Overwatch has had a very busy Blizzcon this year. To help parse through the mountain of announcements (and to get a little more insight into the team's decisions), I interviewed Overwatch principal designer Scott Mercer and technical artist Hak Lee about the biggest reveals at the show.
We cover the inspiration for the newly announced hero Moira, the possibility of the new map Blizzard World becoming a real place, and which Overwatch character probably vapes. In addition, the devs discuss how they're approaching both competitive rank changes and player toxicity.
For even more interviews and news from the show, check out our Blizzcon 2017 news roundup. Hearthstone announced its new expansion, World of Warcraft showed off its next cinematic, and Heroes of the Storm is adding a few new heroes.
This transcript has been edited for content and clarity.
How did you you guys keep this a secret? Was that the main goal: "No leaks this year"? Especially after last year when we got so much of the news a little bit early?
Scott Mercer: When you think back to when we announced Overwatch, that was, in terms of secrecy, a huge deal. We were..."paranoid" is maybe too strong a word, but it was definitely a big concern because we wanted to make this huge splash.
With Moira and Blizzard World, it just seemed like, we're announcing at BlizzCon, everything's cool, it's one of those pleasant surprises because, well, things happen. It's been great that everyone got to BlizzCon--it was surprise and they got super excited about it.
Hak Lee: We kept the secret not only for us. When we keep the secret well, it's gonna be giving a big surprise at BlizzCon, and that's a huge energy for us too.
We knew Doomfist existed in the canon, and with Sombra there was an ARG lead-in--you intentionally didn't want to give the community a chance to figure this one out, right?
SM: For Sombra, the ARG made sense since she's the hacker, right? And for this character we didn't really as great of an lead in for that. Everyone knew we were announcing something, but what exactly? That was more of the vibe we were going for. It's like, "Hey, come to Blizzcon you're gonna see all this amazing stuff", and there you go.
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When I see Moira, I immediately think "David Bowie meets some kind of anime type character." What was her inspiration?
SM: Well, from the concept art phase, we definitely knew some things. We were looking for another female character, but one that will seems different than a lot of our others. And with any Overwatch character, what's gonna make this character unique? What's gonna make them pop, line up? What's gonna make them easy to see in battle?
The community has been like, "We need a healer, we need a healer, we need a healer!" And we've also been wanting to develop more Talon characters. We have a tremendous number of great heroes, but not as many villains, so that's why I think you saw us working on Doomfist. And we also wanted some sort of, not just a Talon character, but a "bad" healer. She's a scientist, but ethics aren't her concern. She cares about the results; she cares about the discovery and the science. And with Talon, she doesn't have to work around things as she might if she was back in Overwatch.
What do you see her role on a team being? Do you see her as a primary healer?
SM: She definitely can. So her primary healing is her left hand; it's a healing spray. What's great about it is that the spray can hit multiple of teammates. So if you've got a bunch of your teammates that are, this is gonna sound strange, but they're actually on the payload, you can heal them all at the same time, all at once.
Her limitation is that she can only do that for so long. She has this biotic energy meter that drains pretty fast when she's doing that. So with her, she can do that sort of bursting wave, but then to refill it you have to wait some time. Or you can use her other hand, which is the purple damaging beam that not only damages and gives her a little bit of health, but it also refills the biotic energy meter. So there's this nice gameplay cadence of heal, heal, heal and then, "I need to replenish my energy so I'll use damage and maybe help take out someone who's low health and finish them off." Then you sprinkle that in with her other two abilities like Biotic Orb, which again, could be healing or damage. She's very flexible there.
With Biotic Orb she can heal someone pretty far away with it, so she doesn't have to be right next to someone. And maybe Fade's off cooldown, so she just can't teleport over there. She's definitely going to end up being someone you can use as a primary healer, to get back to the base of your question. It's mixed in with a lot of other possibilities in terms of damage and all of her stuff is either healing or damage. The choice of which one to use at the right time is really interesting with her, which is why during play tests she's just been a lot of fun.
HL: The thing that I did a lot was using the fade ability goes behind the enemies and you can damage them at the same time you can throw the healing auras, to heal your allies. So it's not only one way to play Moira, but she can be used in different ways.
