I want to go to the African metropolis of Numbani. The Blizzard-invented city is the most technologically advanced in the world, and a monument to human-robot relations - from the zigzagging dome of the international airport, through the lime neon warmth of the coffee shops, to Unity Plaza - a vibrant and vertiginous take on Times Square. It’s an Overwatch escort map in which the payload isn’t a pile of explosives, but an artifact you’re returning to a museum.
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Overwatch director and early WoW world designer Jeff Kaplan is watching players walk through the streets of Numbani for the first time. But inevitably, they’re not reading the departures board or stopping for coffee - they’re scrambling behind energy shields for cover.
“It’s almost tragic - I watch them come in, play, and then they get shuttled out,” he says. “There’s this long line and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, they’re only going to see 15 minutes’.”
You could argue that Kaplan and his team are wasting their time. But Overwatch isn’t only an FPS - it’s the first new Blizzard world in 17 years.
“We do more than we need to at first glance,” he says. “We could use that as an excuse to be lazy, but it’s not just about this PvP shooter we’re making right now. We’re really looking at the long vision of the future of Overwatch. Which is, we want to create a universe as rich as StarCraft, or Warcraft, or Diablo, that we can explore for many, many years, and possibly [in] other game genres.”
Blizzard’s playgrounds are Azeroth, or outer space, or other planes of existence. They don’t often get to play at home.
“At Blizzard we love world-building - one of my favourite parts of World of Warcraft was the world-building exercise,” says Kaplan, whose dreamy demeanor is removed from the quickfire enthusiasm of his colleagues on StarCraft or Heroes of the Storm. “So working on Planet Earth was awesome. It’s a weird thing to say, but what could be cool about Earth?”
Blizzard are conscious of their house aesthetic: chunky and colourful, larger than life - “think of WoW shoulder pads”.
“So when it came to exploring the world, it was really focused on, ‘What’s the Blizzard version of Africa? What’s the Blizzard version of Egypt? What’s the Blizzard version of Japan, what does that look like?’.”
The dev team quickly rid themselves of photorealism and the instinct to level a famous American city - instead setting about imagining a future that was bright and aspirational. Concept artist Peter Lee drew the outskirts of Numbani - “If Peter draws it, we want to build it” - and Overwatch, named for a group of oddball global peacekeepers, soon became a celebration of internationalism. An attempt by a bunch of “old-school RPG nerds” at Blizzard to modernise the bard yielded Lúcio, a block-rocking Brazilian DJ.
“Exploring the globe is the fun part of it, and we like to think of, ‘What are these different fantasies that exist all over the world’,” says Kaplan. “Sometimes we challenge ourselves to really reach out there.”
It’s been intimidating, to dream up a whole new world. Despite the ever-present expectation around any new Blizzard game, having a world like Warcraft to draw on is a kind of safety net - one the Overwatch team have gone without.
“Every time we start a new project, our first consideration is Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo,” reveals Kaplan. “We have so much invested in those worlds. We know them so well. There’s so much more we wanna do in those universes, areas we want to explore.
“So it’s a very daunting task when you think of stepping outside of that area. But I think that the calibre of game developer that’s attracted to Blizzard loves to take on a new challenge - I think that’s what these guys thrive on.”
Kaplan remembers the early days of WoW development. In 2002, fans would rail against the audacity of the RTS company who dared to design an MMO. And even in the boom years that followed, nobody would have guessed that Blizzard would make a MOBA, or a card game, or an FPS.
“I think there’s a lot of obvious games to make that would have been more comfortable for us, but not necessarily pushed us and therefore our players,” says Kaplan. “Let’s branch out a little bit and see what’s out there.”
Kaplan doesn’t see the Overwatch universe as equivalent to the fully-formed Azeroth of World of Warcraft - but rather the world of Warcraft 1 or 2.
“We’re just setting the stage right now,” he says. “We’d love to have a universe that’s as deep and rich, that could support a World of Warcraft someday. But you have to allow people to bond with the experience and fall in love with characters and places and storylines. You have to really earn that. I think with WoW we really felt that.”
But Kaplan knows where that stage-setting can lead. The team he worked with to launch WoW pulled as many elements from Warcraft III as possible. In Lordaeron today, you can still find the blood-splattered crescent where Arthas killed his father, knocking his crown to the ground.
“Whether or not it’s important to a player who goes out and starts playing World of Warcraft with Legion for his first time, I don’t know,” says Kaplan. “But maybe someday he will, and we know that there’s a rich story behind it.”
The Overwatch team have no foreknowledge about how their world might be expanded - just as the designers of Draenor had no idea it would become the basis of a WoW expansion more than a decade later. All they can do is resist colouring in every corner, leaving Overwatch space to grow.
“The fun part about that is, in this day and age of Twitter and Reddit and Facebook, the proliferation of the community interacting with Blizzard, we’re constantly aware of what they’re interested in,” points out Kaplan. “We’ve found that they’ll be interested in something that was just a side thing and never really intended, and we’ll play off of that.”
One place that lots of Overwatch characters will almost certainly wind up is Heroes of the Storm. Teleporting poster child Tracer arrived in April. But the honour of further crossovers is one Kaplan is determined to earn.
“We recognise that we have a lot of work to do to think that we could stand side by side with Diablo, StarCraft and Warcraft,” he says. “But the beauty of that game is that it just celebrates all things Blizzard. The Overwatch team’s biggest hope, and one of the things that we aspire to, is to see our heroes in their game.”