Overwatch is a game that rose from the ashes of Titan, an ambitious MMO that Blizzard pulled the plug on. In the wake of this decision, developers at the studio reworked ideas they had for Titan into what would become Overwatch, a hero-based multiplayer shooter that was critically acclaimed and hugely successful. Blizzard's Team 4 is no stranger to picking up the pieces of a shattered project, but this process has been kept behind closed doors. The Blizzard way was to keep games out of public view until they were ready to be seen and to release them only when they were as close to the ideal vision as they could possibly be. That isn't the way anymore--not for Overwatch 2 anyway.
When the sequel to Overwatch was announced at BlizzCon 2019--where the game was also playable--it was with the promise of a PvE Hero component that would allow players to gather their squads and play through a narrative-driven multiplayer experience. On top of that, each of the heroes that they'd come to know and love would be reworked for PvE and given progression systems that would allow players to unlock new talents. It was an ambitious new mode that, in many ways, was used to justify the "2" at the end of the title.
Now, however, Blizzard has confirmed that the promised PvE Hero component will not be released at all. In a video, game director Aaron Keller and executive producer Jared Neuss said that the team had made the decision to take the PvE elements of Overwatch 2 in a different direction and detailed a roadmap for upcoming seasons that reveal a new hero, maps, rebalances, and a number of story-focused additions.
According to Keller and Neuss, this decision was made for the good of the game and its live multiplayer component. Whether that proves to be true will be judged based on the execution of the upcoming seasons detailed in its new roadmap, but regardless of this, Blizzard and Team 4 pitched an experience that won't be realized, which will no doubt confuse and frustrate players. GameSpot spoke to Keller and Neuss about what led to this decision and how Team 4 intends to try and make something good rise from the ashes of a failed idea once again.
GameSpot: The big talking point is the direction that you're now taking with the PvE; that you basically aren't doing it. Is that the correct way to characterize it? It's not happening anymore and you've pivoted away from it?
Aaron Keller: I think I would characterize it slightly differently, which is we are doing part of what the team had set out to do, but not the entirety of what was discussed back at BlizzCon 2019. So the real focus is on the story missions and that experience as opposed to the more open-ended hero mode and that stuff.
Right. So it's fair to say that the experience that you showed during that first Overwatch 2 reveal is not going to be the one that will be released at any point?
Aaron Keller: Yeah, exactly. So we are definitely not doing the Hero Mode and the talents and that power progression system.
When did you realize that you weren't going to be able to execute in this way and what was it that led to that realization?
Aaron Keller: Yeah, this was a process. The development of any game is a process. In the years following our announcement at BlizzCon 2019, we had a really large portion of our team working on the PvE side of that game, and I think players of our live running game could feel that because we eventually stopped making content for it. It's been maybe two and a half years since the last hero that we launched, and we don't want to be back at the point where it's another three and a half years since launching a PvP map. So we really looked hard at what we were doing with the live game in service of this much bigger thing that we were working on and hoping to release later.
The interesting thing about it is, it's such a difference releasing content for players that are playing your game instead of saving up all of that content for one big release that you're going to do later. So we came to the realization that this wasn't the right way to be developing for all of Overwatch. It was about a year and a half ago that we made the decision to really shift strategy. That's when we rapidly shifted the resources on our team to work on launching Overwatch 2, and that's what came out last October.
But at the same time, what we came away with from that first experience was a new value for developing Overwatch. It was a new value for running the team, namely to always be putting out fresh, exciting, fun, new experiences for our players. As we were running up to launching Overwatch 2, we realized that we could not build that other game. We couldn't save up all of that content over the course of what was looking to be at least the next several years to finish it, and by doing that, pulling more and more resources away from the people that were all playing our game and all the people that would be playing Overwatch 2. So we made a decision later last year that we would focus all of our efforts on the live running game and all of our PvE efforts on this new story arc that we're launching in Season 6. And then on top of that, to keep all of our PvE efforts, all of our co-op efforts, invested in our seasonal releases rather than that one big boxed release.
Presumably, the resources, time, and other necessities that you would have needed to make PvE were factored in when you originally came up with the plan to create this game. What has changed since then that now you're in a position where you can't do it?
Jared Neuss: I guess this is a general answer, but I think it is totally applicable here. When you make a plan originally, it's based on a general idea and direction. Then as you develop a game, it's not developing a piece of bank software or something where there's a finite set of functions it has to have. When you get into the meat of it and you start feeling it out, it's like, "Okay, well, is this fun? Is this good? Is this original idea the thing that we think is going to be awesome?" And then you iterate on that until you find something you're really excited about. Once you're kind of in that, "Okay, we have a good idea of what direction this could go in," the question is, well, what does it take to get it there?
