How Blizzard is building a brand new world with Overwatch

'It’s an important challenge.'

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Overwatch isn’t just a brand new franchise for Blizzard — it’s a new way of thinking about story.

The company is known for building huge franchises, from Diablo to Warcraft, and Overwatch represents its first new property in close to two decades. In the past, when Blizzard created a new world, it started from a high level, figuring out the overarching themes and game ideas before it filled in the details, by adding characters, places, and more. “Instead of starting 1,000 feet up, [Overwatch is] starting at the ground and moving upwards,” says Chris Metzen, Blizzard’s SVP of story and franchise development, and creative director on the game.

Overwatch is primarily defined by its characters. It’s a shooter where players can choose from 21 different heroes, each with their own personality and history. And it’s those personalities and histories that have come to define its near-future world. Overwatch takes place at an unspecified point in the future, and stars former members of the titular group, a one-time peacekeeping organization that has since disbanded following accusations of corruption. The game’s version of Earth is recognizable, but also fantastical. “We definitely wanted to do a near-future franchise that wasn’t 1,000 years in the future on the far side of an alien galaxy,” Metzen says.

The roster includes a talking, cybernetic gorilla named Winston, a nature-obsessed robot called Bastion, and Tracer, a former Overwatch agent with the ability to travel through time. Metzen describes the setting as “a recognizable Earth that was near enough that we could inject sci-fi hooks, fantastical hooks, and just be able to conjure whatever heroes we wanted, but had more of a tether to the familiar world we share.” It has a bit of an Avengers vibe, with all of the world’s most powerful heroes joining together for battle.

The game itself is team-based, similar to games like Team Fortress 2 or the upcoming Battleborn. But unlike many games, the genre had little influence on the story of Overwatch; Blizzard has big plans for Overwatch and this shooter is just the first introduction to this new universe.

"Overwatch is currently two different things," Metzen explains. "Overwatch is not a group-based shooter by itself. That is simply the first video game expression of what Overwatch really is, which is a big, breathing, mighty, compelling franchise. I say all of that in hopes that we achieve that. But that’s what we’re aiming for. Warcraft is not World of Warcraft. It’s a big, sprawling idea that’s comprised of something like 12 distinct video games. Warcraft is not an RTS, it’s not a MMORPG. Soon it’ll be a movie. That’s how Blizzard thinks about its franchises."

That’s a big shift from previous franchises, where the initial game helped define the world around it. StarCraft, for instance, features three distinct races because the game’s designers wanted three different types of armies for players to control. They wanted one with weird aliens, and one with psychic powers, and so the narrative team built out the story based around those constraints, crafting the Zerg and the Protoss to give more depth and interest to the races and their abilities. "With Overwatch, we decided to try to do it another way," says Metzen. "Which was, don’t start with this huge backstory and all of this specificity; we wanted Overwatch to really be achieved through these characters. So as a new character idea comes up — whether it came from a drawing or a design instinct — [senior story designer Michael Chu] and I have tried to stay on our toes relative to letting the world be shaped by these characters."

That’s part of the reason why Overwatch even has a story. Multiplayer-focused games, whether it’s a shooter like TF2 or a strategy game like Dota 2, aren’t exactly heavy on narrative exposition. Few people play League of Legends for the story. But because Blizzard views Overwatch as one part of a bigger universe, it’s adding in narrative elements to help tie it to all of the other versions of Overwatch that do and could exist. There might not be another game in the works (or at least announced) just yet, but Blizzard is still fleshing out the universe in other ways. Last week it released the first in a series of Pixar-like animated shorts detailing individual characters, and later this year Blizzard will launch a graphic novel called First Strike

Since the game will largely only hint at the bigger universe it takes place in, these supplemental materials are meant to appease those looking to learn more. The idea is to appeal to multiple kinds of players. "For those that really don’t care about a lot of narrative context in their game, they can jump into Overwatch and not be burdened at all by needing to know who is who, or the intricacies of the relationships, or the history of the world," Metzen says. "At its most conservative, the game does not demand that you know much of anything in terms of lore."

The key to making all of those elements, whether it's a game or an animated video, work together is consistency. For instance, in the first Overwatch short, which tells Winston’s backstory, there’s a battle during which some glass in his lab is smashed. When that moment was first created by the animators, the developers went back to the in-game version of Winston’s lab and smashed the same bit of glass. "We try to make sure that all the details sing together," says Metzen. Chu keeps a constantly updated spreadsheet full of dates and other key details, to make sure they keep everything straight.

Overwatch’s near future setting gives the team a lot of leeway when it comes to adding in new features based on crazy technology or science, but it also provides an extra set of challenges, one that Blizzard hasn’t really had to face before. Each of Blizzard’s three big franchises fits snugly into an existing category of genre fiction, whether it’s fantasy or sci-fi, which means that this is Blizzard’s first time tackling characters derived from the real world. Overwatch features a diverse cast, with heroes based everywhere from Russia to India to Egypt, and designing those characters is very different from creating a new orc in Azeroth.

"With Overwatch characters, we definitely wanted to have a cast of heroes that are from different nationalities and places around the world, so we strive to be very responsible with how we develop the ideas and how we are even fictionally portraying people around the world," Metzen says. "Sometimes it definitely puts the pressure on us to be aware of cultural sensitivities and just people’s feelings. Sometimes we’re educated enough, sometimes we aren’t, but we certainly want to build this near-Earth experience with respect and love." Chu adds that "we do a lot of research, the team actually comes from a lot of backgrounds, so we draw inspiration from the different team members."

Given the success of Blizzard’s past games, it may be surprising to see the company trying to fix what isn’t broken. Warcraft, for instance, is still going strong, with an upcoming Duncan Jones-directed film adaptation and the incredibly popular digital card game spin-off Hearthstone. But Metzen believes that this is exactly the reason why the developer needs to do something different. "It’s a little intimidating for us to step out and do something that we’ve never tried before," he says, "but that’s why, for a company that’s 25-years-old, Overwatch was so important for us, to test ourselves and climb another mountain and see what we could do. It keeps us sharp and it’s an important challenge.

"Whether the game succeeds or fails," says Metzen, "having attempted it is so important for Blizzard."

Overwatch launches May 24th on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.