Until the recent inclusion of Paris, the biggest change to the Overwatch roster of late had been the inclusion of a city near and dear to many Blizzard franchises: Busan. In a hour-long chat with multiple members of the Blizzard team, we spoke about the entire design and level building process for importing the South Korean port city into the world of Overwatch, which started with the animated short for D.Va.
While Overwatch has just introduced Baptiste to the roster and the new capture point Paris to the roster, the inclusion of Busan last year was arguably more interesting. It's one of the most complex maps in the Overwatch map pool, with lots of long sight lines, exposed capture points and, particularly on the MEKA Base, cover that appears and reappears every 13 seconds.
Busan has already featured a few times as a tiebreaker map in the Overwatch League, with Florida Mayhem upsetting Chengdu Hunters and Toronto Defiant completing their comeback against Houston Outlaws on Busan. What was especially promising was how Florida was able to break through the GOATS composition in the final two points, although Toronto and Defiant favoured more DPS-heavy compositions.
But when the Overwatch team was building Busan, the genesis didn't come from a particular need to affect the meta or the game's competitive scene. Once the decision was made to go with D.Va for the next animated short, Overwatch's art and design team began shelling out the rough ideas for the map based off themes that would be present in the animated short.
"We knew it was going to be a control map, because in our lineup that was the mode that made the most sense," Michael McInerney, senior Overwatch level designer, told Kotaku Australia. "The number of maps we try to keep fairly balanced, so we don't have 2 payload maps and 5 control maps, and by having it be a control map it gives us an opportunity to have three varied locations that represent South Korea."
Assistant game director Aaron Keller added that, like the rest of the Overwatch maps, Busan strictly adhered to a colour hierarchy that prioritises what will jump out visually at any given moment. "We have this value across the team that really affects that the environment artists treat colour," he said. "We kind of have a hierarchy of what we want people to see and react quickly to; the effects are the most saturated, the most colourful, the most bright visuals we have in the entire game."
"Underneath that are heroes, so heroes can still be really colourful and bright and vibrant, but not as much as the effects. We always want you to be able to see what a hero is doing, first and foremost, because those are the sort of things that are going to affect our gameplay decisions. And beneath that is the environment."
The team already knew the animated short would feature a palace on the ocean, the neon-lit skyscrapers of downtown Busan, and a few shots from within the MEKA Base. And since a control map had already been locked it, the team had a logical starting point for each of the three environments they would focus on.
Dion Rogers, Overwatch's lead environment artist, explained that there were several developers on the team that either grew up in, or had visited, Busan. So along with a reference trip to the city - not unlike a scouting trip that Hollywood studios might do for a movie - the team began crosschecking their internal experiences with the city to try and highlight the most important cultural aspects, not just to locals but things foreigners would notice as well.
"Culturally, karaoke is a big thing there, and we even learned there's a different word they use [for karaoke], so we used that word inside our version to try to be more accurate to Busan in reality," Rogers said. "When we try to do the art, we want to capture how people feel in the place along with the culture of the place."
Early sketches of Busan's city level. Images: Blizzard
With the help of former locals, as well as advice and suggestions from staffers in Blizzard's Korean office, a team runs over the assets to ensure everything is culturally appropriate. The level designers then begin shelling out the basic structure of the map, establishing the general symmetry, sight lines and overall themes they wanted for each point.
"But a lot of what dictates some of that stuff is we're always trying to follow a fantasy with a particular map," Keller said. "With Sanctuary in Busan, it feels like it's this kind of organic, open-air palace area in Busan."
But following that theme can sometimes cause practical issues. With the Sanctuary level in particular, the direction to keep the map as open as possible became a stumbling block for the design: players were able to see down vast lengths of the map, and the amount of visible area to Pharah caused performance issues as well.
"The non-ocean side of the Sanctuary point gave us *so* many problems for such a long time," Keller said. "And we were trying to keep the point as open as we can to give people room to move around, but then kind of block some of these really extreme diagonal sight lines if you were to take a flanking route to it."
"There's probably 3 or 4 of us that spent several days, literally moving blocks back and forth, metre over metre, before we kind of finally solve this sight line [problem]. Because the control maps are all a mirrored version of each other, so it can get really difficult as you're sliding things in and out of that axis. As soon as you get a bit of room, you can see across the whole map. And that point is really open, so we have to make changes pretty late in the development process to Sanctuary, because as Pharah you could get up in the air and just look across the entire point, that whole entire section, and it crushed us on the performance side."
Part of the reason why Pharah can be is such a challenge is, not only because of the need to hit 60fps on consoles as well as the game's scaleable nature on PC, Overwatch actually loads the entire map into memory every time. The idea, as Keller explained, was to ensure a seamless experience on all parts of the map, especially for heroes that might traverse large areas in a single blink (like Sombra).
"Busan was so incredibly challenging, because every single point has such a unique theme to it. And when we load our maps, we load the entire map at one time. We don't want there to be any sort of loading between different parts of the map, or if you're a Sombra and you teleport from one side of the map to another side, we don't want there to be any sort of loading there, so we do our best to get everything loaded into memory, and Busan was really difficult."
Rogers added that while the Overwatch engine might load the entire map into memory at once, it still has the capacity to occlude parts of the map so that players aren't tasked with rendering the full load of everything at once. The artists also work on placing buildings in a particular way, using larger buildings to hide parts of the level (a technique developers Panic Button used to increase performance for Wolfenstein 2 on the Switch).
