Like many people, Jeff Kaplan spent much of March 3rd, 2017, lost in the fantasy realm of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the Nintendo Switch. As the game director for Blizzard’s colorful team-based shooter Overwatch, Kaplan’s fascination with the device naturally turned a bit more serious: he wondered what his own game would be like on the handheld console.
“Literally the day the Switch came out, we were thinking about it,” Kaplan tells The Verge. “I remember immediately talking to people around the office saying, ‘What would it take for us to be here?’” It took some time for that to happen. Blizzard started by porting Diablo III to the Switch late last year, and work on a portable version of Overwatch started a little over a year ago. The final version will be launching on Nintendo’s tablet on October 15th.
According to Kaplan, the constantly changing nature of Overwatch made it a bit trickier to port, compared to the hack-and-slash RPG. “It was much easier to get Diablo on the device than it was to get Overwatch,” he says. “And, like everything we do here, we wanted to make sure to do it right. It was just a long process of figuring out how to handle the development in a way that we felt like we would be very proud of the end product.”
As with Diablo III on the Switch, Blizzard worked with developer Iron Galaxy Studios on the port, and according to producer Wes Yanagi, “the bulk of our efforts on the Switch were a lot of heavy optimization.” For the most part, the new version of Overwatch will be the same as on other platforms, though it will run at 30 frames per second (both docked and undocked), compared to 60 fps on PS4 and Xbox One. But it also comes with some new features, including gyro-controlled aiming and the ability to navigate menus via the touchscreen. And, of course, there’s the biggest bonus of all: portability.
The fact that the Switch is relatively underpowered means that it might not look as good as on other platforms. But those technical limitations shouldn’t impact updates. “Our goal is to keep all platforms in parity,” says Yanagi. “So as far as we can, we’re going to have all the same feature sets. Any kind of new heroes or events or anything like that should be out at the same time.” Kaplan adds, “None of our platforms are considered lesser to us.”
One of the elements that’s helped Overwatch stand out is its style and tone. As opposed to most multiplayer shooters, which are dark and gritty, Overwatch is bright and colorful, with a diverse, eccentric cast of characters to choose from. It’s this same sensibility that Kaplan believes makes the game a good fit for Nintendo’s portable console.
“Nintendo games are typically very bright, very saturated, very hopeful; less realistic, more character-based,” he explains. “When you think of the Nintendo ecosystem and the types of games that are really popular, we felt like there’d be a one-to-one match with Nintendo players being attracted to Overwatch because of the aesthetic and the feel and the spirit of the game. It all felt like a great match to us.” Additionally, Kaplan thinks the Switch version won’t just catch on with brand-new players, but longtime ones, too. “I think, in addition to that audience, there’s another audience, which is the dedicated Overwatch fans who play on multiple platforms,” he says.
For that latter group, in particular, Overwatch will be missing a key feature when it launches on the Switch: any form of cross-save or cross-progression. That’s part of what has made Fortnite such a large, multiplatform success. The items you unlock in Epic’s battle royale hit, either by earning or buying them, carry over from one device to the next, whether you’re playing on your phone, PC, or console.
Unfortunately, right now, there are no solid details about if or when that might be coming to Overwatch. “I think it’s going to be super exciting to have that,” Yanagi says of cross-progression. “A lot of people are asking for it, and it’s something that, as a player, I totally want to be able to do that. It’s something that we’re currently investigating, but we don’t have any solid info right now.”
2019 is shaping up to be a big year for Blizzard’s shooter. The developer has introduced two new heroes to the game — Baptiste and Sigma — along with a creative Workshop mode and “role queue” feature so players can better focus on specific in-game team compositions. At the same time, the fledgling Overwatch League just wrapped its second season. It’s clearly a very busy time for the three-year-old game, one that will only get more hectic when the Switch version debuts.
“It’s absolutely thrilling,” Kaplan says of launching on the Switch. “We’re a group of craftspeople. We like building stuff. But that’s not rewarding in and of itself unless somebody enjoys it and wants to play it. And we’re so lucky that three years after the initial launch of the game, we’re going to get to welcome a whole new audience.”
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