It might be hard to believe, but we are now two months--and more importantly, two seasons--into Overwatch 2.
Though its predecessor received frequent updates, new maps, new heroes, and plenty of seasonal events, Overwatch 2 is largely new territory for the team at Blizzard. The studio is now driven towards creating more cohesive content than ever before in order to accommodate the game's new seasonal system and free-to-play, battle pass-driven business model, and naturally, player reactions to these changes have been mixed.
But just as players are learning to adjust to all the differences between Overwatch and its shiny new sequel, its developers are as well. To share some insight into how the studio is approaching character creation, new maps, bugs, and everything else that goes into making the hit hero shooter such a beloved title, lead hero designer Alec Dawson and art director Dion Rogers spoke to GameSpot and gave us a glimpse of the studio's innerworkings.
GameSpot: What are you most excited for with the new season? What are some things you're looking forward to people seeing, whether with Ramattra or the new map?
Rogers: Oh, I'm actually so excited for this season and one of the things I'm most excited by is… we wanted to keep Overwatch a living game, and this shows, as we get to Season 2, we've actually done that. So as a team, to finally show that, "Hey, here's the next thing and here's the next thing…"
And the Greek mythology arcade mode is really fun. I think it's a really good example of some of the ideas we want to try with events in the new game. So we have a blast and I can't wait to play it with a larger pool of people. I [also] love how thematic it is. Every single character is in a Greek mythology skin. We're playing on Ilios, these maps that have the theme; it's such a fun combination of things.
Dawson: Yeah, it's definitely one of the most fun ones. Where you come back from a play test, you're like, "I want to play that again. I want to get right back into it." Like Reinhardt, after he uses his ultimate, he gains a lot of power for a certain window and he's able to charge and charge again and keep going like a Minotaur would and that to me just felt awesome. I'm very excited for players to get their hands on that one for sure. But Ramattra and Shambali, they're some of the best content this team has made and I'm very excited to see how the player base reacts to it.
GameSpot: With Season 2, we're seeing a lot of Greek mythology-based skins--how do you decide what theme you want to do? What does that discussion look like?
Rogers: Oh, that's a great question. We have a huge list of themes we'd like to do. It's this crazy mural board of ideas, and we kind of move the pieces and notes around to decide on the theme. Greek mythology is something the team has always been a fan of and it just felt like the timing was right. And as we do more seasons, we want to try to be more thematic with the skins and how the season is presented, and so this is the start of that basically.
Dawson: It's really fun because on the design side, some of our live-events team get to play with that too. They get to make that bow for Olympus that you saw, whereas you're turning into these gods' versions of the heroes where they gain these abilities and everything, so I'm really excited for when that comes online as well. And seeing some of what design got to do with all of those great skins and themes that we were able to get in there.
I noticed that with this season you're bringing back some older maps, like Blizzard World. How do you decide which maps you want to have in rotation, versus which ones you want to temporarily get rid of?
Rogers: It's actually a pretty involved process with a lot of team members, including Aaron [Keller], the game director. We [want to] give the players a chance to learn a map really well. Our pool of maps over the years has grown greatly. Even if you remove the Assault maps, there's quite a few maps to learn and especially with the game attracting a lot of new players, we wanted to give a nice pool of maps so that they get a sense of the breadth of the game. There's Payload, there's Hybrid, there's Push... And so they will see those maps frequently enough that they can learn them well.
If the pool is too big, it's difficult for you to get a chance to play a map consistently to learn the ins and outs of the tactics. So that's one reason why we do it. And we try to pick a nice variety of game types. Some game-times can be more intense than others, like Push. Some battles become very intense and so coming out of Push, getting a map that's maybe Payload [or something a] little more dialed back, you can let your heart rate go down a little. So there's this balance [to] how the rotation works, but it's somewhat random. We just try to put a variety in there so that players get a decent array of gameplay.
Some of the selection is also based on lore, too. We want to make sure there's maps like Gibraltar, or Shambali, one of our newest maps. It's very rooted in that lore of Overwatch, the actual storyline. And so when you see that map, there's going to be a lot of future things that you'll see now, but later you'll know why we placed those things there. [Shambali] is very tied to Zenyatta and Ramattra. And there's this slight story being told of the monks traveling to Shambali with Omnics who make this kind of pilgrimage to Shambali, and you'll see some evidence of this as you move up the mountain in the map.
Dawson: I think on that note, Shambali, our new map, brings a lot in terms of it is quite different from a design perspective actually. It's a map that's uphill for almost the entire thing, so that was a challenge on the level design front to figure out, "Okay well how do we mitigate some of that defender's advantage with that high ground happening?" So it is something I think with all of our maps. We're still trying new things as we bring new maps into Overwatch, and it's nice to have Shambali adding a lot of variety to what it brings to that map pool.
How do you mitigate one team feeling like they have the advantage by being up top? How do you go about that?
Dawson: I think part of it, looking through the map, there's a bunch of flanking routes that you can take--a bunch of options for teams that take different approaches to traveling up that hill. But at the same time, those choices are committal, so you might find a nice window but it's not something you get to pop in and out of as fluidly as you may do on other maps.
