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Creating The Colorful Cast Of Overwatch

by Luke Walaszek on Apr 19, 2016 at 03:40 PM

With Overwatch, Blizzard Entertainment will introduce its first new IP in nearly two decades. For the studio that produced such beloved worlds as Azeroth and Sanctuary, that’s a big deal. Bringing the world of Overwatch to life takes more than just interesting character designs and appealing map layouts; it’s about making characters that players care about. Overwatch is filled with a cast of playable heroes and villains, each with their own motivations and desires. Supplemental media products, like animated shorts and comics, help to flesh out the stars of the game. We spoke with Blizzard’s director of story and creative development James Waugh and senior game designer Michael Chu on where and how story and gameplay intersect in Overwatch.

What role do you feel plot and narrative play in multiplayer games like this?
Chu: At Blizzard, we're storytellers. What we do is tell stories in any medium we approach, whether it's in game, out of the game, in animated shorts, or in comics. So when we were approaching making Overwatch, it was definitely something we were focused on. We knew we didn't want to just make a multiplayer shooter. We also wanted to introduce a new Blizzard IP, the first one in 17 or 18 years. 

That stuff's important because even in a multiplayer shooter, you're gonna make these heroes, these levels, and you need that layer of story to help inspire and define what the experience is going to be. For us, it totally makes sense, even for a game that doesn't have an explicit linear narrative, to still have all these elements of context and story from a greater universe. 

Waugh: I think one of the things that's been super cool about working with Mike on the other story and transmedia side is that there's been a really great synergy between our two groups. We'd both build a story and it would kind of reverse inform what would go in the map and vice versa. It just made the maps feel so much more real and lived in, as if there was a whole world that was realized. 

Did any character designs come from backstories, or was it generally the other way around?
Chu: It's pretty interesting. On the team, we say that ideas can come from anywhere. We generally break them down into three things: One is there is a specific gameplay role the game needs. We think the game needs an easier to learn, more approachable hero like Soldier: 76. Another way is that one of our really talented artists, Arnold Tsang, will just draw this idea for a different hero, and he shows it to us and we immediately go, “We want to make that hero.” And we figure out what the abilities are going to be and how they fit into the universe. Then I think the third inspiration is if there's something in the story we want to get across. 

Actually, the character of Soldier: 76 is a really good example of when all three of those things came together at the same moment. We wanted to tell more in the story of Overwatch, and Soldier: 76 is a character who's seen the different eras of Overwatch, leading it and being a part of it and afterwards. At the same time, we wanted to introduce this more approachable character to fill a niche we thought we had, and also Arnold drew this character who was just so cool. I think the best characters come from when they're inspired in all those directions.

Can you talk about the decision to flesh out this media in comics and animation? Why those forms?
Waugh: Like Mike was saying before, when we set out to do Overwatch we realized we had a world on our hands and each character felt like they were their own franchise. And I think that was a guiding tenet in developing them. What we realized was that we wanted to tell stories. We had something bigger than the multiplayer, which is amazing on its own, but at Blizzard we have a kind of tradition of building out worlds that many games can populate and many media types can populate. 

At its core it comes down to passion. We wanted to tell this story. We wanted to know more about these characters. On the other hand, we also look at it as a development philosophy. In some ways it helps us incubate ideas while we're working in different media types that make us ask different questions about these characters, different questions about the world. So, again, we've done it with WoW and all our franchises. They feed into each other, and they make us better in all realms. 

But ultimately it comes down to telling stories and giving each of these characters the richness and depth that we think the art and gameplay justifies. 

Going off that idea of world building, the setting in Overwatch is almost a utopia. It's a very clean, near-future Earth. Was that always the intended setting for this project? 
Chu: When we started to think about the world these characters would live in, this idea of Earth, but in the future, jumped out, and we really just ran with it. I think what we always wanted to do was do the Blizzard version of Earth where it's this optimistic, inspirational, bright, and vibrant vision of the future.

I think the reason we set it in the near future, which is where we always imagined it, was so that we could take advantage of science-fiction concepts like smart robots, artificial intelligence, battle suits, etc., but we could still have stuff that was familiar from the world we inhabit. When you're in King's Row, you see Big Ben. You see familiar landscapes. Basically, that way you have familiarity, even when we're in the future. 

Waugh: Early on, I remember being in a meeting with Jeff Kaplan and he was saying there were a bunch of ideas on the table and a bunch of directions we could take, but I think everyone was most excited when he said he liked the near-future Earth because it was a world worth fighting for. And that crystallized the project in many ways, and the decision making about where we wanted it to go. We didn't want it to be a dark, grim sci-fi. We wanted it to be aspirational and hopeful, and many great stories could be told and heroes could rise. I think the game quickly coalesced around that notion. 

