Overwatch Production Director On Junkertown Map, Dad: 76, What’s Under Roadhog’s Mask
The past few days have been significant ones in the Overwatch community. Not only did Mei get her moment in the spotlight with a new animated character short, but we all got to see the reveal of a new escort map set in Junkrat and Roadhog’s old stomping grounds. The Junkertown map was accompanied by a funny new animated short, too. We spoke with Overwatch’s production director, Chacko Sonny, about the new map, experimental animation, and a host of other things. Did you know that Orisa used to be Zarya (kind of? sort of?)? Read on to learn what that means and much more.
Game Informer: Let’s get right to it! Tell me about the new Junkertown map!
Chacko Sonny: Junkertown is a map that I feel like started in a narrative conception. This was such fertile ground for exploration for the team, because we had these two heroes – Junkrat and Roadhog – which everybody loved. And they’re different in many ways than a lot of the other heroes, they have a different tone. I think even Terran [Gregory, cinematic project director] refers to it when he talks about the animated piece, he says most of the other animated pieces that we’ve done are focused on these themes of honor and hope and compassion and all this kind of stuff, and they’ve taken a different approach with Junkrat and Roadhog, because that’s the actual tenor of those characters.
We always knew that Junkertown was a place we had to go, and I know that [senior designer Michael] Chu had some really interesting ideas about how it fits into the world, so there was this rich sort of background behind Junkertown, narratively speaking, which is how it fits into the story. There’s a destroyed Omnic production facility, a factory city, they call them Omniums there, and it was destroyed by The Junkers. They wanted to keep that area for themselves, and it’s ruled by this character who is the big boss, The Queen. She was a former Omnic-combat gladiator who basically rose through the ranks in influence in power to become the leader of The Junkers, and she’s the queen of Junkertown. As you see in the animated piece, she’s thrown Junkrat and Roadhog out. You can even see in the map there’s a point where you get in and it shows The Queen’s edicts, and the last one is “Troublemakers will be exiled.” And who are the most troublemaking people that you know? Junkrat and Roadhog.
So they’ve been thrown out. There was a design for the payload, which had all of Junkrat and Roadhog’s riches that they’ve acquired – I shouldn’t say all, but much of the riches that they’ve accumulated through their heists around the world – on a payload along with some dynamite along the bottom. That was sort of the foundation for that animated piece. How are they getting back in, and what’s their plan? It’s a really unique map. It’s an escort map, and I know a lot of people have really been waiting for an escort map, with three distinct areas. The farm, town area just outside, where you see where Junkrat and Roadhog live, because they’ve been exiled. Then the interior of Junkertown, going through the areas with shops and different places where The Junkers will essentially get services like tattoos or go to a bar and maybe even do karaoke or something like that. Then in the back is the arena, where The Queen’s throne is, and her area where she keeps her own loot. It took a long time from the development standpoint to lock in the look and the feel, and that went through a lot of iteration both visually and from a design standpoint. We’re really happy where it turned out, and the playtesting has been fantastic. There are some really unique high-ground opportunities for players and there are some good sniping spots as well.
There’s that big rotating element in there, too.
Yeah, the fan. There are a lot of really clever ideas there. I’ll say this, because we’ve said it before: Everybody thinks to build Torbjorn’s turret on top of that, but imagine what Symmetra could do…
Oh, that would be just like a car wash!
When you’re playing the map yourself, do you prefer playing on attack or defense?
When I personally play this map, I love being on attack. There are so many really cool places for flanking, at least in the early part of the map. There are great ways to run around and harass the back line. There’s great height availability if you’re a Pharah player like me, you can bounce up and rain some justice from above. There’s a really, really tough push at the end that has this big U shape where you come around, but there’s also a lower portion, a bridge that goes under, and it has the remains of some Omnics in there. It’s an interesting way to get two fronts in there against a really concentrated group of defenders. It’s super challenging.
Why do you like Pharah? What’s going on there?
Oh, I sit in a room with a lot of designers, a lot of people who have played hundreds and hundreds of hours of this game, and I’m not as good as any of them. But I come from, in my own personal gameplay history, I used to be a big Unreal, Unreal Tournament guy, and the rockets feel good to me. It feels good. The other guy I play a lot is Soldier: 76, and Soldier is kind of like a gateway character to get you in and you start to understand and feel what it’s about. Certainly, those playstyles feel very comfortable to me. But it’s not all I play, let’s be fair. I’m a big Zarya guy. I love that style of soaking up all this damage, as much as you can, and then returning it to them. I will say, a fully charged Zarya is a thing of beauty. And I’ve been playing a ton of Orisa. It feels really good to be giving other players the shield that you need and then also pull enemies into the view of all these high-damage players that might otherwise be able to knock them out. It’s really fun.