On Shambali in particular, you might be walled off from healing to your right but you have a nice view to your left. So I think overall, on that map the flanking routes really help so that, as a team, we're not just ramming our head against the wall and trying to go up this one path. There's a few different paths we have available to us that allow us to try different things and not always make it, "Attack that hill straightforward." I think that's one of the things that helps out. And there's a number of things where, if you see some of the centerpiece buildings, there's one right around where the first point is captured, that can be played from all sides. So that opens up the map to have a lot of different angles and really helps there.
Rogers: You also find more often than not players actually stay closer to the payload in this situation because that's your cover when you're moving up hill.
Dawson: Another thing in terms of how to overcome some of that, where you may have the high ground, is there's a lot of vertical mobility at disposal on Shambali--especially in the first point all the way up that the first hill. So if you are a character that can get up in the sky, like Pharah, you can maybe overcome some of that challenge.
When you make certain maps, do you have certain characters in mind like, "Oh this person will really shine here" or, "We need to make more maps that are better suited for these types of heroes." Is that something that you consider when making locations?
Dawson: Our level designers definitely consider that a little bit. It's not so much that we necessarily need to make a map for this character, but we want to make sure that the maps have enough variety within them that [players think], "Yes, I'm on this map so I will play Soldier for this point or I'll play Sigma if I'm on Casino Royale because he can really hold that corner very well."
With Shambali in particular, though, I think one of the goals from our whole design team was making each point actually feel a little bit different. I think the first one has a lot of the winding path with those flank routes, but once you get to the final point it's a lot more open and that may change some of your decisions based on which heroes you're going to play.
What does the usual creation order look like, in terms of map, story, character, and skill set? Is it something where you have this particular skill set in mind so you make a character design based off of that and then figure out how they go into the story and the location? How does that work out?
Dawson: It can vary. I think a lot of times, maybe there's the kit that the hero design team is playing with and we build from there and start to bring on other teams and what they think that could be. But sometimes it's, "Hey, look at this concept, we need to make this hero now. Let's figure out the design." So it can vary a bunch in terms of the process and the order of how we design an Overwatch hero.
Rogers: And then sometimes we place Easter eggs in a map. For example, Route 66 had the egg, that kind of technology egg on the payload, and we didn't quite know what to do with it then. But we planted there and then eventually we decided Echo was the thing that came out of the egg. [There's also] Junkertown. While we were creating Junkertown, we thought it would be cool that there's a queen that runs the town, and so we started to put little Easter eggs related to the Queen inside the map, and then ultimately we eventually made Junker Queen. We do have an overarching story for Overwatch, the eventual PVE that will come. And Ramattra has been a part of that, Soldier has been a part of that… We're just reaching those points where it feels ready to reveal them.
Do you find it faster to create characters now that you already have this established roster and this process? Or is it harder or a bit more time-consuming when you have to make new characters?
Dawson: It's an interesting question. From the design side, I think we still, a lot of the time, want to make sure that every character we introduce in Overwatch is unique in some way. They're bringing something to the roster, whether it be some of their utility or whether it be from a personality standpoint. What they are bringing to the Overwatch lineup, as you continue to put more heroes in the game, can be more of a challenge.
But I think here with Ramattra, what we were capable of doing was not only giving him a very unique mechanical kit, but also, Dion can expand on this, but he's something very unique from a personality standpoint and what he means for the narrative of Overwatch.
Rogers: It takes us a long time to make an Overwatch hero in general, usually. We get a little faster at certain things, but Alec mentioned many of the times we're trying to connect the hero to the lore of the game world in a way that makes sense. You saw Ramattra was that mysterious Omnic at the end of Havana, and the art design reflects his personality--he has that kind of calm and collected monk form, and then he Hulks out into his nemesis form. This is something we played off of his actual personality, and then the design of his abilities kind of showcase his personality in some ways.
Alex explains it as, when he's in monk form, he does this nice kind of peekaboo-type gameplay--he has barriers, he's protecting the team. But then when he becomes nemesis form, he's in the mix trying to defeat the other side of the team. He's one of those heroes where that [duality] is reflected in everything, his voice acting, his design of his abilities, and then his visuals. We wanted to complement each aspect of his personality. So in his case, it takes a long time to create him. He shares similar things like D.Va and Ashe and Bob, D.Va and her mech. They're two separate characters, almost.
Do you have any kind of lingering character concepts right now where it's like, you really want to make a character that does this, or you really think support needs more love? Are there any outstanding things that you want to get to work on?
Dawson: We always have a bunch of those lined up, in terms of prototypes, that maybe some designers are making. Actually just last week we had our team hackathon called Harvest Fest where there are some prototypes that came out of that. For two days, a bunch of the team are working on their own individual projects to see if it can go into Overwatch one day. And there's a bunch of prototypes there, too, so it's really exciting to see the team at large what sort of heroes and prototypes that they want to see and get into the game.
Dion Rogers: I always ask Alex for a flamethrower hero, but it's a difficult hero to create in our game. But yeah we have a lot of these.
