The most interesting things happening in Overwatch right now weren’t actually built by Blizzard. Two weeks ago, the developer released a new tool called the Workshop, where players can use a rudimentary scripting language to design their own custom Overwatch games. Its availability is limited; currently you can only use it on PC, and it’s only available through the game’s public test realm. Still, fans have taken to it with vigor — and the Workshop could very well be a vital part of the game’s future.
Some of the early creations show an incredible level of ingenuity. There’s a mode where you can race as the mechanical hamster ball Hammond, and another where a group of spies have to stealthily claim locations from a team of powerful mercenaries. One dogfighting mode lets you fly around as Bastion. Other player creations are smaller in scale, though no less useful; one user built a radial menu for quickly choosing a new hero. There’s even a Flappy Bird clone. “There’s definitely been a lot of stuff that our users have done that I didn’t even know you could do at first,” says Dan Reed, a senior gameplay designer on Overwatch.
The idea for the Workshop started around two years ago. Reed and Keith Miron, lead gameplay engineer on the game, had talked about improving Overwatch’s fairly limited custom games mode, so that players could really create new things. In 2017, Blizzard staff were given two free days to work on whatever project they wanted, and Reed and Miron decided to see what they could build. Their goal was to create a tool that simplified the scripting language Overwatch developers use, so that even people without programming knowledge could make things.
They managed to get it working, and after two days they made a playable game mode that they showed off to the rest of the team. Even Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s director and lead designer, showed interest in the project. But the pair found it hard to find time to dedicate to the idea, so it was put on the shelf until 2018, when they were given another two free days to work on personal projects. They managed to clean up the system a bit, and created a few custom games, including a zombie mode and another where one player is Roadhog, and if you kill him, you become him. “After that is when we started working on it pretty seriously,” says Miron.
Miron says that the project was motivated primarily by the community. The Overwatch team frequently gets feedback asking for specific new game modes, but there’s a limited amount they can actually create. “Players have all of these great ideas for what they want to see in Overwatch,” Miron says. “And I think a big part of the motivation for us was to give them a way to realize those ideas.”
Early signs are encouraging. Blizzard says that 2.7 million games have been created so far, and creators have shared more than 60,000 game codes, letting others play around with what they’ve built. The mode has seen a steady stream of small updates since launch, focused primarily on stability and ease of use. The goal, though, is to eventually start taking user feedback to really add new features in the Workshop. “What we’re trying to do is find ways to add tools that will benefit a lot of people,” says Miron. “To be honest, there’s so much feedback that we’re going to have to take a step back and really identify the best thing to work on.”
The Overwatch Workshop is clearly still in an early state; it just launched, and most users, particularly on console, can’t even access it. But it will almost certainly be an important part of Overwatch’s future. While the game receives new characters and maps on a fairly regular basis, a true creative mode could help keep the game relevant for a long time, giving players a constant stream of things to do. That’s a large part of the reason for Minecraft’s ongoing success, and it’s something Fortnite is trying to replicate with its creative mode. The early launch of Workshop is a promising start, and more features — notably things like custom maps and the ability to import art — could help it become a much bigger phenomenon.
The team isn’t ready yet to discuss any of the major features coming to the Workshop. For now, they’re focused on making sure the existing version runs properly, and gearing up for the eventual public launch. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have big plans. “It was one of the biggest motivations, to be honest, to get something into Overwatch that can be something that we support far into the future,” says Miron.