? I already have Widowmaker." As you can see from Sombra, we definitely have a lot more areas that we haven't explored yet.
Grayson: Lastly, I'm gonna poke at a sore spot: People don't love Roadhog's hook. What's going on there? Are you gonna change it?
Goodman: Yeah. There is actually a big Hook 2.0 pass that we're planning, actually pretty soon. Originally it was like, "OK, fix small things here. Fix small things here. OK, somebody posted another video." Then we try to fix that. It got a point like, "OK, maybe we need to step back and revisit implementation of this and try to make it a little more solid across the board, so the results are more expected and consistent." I don't have a date on exactly when that will be, because we're just about to start it, but we do have plans to clean all that up to make it all to better.
Grayson: Is it going to fundamentally change how the hook works? Because right now some people think it's hitscan, even though it's not.
Goodman: Yeah. The fact that people think it is, is already a problem, right? We definitely want to make sure that it's consistent and people understand how it works. That's a big part. He's still gonna have the hook to pull people in. It should just, hopefully...
Grayson: Not go through walls?
Goodman: Not go through walls. Not cause those BS moments where I was hidden behind a car, and it pulled my head up over the car. Nothing like that.