Looking at some of the recent buffs to Mercy and Symmetra and then now having a character like this, who can be focused on healing but can also put out pretty good DPS. It seems like you want healers to carry that dual role of both healing and dealing effective damage.
SM: Yeah, we want to have with our healer line up have different game play styles within that. Just like with our tanks, the bunch of them don't all play the same. Some of them are very mobile, some of them are very shieldy. Same thing with all the damage characters. So, we want you to have options when you go, "I want to be able to support my team, and I really feel like playing this particular character." We'll have to see. One of the awesome things about the testing, as players are able to get their hands on her is finding which heroes she really pairs well with.
I was also a little surprised to see Moira announced as a healer when Mercy herself is still going through big changes in PTR. I realize those are completely different roles on the team and you're thinking about different aspects of different characters at different times, but internally, how does that balance work for you guys?
SM: For us, Moira was sort of like sort of a freight train once we started working on her. At the same time we felt like we needed to react to the feedback from the community about Mercy. Which, when you go back to when we first did the major update with her, which was changing her ultimate, no one really liked her gameplay. She just wasn't fun to play. The way to play Mercy should not be, "I'm going to hide."
That's my favorite way to play.
SM: [Laughs] Okay, but most players. It was a great ability, but just the idea that you shouldn't interact with your teammate, your team. You should let them die and your team essentially yells at you for trying to help. There's just something off about that so that's why we decided to change it to a much more dynamic role. I think that fits with Valkyrie, it fits her character.
Mercy's always been gliding around, but now she flies. You see the wings, it just fit so well with the character. She is the big guardian angel at that point, right? So, we're really super excited about that and then we made resurrect an ability, and there's been issues. We've made multiple adjustments, and we're trying to get feedback for those changes. We think we'll make it a little more dangerous to use resurrect because a lot of the feedback we've been getting about Mercy is not just that resurrect is really good, but that it was very easy for Mercy to use and low risk. But now it has a cast time, so you need to make sure to not get stunned, that you don't get interrupted. That you don't get killed while you're doing the rez. There's more risk to it, which has also helped separate the good Mercys from the really good Mercys.
Personally, I'm the worst Mercy. But speaking of community feedback we also hear a lot about wanting changes to the competitive environment. Both the skill rating and in dealing with the unfriendly players. Is that something that's still an ongoing conversation?
Very, very much so. There are things like, "How can we improve the matchmaker to get you better matches"? And a lot of the feedback we've been getting in terms of that are people talking about team composition--getting a lot of Mercy mains on their team or Genji mains. Are there things we can do to make the quality of the matches better? And there's the issue of people harassing other players, all these toxic behavior issues that we need to address in a lot of different ways. And even cheating, there's all these things and we have to address them in different ways.
We've been looking at all those and saying "How can we improve this? How can we improve that?" One of the big things we've been working on is providing better feedback for players. We have a pilot program right now where if you report someone and it ends up resulting in an action, we send an email back to the person saying, "Thank you for the report. You did some good." Pretty soon we're actually going to get that inside the client. It's not even an email, it's something that when log in, you get, "Hey, remember you sent in that report? Good job!" It's like you're part of the solution. The big reason for that is reporting players and giving accurate reports when a bad thing happens, whatever it might be, is the best way for them to help make the community better.
It really works, and behind the scenes we're trying to make it work even better. Doing things with data science and all these crazy things to try to determine "Hey, is this person really being bad or not?" What players have noticed is that we are working on it, and they are a part of the solution by giving great reports.
That's just such a hard balance to strike. When you have people who are legitimately reporting things and also people who are just pissed off that somebody's better than them.
SM: Yeah, that's what we have to be careful about it. That's why I would to love be like, "Oh yeah, we're going fix that problem immediately." But it's not like that; it's going to be an ongoing process. It's something we work on over time, continue to make adjustments to it. I'd love to be able to say that we a have a silver bullet to get rid of toxicity on the internet, but that's kind of hard. [laughs] So, what we are working on is making steady improvements. And making sure that players know and understand we're making these.
Another big thing that's come out of BlizzCon are new skins for the characters. What goes into deciding what's going to be an actual skin in the game?
