It's well-documented that Tracer was Overwatch's first playable hero, but before the game was ever playable, another character helped hammer out Overwatch's identity. Surprisingly, it was Torbjorn.
During a GDC panel earlier today, Overwatch art director Bill Petras and assistant art director Arnold Tsang explained, among other things, how Blizzard moulded the game in Torbjorn's image.
"The dwarven blacksmith [archetype], Torbjorn, was so integral in not only bridging that gap between classic Blizzard and Overwatch, but also in how he helped develop our art style," said Tsang. "He wasn't the first hero that made it into the game — that was Tracer — but artistically we used Torbjorn as our art visual target, and he was the first one we modelled. We did a lot of our R&D around Torbjorn."
Torbjorn was the first hero they really fleshed out visually, and his look influenced everything from other heroes to the game's levels to the overall tone and vibe of the game. Here's an early concept:
Similar to the way Torbjorn is now, but a bit more... restrained. Overwatch as we now know it relies on exaggerated character designs and immediately recognisable silhouettes, and that began when Blizzard art director Sam "Samwise" Didier stepped in and gave his two cents on Torbjorn.
"You want everything in your visual design to say something about your hero," said Tsang. "So Sam was like, 'What are these blue Tron lights? What if, instead, his belly was, like, a living furnace?' So he was steaming with molten energy. And then he had this random claw, and Sam was like, 'What if that's the way he manipulates molten steel? You've gotta have that all tie together.'"
Torbjorn then became the test case for level art. As the team worked on Overwatch's first level, Temple of Anubis, they inserted art of Torbjorn into it to make sure they were on the right track.
"Whatever he felt like, his stylisation, had to fit into the world," said Petras. "You'll see him appearing in a lot of the early images. We were really careful to make sure the level of exaggeration was correct. Did the world feel cohesive? Was there too much detail? Should we pull it back? Should we let the hero just be the main focus? So we were constantly evaluating Torbjorn along the way, too."
The Tsang dropped an interesting tidbit: Torbjorn is named after a Blizzard technical artist, Torbjorn Malmer. "It made sense, because he brought the art and technology together so well," said Tsang. "It seemed like a fitting homage."
So actually, Overwatch owes its look and feel to multiple Torbjorns.