Dawson: There's plenty, especially with the world of Overwatch being so rich. I think a lot of those characters that you haven't seen become heroes, I think one day we definitely want to explore what they would be like as a hero.
Now I'm excited for the inevitable flamethrower hero.
Rogers: Me too!
How do you ensure your growing roster is not super overwhelming for new players?
Dawson: It's definitely, definitely a challenge. I think part of that is making sure that we're always offering different play styles within Overwatch. You know, look at a hero like Ramattra. Ramattra's got a lot going on and I think that there's a lot to this kit. It's very, very capable and very fun to play because you have a lot at your disposal.
I think there's also heroes in the game for players that sometimes want a little bit less. Maybe they're not playing Sojourn, but they're playing a character like Winston cause they don't want to aim as much. We need to make sure there's enough opportunity across the cast for all players at different skill levels or different interest types. And then secondly, our first-time user experience plays into that and introduces heroes at a slower rate for new players. Where they can start to learn a lot of the fundamentals of the game and not be overwhelmed with too much choice early on. They get to level up through that. Unlock the heroes.
Have you found that the first-time user experience is successful and people are liking it?
Dawson: I think so. I think it really does meet those goals of helping players come into Overwatch and see part of what it has to offer at the beginning, and then they get to keep chipping away at that and then see the full roster, I think that's been really good. And there's more things we want to do there too if onboarding new players and helping them understand some of the fundamentals and the ins and outs of what a team fight may be.
Do you ever worry about older characters feeling obsolete, or do you notice the opposite, where people stick to their guns and are staying with older characters and there's less of that migration?
Dawson: That's an interesting question. I think it's always exciting when a new hero comes to Overwatch, but we do have a lot of players that like to play that one hero that they've mained, they've grown so fond of, or they've really established a connection with. But I think it mainly comes down to shaking it up from time to time with some of our balancing, as well as making sure that sometimes heroes may get changes so there is a newfound interest in them. So you're like, "Oh, this got buffed, oh let me see how this feels now." That's part of it. But new heroes are always fun to release. I'm very excited to see what players do for Ramattra.
With new characters, do you tend to send them out knowing that they're overpowered and you'll eventually rein them back in? Or do you tend to go maybe slightly underpowered, and plan to buff them later? I'm curious as to what your philosophy is on that.
Dawson: I'm not sure it's ever intentionally overpowered, but I think what I will say is… they're intentionally exciting. That there's things [we] do so the hero isn't underwhelming when they come out. I think one of the worst things you could do is make the hero underwhelming and weak--then who plays it? We'll keep a really close eye in those opening few weeks as to how Ramattra's going to perform. And if there's anything that we need to fix or that's too scary, we'll come in and take some action there.
Rogers: It's tough because we can never test it in a way that a million people can test it. We could have a gigantic QA team to help and nothing beats having millions of players show you how the player base can use the hero.
You had to recently pull Mei and Bastion from the game each for a small period of time to fix some bugs. How do you determine an issue is big enough to where you're like, "Okay, we need to take them from the game" rather than just doing a patch or an update that comes with a new season? Do you have a designated team that is fixing these things or does it dig into time that you would have been doing something else?
Dawson: It's always unfortunate when a hero has to be removed from the game for any period of time. I think it's something we take very seriously. So when it comes to Bastion and Mei, there were some pretty game-breaking bugs, with Bastion being able to ult tons and tons of times all around or Mei with some of the places that the ice wall was allowing people to get to. So we take that very seriously. The integrity of the games is very important as well. So, they are very important incisions that we feel like we had to make to keep that intact. But going forward, some of our capabilities are improved there. We'll be able to respond faster there as well to make sure that those heroes, when they are removed, are only removed for a very short amount of time.
With PvE coming, are you thinking about PvE and the story when you add these new characters at this point? Are you thinking about how they're going to function in terms of that right now?
Rogers: No. Their abilities are focused on PvP right now at least. But they're... Playing Ramattra, you get hints of a broader perspective on things. How the characters speak to each other during the spawn rooms or they may make comments during the gameplay… There's a lot there narratively for people seeking more lore, but we're not quite ready to dig deeper on it.
I feel like at the core of Overwatch was always the whole Omnic crisis and the fallout after that. It seems like we're finally starting to get back into all of that.
Rogers: Ramattra's so cool. The voice actor… just amazing. And we've always talked about finding an antagonist that is the appropriate foe for Overwatch, "What is that villain?" He's not necessarily a villain once you start to hear his ideas and stuff. Once you play the game you'll hear some of the things he says and you're like, "I don't disagree…" But it feels like a proper guy to face Overwatch and I can't wait to show more eventually.
Yeah, I guess that's a good point because whenever I saw that when I was there for the hero reveal, he does seem kind of more like a morally gray kind of villain, like a Killmonger situation, where it's like... "But he's making some good points."
Rogers: He's making some good, decent points!
Is he going to become the opposing force rather than something like Talon? Or are there just more moving parts now?
Rogers: I think there's more moving parts now. I honestly don't know the full answer just yet, but he definitely makes a nice kind of robust storyline that we can leverage in the future.
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