You mentioned a "Blizzard version of the Earth." Could you both talk about what that means to you? What are the ideals in a Blizzard version of the world?
Chu: At its core it's the idea of taking the things about our Earth, the cultures, the environments in it, and finding the ones that pop out and adding to them, and in some ways, it's the Earth we wished we lived in. An example we always use is Hollywood. We want to capture that feeling of what you imagine Hollywood is on your way to L.A., stepping off the plane and thinking, "Wow, this awesome place!” And I think when we're going around we're looking for things like that, touchstones and things that speak to us and we just try to make them bigger and larger than life. 

Waugh: I think Chris Metzen and I talk a lot about the storytelling values at this company and the type of worlds we want to build, the type of stories we want to make and touch people with. We see Blizzard as a hero factory. We want people to feel aspirational and noble and really aspire to do greatness. That ethos is woven into our culture and the type of content we make, in Warcraft or even Diablo which is a bleak universe where noble characters rise. Same with Starcraft.

I think it's a future filled with heroes and hope and optimism. Now, keep in mind you don't get heroes without adversaries and some darkness here and there. It's not like we're creating heroes to the exclusion of evil. But I think we're most attracted to talking about hope and building characters in a world people aspire to creating. "Don't accept the world as it appears to be – dare to see it as it could be." That line really inspires us as we were working on the story, cracking the script. I think that line was excavated early on from the development process and became a way we look at this universe from the start. I think it's the way we hope to inspire others to look at the world. I hope our games bring forth that sentiment. 

Next: Find out about Overwatch's adversaries and some of the developers' favorite characters.

If you're a hero factory, how do you create adversaries that are an appropriate counter for that?
Chu: Great heroes need great villains to go up against. I think in Overwatch, definitely we acknowledge the fact that we're gonna need those. We have a few in there now, a handful, and they all have different motivations. They have different desires. I think one of the things we wanted to explore was different levels, shades of grey, to these characters. We have bad guys who range from manic, chaotic troublemakers like the Junkers, Roadhog and Junkrat, but you also have characters who are part of more codified organization like Reaper and Widowmaker. 

We also have some characters we consider as adversaries who are a little less evil, a little more nuanced. Hanzo, for example, who basically comes from this family of ninja assassins, or a character like Symmetra who believes she's serving the greater good, though there's questions if that's what is happening. I think we wanted that whole spectrum of characters just like the good guys. 

Something that comes up a lot is the idea that every villain is the hero of his own story. Their point of view is right and we've justified their behavior. In the case of the Junkers in particular, they don't really need the justification because they're just having fun and that's part of what motivates them. But Symmetra definitely has a reason for doing what she's doing. Hanzo as well. So I think it's important for us to think about these characters as a bit more complex and layered, characters you want to engage with rather than being two dimensional.

Waugh: We're definitely interested in diving into the thought process and their motivations and I think you see that with the "Alive" short. 

Chu: Definitely, yeah. That was a development philosophy with each of the shorts and comics we're doing and developing. It's about getting to know the characters. It comes from a character-first place when we're developing these shorts. It’s not about the big broad Overwatch narrative to tell. We're aware of that and we're accounting for that, but we want you to know why Winston does what he does, we want you to see Widowmaker and know who she is, what drives her. That's where we start the process of developing this content.

How do you think those motivations effect players? Do you think it gives them a better connection to the game? Why are those so important?
Chu: I think we want players to be more interested in the characters they're playing. In the game, it's more just getting hints to their motivations. We try to bring that out through the way we speak about what they're doing, they're able to get personalities across. But also, recently we added the ability for characters to converse amongst themselves, they talk to each other, they have special dialogue that they say to the other characters. What we really wanted to do is start having players ask questions about these characters and then in some of these other forms of media, shorts or comics, we can delve further into those questions, provide some answers.

Who would be the target audience for these shorts? Established fans? New players?
Waugh: I think it's everyone. Obviously it's the game first in many ways. We want people to engage with the game and we want them to engage with this content if it's the type of media they like to consume. We want our players happy with the work we're doing. But like I said, we look at Overwatch as something that has the potential to be a great IP, a great franchise and a great story world for characters to grow out of and to tell stories in. I think the majority of people who engage this content are probably players, but I would think the stories could go outside just the playership and bring new players in or bring people in who will be rabid Overwatch fans because it's a great world with some fantastic characters. 

Is there a character whose story you’re particularly attached to? 
Chu: For me, I obviously want to get into all these characters' stories. We've talked a lot about where we want to take every character, their backstory.

If I wanna pick one I particularly like the character of Genji. Throughout his life, in the backstory, he's interacted with a lot of the other characters in the universe and he's changed quite a bit. There's an idea that when he started off he's kind of a playboy, he didn't take his life very seriously. He's part of this ninja crime family but he didn't really want to be part of the business. Then this really tragic event happens with him and his brother and then it left him on the edge of death and he was ultimately saved by being turned into a cyborg. So he has this whole time in his life when he's in Overwatch and dealing with what his life is now that he's something more than human, and what he's become. It's this really interesting character path and I'd love to be able to tell those stories.

Waugh: It's tricky. It's like Mike said, they're all pretty cool, and I like all of theme in many different ways. I've gravitated more towards probably Winston. Having written that episode I feel like I was in his weird ape head quite a bit. I like the optimism that a character like him provides. I'm a little schmaltzy; I like that outlook on the world.