And so I think if you're building a game where you're taking the exact same engine, the exact same team, the exact same crew that has already shipped that same thing, [and] you're doing version three [or] version four of it, it's pretty easy to plan really well in advance. But for games like this, it's tougher because the team was building something that is totally different than anything that they'd built before. These story missions are significantly different than Archives or other ways that [we've] told stories inside the game before. And so developing those, what it takes to do that, the technology required, the people required, the iteration required is all different. So I understand that people think it's probably relatively simple. It's definitely not, and especially because what you don't want is to just try to build the thing, get it out the door, and move on. You want to build something that really resonates and that people love. So, I guess, my take is just as the team learned more about what it took to make this, as it learned more about the time, the iteration and the technology required, it just became clear that the schedule wasn't going to work.
Keller: Yeah. I think the scope of the Hero Missions was really, really large, and what it was going to take to finish it was going to be a pretty remarkable, massive lift. You think about making a game that is supposed to be almost its own standalone co-op experience that people are going to be able to play as a main game, and not just how do you put all of the content into that to finish it? Even just a small piece of it, the talent trees: 40 to 50 talents per Hero, over 35 plus Heroes. You're looking at thousands of talents to make everything just to get the game out the door, plus all of the content and the missions you'd be playing to do that, and it is a pretty gargantuan ask for a team. And then, on top of that, you need to run that as a live game, so content has to continually come out for that side of the game.
In reality, what we were looking at was running two separate games at the same time with a set of Heroes as the piece that is shared between two of them. And as we started to get further and further into it--obviously our players could realize that we were pulling focus away from the live game--but it just didn't look like there was a definitive end date in sight where we would finally be able to put that stamp on [it], or that end date was years away and it no longer felt like we could be doing that to our players, or we could be doing that to the live game that we were running. And that's when we took the moment to shift strategy and put everything into the live game.
You want to build something that really resonates and that people love ... as the team learned more about what it took to make [the PvE mode], as it learned more about the time, the iteration and the technology required, it just became clear that the schedule wasn't going to work
I think there's going to be a lot of frustration around how we got here because Overwatch has always been a live game. So, people are going to think, "Well, you knew this was a live game, yet you pitched this other Overwatch game, and then also you justified the 2 on the Overwatch title with that." So, we're in a situation now where the game is what it always has been--it's evolved in some ways--but a sequel was released and that sequel's justification hinged on the PvE. Why did that happen?
Keller: That's a great question. We've talked a lot in the past about Overwatch 2 and how different it is from the original game, even just being free-to-play and swapping to a 5v5 team format and all the new content that we've developed for it. To me that's the biggest change that we're looking at here; it's not just that we have some of the same Heroes in the game. It's the way that we're writing the game and how we're looking at the game going forward. I really hope that the roadmap that we just released is something that illustrates that to players.
We have a lot coming out this year, and even if you look at Season 6, it's the biggest season we've ever launched in the history of Overwatch. We have a new Support Hero coming out that season, we have a new game mode. We've never released a new game mode as a seasonal update ever in Overwatch. It has two new maps coming out with Flashpoint. We are running a PvE event that season. We have a whole new type of PvE content that we're releasing with our single-player Hero mastery missions. Overwatch Anniversary is running another event. And then, on top of all of that, we've got the start of our new story arc with new story missions, cinematics, and other lore content such as a lore codex. It's all packed into this one season, and this is the future of what we're trying to bring to Overwatch 2. That's what I hope players can take away from this experience, the shift in the way we want to develop for this game and what we want to put out for our players.
Neuss: Yeah. Just to build on that a little bit, I think it's interesting thinking about this over time, coming to the team a little bit later and seeing the state of things and building that plan to go forward because the original pitch was this big monolithic thing that releases. It has all this pressure and expectations set against it, and really the decision that we've made was not to walk away from PvE or to totally sort of abandon this side of the game. It's to move into a model that we know we can deliver on.
We know that if we get into the seasonal cadence, we can release things during seasons in a way that we can plan for effectively and that we think is going to be really exciting to players. That, more to the point, gives us time to adapt to the next thing for players before you release it, and I think moving away from that idea of this one big singular PvE release moment and into a, "No, we're going to do PvE stuff all the time." We have all these plans. Season 6 has three different flavors of that, and we have a bunch of other versions of that coming up and seasons after that. For me, that's really the important thing here. We want to acknowledge that it's not the thing that people were expecting, but also we have high confidence that we can deliver in the way that we're shifting now, which for us is really exciting. You can never ask anyone to take your word for it, so the hope is that once we start releasing this stuff in Season 6, players can see it and believe it too.
