We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with game director Jeffrey Kaplan and lead level designer Aaron Keller, to discuss Overwatch in general, and more specifically the console versions of the studio's first foray into the world of shooters. Here's what the pair had to say about the eagerly anticipated shooter.
Gamereactor: How would you describe Blizzard's initial approach to the shooter genre, advantages and disadvantages, and how was it different from your RPG/strategy game comfort zone?
Aaron Keller: When we started on Overwatch it was right after the Titan Project shut down, and we had a lot of shooter fans all across Team 4. Jeff Kaplan is a big shooter fan, and used to make maps for Quake. What we wanted to do was to make a game that we really wanted to play ourselves. What Blizzard typically does, what makes our games special, is that we always go after something that we're passionate about, and that we want to play after it comes out. That's where World of Warcraft came from, that's where Hearthstone came from. So, we may not have the most experienced team, when making a particular kind of game, but we have a lot of passionate people that are incredibly talented. We hire the best people in the industry, and I think that Team 4 is incredibly talented. We give these people the resources to make the game that they are passionate about.
Jeffrey Kaplan: One thing that's been different about approaching a shooter from RPGs is where to put your level of focus. With RPGs you spend a lot of time at a high level, thinking about the big picture and spirit of the world. We do a lot of that in Overwatch, but the level of detail in terms of specific mechanics that FPS players care about are very different. The level of precision is much higher than in RPGs, considerations like a character's hit boxes, sizes of projectiles, what collisions exists, camera height.
GR: We've noticed that players will be able to customise the characters with different skins. Can we expect further customisation in the future, as in different abilities for the same character, like in Heroes of the Storm, or are you focusing more on balancing the game as it is now?
JK: Definitely more focused on the balance. We actually had a character customisation system in the game, where you would level up, like if you'd play a bunch of Reaper, the Reaper would get higher level and then you had abilities you could choose from. Like the shotgun would do more damage at long range, or you can heal to full when using the Wraith Form ability. We had that in the game, and then removed it. Players had a hard time because there were so many characters, and you can switch hero at any time, so you need all 21 heroes in your head at any time when you're playing. And with the pacing of the FPS being much faster than in a MOBA, in a first person perspective, it became very hard to identify if it's the Reaper that does damage at long range, or heal with Wraith Form. But you kind of need to know in a second. So we decided to pull that whole system out of the game, and if we wanted to put a lot of new abilities into the game, then just make a whole new hero, rather than constantly tweaking on the heroes already there.
GR: Apart from the console port of Diablo 3, Blizzard in recent years have been devoted to PC (and Mac) gaming. Consoles haven't been your chief concern, perhaps due to the genres you've been working with. How has it been different to work on consoles with Overwatch?
JK: So, for us, we start with a project that we love and are passionate about. Then, the question that follows is what platform this would be great on. Traditionally, some of the games we've come up with have been best suited for PC, and have been very challenging on consoles, as with World of Warcraft. I think Hearthstone is an example of a different direction, where it was initially developed for PC, but then we realised that it would be great on a phone or a tablet. When we started on Overwatch we immediately knew that first person shooters worked really well on consoles. So it became one of our immediate goals to be on console. The development has, for the most part, been awesome. Sony and Microsoft have been great to work with for us. Keeping the game structured to work on mouse and keyboard and on controllers is a really fun design constraint, that I think makes the game better, as a whole, since it doesn't allow the complexity to get out of control. You're not going to find bindings for all 100-whatever keys on the keyboard, because it also has to fit on a controller. It actually also makes for a better PC game designing for console too.
AK: Actually, I haven't been working on a console game in maybe 18 years or so, and the process is a lot different, to say the least, than it was back then. So it's been a learning process for a few of us. The great thing is, though, that Blizzard has so many resources dedicated to it, and we have hired so many talented people, like console engineers, that have been able to steer this thing, and it has therefore been quite a smooth process.
GR: Can we expect cross-platform play, and will there be an option for PC and console users to play with one another, or is that a no-go for you?
JK: That's a no-go for us. The reason is that we think there's an unfair advantage because of the type of game that it is. Mouse and keyboard gives a much higher precision, the return rate is much higher, so we just think it'd be unfair to pit those players against each other. When it comes to cross-platform play, that is something we just learned about, and we're very excited to watch where it goes, but we don't have anything prepared for launch. But we're open-minded to exploring that, if it becomes more of a thing.
GR: What about closed matches between PCs with gamepads and consoles?
JK: It's not going to be possible, since it is kind of a big hurdle for us. If you want to use a gamepad on the PC, however, that's fully available. It completely works. The only thing that doesn't work on the PC, though, is aim assist. So if you use a console controller on the PC it is even more difficult to aim.
GR: What are the main considerations that go into map design, like their openness and diversity, as opposed to the narrow hallways and claustrophobic feel of other shooters?
AK: We have two level designers on the project, and we design all the maps for it. First and foremost, we design the maps for the heroes, as this game is all about putting together a team of six heroes, that work together to overcome what the enemy team has put together. So you want to pick different heroes for a reason. I love hearing people say how they, for instance, always switch to Reaper in the "payload"-part of the King's Row-map, because they love this part of the map and it feels like it's made for him. So we try to give parts of the maps to different characters, so people can feel powerful with these characters in different places. It's a lot of what drives this game, and where the choke points come from.
With our first map, Temple of Anubis, we only had Tracer as a playable hero. But we tried to force the attacking team through this gate right at the start, the Anubis Gate. This fits well with characters like Reinhardt, who is able to push the team through with his big shield. As far as the future goes, it is hard to say what this game will need one or two years after launch, but we want to see what the community comes up with, and respond to that with what's needed. In the short term I myself would love to see some more dynamic elements. We've done some work like moving platforms and elevators, but I think we could do more on that side. I also hope that we could do an attack/defend-map like Temple of Anubis but with a different feel to it.
During the visit to Blizzard's studio where this interview took place, we also got our hands-on the console version of the game. To find out more about our initial impressions of the game when played with a controller in hand, hit this link.