Outside of Winston, I'd say McCree, because the other side of me is probably an existential cowboy on some level. I love Sergio Leone movies. Anybody with a BAMF belt buckle has to be pretty cool. There's an interesting story to be told with that character as well, and you'll see it in one of the comics coming out.

Can you talk a little bit about some of the non-game influences on Overwatch's narrative? 
Chu: That's a good question. We take inspiration from everything; I think we're all voracious consumers of popular culture, regular culture.

I was gonna say, Street Fighter. Obviously the art style. The way they have a diverse and international cast. That's always been real interesting and something that's been around as long as that franchise, which has been quite a long time, at this point. You can see it in the art style and the way we embody the heroes as the driving, most important parts of the universe. So I'd say that's an inspiration.

Waugh: To Mike's point, I'd say that everyone at Blizzard – we're just as much geeks who love pop culture as the people who I hope are consuming this stuff and playing our games. At the end of the day we find that most creators are regurgitating at some level what they take in. Not copying, but we end up collecting all these influences and making them something new and completely different in this melting pot of all the things that have influenced us in our lives. I mean, clearly there's Marvel influences here, we all group up reading comic books, clearly. There's Star Wars influences, Street Fighter. In many ways, Overwatch is a product of all the amazing content that has inspired us, put together in this really fascinating way that gets to include it all. 

Chu: We took a lot of inspiration from the world around us. When we decided to do near future we were really intrigued by exploring Earth, different countries, different cultures, locations, just delving into that and bringing our world to life. 

You talked a bit about the characters coming from different backgrounds. Can you talk about the role diversity plays in Overwatch's cast?
Chu: It's an important value to us. We want people to look at the cast of characters and identify with them. That isn't necessarily to say that's because they come from the same place or have the same hair color or something like that. It means that we want these characters to have different backgrounds, different professions, different ideals, they want different things. They come from different situations. I think we are interested in pursuing diversity and making our cast representative of the Earth we're taking inspiration from. So I think that's very important to us. 

Waugh: You know, one of our values as a company is think globally. I think we drive a lot of our creative decisions based on that. We know we’re in a global marketplace and that we have fans from around the world who love these games. The last thing we want to do is make content that doesn't speak to them. So we look at this as a truly global game and we do everything we can to think globally.

Overwatch takes place after the prime of this group of heroes. It's almost like it's a sequel to a movie that's never been made. Why did you decide to set the game in a period where the team's past its prime?
Chu: That's a good question. I think when we were starting to develop the Overwatch IP we identified these different eras in the story. One is basically the Omnic Crisis, the big event that set all the things in motion in the universe and the story of the birth of Overwatch. That's one era we're interested in. There's another era that's the Golden Age of Overwatch, the point when Overwatch had the most effect on the world, kept global peace, inspired technology and development and everything. A lot of the heroes in the game were in Overwatch at this time.

Then we had this other idea, which was this post-Overwatch era. Overwatch fell apart for various reasons and some of the agents have moved on to other things, some have retired from their acts of heroism. I think that particular era was interesting because it was about the world not moving on from Overwatch, but being in the process of living without them, and things are starting to go wrong. 

We can explore how the different characters react to this new setting. Some of them are really damaged by it like Solider 76. Overwatch was his life, his dream, his vision. And to have the people he served turn against him and see how he feels about that, that's a really interesting character concept. You have a character like Tracer who loved Overwatch, and being a hero was everything she loved – it was the best part of her life, and after only a few years it was taken away from her. So she decides she'll keep doing good. And then there's a character like Winston, who feels that Overwatch can't come back because it's illegal, but he feels the world still needs Overwatch. I think that event is just a really interesting place to explore these characters and tell this story.

Waugh: You know, it's funny; I don't think it's 100-percent conscious when we were developing it, but I mentioned Star Wars as an influence, and I don't think anyone said it out loud, but Star Wars actually starts after the Clone Wars, after the events when the heroes have to rebuild themselves. And I think there's something instantly dramatic about that. I think we kind of see it. We built out that backstory. We know what it is. Honestly, placing our camera here creates so much more mystery. We can’t wait for the story to slowly come out in various different ways and have players get the full picture. I think we just felt it would be more dramatic and there would be so much more story that would bubble up to the surface. So ultimately we put our characters in a place of jeopardy and peril rather than a place of assuredness when Overwatch was at its height. 

Chu: It also gives us the opportunity to have a lot of conflict for the heroes to deal with. It's just a really interesting period in the story.

The Star Wars influence was something I saw right away, the other thing it reminded me of was The Incredibles. 
Waugh: Which is also a movie we always love. It's just a soup of pop culture that's infested our brain. You never know where you’ll get your inspiration from.

The first Overwatch comic short starring the gunslinger McCree launches on April 21.  For more Overwatch coverage, check out our interview with Blizzard's Jeff Kaplan, or watch our Test Chamber of the beta. To read more on how characters set Overwatch apart, click here