We were talking the other day about live events and things like that in the game, and Aaron, off the top of his head, rattled off how many live events Overwatch 1 generally had in a season. In a year, it was six or something? Now, it's three a season of varying sizes, and we have all these seasons in a year. For us, it just feels better to be on this path where we know we can consistently release updates to players, tell a story in an ongoing unfolding way, and not wait for this big singular moment, if that makes sense.
There are a lot of live first-person shooters out there and you always have been competing for attention. The thing about Overwatch 2 that really was exciting for me and for a lot of the fanbase was PvE. It was a big swing for the team; the distinguishing factor. What is the impact of not having that and what would you describe as the big swing for Overwatch 2 now?
Keller: It's a great question. One of the things that I've always loved about Overwatch, and I think it resonates with players, is the universe and the world that we've created; all of the Heroes that we've created, and all of the Heroes and characters that inhabit it. The Overwatch universe, it's this bright, inspirational future, and I think that all of our Heroes really resonate [with players], not just who their characters are but their backstory and their lore. I think why a lot of people are so invested in Overwatch PvE or Overwatch co-op content is because we're not really able to deliver a ton of that story in our game with just the standard PvP gameplay.
So I think that for us, that's the side of PvE that we really want to continue running with is what Season 6 is. It's the start of this big narrative where players do get to find out more about Overwatch and they do get to find out more about what's happening in the world and what's happening with a lot of the characters in the game. So we are really committed to the PvE side of the game and delivering that story.
On top of that, we have multiple cinematics coming out this year to help either set up that story that we'll be telling in Season 6 or to further some of those characters that we're working on. And there's more to come. There are other pieces of the story, like features that we're bringing to the game. Another one that we're doing for Season 6 is our lore codex where players will be able to, if they want to, dig in a lot more into what the universe is all about. So I hope that players can see that we are still committed to PvE and we are doing more with the story than we've ever done before. We're just doing it in a different way than what we originally talked about.
One of the most exciting things for players when they saw the PvE was the characters and you were pitching really interesting, different ways of using their abilities that seemed specific to the PvE. It felt exciting to have this new twist on Heroes. Is any of that coming back and is there going to be opportunities in these PvE modes to play these characters differently, or is it going to be largely familiar [Heroes] but in new contexts?
Keller: We would love to see more of that in the game, and while that was an integral part of our Hero Missions, we're no longer doing those, so those won't come to the game that way. But we had put a lot of work into our Hero talents and there were a lot of really exciting things, not just with gameplay but with the fantasy of what a Hero was when we could start interacting with the hero that way. So we would like to bring those back in the future. It's just going to take a different form than being a part of a new co-op game experience.
More broadly speaking, you've probably done a lot of work on the PvE. How much of all that is going to make its way into the PvP or repurposed? I know people often think repurposed is bad, but at least it'd be in the game.
Keller: There's a lot that went into developing PvE and it's not just the content that we made. Some of this is tools and technology, and so if you look at Junkenstein's Wrath of the Bride from last year, that was using all of our new mission technology that we had developed for Overwatch 2. So the PvE content that we develop in the future is going to be using all of the technology and tools that we created before. It'll be using new enemy ecologies that we've developed for Overwatch 2. There are a lot of really big story mission maps that are going to be coming out with it.
And then we've talked a lot and have a lot of plans about the different ways that we can bring some of the other content forward, whether it's talents for Heroes or even some of the missions that we started developing for that release, but it's all going to be coming out seasonally and in a different form and with a different purpose than what we had before. So we would like to repurpose some of it, and then we'd also use that technology to build a bunch of new stuff for us also.
Neuss: Yeah, I think the breadth of experiences that we've been able to deliver this year are significantly different and more interesting than a lot of the live events that Overwatch 1 had. And then I think a lot of that is because of the work that went into PvE and the engine revamp. So going forward, I think you should just expect to see a lot more of that, a lot more pretty wild seasonal events where we experiment with stuff. And a lot of the cool non-canonical stuff like Battle for Olympus where we're augmenting Hero abilities. Things like that are [what] you should expect to see a lot more of in the future.
PvE, whether a stated goal or not, was looking like a tool to broaden the appeal of the game, with the thinking being that people who can't or don't enjoy playing in online competitive environments could do single co-op and have this interesting, unique experience. That means the Overwatch player base diversifies and grows. What does axing PvE and reintroducing some of those ideas into the PvP framework mean for the ambition of broadening the appeal of Overwatch and getting new players in?
