Gamescom is quite the blow-out for Blizzard in terms of announcements and attendance. We got the chance to talk to Aaron Keller, assistant game director on Overwatch, about the state of the game and where it's headed next. He was very talkative about both what's going on currently and the direction things are going in the future.
Read more: everything we know about the future of Overwatch.
PCGN: So Overwatch has this brand new IP, massive new universe to introduce players to. We’ve had the Bastion cinematic, and we’ve had numerous cinematics throughout the year, the period that the game has been showing its story. How does it feel to create a universe when you don’t actually have narrative gameplay?
Aaron Keller: Well, it’s a bit of a challenge. Early on in the development of the game we realised that being the type of game that we are - it’s a competitive first person shooter and it’s really fast-paced - that we would only have a small amount of room to build story into it. And we weren’t willing to make any design compromises in order to get more story into the map. Blizzard’s philosophy is gameplay first, and so even though you have two heroes like Winston and Tracer, who are best friends, they can still fight together in a match, and that is part of what makes Overwatch so special, is this huge roster of characters and heroes that you can pick from to fight.
So we quickly started looking for ways to tell the story outside of the game. And you mentioned The Last Bastion animated short that we just released, and that’s what we started coming to, was things like that. We’ve released novels, we’ve released quite a few animated shorts and we’re also going to release a graphic novel. Now we do have a small amount of story we can tell in game - all the heroes have different emotes and voice lines, that I think really show their personality. And I think it’s helped players fall in love with some of the heroes. And in the maps themselves we have a lot of different story elements in there. And what we’re trying to do with the game is just hint at a much larger world that exists outside of it, and then we use these other forms of media to start telling the story that we’ve already hinted at.
And are there any sort of opportunities that you’d perhaps like to explore, we’ve seen graphics novels and shorts, are there any other mediums that you’d like to expand Overwatch into?
We’re discussing things internally, but there’s really nothing I can comment on as far as concrete details go right now.
One of the other elements we’ve seen which is also expanding is the lore, and also hinting about what’s coming forward, is ARGs, obviously we’re looking at Sombra at the moment. Is there anything you can tell us about how that ARG is going?
Well, it’s really difficult to say, because it’s so mysterious, and there’s really nothing that I or anybody else can do to control Sombra, she’s her own person, so I can’t say.
This is arguably the first time you’ve tried an ARG sort of thing, is it a difficult game to create? Obviously it’s not the same as producing a video game.
Yeah, that’s true - it could be. The ARG is actually so secretive that I don’t even know what it is myself. It’s like CIA level material. So I couldn’t really comment on it.
So Season One all going fine, we’ve already been told what to expect from Season Two in terms of progression. How have you felt about what you’ve seen so far out of competitive and where would you like to see it go next?
I’ve actually been really excited over the response for Season One. The community involvement with Overwatch has been phenomenal so far. They let us know what they like, and they let us know what they don’t like, and I think that the team in general, the Overwatch team, has been really responsive to their feedback, and a lot of what we’re doing in Season Two is in direct response to it. It being kind of arbitrary skill rating and not knowing how good you are, so the tier system is a direct response to that.
So I feel good about it, Season Two has a lot of changes in store, and I think that what I’m most looking forward to is to see the competitive team grow, and to see as people start filling in the top 500 and then watching that as it feeds into the actual pro-level scene. I feel like that top 500 component can be a lot of pros and people on their ways to playing the game at a professional level, and I’d like to see that progression of people up through there.
In terms of reaction, we’ve seen quite fast reactions to characters who haven’t been working quite well, nerfs or buffs, and they’ve come very quickly. Is the plan to maintain that very swift change when things go wrong or is maybe the idea to slow down and work on perhaps a season by season basis.
We would prefer to make changes to heroes as soon as we realise that there’s a problem with the hero. The Overwatch team - we're incredibly passionate about the game, not just as developers but as players, we all go home and play. If there’s an issue with one of the heroes where we think they’re either overpowered or underpowered, we want those fixed for the health of the game, and we want those fixed for our own selfish gameplay experiences.
So yeah, when we see it we’re going to fix it. And I think we’ve been on top of it. We’ll probably not do massive changes all at one time. I know they’ve been frequent, but we like to take a measured approach to see what our changes - how much of an effect they have in game. But they will continue to be frequent until the game is perfectly balanced, which will be never.
Could you tell us about the World Cup and where that idea came from?
We have an embedded eSports team on Overwatch and we have a great director of the team, Nate Nanzer, and a lot of people on the team are really big sports fans. And one of the exciting things that several different sports have, including football, is this World Cup idea. And when you shuffle everybody according to the country you end up getting these really cool match-ups, and it’s different than what you’ve been expecting. So that’s a lot of what’s driving the World Cup, to see all these different teams happen. And there’s also just something about playing for your nation, and having national pride invested in it, it starts stirring up the fanbase in different ways than it was previously, and we think that’s exciting as well.
