Before Overwatch's latest character, Sombra, was unveiled at BlizzCon over the weekend, she was the focal point of an alternate reality game (ARG) that lasted months. It was like a hydra. Fans would reach the end of one countdown, only for the belligerent beast to sprout two more. At BlizzCon, I spoke to two of Overwatch's designers about that.
Before Overwatch even came out, there were Sombra-related hints sprinkled throughout its beta. However, things didn't kick into high gear until June and July, when people started uncovering QR codes and other ARG trademarks. Time and updates beget more clues. There were codes, cryptic scrawlings in developer videos and unsolvable mysteries. Some people even resorted to actual hacking to find out more about the hacker hero/boop-fu master. But as the seasons changed and the countdown timers grew arbitrary, people began to feel like the ARG was overstaying its welcome. Shortly before BlizzCon, a lot of Overwatch fans were sick of it. In the beginning, they thought their hard work was gonna unlock Sombra, but they came to realise it'd all been a droning drum roll for a BlizzCon reveal.
Overwatch lead hero designer Geoff Goodman, who helped organise the ARG before it began, but wasn't as directly involved after that, told me that he understands people's ire. Blizzard was paying attention during the ARG. They weren't deaf to the outcry.
"We were definitely taking the feedback," he said during an interview. "I think it was fair, the feedback. We're not very good at ARGs. We've never done one before."
Don't take that as an admission of failure, though. Goodman is happy that Blizzard went for it with Sombra. "Overall, I think it was a success," he said. "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."
Sombra is, after all, kind of a troll. She pokes and prods. She plays with her food. She makes Reaper feel like a dick. From the get-go, Blizzard's goal was to give players a glimpse of that.
"We have this new and interesting character that's all about hacking, but what does that even mean, right?" artist Rachel Day told me. "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."
That said, Blizzard still communicated that in the language of ARGs, convoluted puzzles where people expect pay-off at least equal to the effort they put in. And while the ARG finally, mercifully came to a conclusion some considered exciting, others felt let down when, OF COURSE, Sombra hacked BlizzCon. Blizzard considers it a learning experience, something I learned after I decided to just straight up ask if they thought there were too many damn countdowns.
"I think the biggest thing was the timing maybe could have been better on it," replied Goodman. "That was the biggest lesson."
"I think we were anticipating it taking a little bit longer for people to solve things," added Day.
"They were just on the ball every time," said Goodman. "I think that made those windows a little longer than the others might have been."
I was curious, though, if Blizzard ever planned to end the ARG sooner, rather than draw it out all the way until BlizzCon. "BlizzCon was the goal for a long time," said Goodman. I asked if they ended up having to add more segments to the ARG than originally planned once players started tearing through it, and Goodman replied that he wasn't certain, but "I wouldn't be surprised if they did, actually."
Looking toward the future, Blizzard doesn't have any more ARGs planned for Overwatch characters, but they're not entirely off the table, either. It depends on the character, really.
"We don't always just want to do a new ARG," said Goodman. "We don't want it to be like, 'Oh, here's your new hero. Here's a new ARG.'" Ultimately, the character decides the medium.
"We like to build up the personality of our heroes and show their backstory before they're revealed completely," said Day. "Like we did with Junkrat and Roadhog, right? We had the whole Moment In Crime thing."
As for who's next, Blizzard's not saying yet. Last we heard, a couple of new heroes were showing promise internally, with one potentially arriving early next year. How will we meet them? Impossible to say right now. But my vote is for something that doesn't last multiple months. Maybe a movie? Or a quick cup of coffee?