Overwatch: How Blizzard turned its biggest failure into its next great hope

Jump to

Blizzard finally seems to understand that the company exists in a post-World of Warcraft era, and there is no clearer sign of that than the game maker's investment in upcoming squad-shooter Overwatch.

Overwatch is a game born out of the wreckage of Blizzard's last attempt at a massive, World of Warcraft-like game codenamed Titan, and is inspired by the company's relatively tiny game and surprise hit Hearthstone.

"In the post World of Warcraft-era of Blizzard, something we had to learn and it took us awhile to learn was that not every game is going to be World of Warcraft," said Jeff Kaplan, game director on Overwatch. "What I mean by that is a game that enjoys 10 million subscriptions. A game that lasts 10 years.

"Sometimes it is OK to have a smaller, self-contained game."

Blizzard's mysterious next-gen massively multiplayer game Titan was canceled after seven years of development and it sounds like little more than lessons came out of the process.

"There is definitely inspiration from Titan," Kaplan told me during an interview earlier this month. "There are definitely some similarities between Titan and Overwatch. But Overwatch really is its own project built from the ground up.

"We learned mostly what not to do while working on Titan."

Kaplan, who worked on Titan for five years, called that game a gigantic MMO that was designed to be like World of Warcraft.

"Overwatch is the opposite of that," he said. "This is a six-versus-six competitive shooter at its core. The games were infinite oceans apart in terms of scope.

"When the reboot happened we started Overwatch from scratch."

While a bit of Overwatch came out of lessons learned with Titan, the developers also saw inspiration in Hearthstone, Blizzard's collectible trading card game.

"Inspiration comes from the weirdest places," Kaplan said. "Bizarrely one of the games that inspires us most is Hearthstone right now.

"It's a design aesthetic, how they think about game design; simplicity with a long tale of depth."

And Hearthstone is a great example of how a game doesn't have to be World of Warcraft to be a tremendous success, he added.

Overwatch, he said, will be Blizzard's first example of a game built in a new universe, in a new genre with a tight scope.

"World of Warcraft is like 10 games in one," he said. "I think Overwatch will be an experiment in some sense for us. So we'll see where it goes."


The rich new universe of Overwatch isn't designed to be a one-off for this single game.

Overwatch takes place in a highly fictionalized version of a future Earth that faces a global crisis. The Overwatch was at one time a sort of United Nations standing peace force before it was disbanded. During the time of the game, some of the heroes of Overwatch want to get the group back together. At least one of the map and its objectives ties into that light storyline, with groups of players trying to launch a satellite into space to help get the organization back up.

The game was announced with a dozen characters, each with unique abilities and play styles. Earlier this month, during PAX East, Blizzard introduced two more characters. And more could be coming.

"We know Overwatch is about a big group of heroes," Kaplan said. "We're still trying to figure out what that exact number is. Our initial run was 12 and then we added two more and we feel like the game could support more heroes for sure."

Though Kaplan said the developers want to make sure they don't have so many characters that their abilities and qualities start to overlap, creating a sort of homogenization that would be dangerous to the game's intent.

That certainly isn't the case yet, at least based on the time I spent with the game trying out futuristic gunslinger McCree and champion-weightlifter-turned-particle-cannon-lugging-heavy Zarya.

McCree is a gangly, Peacekeeper-wielding character that seems designed for stealthy ambushes. His weapon can do massive amounts of damage, including what appeared to be extra damage for headshots, and he has the ability to quickly unload the gun into a target by fanning the six-shooter's hammer. But the real power of McCree is his ultimate Deadeye ability which allows him to slowly lock in all of the visible enemies on screen and then let go a torrent of one-shot kills.

This may sound a bit overpowered, but the time it takes to get a lock-on, and the need to maintain line of sight, helps balance the ability.

I actually found myself dying quite a bit trying to get off not a one or two kill spree, but three or four. That's the killer, it's hard to decide to take the easy kill and not try to wipe out much of the opposing team, which is far riskier.

McCree also has a short-fuse flashbang which explodes a few seconds after he throws it stunning nearby opponents.

The big drawback for the character is that he moves like molasses. Slow and steady is the name of the game with McCree. You can try using his combat roll to speed things up, but that's really meant as a way to quickly reload the gun.