In terms of Overwatch’s future as an eSport, how well do you think things are looking for that?
It’s actually been really cool since the launch of the game, and actually even before the launch of the game in beta, there have been high level tournaments broadcast almost every day. It’s continued, it hasn’t just continued, but it feels like it keeps growing, so that’s why we started these big tournaments. I think it can actually turn into something much bigger than it is right now, we have big plans for Overwatch eSports that hopefully we can share with people in the near future.
We’re seeing new heroes coming in, we’ve already had Ana, who massively changed the way that support could potentially be played. I’m sure you know what you have in mind for other heroes, but so far after watching player reactions and seeing how teams work, is there a specific role that you’d potentially like to fill at some point in the future?
It’s interesting that you asked the question that way and you mentioned Ana. When we shipped Overwatch with 21 heroes in it, and Ana was the 22nd. We thought that there was a hole that needed to be filled, and Ana was the hero that we designed around it, and it was specifically about playing support in a different way. Typically our support heroes, they’re very accessible, like Mercy doesn’t require any aiming ability at all in order to heal members of her own team, so we wanted to make a high skill support hero, and that’s when Ana came in.
It was almost like this is a hero that Widowmaker players could switch to, and it’s such a different way of using that same ability of aiming with a scoped rifle but using it for a different purpose. I think for the foreseeable future that’s what our heroes will be. I think that there’s still a lot of holes to fill in Overwatch. I can’t say exactly what we’re working on, but there’s new gameplay styles that we haven’t even touched yet. I think that there’s a few new tanks - a few new tank mechanics that we could probably put in the game that the game even needs sometimes, that we’d like to see.
On the other side of that is that we actively have several heroes in development right now and we probably always will, so there’s definitely more coming online. As we’ve mentioned, as we develop and release new heroes, they’ll always be completely free. They’ll continue to be completely free.
You were talking about Widowmaker, you can reuse her skills with Ana - do you perhaps have a favourite skillset that you think would be really suited to a different style of play?
Now that’s a great question, actually. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head, it’d be a really great question for our lead hero designer Geoff Goodman. I personally really like a run-and-gun style, so I enjoy playing heroes like Tracer a lot. And it was interesting when D.Va came in, because she was a tank that had this high mobility. I wonder what it would be like then to take that same kind of mindset and apply it to a support hero as well, that could be a pretty interesting thing to do.
The Rio Olympics theme you’ve got going for Overwatch - seasonal themes based on real world events, is that something you can see for the foreseeable future for Overwatch?
We recently released Summer Games, it was our first event. It’s still live, people can go and play it if they haven’t tried it. We kind of wanted to see what players’ reaction to it would be. It’s our first one, we didn’t know what the reception was going to be like, and since we have, it feels like it’s been incredibly well received, there’s been a lot of enthusiasm over it, so right now we’re actively building and designing new events. So they’ll be coming. They’ll be coming in the near future, I can’t say what they are, but I think that there’s a lot of space inside of Overwatch for these events, and even new game modes and new brawls, like what we have with Lucioball. And I think it’ll be cool to tie some of them to real world events, some of them maybe to seasonal themes, and maybe there’s even fictional things inside the Overwatch world itself that we can tie an event to.
In terms of the way that the lootboxes work, reaction is varied between negativity and feeling happy about that. How have you personally felt about how the response has been?
We’ve been pretty happy with the response to lootboxes so far. The weird thing for us is lootboxes were sort of an evolution of our business model for the game, because - it was about a year ago, or less than a year ago, we announced that this was going to be a boxed model game. The reason we did that - it was kind of a game design decision - because we wanted every hero to be available to every player in the game, and that’s what we think the magic of Overwatch is, is to have all of this available to you.
This might seem unrelated, but early on in development we had a lot of different ideas for progression in the game, and we wanted there to be some sort of progression system and we toyed with the idea ‘there’s going to be talents, or maybe even new abilities’ or something like that, for different heroes. But it quickly detracted from the core gameplay of Overwatch, it’s really fast-paced, you always really need to know what another hero can do at any moment.
So once we started locking that in place the lootboxes kind of evolved from those two choices, where we knew we wanted to have some sort of reward for levelling up in the game, and we wanted that reward to be purely cosmetic because we never wanted to affect game balance with the progression. So that’s what happened with lootboxes, and I think that players have responded really positively to that idea, especially because of the fact that there is no power progression in the game, and so I think players appreciate that we’re trying to keep the core gameplay as pure as possible with the system.
What would you ask of the Overwatch team? Let us know in the comments below.