"We also have to pay to attention to how much our artists are able to hide," Rogers said. "We have technology that we can use to basically occlude parts of the level from the players so that they're not drawing the whole [level], but in a very open space it's very difficult to do this. Especially in [Busan's] Sanctuary, pretty much any character that can fly can look up at the entire space at the same time, so there's a balance of how much polygons we'd use to build certain spaces because of those reasons."
And it's not just the individual point that Blizzard has to think about hiding - it's the other two levels as well. Keller explained that not only was the team moving objects within Sanctuary to improve sight lines and performance, but they were also moving objects outside of the map - because at certain points of development, it was possible to view the other Busan levels.
"Because of the nature of the openness of that level, it wasn't just with everything inside that level, but at a certain point of development you could actually see the city part of Busan, as well as D.Va's mech base from the Sanctuary, so we were moving a lot of things from inside that part of map. We were also moving, literally moving mountains outside of it to block as much of the rest of the map as we could."
A recurring theme throughout my hour long chat with the developers was the need to reflect Busan as honestly as possible - at least for the bits that were drawn and inspired by real-life - and allowing players to fully explore areas teased in the animated trailer. The MEKA Base obviously isn't something that has a real-life parallel, but being a key component of D.Va's lore, the team wanted to flesh it out so players would be able to explore D.Va's room, what her living space would be like, and so on.
What wasn't a major factor was the need to build Busan around gameplay specifics, like the need to highlight a particular composition or from some particular need in the data. The three Blizzard developers explained that while Overwatch collects a lot of data on players throughout the course of a game, the developers tend to lean on their gut feeling and experience on what the game and map might need in any particular moment.
"We're also kind of looking back at a lot of the old maps we made, and always trying to put some variety into the game with the maps we release," Keller explained. "I think a lot of it is us trying to create variety for players from point to point and map to map, and just trusting our instincts as players of the game."
As the map began to take shape, certain elements were shifted around, introduced or removed for various reasons. One element taken out of the Downtown level was a rotating staircase, the second time Blizzard has tried - and failed - to implement such a feature in a map, with the idea first attempted on Ilios.
"One other thing we changed on the [Downtown] side that was super interesting - and it wasn't there in the very first playtest, but it happened a few weeks into development - we added an escalator," Keller recalled. "So when you'd go down into that point, because as you mentioned earlier, you have the high ground before you approach the point, there was actually this revolving, sort of moving staircase that would take you down there."
"And it was kind of hilarious the kind of things people would do with it - Torbjorn's, Bastions, all sorts of things that we would put on it. But in the end of the day it just got in the way of gameplay, and too unpredictable, especially when it was behind you, but it was a pretty fun thing to have for a little while." The elevator was eventually cut due to readability issues - people would try to run from the enemy, but end up getting stuck in the escalator instead.
Most of the general doodads and design made it from the early stages of art into the final product, although the developers noted that there were a few small changes along the way. One example was a series of scrolling movie posters outside of the movie theatre (located opposite the point in Downtown). The way the posters scrolled created "a really odd parallax effect", making it visually difficult to identify where the level geometry was. Blizzard eventually ended up scrapping the scrolling poster idea, going for a fade-in and fade-out effect instead.
Rogers also noted that - and this is something that you can identify across other maps - Downtown becomes much less visually busy as players progress towards the point. "The capture point has much less signage; it kind of chills out as the characters move towards the capture point. The level of density of signage settles a bit ... you read mostly players instead of the city, basically," he said.
I asked whether the team had considered the impact on healers, especially the lower mobility characters like Zenyatta or Ana, given the largely open design of all three of Busan's maps. Even the MEKA Base, which has cover that automatically drops up and pops down, as well as other beams and a small room adjacent to the point, is predominately exposed to high ground, which can make it difficult for healers without an escape or blink ability to engage on the point without being exposed.
"There wasn't any intentional consideration for the non-mobility healing heroes," McInerney said. Keller noted that the Downtown and MEKA Base sides also have a lot of space for healers to fan out and support characters on the point, while Sanctuary has a lot of objects blocking line of sight. These features serve a double duty as well: not only do they help lower mobility characters assist in controlling a point, but they can also be useful for flanking characters like Tracer or Sombra if they need to disengage.
"All of our maps are so small that it's just about every single piece of geometry has to serve as some sort of double duty," Keller added.
There was one instance, however, of an object being placed in the map to impede a particular character. Originally, the bullet train adjacent to the control point on Downtown wasn't part of the initial designs. But McInerney explained that he wanted a check against the potential power of Pharah on the point, and so the train was implemented to ensure Pharah couldn't fly around the back of the point with abandon.
"So you can be hovering off point, but still it's a dangerous game for you, and then that column in the middle with the schedule, that was supposed to be an element to sort of help her but also help other people," he said.
There's a lot of little elements about Busan that have made it a solid addition to the Overwatch roster: the inclusion of long sight lines to assist snipers, while placing the control points off-centre; design that encourages teams to engage off the point; and dynamic map elements that offer skilled players the opportunity to calculate movements and attacks on the point.
The map's also starting to provide a tonic for the GOATS-heavy meta, at least in professional play: Overwatch League teams have been deploying Hammond/triple DPS compositions, concentrating on individual battles rather than the deathball-style of play of GOATS. It's a composition that has predominately featured on Busan, but as more players and teams become comfortable with the looser style, there's a good chance we'll see it as an alternative to the attrition-heavy meta fans loathe.