As a developer, Blizzard is famed for taking complex and often impenetrable genres and making them accessible to the mass market.
In 2004, it launched World of Warcraft to critical acclaim: millions signed up to play Blizzard's take on the MMO.
And as recently as 2014, the firm has given the collectible card game a try. The result is Hearthstone, a digital game with over 50m players.
Now it is the turn of the online team shooter.
We wanted to make a team-based shooter that revolved around heroes,” senior game designer Michael Chu says. We wanted to have a big cast of heroes and we were really interested in exploring the shooter space. We have ended up with 21 different heroes so lots of diverse characters with their own unique abilities. Then we wanted to show them off in this team-based shooter, so we felt it was really important that the game was about working as a team using these characters together and achieving victory or losing as a result. We thought that was what made up the core of Overwatch.”
He continues: We talk about ‘Blizzardising' the game. We gave the heroes really powerful and unique abilities. There's also really vibrant art and world that we are trying to create. Characters really pop from the screen and have these big personalities and interesting stories. That whole package is what we were shooting for when we were trying to think about what we as Blizzard want to bring to the games space.”
Overwatch is a brand new Blizzard IP, the first since 1998's StarCraft. The firm does not typically invest in new IP – its recent releases, such as Hearthstone and MOBA Heroes of the Storm, borrow from the company's previous franchises. Hearthstone is set within the Warcraft universe, while Heroes of the Storm borrows characters from StarCraft, Warcraft and Diablo.
There's a little bit of pressure in creating something that has to stand up to the other big IP that Blizzard has,” Chu explains.
Obviously, StarCraft, Warcraft and Diablo are our giants. It was really an interesting opportunity to come in and create the Overwatch universe. What we really settled in on was this idea of exploring all these fantastical universes. We've gone into this dark, grim Gothic space with Diablo, we've explored the stars in Starcraft, and a really in-depth fantasy universe like Warcraft. What we thought would be really interesting with Overwatch was taking the things we have learnt and applying that approach to our world. One of the best things is we are truly inspired by the world around us – the history, the culture and different locations around the globe.”
As well as being a new IP, it's also coming to console. This is also the first time that a new Blizzard game has launched on console and PC on the same day.
It's something that we're really excited about,” Chu says. Early on we felt that Overwatch would make a really good console game. We've always been really excited about developing this for consoles and have been working on it for quite a while, keeping both of those versions looking good. We are mostly just excited to have this out on PS4 and Xbox One.”
The game isn't alone in the team-shooter genre, of course. 2K launched Gearbox's Battleborn at the start of May, while Epic is readying Paragon. Then there's Cliff Bleszinski's PC-exclusive Lawbreakers.
It's interesting. It seems like we are in a moment where this particular sub-genre is really popular and has lots of activity,” Chu says. Obviously, MOBA games like League of Legends, Heroes and DOTA 2 have had a big influence on the gaming landscape (more about that in A Question of eSports, below right). This idea of heroes with unique powers is something that's really interesting and that's definitely what we thought when we were heading into development of this game.
There have been a lot of great first person shooters over the years and that's really where the Overwatch team look to when it comes to the game. We are big fans of shooters and there are obviously so many good onesover the years. Some of the designers have talked about it being a throwback to those ‘90s shooters where the weapons were awesome and varied and had crazy abilities and were all really different. You can see that DNA in what we are doing with Overwatch.”
Prior to launch, Blizzard held a beta test for Overwatch, which was played by a whopping 9.7m people.
We were able to gather a lot of feedback,” Chu explains. As we have been going through the closed beta and then open beta, we've been going through this very intense period of refinement from getting different tester's feedback. That's really the best thing that we take away from those things. It's great to get new eyes on the game, see how people react to it for the first time, check on the overall game balance and get it all bundled up for release.”
Nearly every modern shooter has an online beta test ahead of launch. But these are increasingly being treated more as polished demos rather than infrastructure tests.
What we were going for with Overwatch is an ‘older-style' beta,” Chu insists. We really wanted to get feedback from the players. That's one of the reasons we kept it very small for ages with the closed beta: we wanted a small, engaged group of players that could see how the game was changing over time. We were very experimental with our changes and what we wanted to do was make sure that we were getting the best balance for the game that we could get. Also, it was also about finding a lot of bugs, a lot of things like that came out of it. Ultimately, one of the benefits of the larger open beta test is stressing the servers and seeing how all the tech is going to hold up.”
And if it all works, perhaps Overwatch could become the next big Blizzard franchise.
I hope people enjoy the game. That's basically it. Then we'll see what happens after that.
We certainly hope that one day people see Overwatch as a worthy addition to our legendary line-up.”
As well as the base game, Blizzard is also launching a wealth of extra content around Overwatch.
There's already animated shorts that share more information about the world and characters, as well as an upcoming graphic novel and digital comic series.
The game is the first expression of the Overwatch universe that we'd like to develop,” says Chu.
Because Overwatch is a team-based multiplayer first person shooter, it doesn't have space for a single player campaign. So we felt we had to turn to other ways to get those stories out. We don't think of Overwatch as just the game; we think of it as the game and the greater universe. It's been really fun to develop these things outside of the title.
One of the nice things about them is that they can drive interest in the characters. Or maybe after you play the game for a few hours you become curious – you may have heard some dialogue or spotted a poster on the