Game director and vice president at Blizzard Entertainment Jeffrey Kaplan took the stage at DICE 2017 and talked about the way Blizzard created the world of Overwatch.
Jeffrey ‘Tigole’ Kaplan is a famous game designer from Blizzard. He started as an Everquest player and became so involved into this whole MMORPG-thing, that Blizzard actually hired him in 2002. At first, he worked on Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and then moved to World of Warcraft. He worked on world design, outdoor zones, dungeons, and raids. Basically, he did everything. His next game was Titan, which was canceled and later turned into Overwatch. Currently, Caplan is the game director for Blizzard’s Overwatch.
Funny enough, world building is the theme of this year’s DICE, so Kaplan was invited to give a little talk about his amazing work. He is a big fan of world-building, so his talk was probably one of the most interesting for the crowd.
The story actually begins with the project before Overwatch – called Titan. Titan was to be a successor MMO to World of Warcraft. Blizzard started working on the game in 2007. In May of 2013 it was canceled. 140 developers were working on this game and suddenly it was over. 80 people were relocated to other teams (Diablo, Hearthstone, World of Warcraft, StarCraft 2) and 40 developers had to come up with the new idea, a new game. They had to do it in 6 weeks. If they failed, they would have to move to other teams as well. During this time Overwatch was born.
The team was very nervous, almost devastated by the dim future prospects. But they didn’t give up. 6 weeks were divided into 6 blocks. During one of those blocks, they’ve started working on this idea, which later became Overwatch. The idea came from an amazing artist Arnold Tsang, who was drawing these fantastic character designs for project Titan. The other idea came from class designer Jeff Goodman, who did all the big raid bosses for World of Warcraft. He had all those amazing class designs. So they’ve decided to unite the two and this is how Overwatch was born.
The team took a lot of inspiration from Titan, including the amazing characters (some of them) and … world. Titan was to take place at planet Earth. Another very talented concept artist Benjamin Zhang (he did a bunch of card designs for Hearthstone) did a little concept of the FPS game with a bunch of heroes flying around and shooting each other. This got the whole thing going. The team members tarted talking about the gameplay and the feel of the game. Ben’s image became a guiding light for the entire team.
Blizzard is a star-studded company, that was fortunate to work in various genres and different IP spaces. High-fantasy in WoW, Sci-fi in Starcraft and Gothic Fantasy in Diablo. All team members are very familiar with these spaces. They can easily come up with the idea for a Diablo dungeon, or a StarCraft planet. Overwatch was very different. The team had to push itself into another frontier – Earth.
The first thing they had to figure out is to learn, what’s cool about Earth. At first they’ve decided to study, how other games have approached this planet. In terms of Universe building, there was some incredible stuff done there. Last of Us, Fallout 4, Rage, Mad Max presented the post-apocalyptic world. Most of these projects were very beautiful. Realism was another strong theme in Earth-games: Battlefield 1, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor. These games took realistic graphics to a whole new level. Blizzard loves Battlefield so much it even jeopardized the development of World of Warcraft.
For Overwatch Blizzard decided to go into a completely different direction. Their goal was to create an Earth of the future, a future worth fighting for. They decided to build on the concept of the near future Earth in a positive, hopeful way. So, while working on this game, the basic approach was taken from World of Warcraft. Namely, the development team decided to show a variety of different locations to the player. Variation was very important to the team. The color theory of location was one of the guiding principles for the artistic look of the game. Colour is ver important for players, as it allows to evoke the immediate emotional response from the players.
Another important lesson of World of Warcraft sounds like that: Oppressiveness Causes Fatigue. Burning Crusade showed that dark and oppressive environments can leave a very negative effect on the player. They were not ready to spend hundreds of hours in these dark places. So to make a really engaging game you’ll need to find some brighter places. Overwatch was supposed to be a welcoming place. And this is how the main world building question came up: Where would you want to spend time on plane Earth? And Blizzard started looking for vacation spots.
To achieve the feeling of hopefulness, they also had to reimagine some places, bring them to a brighter future. Iraq was one of those places. It wasn’t war-torn, it was a beautiful place from Arabian Nights. It also became one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world. After all, fantasy is greater than reality.
This feeling of bright fantasy could be easily seen in Overwatch Hollywood map. Jeffrey Kaplan was actually born there, he knew how to make the game’s imaginary Hollywood look more exciting. The environment art team at Blizzard could do the fantasy part of the map and Kaplan helped them to have the backlot side of big studios. Realism was not the goal here. If they went with the real Hollywood, it would look like real garbage.
A similar story happened with the Mexican map called Dorado. Mexico was very important for the game. There was a lot of storytelling connected with this area. Aaron Keller and Jeffrey Kaplan were looking for locations in Mexico to build. They started with Mexico city, but it didn’t work for them, cause it was too modern, contemporary, too real. Instead, they wanted a coastal town, with hilly landscape and a lot of colour. So, they went to Google Images and searched for ‘A Colourful Mexican Town’. And they found that wonderful image, that sort of helped them to build Dorado. Later, they found out that the image the whole thing was based on was actually an image of the Italian town Manarola. But it wasn’t really a problem, cause Overwatch isn’t about reality, it’s about hope for a new, better world.
Another huge element of the game were heroes. “Lawful good paladin” is a general character from Blizzard. Each of the heroes had to have some peculiar game mechanics and some peculiar visual design. Every frame of animation, every skin should be peculiar and different. You have to have different heroes to appeal them to a wider audience. This is how the team started to explore different countries and different people from different countries. This helped to make Overwatch a very diverse game, where everyone was welcomed.
Blizzard also challenged a lot of stereotypes in games. There are a lot of female characters, including and older woman, who has complicated relationships with her daughter. This is unheard of in video games. Blizzard also created a gay character Tracer, who’s girlfriend was shown in the comic. It’s not like Call of Duty, you might say.
So, when you think about the success of Overwatch, don’t think it’s just quality and testing. It’s quality, testing, art and a different approach. And this brave take on games, actually, helps to make Overwatch a part of the whole popular culture. This is why Blizzard is so successful. When they are building their own worlds, they are actually changing our own.