Designing Overwatch: From Titan To Torbjorn

 Editor’s Note: The following article first appeared in Game Informer Australia Issue #81 and is written by David Milner. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Blizzard’s first new IP in eighteen years, Overwatch, is a critical and commercial hit. Sitting on a Metacritic score of 91, and earning a rare 10 from Game Informer, it amassed a staggering 10 million players in just three weeks following launch. But it could have been a very different story.

Rising from the ashes of the never-released World of Warcraft successor Titan – a “complete failure” according to those who worked on it – Overwatch was a chance at redemption for a developer unaccustomed to misfires. With Titan on the scrap heap, the team turned to a smaller, more focused game to pick themselves up.

I spoke with game director Jeff Kaplan about the team’s journey from Titan to Overwatch, building a universe beyond the scope of a competitive shooter, new content, and watching Torbjörn hammering walls during Play of the Game.

Overwatch is a critical success. Having spent many years working on Titan, a project that never saw the light of the day, how important was that positive reaction to the team?

Our team is made up of extremely bright game developers who have been doing this for a long time. There are a lot of seasoned veterans on our team and they’re very passionate about what they do. We describe ourselves as craftspeople who make games for a living, and we take what we do very seriously.

Coming off of something that was such a failure was a big blow to a lot of us. Not only did we fail in our professional craft, but when you invest yourself creatively in something for a long time, it can be very devastating to you as a creative person. So having people respond favorably to Overwatch has been very special to all of us. It’s always great when people validate you and appreciate the work that you do, but there’s something extra sweet about the appreciation that Overwatch has seen.

Developers often talk about “finding the fun.” Sometimes this happens through polish and iteration, sometimes it happens quickly with the initial concept. At what point in development did you find the fun with Overwatch?

We actually use that phrase internally all the time, and there’s a very specific answer with Overwatch. It was a milestone we set for ourselves called “core combat.” We have a number of development milestones that all of our teams go through here at Blizzard, and the teams themselves define what those milestones are going to be.

Our goal was to have one complete map, full level design and environmental art entirely complete, in addition to four playable heroes. It was the Temple of Anubis map, and the four heroes were Widowmaker, Pharah, Tracer and Reaper… and it was just an instant moment.

We would have playtests, not only for the team, but for Blizzard executives and developers from other internal teams. And it was an instant moment where everybody recognized we were on to something special. At that point it simply became, “Let’s just make more of that.”

We were in ideation in June of 2013, still trying to get [Overwatch] greenlit. We were off to the races late July or early August of 2013, and then that core combat milestone was completed by the beginning of March 2014. We were feeling pretty good about things at that point.

Tracer, or at least parts of her, is a surviving character from Titan. Are there any other elements salvaged from that project?

Yeah, there are definitely more, but none directly. Tracer was not actually a character in Titan. We had a class called “the Jumper” and she evolved from that.

What made Overwatch different from Titan was that instead of having generic character classes we started digging out actual characters in the fiction that would take on the persona of these classes. In fact, most of the concept work on the Jumper was always male. So turning it into a female was interesting, but giving her a country and a backstory was really where the magic started to happen.

There are others, like the Numbani map. The original concept art for Numbani was from Titan. There was an image by a brilliant concept artist named Peter Lee, who’s worked on World of Warcraft, StarCraft II – all of our franchises to some degree. He did this amazing picture of a futuristic city in Africa, but it had a really different tone in Titan.

We [then] took the story in a very different direction: it became a city of peace and harmony between the Omnics. It’s the most technologically advanced city on the planet, or one of them. We never actually built anything for Numbani in Titan – it was just a piece of art, an idea. It got carried out very differently when it saw the light of day in Overwatch.

Overwatch has a rich lore and universe, but almost none of it is overtly included in the game. It’s all in the animated shorts and on the periphery. Why did you go to such lengths with universe-building when so little of it is actually in the game?

Something we’re very proud of at Blizzard is how well Diablo, StarCraft and Warcraft have stood the test of time. We consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have these pillars that we, and our fans, have celebrated through the decades. And it’s an honour to get to keep making games in these franchises. Who would have guessed when the company was working on Warcraft or Warcraft II that someday there’d be this MMORPG or that a game like Hearthstone would get created out of it?

We take a lot of pride and have a lot of passion in world-building, and building these epic universes that our players realize are bigger than any one game could ever be.

When we started on Overwatch, we knew immediately we wanted to make a smaller-scope game – a competitive 6v6 shooter – and we wanted it to take place in a new universe. But at the same time we didn’t want to limit what that universe was to such a constrained experience. That wouldn’t allow us to do things like create animated shorts; it’d preclude us from someday saying, “What if there was another game that took place in the Overwatch setting? What could that be?”

So even though this was going to be a smaller-scope game than World of Warcraft, the story and world-building had to be equally important. Because in a lot of ways the fact that we were starting a new IP demanded that we treat it with the same reverence and respect we always have in the past. This leaves a lot of doors open for us in the future if we want to explore it in other creative ways.

How are you going to keep players invested long-term? How regularly can we expect new content?

Our hope is – and obviously we don’t want to put out a promise that we can’t deliver on, so this is a goal rather than a commitment – we can at least see something really cool every month. That will be our goal, and we’ve been tracking pretty well towards that so far. If you look at the fact that we launched in May, we put out Competitive mode in June and we put out Ana in July. We really want to keep up with that sort of pace.

It won’t always be a new game mode, it won’t always be a new hero, and we’re exploring the possibility of events in the future. So those are the types of things that we’re hoping excite players. We’ll see if we can keep up, we’ll see if that’s the right pace for players and we’ll see if we’re delivering the right kinds of content.