Overwatch: Mulitplayer first person shooter

I’m not going to get into what it was going to be, or what we wanted it to be. I can tell you what it was: it was frustrating. It was a big, giant idea, it was almost like six videogames in one, it was the most ambitious thing we’ve ever done. We wrestled with it for a long time. And it... it sucked. We couldn’t figure it out. We couldn't crack it.”

Chris Metzen, Blizzard’s keeper of lore, is sitting alongside Jeff Kaplan in the Blizzcon press room, addressing a small assortment of journalists at the end of a long, exhausting day. The game he is talking about is Titan, the company’s canned second stab at a Massively Multiplayer game, and a game that almost broke some of the best developers and designers in the world.

“Imagine this amazing team, just frustrated, like a band trying to write a song: why can’t we make it sound awesome? We can’t find the harmony, whatever. And so when we decided to go another way... suddenly, boom, the music just exploded.”

The ‘other way’ that Metzen is referring to is Overwatch, a game announced mere hours beforehand. It is the first new IP from Blizzard since it lifted the lid on Starcraft 18 years ago. It also marks the company’s first attempt at a first-person shooter.

It was an announcement met with an enormous amount of relief from Blizzard. Apart from questions raised when it registered the Overwatch trademark months ago, it managed to avoid any leaks about the game and keep people guessing over what twist this year’s Blizzcon opening would have in store.

Very few expected what we got a 6 vs 6 team based multiplayer shooter. Thanks to a very Blizzard cartoony style many thought it would be similar to Team Fortress 2, but it is a game that plays quite differently thanks to one of its central concepts that it is a game based around heroes, not classes.
On show were the first 12 heroes, a diverse assortment of looks and play styles
On show were the first 12 heroes, an incredibly diverse assortment of looks and play styles. Take Winston for example, a super intelligent gorilla from the moon who packs a lot of armour and a short range lightning gun. Or Tracer, whose signature move is being able to teleport and reverse time in small amounts. Or Bastion, a robot who transforms into a quite beastly shielded turret.

It is clear from even a quick glance at the character line-up that the fact Overwatch is a brand new IP has allowed for a great freedom when developing these heroes. It has been a blast of fresh air for the development team and is a process that they have clearly enjoyed.

As the game’s Art Director, Bill Petras, put it, “A new universe from Blizzard opens up so many doors”. But more so than that, he pointed out that the decision to set the game on a future version of earth has also helped a lot. “Setting it 60 years in the future means you can come up with these crazy abilities and you don’t really have to explain how people are teleporting etc.”

This lack of ‘rules’ when it comes to the heroes has also meant that the process of designing them is pretty open. As Senior Technical Director Michael Elliot told us, it is “Very organic”. However it isn't always a one way street according to Scott Mercer, principal designer at Blizzard, “Winston started out as concept art, we said that’s awesome, we are doing that, we’ll figure out the gameplay later. Every step of the way we are all feeding off each other.”

Michael was also quick to point out that “it isn't just artists and designers either, the team itself is a huge mixing ground for all ideas, and we are always open to hearing ideas. That’s what I enjoy the most actually, that ideation process of the heroes”

Even more refreshing is that, when we asked if any of their hero ideas had gone too far, Scott told us “not yet. We might get there, you never know until you get there. The wonderful thing about Overwatch is that you might not. The world is amazing, there are so many possibilities. It’s all a blank page and we have barely started writing on it. So we’ll see.”

This isn't to say that all the effort is going into making a massive number of heroes, the level design is also incredibly impressive. All the ones on show had an assortment of major routes intermingled with shortcuts, both high and low, allowing for a variety of strategies.

What struck us the most was that, because Blizzard is developing this for PC, not console, the maps have a refreshing amount of verticality to them, something that works much better with a keyboard and mouse than it does with a controller. Not that this didn't bring its own set of challenges for the team.

“Not only does it make for even more interesting design space on the heroes, I think it makes for a lot more interesting maps.” according to Scott “You are not just looking at the ground. Actually getting people to look up in a map is really hard. But here you have Farrah flying by raining rockets at you”

From an Art perspective Bill pointed out “It gives you a larger sense of the world too. Like, on the Temple of Anubis map, going through those streets, at least having another layer above you on the rooftops really opens the game up.

“One of the things we look at artistically too is yes, you will be looking up, so we carefully make sure that the map itself doesn't get too complicated either so if you do have to look up it’s clearly readable where you should go.” Bill continued, with the major challenge for his team making the levels and characters identifiable even in the heat of battle, what he refers to as ‘readability’.

Readability manifests itself in several ways. “If there is a cluster of buildings and you can only land on one, the other buildings should be in the background, they should be subtle and we would put much more attention on the building you should be able to get to.” explains Bill. “For us it is enhancing the gameplay, as an artist on the team that always goes through our mind. And even for the heroes themselves, like Reaper for example, there is detail where you need it, you know, on the weapon in first person, but we didn't overdo it.”

It didn't take long once we actually jumped into a game to see the classic Blizzard influences flowing throughout it. Each character has only three core abilities as well as one Ultimate ability that charges up as you play. This makes them quite simple to get your head around when thrown into a game, but there is clearly an enormous depth to them when used in conjunction with each other and with those of one’s team mates.

Even more importantly, the game is designed to provide a smoother path into online shooters than most of the other popular ones out there. As Scott explained to us: ‘We’ve made the game not quite as lethal as other shooters. That gives people the opportunity to interact with each other. It’s not just seeing a person spawn and they are dead within a few bullets. It’s a little bit slower paced in that regard.”

Not that it feels slow by any means. In our time spent ducking the 40 minute line-up for the press demo and playing the game on the Blizzcon floor we still encountered deft snipers capable of one-shotting us with Blackwidow, the long rifle specialist among the first 12 characters. But we also watched as other heroes used their abilities to make short work of the carefully perched snipers.

There was also much fun to be had buffing and defending our team, be it throwing out armour packs or taking advantage of Bastion’s shield to get a moment to line up our own shots at the enemy. Or waiting until they clustered up and using Winston’s leap ability to place ourselves in the middle of the pack and go to town with his lightning gun.

It’s clear that Overwatch has found that all too elusive quality of a shooter where kills and deaths aren't the be all and end all. Even on the end of round summary screen, kills are but a small stat at the bottom of the screen, subservient to the actual score.

“You get score from killing people, you get score from blocking damage with the shield, for taking out enemy turrets, for standing on an objective, for defending the Payload, for killing someone who is on those if you are the defender,” said Michael. “With score we can really promote team activities, beyond the Lone Wolf”

With a beta slated for 2015, the playable code at Blizzcon felt highly polished, and the classes easy to grasp, with plans for the full game to be widely approachable.

“Accessibility is always something that Blizzard has prided itself on (not just from a hardware standpoint) but making things simple to understand when you first log on.” explained Michael. “All the heroes have very simple abilities, but it’s in the interactions with the other heroes where you start to see the additional complexity.”

The final game will also feature matchmaking and tutorials, and we will start getting more of an idea of how these work once the game enters beta next year, by which point we expect to see more heroes, maps and modes on top of those we played.

Perhaps Metzen best described it when he talked about the effect that committing to Overwatch has had on the team.

“It’s been the funnest year of getting our feet back under us. Getting our surety back. That magnetic north thing; we found it again and it feels good. I hope that people look at Overwatch as a very clever game, but I’m telling you, under the hood, we needed this.”

“In a weird way it’s like a rebirth; keep it simple, keep it fun.”

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