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Interview: Overwatch Game Designer On Blizzard's FPS

Shooting, swapping and strike teams

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Overwatch [official site] was rather a highlight of the recent European Road to Blizzcon event for me. It’s Blizzard’s foray into first person shooters and has provoked a lot of TF2 chat and comparison from colleagues. A build of the game was playable in two demo zones so I had hands-on time with a clutch of characters. I found it to be an intriguing proposition despite having been lukewarm at best about the trailer videos. Progressing on the two maps available felt like problems to solve using heroes and their abilities as well as an exercise in shooting characters successfully.

It’s still very much a work in progress and there were elements I was less sure of so game designer Geoff Goodman stepped up to answer my resultant questions. Questions like “Is it hard to make tanks?”, “How do you even start designing matchmaking?”, “When’s the beta?” and “Can’t you just cheat in your office Overwatch tournament?”

Read on for his replies:

Pip: So when people say “What are you working on?” how do you explain Overwatch?

Geoff: The biggest thing is that it’s an FPS – that has a lot of weight by itself. As a company we just jumped into card games with Hearthstone and obviously originally even WoW was – people were like “What is Blizzard making an MMO for? Why is an RTS company making an MMO?” I think we’re in that spot now. We love FPSs so much we’ve just been were dying to make one. This was our great opportunity and it’s been so much fun.

Pip: Do you have a background in FPS?

Geoff: I played a lot of games as a gamer but originally I was working on WoW for a really long time. I did a lot of encounter design stuff and from there moved on to work on Titan for a little bit, then onto Overwatch from the beginning. I’m in charge of all the hero design stuff and how that all works.

Pip: In some team games with roles and abilities like Dota or League of Legends the cast of player characters is huge. Is that where Overwatch is headed with its roster or is it different?

Geoff: As far as number of heroes we’re not really limiting ourselves. We don’t have a plan like we’re going to get to x and then we’re done. I think as long as there’s desire to have more characters we’re totally willing to make them. It’s a ton of fun and we definitely enjoy doing it. If we keep making heroes and maybe the game doesn’t feel like it’s getting better as a result or maybe we start releasing heroes who are too close to other heroes and it’s getting muddy maybe we’ll revisit but for now the sky’s the limit and we have high hopes.

Pip: What are you working on at the moment?

Geoff: We have a couple of characters we haven’t announced but the two big ones we’ve announced are Roadhog and Junkrat from Australia. Those guys are amazing and a ton of fun – really great to work on. We have some more surprises coming.

Pip: Are tanks characters harder to make different from one another? That was the class with the fewest occupants in the build I played.

Geoff: Good question – not so far. I can see that coming though, potentially. We have some – not strict rules but rough guidelines about each of the roles. Tanks design guidelines are usually “really hard to kill” – obviously that’s their main thing – and they tend to be disruptive. So Roadhog’s ultimate is to have a big winding gun that knocks everyone everywhere so you can jump on a capture point and knock everyone away. They’re really good at – if there’s a bunch of defenders walking down a choke point they can kind of jump in there and break it up so your allies can run in. But you have a character like Zarya who’s a tank but she actually has a lot of support options. She has the projected barrier she can put on other people that will save them. In some ways a lot of the characters are a little bit hybrid and the roles we put them in are to help inform people the playstyle they are but it’s not rigid.

Pip: This build is for the show and it drops you into the action with character descriptions on the F1 key but they’re more about getting you up to speed fast than telling you the fine detail of your abilities. For instance I was wondering if a particular projectile did splash damage and I couldn’t’ tell from that. It makes it accessible but are you planning on adding the other information?

Geoff: I think there’s definitely a desire to have the more detailed information so we’re aware of that. It’s tricky. We’ve talked a lot about different places we can show that. We’re probably not going to put it directly in the game while you’re playing it because, like you said, it’s overwhelming if you hit the button and try to read all the stats. So for that F1 key information we made that really brief. It’s like “Just give me the information I need right now so I can keep playing”. Maybe we’ll have more information on a website or another area if you really want to dig in.

Pip: Fans of the game will probably work it out as well.

Geoff: Exactly – they already have actually, it’s pretty crazy! Even just from our videos. It’s pretty impressive.

Pip: When I was playing I sometimes found it difficult to gauge whether something was effective when it wasn’t direct damage [Pip note: the score you get at the end is affected by more than just kills so I wanted to get some kind of feedback when Zarya’s shielding ability had protected an ally, for example, in case that impacted the score – a later answer might make this question irrelevant for the beta though!]. Are there plans to increase that feedback?