While I was attracted to McCree's design and weapon choice, it's obvious that as with the other characters in the game, he requires a very specific approach to be successful.


And heavy Zarya is just as specific a character, though with a completely different approach.

Her main ability lets her shoot out a short range beam from her particle cannon to inflict steady damage. She can also use the cannon to lob off explosive charges.

In a support role, Zarya also has the ability to encase herself in a barrier which blocks incoming attacks and makes her weapons more powerful, or project a barrier on another friendly character to do the same thing.

Her ultimate ability seems like it would be a perfect fit with McCree's Deadeye. The Graviton Surge launches a gravity bomb onto the map, pulling in all of the enemies and holding them there as a mass of targets for a few seconds. While trapped, all of the enemies are receiving damage as well.

As with Deadeye, this is one of those abilities that may end up killing you as you try to trap an entire team.

I found that it typically only sucked in a few enemies, because you'll rarely find a bunch of teammates standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a map.

Zarya's abilities are prefect for a bit of support and charging, allowing her to push into an enemy area and help quickly clear it out.

Ultimately, though, I found myself more tied to McCree. Yes, probably more because of his design than the particular abilities or playstyles he has.

And that's an incredibly important thing for Overwatch and the people designing the game: It has to be set in a universe and peopled with characters that can win over the hearts and minds of players. In fact, each year when Blizzard president and co-founder Michael Morhaime gives the company his "battleplan" talk one of the things he always reminds everyone is that Blizzard is a company that "wins over the hearts and minds of gamers," Kaplan said, adding:

"The two things that we want to get right are to build a universe and a world that is inviting to players, that they want to live in and be a hero in. That can manifest in a number of ways, like the game itself or the announcement trailer. We want people to think, 'That's a cool universe.' No matter what form of medium I'm taking it in through, I  like being in there and want more of it.

"The other important thing is to make a really kick-ass game."

While some may think that second goal is an easy one for the likes of Blizzard, Kaplan says it's not at all.

"It's never easy to make an amazing game," he said. "People will say we made World of Warcraft or StarCraft or Diablo, so the next one will be great. No, it's actually harder now.

"There are more expectations on us and more fans, and we owe it more to them to be greater than the last one."

While Blizzard is starting to see the value in one-off hits, like Hearthstone, it doesn't mean that the company doesn't have bigger plans for this franchise.


"We're not shortsighted by any means," Kaplan said. "We need Overwatch to be a great game and the universe to be great and then the next step would be, 'Are they digging it? Do they want more?' And if they want more then, 'Oh my God, we want to make good games.

"I don't want to give the impression that Overwatch is going to have 30 years and see 30 games, But we want to be in that position if this successful."

And right now things are looking very good for the new franchise.

Recently, the developers began speaking to the eSports community about how the game could fit in to the competitive scene.

"Initially we want to make a great six-versus-six shooter that is approachable to anyone," Kaplan said. "The more and more we show it, the more we play it, everyone is talking about pro-sports."

For example, the game's QA team was given a budget for a celebration and they came back to Blizzard and asked if they could use the money for an Overwatch tournament instead, Kaplan said.

They ended up with 70 players in the internal tournament and two programmers who became voluntary shoutcasters.

"Everyone would show up to watch during lunch," he said. "We had this moment of, 'Oh my God, this game is going to be huge at eSports we might as well embrace it.'"

There was some fear in the pro community, he added, that because the game is designed to be approachable it wouldn't make for a good competitive game. But that talk stopped after Blizzard let a bunch of streamers and pro-gamers get their hands on the title for a bit.

"They started defending the high skill cap in the game," Kaplan said.

Another concern among Overwatch's growing fanbase is the potential cost of the game, something Kaplan says hasn't been worked out yet.

"We've been reading so many threads [about the possible business model]," he said. "We actually haven't decided yet what the business model is. We've talked about it. We have a lot of models in mind that we think could work. It's all about figuring out the right one now."

The game is slated for a closed beta this fall which will allow Blizzard to do some stress testing. Kaplan says under the current plans, it's unlikely that there will be an open beta before the game launches.

"That's sort of the plan right now," he said. "That's the way we're trending , but that could change."Babykayak

Blizzard cancels its next-gen MMO Titan after seven years