At this year’s D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas, NV, a handful of game developers were asked to share their insight regarding the theme of “world building.” The first speaker to take the stage was Blizzard’s Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s game director. Kaplan began his talk by focusing on Blizzard’s cancelled game, Project Titan.
On the day Project Titan was put on indefinite hold, Blizzard disbanded its development team, moving some people to assist in the ongoing development of World of Warcraft and others to other internal projects. Kaplan and 40 other people weren’t moved, however, and were instead tasked to make something new within six short weeks. If they didn’t create a project worth green-lighting, the team would disband and join other teams.
Kaplan said this short exploration window was stressful, but helped the team focus on something special. The team didn’t want to completely abandon the work they had done on Titan, and felt they just missed the mark in figuring out what it needed to be. Titan’s conceptual basis, “a future worth fighting for,” became the point of inception for Overwatch. The hope was to use these words to dream up a vision of Earth players would want to inhabit and fight for.
One of the first visions of this version Earth came from an artwork piece of Overwatch’s characters. Even at this early state in development, the artwork showed many of the characters that are in the game today, along with several others who didn’t make the cut, including a few from Titan. Kaplan showed another early conceptual piece of what they wanted combat to look like. This beautiful piece showed Genji, Winston, Tracer, and a spider-like character who we haven’t seen yet (and may never) battling over a control point. Hoping to squash any rumors, Kaplan quickly pointed out that the spider-like character isn’t who you think it is. That piece of art ended up being the perfect vision for the game.
When it came time to design the world, Blizzard felt Earth had been done to death in video games. The Last of Us, Mad Max, and other games had done interesting things with the future of Earth, focusing on end of days and war-torn scenarios. Kaplan knew they had to do something different. The “future worth fighting for” hook came to mean making a world they wanted to live in.
Kaplan then detailed the inspiration for a number of Overwatch’s maps. Oasis was modeled after Iraq. “Is it necessary to show dusty streets
or bombed-out buildings?” Kaplan questioned. “We’ve seen enough of that in games.” Blizzard’s hope for Iraq’s future was pristine and technologically advanced. In the game’s fiction it is a location born of a group of scientists and researchers.
For Dorado, Blizzard wanted to bring a slice of Mexico to the game. The initial thought was to create a colorful coastal town. So someone on the development team Googled
“colorful Mexican town,” and found the perfect shot of a colorful, hilly, coastal town. The team fell in love with it and started building the map. They soon found out it was actually a picture of Manarola, Italy. But they loved the vision they had built so much that they kept it in.
Although the Hollywood map has many visual connections to the movie industry, the team didn’t want realism to be the driving force behind it. This map went through several iterations, including one that was modeled closely after real world locations. Kaplan says they liked the vision of “Hollywood made by the guy from Belgium” than the realistic one, since it felt more creative and unique.
The talk concluded with a brief look at several characters, including Ana. Kaplan says that the team challenges stereotypes. Ana is an older Egyptian woman, who is a sniper and a mother. Most shooters are seen through the eyes of “grizzled soldiers,” Kaplan added. Blizzard strives for as much variety as possible, as well as the idea of “normal things are normal.” This creative angle was used while designing Tracer, the character on Overwatch’s cover, who was recently revealed to be gay. Kaplan said these little details give their characters life and make them feel real.
He went on to add that the Overwatch community is bringing more life to the characters than the development team is. He said Blizzard is now just the custodians of this world, and that the players are the life behind it now.