Neuss: Yeah, this is a really interesting one for me because I think if you only enjoy single-player or PvE-only experiences, then Overwatch is going to be a little bit tough for you right now. But once we get into this sort of mindset of frequently releasing PvP and PvE event content, and where every single season has something really interesting for people to play in a lot of variety, I think that that can still be a good jumping on point for people who may not love hyper-sweaty PvP matches, or who really just want to see some cool story content with characters that they like or whatever.
For me, it's the combination of being free-to-play now, which is inherently removing a pretty big barrier for a lot of people who just can't spend the money to buy expensive games, combined with the fact that we're trying to diversify every single season to have a bunch of different experiences that people get to jump into. So if you're the kind of person that just wants to grind Comp[etitive mode], that's totally cool. If you're the kind of person that wants to come in, play some Arcade, this is a cool co-op mode for this seasonal event that I can do that's awesome. We want there to be a lot more there.
So while I don't see us springing this huge audience of PvE-only die-hard shooter players, I do see us being a really appealing game for anyone who just loves fun shooters and likes to learn new heroes and try different stuff. So yeah, it's a kind of different approach, but also I think our goal is just to make the game as welcoming as possible for as broad a group as possible.
PvE was a big part of Overwatch 2, so people are going to think, "Well, those [devs] are going to get laid off or moved elsewhere." What is the impact of not doing PvE anymore going to have on the team?
Neuss: As a person who spends most of his time talking about organizational issues, one of the really cool things is, we're able to take a bunch of people who have awesome expertise building new enemy types, big PvE missions, and big PvE worlds, and integrate them into the live game [team] with everybody else on the team. So instead of having this big monolithic PvE side of the team and a PvP side of the team, now we're sort of bringing everything together into a group that's focused on, "What is our live experience? What is the season-over-season experience? And how do we have people who specialize in PvP and who specialize in PvE work together to create these awesome things?"
So there's no adverse impact on the team. We weren't letting people go who were working on PvE. On the contrary, we were really excited to bring them in together with the rest of the folks working on events to figure out, "How do we use your unique superpower to create an awesome thing for [a] season?" So we're working on these roadmaps, now they're longer and longer, and all those people are involved. I actually think it's super exciting just from a development and a how-do-you-have-the-team-structured perspective. And I think there's a lot more that we could do with everyone's powers combined than what we could do before.
Blizzard has always been a studio that puts out high-quality games and if a game isn't going to make it, we just never see it. That's always kind of been the way it is. This is a very rare look at a process where you tried something and then you realized you failed. How do you think that reflects on you as a team, as a company, and as a studio?
Neuss: Every team at Blizzard is a little bit different and Team 4 is unique in a lot of ways. One of the ways that I think the team is unique in the direction we're heading is just this push to be much more open, much more honest about how we're developing, and much more sort of transparent in what's working and what's. Since I've joined, it's been a big push. Aaron is writing blogs every two weeks about how the game is going and what's changing. We have a lot of people from the team out on social talking about the details of their stuff. When people complain about matchmaking issues, Morgan is right there answering questions on Twitter.
I think and I hope that it signals a shift in the team and the mentality of our part of the company that is really just about building this experience alongside players, as opposed to building it on our own and then handing it over to players. So what I really want to see is just that sort of co-development model, for lack of a better way to put it, grow and grow over time. This is not the kind of thing where we can just give you the tablet that is there, "Please play this incredible thing and enjoy it." We want every single season to be something that is built on all the learnings from previous seasons, and all the feedback that we got from players before. So my hope is that it signals a really healthy shift in the way that we develop and release the game.
Keller: And there's a reason why we are being more transparent here; we want to be able to give players more context into our development process, and we want people to have more context around why we have made this decision. It was a painful decision for this team to make; it was really hard for us to go through this experience. We're all very passionate about the things that we work on and we're all really passionate about the game, and part of that passion is to ensure that everything that we're making is right for our audience. So what I hope people can take away from the roadmap, the video we released, and from things like this interview, is that, yes, we know it's tough when games change, or when things are reduced in scope, but at the same time, the people that are playing our game right now are playing a PvP game.
My belief is that the reason they're playing the PvP game is because they like that game that they're playing. So it's up to us as a development team to continue to make that game as good as it can possibly be. And that's the real story here: How do we take the resources that we have, the team that we have that is so passionate about this game, to make what people are playing the very best version of it that it can be? That's our focus right now and that's what I hope the takeaway from this can be.