Geoff: With Zarya, for her it’s a little tricky because we don’t have any UI feedback that tells you when a person’s getting hit other than that centre reticle. That’s deifnitely an important thing we should better… It’s more specific to her. The other one that comes up occasionally is just doing area damage – sometimes you don’t know if you’re getting a hit or not. We do have a little indicators in the reticle but we’ve gotten a lot of feedback that that’s not enough so it’s something we’re working on right now.

We play the game so much as we’re working on it so we’ve become numb to it and are so used to it. We hear it and see it all the time but [combat feedback] is a feedback thing we get pretty frequently so as of a couple of weeks ago we started what we call Strike Team. It’s a group of people who get together and work on a specific problem. They started a combat feedback strike team to try to solve a lot of these issues. We’re trying to bring in new people that haven’t played, although internally it’s harder to find people that haven’t played by now! That’s one of the things the beta is going to help us with.

Pip: Something I struggled with was I found the end-screen breakdown of scoring rather opaque – I couldn’t work out exactly what all the things I was doing were contributing to that final number.

Geoff: It’s interesting. In our latest build we really revamped that whole system. In fact the scoring been completely pulled out. You don’t even see a number anymore. The way it works internally – what we’re testing – is instead of seeing the score you see your own stats so you can see how much damage you’re doing and stuff on the corner if you want that kind of information and you can see where you stand relative to other people. So I can see if I’m first place or if I’m second place let’s say you get a little medal there [on the screen]. You can’t see who is in first place or how much they have or anything but it gives you a good understanding of how well you’re doing and streamlines the whole thing and cleans everything up.

So far we’re kind of liking it. it’s a shock at first because we’re so used to scoring and you know – I feel like I’m doing well or that guy’s better than me, I’m going to try and beat him. But scoring has some problems and we thought this was a different approach we hadn’t seen before and wanted to test. So far it’s been going really well so we’ll probably end up rolling that out, hopefully pretty soon.

Pip: Given the community contribution to other Blizzard games in terms of tutorials and tips videos and wikis how do you decide how much you’re going to produce in terms of resources or tutorials?

Geoff: We definitely plan on doing a big tutorial. We also plan on doing this training room that’s very safe and has a bunch of target dummies you can shoot and experiment with different characters which will help a lot in getting into the game. The only thing we’ve really done for [Road to Blizzcon] is increased the warmup time by a minute so it gives you a little more time to at least play around in the warmup room. It’s not the greatest bandaid but when the game actually goes out we’ll have a more robust system to help new players. As far as the community stuff, it’s interesting. On one hand we always want to support the community. We’ve seen with all the other games it’s always been a big aspect so I think we’ll probably embrace that as well but at the same time we don’t want to feel like we’re shoving all this off – like, “Ahhhh you guys deal with it!” We definitely want to support the game and ourselves as well so there’s a lot of resources we’re committing.

Pip: At this event I was tending to play straight out damage dealers because medics and other characters felt like they would need communication to play well. Will you have an in-game voice option or maybe context sensitive pings?

Geoff: We actually have both internally. We’re testing both. The ping system has gone through a lot of revisions actually just this last week it went through a major overhauil and it’s looking really good. We’re definitely commited to that and it’ll help a lot. We’re also testing a voice system that should help. The game from the beginning we knew we wanted to focus on team plays and it’s hard to do that without communication so that’s a big part of it.

Pip: Will there be controller support?

Geoff: Yes.

Pip: Cool because I was sat there going “If I had a controller I’d be killing every single one you…”

Geoff: Definitely full controller support. We’re talking about different ways to remap your controls even on the controller so we have a lot of that in the internal builds already.

Pip: Will Overwatch be on console as well?

Geoff: Right now we’re just focusing on PC. Console would be cool and maybe someday but it’s not really our focus right now.

Pip: Do you know which business model you’re going with yet?

Geoff: We haven’t really decided exactly what it’s going to be. There’s a lot of benefits to all the different business models and there’s a lot of things to weigh. Especially with our game – there’s a lot of challenges. The good news from a Blizzard standpoint is we have so many different games that are in all these different business models from Hearthstone and Heroes’s free to play model to Diablo’s box model and WoW’s subscription so we have a little of everything to look at. In some ways it’s making the problem easier to research and making us take more time to make sure we get it right. The bottom line is we want to make sure whatever you come up with is the best for the game and our players. Something like hero swapping we want to make sure is very available and there’s not any blockers for that so that’s the big thing.

Pip: has a meta emerged in your testing? Perhaps players chasing one another through a character swap cycle?

