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Overwatch's defining characteristic is its location

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Game director talks about how planet Earth inspired the development team

Vitalij Cerepok / EyeEm / Getty Images

Blizzard has taken its players and fans to many strange places. They've visited the fantasy lands of Azeroth, StarCraft's alien-infested outer space and the gothic underworld of Diablo. But for the famed company, one of its biggest challenges yet was setting a game on Earth.

Speaking at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas today, Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan explained why the team wanted to make a game set on Earth, and why the prospect was so daunting.

As previously chronicled on Polygon, Overwatch was born from the disaster of failed MMO project Titan. A rump Titan team was tasked with coming up with a new game concept. In the “despair” and “dark situation” of Titan's cancellation, Kaplan said the team was naturally drawn to "a bright and hopeful world." They wanted to create a fantasy based loosely on the best locations on Earth.

“We asked ourselves, ‘What's cool about planet Earth?’ so that we'd want to make a Blizzard game that takes place there,” he said.

It was important to retain an element of fantasy, so the locations are idealized. Inspirational locations included the Greek islands, coastal Mexico, Hollywood and a positive, technologically utopian version of Iraq.

The creative process was not entirely rigorous. He admitted that the Dorado map, ostensibly based on Mexico, was accidentally inspired by a photograph of the lovely Italian city of Manarola.

The team also wanted to create something different from other Earth-based games, which tend towards the gritty realism of shooters, or dystopian post-apocalyptic action adventures.

“We hadn't seen a lot of games explore a future Earth that was positive and hopeful.”

Overwatch cast
Overwatch
Blizzard Entertainment

Many of Overwatch's locations follow thematic color templates. This was inspired by World of Warcraft, which often offers up locations that cleave to certain colors, thus setting an emotional tone. The team had also learned from experience that “cool” dystopian settings are often not as popular to players as those that are more welcoming.

“Because of our hyper-sensitive geek radar, we are extremely attracted to things that are different and challenging,” Kaplan explained. “We create the coolest places ever. But those places can also be oppressive and fatiguing.” After the initial novelty has worn off from visiting a new hellscape, players tend to drift back to more “approachable and inclusive” areas.

Tracer Blizzard Entertainment

So what made Earth so intimidating for the game's designers?

The team understood that they would be creating human characters (Overwatch also includes non-humans). They wanted to create a setting that, according to Kaplan, “made people feel included and welcomed.”

“We all want different things,” he said. “So we wanted to embrace differences. That sparked lots of conversations about diversity, which is a very important topic. It proved critical for a lot of our decisions.”

He said that the team was aware that the nationality or identity of heroes could create an unwelcoming environment for people, if they were handled badly.

“As soon as you say someone [a hero] is from a certain location, everyone gets very sensitive,” he said.

“We challenged stereotypes,” he added, citing Ana, an older woman from Egypt who is also a mother (rare in games) and a sniper. The designers also embraced other stereotypes for comedic effect, such as the gunslinger McCree.

Overwatch - Ana screenshots

He said that diversity, per se, was not the goal. “Inclusivity and open-mindedness was the goal. Diversity was the beautiful end result.”

Famously, the character Tracer was recently portrayed in a spin-off comic enjoying some home time with her girlfriend. “It's important to show normal things that are normal,” he said. “Tracer is first and foremost a time-traveling bad-ass. But it is different to have an LGBT character on the cover and it's something we're proud of.”

He concluded by saying that Overwatch was an attempt to “imagine a bright and hopeful world,” adding that, in games, “there is room for positivity and inclusiveness.”

Polygon will run a full and frank interview with Jeff Kaplan in the coming days, in which he talks about some of the game’s controversies, its future in esports and some of the design questions facing the team right now.