With an omnic guru, a talking gorilla, and an environmental scientist, Overwatch’s cast pushes the boundaries when it comes to the type of characters that can star in an online shooter. There’s only one gruff, gun-toting soldier here, and he had to come out of hiding to make it in.
Overwatch’s popularity is proof enough that Blizzard’s mission to make shooters more diverse has been successful. But while the development team has shown confidence with its bold character designs, behind the scenes there are plenty of debates and reworks – each character is the result of hundreds of hours of refinements. The biggest struggle the team has run into is in trying to create a specific type of ‘cute’ character that made sense in Overwatch’s world – one the size of a hamster.
“We thought nobody would believe it if we had a real hamster. That would have been the line we crossed in a world with living robots and advanced technology,” Overwatch lead writer Michael Chu tells me through spurts of laughter. “We had always planned for a cute hero, but knew we would have to adjust it for our world.”
Most of Overwatch’s heroes, even the ones that have come out months after the game’s initial launch, have been in development for years. Wrecking Ball – aka Hammond, the hamster that rolls across the battlefield in a spherical mech – is one of these. The reveal of the character on June 28, 2018, is the culmination of an entire Blizzard team racking their brains to figure out how a tiny, adorable character could fit in alongside the likes of Roadhog and Reaper without looking out of place.
“The wrecking ball design was around for a long time, it passed hands between design and art teams,” Chu says. “It really gave us an opportunity for a cute character, although we knew we had other, more interesting omnics, so we had to get creative there.”
Blizzard’s original plan for a cute character went through a range of drafts including a monkey with a bazooka, a small gator, and a number of tiny dragons. Several of those characters were planned around the concept of ‘free flying’, the character’s ability to never touch the ground, but that ended up not working out since it would cause far too many balance issues.
Around the same time that the Overwatch team was looking for an answer to this cute hero there were design dilemmas with the character that would eventually become Junkrat. The original idea was for him to be a demolition man that could roll around the battlefield. That didn’t work out – though lives on through Junkrat’s RIP-Tire – but the idea for a fully rollable character was formed under the working title ‘ball guy’.
‘Ball guy’ was initially planned as an omnic, but it was soon decided that the design couldn’t be justified in Overwatch’s world. It was then that the idea of a wrecking ball that served as a vehicle for a little furry friend called Hammond came into the picture. “We brought it into meeting with Kaplan and he was like ‘yes’,” Chu says. “We’re doing this.”
At this point, the team knew Hammond was making his way into the roster, but there was plenty of work to do to get him there. A prototype was designed using a combination of D.Va’s first-person view and the ball from Lúcioball as it already had a hitbox that could be used for testing. The design had a dual flame thrower as a weapon, spin dash and shield node abilities, and an anti-gravity slam ultimate move that kept enemy players in the air for a short amount of time.
“He had this ability to knock someone down if he could gain enough speed,” principle game designer Geoff Goodman tells me. “It was as annoying as it sounds.”
The team went through tons of design iterations. Hammond’s weapons, walking style and speed, voice, and other elements were reworked and tested frequently. Even the animations went through drastic changes: “his original walking mechanic took up way too much space – like putting socks on a dog,” Chu says. “The next iteration was a lot faster, it was funny to see his face cheeks jiggle.”
Work on Wrecking Ball’s design made a lot of ground before Chu had even thought about writing a story for the character. Fortunately, as the design slotted in well with the rest of Overwatch’s cast, the groundwork of the story was obvious.
“It was clear that he’d be from the Horizon Zero Colony since we already had talking animals and genetic experiments there,” Chu says. “It made sense for Hammond to have an origin story similar to Winston’s. We started putting clues on the Colony level as soon as this was established, we even created his room with some gorilla prints around to mislead the player.”
The team worked out that Hammond would be a brilliant escape artist due to his enhanced intellect and hours spent inside hamster mazes during his time as a science experiment. This talent is what eventually led to his escape from the moon colony and subsequent arrival at Junkertown.
Beyond his origin story, Junkertown and the Horizon Lunar Colony also played a big role in helping the development team find the right sound for both Hammond’s voice and his vehicle-ball hybrid. It was originally decided that Hammond wouldn’t be able to actually speak – not in any human language, at least – so the team had him build a vehicle that he could ride that would also translate for him once he crash landed on Earth.
“We actually had to redesign the system in which characters would talk to each other before matches,” senior sound designer Geoff Garnett reveals. “Since characters were set up to talk one right after the other, Hammond’s hamster-voice-to-robot-translation took extra time and needed to be accomodated.”
Manufacturing the other sounds Hammond makes was a concerted effort, pulling from unexpected places to make it all work together, resulting in distinct technological noise and rodent speak for the character. As such, Hammond’s weapon sounds come from desert weapon recordings of M2s and M60s while his ball sounds are a variety of metal rolls alongside the sound of an actual hamster wheel.
The original design for Wrecking Ball has come a long way from the cast of cute characters Blizzard initially envisioned for the role. But due to his small size and animal anatomy, Hammond should hopefully pave the way for even more unusual Overwatch characters to come, such as the jetpack cat the community is often asking for.
“The key was to make him fit in,” Chu says. “Although, we knew he was always going to be on the fringe, right on the outside, since he was different compared to everyone else we had designed.”
Living up to his namesake, then, Hammond came into Overwatch like a wrecking ball.