Geoff: We haven’t seen that much – there’s a small penalty for swapping right now in that you lose your ultimate gain. It’s not huge and we don’t want there to be too much friction but a little is really healthy so you’re not swapping every life and it’s chaotic. We have done a couple of internal tournaments. We’re still running one right now…

Pip: How are you doing?

Geoff: I’m still in the latest tournament! not out yet, it’s going pretty well.

Pip: Can’t you just create a hack no-one knows about?

Geoff: [laughs] But then the exposé would come out!

It’s been really interesting in fact. We intentionally did it – not because it would be fun, although obviously it’s a great experience – but we’re trying to get those questions answered. What happens if people really try? or they’re trying to win with the best comp possible? Are they swapping constantly when they’re really trying to win? Not really, actually. There’s definitely some swapping- obviously the people who are losing tend to swap to try to solve the problem. The people who are winning are like “Hah, I don’t need to swap, we’re winning!” I think when we get into beta and that many more people get in it’s going to be really telling what they come up with.

Pip: How happy are you with the maps at the moment – there were two in demo and I remember the Russian-themed one being really difficult when you try to take the last capture point and the defending team are all tanks…

Geoff: We started making loads of maps. We wanted to make sure we’re not just making a bunch of clones of the same map. Not just in story and art although we make sure the maps are from different locations and have different colour schemes and feel different. But the gameplay as well. We wanted to make sure maybe this is a point that has a lot of sightlines so snipers would really like this point, or this other point is the opposite so maybe tanks are better here. It’s a goal of ours to make sure all the maps feel different and the heroes feel different in different areas. It’s another reason switching is so nice. Maybe Symmetra is really good on this [first capture] point and you want to get a teleporter up on the spot but the second point that’s less important so you swap to Widowmaker or something. we get a lot of strategy out of that as well.

Pip: I didn’t see in the games I played – if you swap does that remove anything you put down as the original character?

Geoff: Yes it does.

Pip: So you can’t just put down a turret then swap?

Geoff: You could at one point early on. it was like, oh god we need to fix this right away [laughs]!

Pip: How about the voice lines in the game – are they relational?

Geoff: We have a lot of voice lines in right now and the number one thing about the voice lines in a lot of cases is informational so a lot of the ultimates… if you hear Hanzo launch his giant dragon you kind of want to get out of the way so you need to know it’s there. His voice line is very important for that kind of informational aspect. Then we have a lot of other voice lines that are character-driven and help the characters express themselves. We have some concepts of relationship-based talking. We don’t have anything in there right now but it’s a really cool idea and we want to do that.

Pip: Overwatch is an original IP – given the last two Blizzard games trade heavily on Blizzard lore and characters I was wondering what it was like working on a new IP?

Geoff: Yeah, It’s a brand new IP so you have a game like Heroes of the Storm and the basis of the game is all our IPs and it’s great to have all these franchises thrown together and that’s what so cool about it but Overwatch is its own thing. We do have some Easter egg type things. There’s a murloc down the side of one of the buildings and some other Easter eggy things – we can’t help ourselves but we’re not really planning on throwing Thrall in the mix any time soon.

Pip Note: I tweeted for questions and the topic of female character design came up – specifically questioning less variety in body types for the women. I raised the question but wanted to add a thought here: At the time of the interview the characters I had played seemed relatively diverse – Zarya, Tracer, Pharah and Widowmaker (beefy, sporty, armoured and femme fatale – although phrasing it like that makes them sound vaguely like Spice Girls) Looking at the remainder of the lineup after the fact there are noticeably fewer women in the cast, several are of a type figure-wise and I don’t believe any of the non-human characters are billed as “she”. I think, though, that it’s a small enough roster that I want to see how it develops and who gets added, particularly because of the answer Geoff gave in terms of diversity (I think I phrased the bit about non-humans confusingly though – it was intended as an example and came out oddly listening back, hence the slight detour into robots!)

Pip: In terms of female character design I felt it was quite diverse but still… I don’t think any non-human were female. I was wondering if that [diversity] was stuff you guys are keeping an eye on?

Geoff: There’s a lot of factors that go into characters – where they’re from, accents, regional stuff as well as gender and everything. All of that’s taken into account and we’re trying to build this giant roster of heroes and we keep planning on making more so it’s definitely not like we’re not trying to say this one character represents this one group and we’re done with that. The diversity’s going to keep growing. A character like Zarya’s obviously a lot different-looking than a character like Widowmaker. Widowmaker’s the femme fatale trope, right? She’s an assassin that uses her guile to kill people. In the future we’re definitely going to make more robots because they’re a big part of our lore so I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t have female or female-like robots.

Pip: In terms of player behaviour – particularly positive reinforcement and building non-toxic communities – are you working on anything interesting on that front?