HL: When we decide to make a skin, literally everyone gets together and throws out all these ideas, and we pick those ideas we like most. And then the concept artist tries to quickly sketch it, and we can see them right there. If we really like the skin and we're really into the skins then it's going to be a real skin.
SM: All that comes back to again an artist doing something amazing and the rest of the team going, "That's dope. Let's do it." Most of the time, it's really not more complicated than that.
Some of our guys who are big fans of Heroes of the Storm mentioned wanting some of those Overwatch Heroes of the Storm skins...
SM: They've done some amazing work, and certainly, we've looked at their stuff. They also look at our stuff. We're like, we'll figure stuff out. It's one of the great things about Blizzard, creatively, working on each other's ideas across teams, and that's wonderful to see.
You guys also got a bit of practice making something that is very different in the Blizzard World map. It feels like I'm walking around Disneyland. Is that something that, even in the back of your mind, you're thinking, "Well, maybe we could make a real theme park?"
SM: It sounds crazy, but at this point I can't say that it'll never happen. I don't know. Blizzard has changed so much in twenty-five years. BlizzCon didn't always exist; this is the eleventh BlizzCon. We think of how much it's changed to become like this, this crazy thing that we're all at with all these fans from around the globe coming together having a great time. I can't say that it will never happen; it'd be a lot of work [laughs]. I don't know where it'd be, but if you ask anyone at Blizzard, "Would Blizzard World be cool?" Everyone would be like, "Yeah!"
I assume research for that stage involved a lot of going to theme parks?
SM: Certainly. Certainly. A Lot of different theme parks. [laughs]
Anything else you guys wanted to touch on?
HL: At this BlizzCon, I was really excited to announce Moira. I worked on the rigging part. I mean this kind of thing introducing new heroes or introducing new skins is one of the parts I'm very, very excited about, and to see the reaction from the fans and the feedback from the fans is very, very exciting.
SM: Yeah, I think for me Blizzard World is very exciting. But I've been working a fair amount on the esports side of things--seeing the World Cup and all these changes to try to improve the spectator experience. We know Overwatch is amazing to play. It's this amazing team game that creates this really intense action, these wonderful moments, but it needs to be watchable. So, we really spent all this time working on that. Then walking into the arena and seeing these huge screens, you just get awed. And you see the teams in their uniforms. I don't want to say it's the start of something, but you put in all this work to get to this point, and I feel like we're going to be doing even more in the future, especially when I think about something like Overwatch league. That's another completely crazy level of twelve teams with the best players from around the world. They're all over: London, Seoul, American teams, Shanghai. There's so much to be excited about.
How does that tie into the design philosophy? Traditional sports evolve over time, but not to the degree that a video game does. Whereas with video games you guys are constantly balancing and patching and adding new rules. How does that affect the creation of an esport, where somebody can come in and understand and watch and enjoy it while also having good competitors?
SM: Fortunately a lot of the same principles apply. You want to make it fun. You want to make it exciting. You don't want everything to feel overpowered. Most of all you want to keep it like fresh. And while the game is an important part, Overwatch is just a backdrop where all these teams are playing. It definitely does affect the game in subtle ways, we have to think about where does a patch line up when a tournament is happening. And we have to make` sure that, competitively, we don't like change a meta smack dab in the middle of a tournament, or worse, three weeks before the final. We have to worry about some things like that. But for us it's the exciting part is that it is changing.
And it's also seeing the players and the teams. When you think of any sport, it's really more about actually people and the drama created by them. With the design of the game, the fact that it is changing, in my mind it sort of helps with that. It's part of the story. When you think of traditional sports, teams change. "Oh, this free agent moved to a different team." There's all this team movement, and it's changing. In Overwatch, us making changes is part of that, but I think it's an exciting part.
My last question: do any of the Overwatch characters vape?
SM: [long pause] I have never thought of that.
HL: [laughs] Yeah, even though I vape, I never thought of that. Ask Michael Chu.
We followed up with Overwatch lead writer Michael Chu via email.
Michael Chu: Maybe McCree in a pinch? Like a transatlantic flight. Oh wait, Roadhog has that mask...