The dynamic between Junkrat and Roadhog is really fun to watch, but what did Roadhog do to get kicked out? He seems like such a chill go-with-the-flow guy. Was it guilt by association?
We are going to be revealing stuff about that soon. I’m pretty sure it’s not out yet, but there’s a very interesting story behind that, and it further helps to highlight the differences between the two and their background and how they view the world and Junkertown in particular. You’ll learn a lot more about that very, very soon.
One of the interesting things about Roadhog is that you don’t know what he looks like. Is that a mystery that you don’t want to reveal? Do you, internally at Blizzard, have a good sense of what’s going on underneath that mask – whether or not you ever plan on revealing it to the rest of us?
[Long pause] I’m trying to think if I can even answer that. I think… there is a lot about Roadhog that is great as mystery. But there’s also a lot that we feel will help the overall story of Overwatch by revealing to players in pieces where it makes sense. This piece that I’m referring to that will give you some context about him and his relation to Junkrat and how they got thrown out of Junkertown I think will hopefully satisfy a lot of people in terms of learning a lot more about that. But there are still pieces that will be kept for further reveals later.
For more from Chacko Sonny, like how Soldier: 76 transformed into a dad, head to page two.
How’s Doomfist doing right now?
He’s doing great! Watching an incredible Doomfist player shake up a match with the way that he uses it is amazing. There’s nothing else like him in the game; there are no other melee brawlers that have this amazing combination of air attacks and things like that. It adheres so closely to that philosophy on Overwatch of each hero feeling like it’s unique and it has its own way of being played. The 25 personalities in the game, they’re not copies of one another, they are unique entities that your mindset switches when you play. Doomfist feels very good in that respect. We feel really good about how people are playing him.
We may have done some tweaking on him in the first week or so. He went to PTR and there was a lot of feedback – a lot of feedback that was actionable, and we feel good about the time that we put into PTR. People engage with it and they’re vocal and engage with that, and it’s super valuable to us. Even after it goes life and a broader audience gets to it, there’s feedback that they provide that’s useful to us to be able to tweak as quickly as we can. We want to be a game where we have that level of responsiveness, because it keeps the game healthy.
It’s been interesting to watch Soldier: 76’s character evolution since launch, as he’s shifted into a stereotypical “Get off my lawn!” dad. What happened?
It came from the community, really. I think one of the great things about the Overwatch team is that we are so aware of how the player base is reacting to the work that we’ve done, and we’re part of the forums and the Reddit and we love seeing the creativity that the players demonstrate around the characters. And it’s not just cosplay. It’s how they think of the characters, and all the stuff they’ve imagined around it. Some of that really resonates, and I think it was Halloween where we first saw the Dad: 76 sitting in his lawnchair with a little Jack-o-lantern there, and there were [Blizzard] artists who thought it was great and brought it into a spray.
Then there was Grillmaster: 76, which was the ultimate realization of that fantasy. I remember the first time we saw it, we have a meeting every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, where all the stuff that’s going on gets shown, and when they showed that, people just applauded. Even though we’d seen it in concept-art form many times before, when you finally see it in the game and you get the close up on the “A Salt Rifle,” it’s pretty good. I think the other part that got a lot of applause was the sandals with the socks.
When you’re working on these skins, how do you make sure that the character’s silhouette is still recognizable? Is there a limit or any major internal restrictions on what liberties you can take there?
There’s a lot of that. We have a tremendously talented group of artists that work on this, everyone from Arnold Tsang on the concept side of things to Renaud Galand who’s on the modeling side, to the technical artists, Dylan Jones, and on the animation side Ryan Denniston – there’s a whole crew of guys who I’m not mentioning, but these guys will look at a concept – the concepting occurs and Arne and Ben and those guys will come up with something amazing. “Hey, this is cool, it feels like it fits with who the character is, and it fits with the event,” or it further enhances lore and the narrative behind that character. Then there’s a round of iteration where all of the guys look at it. We have technical artists like Lan-Fang Chang who might look at it and say, “I don’t know if we can rig that correctly,” for whatever reason, “We might need to change the way that shape looks.” Or Ryan might say from an animation standpoint, “It’s not going to look right with the existing animations with this one piece, so we’ll have to change that.”