Geoff: We feel like it’s not going to be as much of an issue. We lucked out in a way that the genre’s much faster paced and there’s not as much down time for the finger pointing – “I died and I’m sitting on this screen for thirty seconds and I’m just going to start yelling at people”. There was some talk originally about limiting some of the chat features but we found that, like I said before, we’re really focused on the team play. We want to make sure there’s enough communication available. I’m Zarya and I want to ult and I want to tell people to get ready and be able to follow me in. That’s more important to us [than limiting options] so we’re keeping an eye on it and we take it seriously but for now I think the communication aspect is trumping anything else.

Pip: Maybe in the closed beta you can see how people are.

Geoff: That’s why we’re really trying to get the beta out because there’s a lot of things we expect to come out of it from all aspects.

Pip: The beta is the end of this year?

Geoff: We haven’t set a date. It’s set for “Fall” I think is the official… I hate to say [soon]- we always say it’s coming soon.

Pip: Coming Soon™

Geoff: Yeah, exactly! But it’s true though – we’re working overtime right now to try and get it out. it’s super important for us to get it out there as soon as possible. We’re trying to get all this data and we just want to get more people playing it and get more reactions so we’re hoping to have it… soon.

Pip: Tell me about how matchmaking is set up – is it skill-based?

Geoff: Skill-based is a large part of it and that’s important as we’ve found as we’ve started adding more people. Initially we didn’t have many people playing – our team and a couple of other people and matchmaking was the worst part because the skill is just everywhere.

Pip: And if people are swapping characters and roles how do you even measure skill?

Geoff: Right, so skill is a large part but we also have a large part of matchmaking that’s social-based so if you’re playing with people you have a good time with, [Overwatch] recognises that these people are kind of your friends even if they’re not officially on your friends list. So a lot of times you’ll end up being matched with similar people which is really cool. So, people are talking to each other and there’s a social element there that’s helpful for matchmaking.

As a baseline we’re trying to make sure that of course skill is roughly equivalent. We found working on a lot of matchmaking stuff – for example, we tried to say okay well if we have a really good player on both teams and a not as good player it averages out. But we found that’s not working well for us either because the people who aren’t as good aren’t having as much of a good time.

We’re very much iterating on it right now and that’s going to be a huge win in beta to get more people on there because it’s really hard to iterate on the matchmaker when we just don’t have a big enough player pool. But it’s a major focus because that’s one of the pieces of feedback we get all the time from players: if the teams are really bad it’s hard to have a good experience.

Pip: Will you curate it yourselves or is there scope for community maps and so on?

Geoff: We always love that stuff but we definitely don’t have any plans to allow for that right now. We want everything – especially initially – to be hand-managed. But obviously Warcraft 3 – going back that far – the community has been a major part of the content contribution…

Pip: And how!

Geoff: Spawned quite a few others!

Pip: That one completely snowballed didn’t it…

Geoff: Yeah – really. So it’s definitely possible, we just don’t have any plans for it right now. We’re not against it per se.

Pip: What’s the coolest thing you wanted to do but haven’t been able to make work?

Geoff: That’s an interesting question. Oh man, I try to make everything work the people in the office know I really push! You know what’s actually been hard? Strictly melee characters. We have Reinhart in the game with the big hammer and he worked out really well. There was a lot of iteration on him but it didn’t feel insurmountable, then we started trying to make other melee characters and prototypes and it becomes really hard when you’re trying to make a character who is not as much a tank, maybe more of a lethal character. You’re playing an FPS, you’re intentionally at range standing off and when people are really close to you it can be really awkward with that camera view. So that one’s been really challenging. We’ve tried a few prototypes and we’re still trying different things. Melee is not a major pillar of the game, it’s not super important but it’s a nice alternative.

Pip: And who’s your favourite character?

Geoff: Actually it changes all the time. I tend to play the newest characters because I’m always looking for bugs and balance issues so characters like Tracer and Pharah I haven’t played in a while as much as the others. My favourite right now is Junkrat. He’s not in this build unfortunately but he’s just insanely fun to play. He plays exactly as crazy as he looks and sounds. You jump in – you knock yourself back with his bomb – and then you get in close to people and they’re like GET THIS GUY OFF ME! Even if they kill you you drop all these bombs on the ground. Sometimes you get people near where you are and throw a trap down and catch them with the trap and they kill you and all the bombs fall and they’re caught in your trap and can’t run away. It’s so fun.

Pip: If you’re making Techies I’m leaving this game!

Geoff: [laughs] Man, there’s so much Techies hate!

Pip: Thank you for your time!

The Overwatch closed beta will be Coming Soon™

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