Then there are other things that in the concept phase may not get started for whatever reason, because it doesn’t fit or isn’t distinctive enough or it doesn’t have that same silhouette that’s recognizable. There’s a lot of iteration, but that’s the fun part. The best part when an idea comes through for concept review is you’ll see everyone chime in on a particular concept. “That’s incredible! We’ve got to make that skin!” There was one of those recently for something else that we’re working on, that I think it was midnight and I was like, “Must… make…” and sent it on back.
The storytelling in Overwatch is so sneaky, in that it’s there if you want it, and a lot of it’s incorporated into maps in really clever way. With the new map, what kinds of things will players be able to pick up on if they know what to look out for?
This is one of the really brilliant pieces that I think these guys do. Sometimes, I think the nature of the game Overwatch is such that it required the team to think of unique ways to tell story. It’s not a traditional linear campaign of missions separated by cinematics and things like that, so how do you build a connection, how do you build engagement, how do you build narrative? We began thinking of new, unique ways – maybe ways that people hadn’t done before. You start at one end with audio and writing, thinking of interactions that occur between characters in the spawn room that play infrequently but add a lot more context to the relationship between those two characters. That’s one piece of it, but the other part – and I hope it’s a part that everybody sees and appreciates the detail and effort that goes into it – are the objects in the world that reflect story. So in Junkertown, for example, you’ll see the canisters that Roadhog fills up for his “Take a breather” [ability] off to the side. You’ll see the motorcycle that Junkrat and Roadhog rode in the “A Moment in Crime” [short], and we have something really cool planned with it that I can’t tell you about. You’ll see the plan that’s referenced in the animated video, “Get money, get bombs, profit.” That’s the level of detail that we like to put in, so that people see the connections.
The other neat thing that I think Ben [Zhang, concept artist] and Terran talked about is this interaction between our animated pieces and the game itself. After an event occurs in an animated short, for example, there are a lot of cases where the artists and the designers will go back and say, “Hey, that was really cool, we should take those elements and then add them back into the map.” So it’s a change of state in the world that reflects something that happened. The most noticeable one that I think happened was after we had made it clear that Doomfist was coming, the payload in Numbani no longer had the Doomfist. That’s a nice little way of conveying some narrative that something’s happening at that time in the world. There’s some stuff that’s planned around Mei, and everybody knows the Ecopoint base. They know that from the map, so I think there will hopefully be some nice little touches that make people feel like that narrative, they can see if reflected everywhere.
When are you guys going to make a movie?
[Laughs] We get asked all the time! And we’d love to see a movie!
You’d like to see it, but you don’t want to make it?
[Laughs] We’d love to see a movie!
One of the things that we’ve been investing in heavily right now has been this in-game cinematic technology that was used to drive the Junkertown short. There’s a lot of work that goes into things like camera setup and importing animations and setting the right filters and lighting settings in the game so that we can render game assets or even imported assets in a way that’s maybe not as necessarily as high fidelity as what you see in the shorts, but something that’s much quicker to implement. With that, we think there’s a tremendous amount of potential as to what we can do. I’m not committing to anything right now, but it’s a path that we’ve taken our first step down the road on and will continue on that path.
This is a dorky question, but when you’re prototyping ideas for new heroes, do you use an existing character model as a placeholder or do you have a dummy hero? What did you do for Doomfist, for instance?
I think we may have had Doomfist’s blockout model ready. One example that I do remember was for Orisa, the early model that was used during the playtests was Zarya. One of the values on the team is rapid prototyping, enabling content creators to as quickly as possible get their ideas out into real playable, usable forms, so not having to wait for extensive recompiling or extensive features being added. Using existing stuff and scripting language to quickly prototype behaviors, get it out there, playtest it, and see if it works. In that respect, for somebody like Doomfist, absolutely there was a fair amount of code involved, but we wanted to get him in and tested – and that’s what resulted in so much iteration around the abilities.
Players have been able to create crazy, fun matches in custom matches, playing around with things like gravity, ammo counts, jump heights, and more. Are there any plans to surface some of those custom game types to the front page?
Part of the original conception of that feature was being able to do something like that with curation, to surface things that had a high popularity and things that we thought from the development team were really cool and deserved to be surfaced more. We haven’t made as much progress on that as I think we might have liked right now, but it’s absolutely something that we envision as part of the future of custom games.
So was Terry Crews just hanging out with you guys for fun, or was that a conscious misdirect?
Terry came to the office to visit, and we love him!