How Blizzard builds a cast of Overwatch heroes, villains, and victims
The lifeblood of Overwatch, as an ongoing, constantly updated game, is the slow and eventual release of new heroes. New heroes are a difficult thing to add; the release of Brigitte, for instance, drastically warped the competitive meta around her. On the other hand, each new hero that enters the world of Overwatch expands the barriers of the world a little more. It opens up new interactions, new dynamics, and new story paths.
Brigitte may have doomed Tracer and Genji mains for a few weeks, but she also allowed us to see that a second generation of Overwatch exists in the world, and provided a window into Reinhardt’s views on duty and honor. Moira completely changed the way we look at Blackwatch, and raised tons of questions about Reaper and Jack Morrison. Even characters like Orisa, who are relatively unconnected to the rest of the world, flesh out places like Numbani and introduce new, supporting cast members.
That being said, it’s easier said than done to introduce a new hero. Heroes Never Die had the opportunity to sit down with Arnold Tsang, a concept artist at Blizzard, where we talked about heroes past, present, and even future in the world of Overwatch.
The world could always use more heroes…
When it comes to designing heroes, new characters must fill a gap in the roster. There can be some overlap, both thematically and gameplay wise — Tracer and Genji are both aggressively diving DPS with limited defenses, for instance, and they’re both former agents of Overwatch — but a hero needs to bring something new to the table. Sometimes coming up with heroes who break new ground requires the developers to be a little fearless.
“Wrecking Ball was a hero we had on the backburner for a while,” says Tsang. “We were waiting for the right time to release; we knew it was a very complicated hero to make with art, and design, and the lore, fitting that in, selling people on the idea of having a hamster in Overwatch, so it was a huge moment for us. It was really fun to work on.”
There were no shortage of ideas for Wrecking Ball, including designs where he was a tiny robot or a pig-tailed young girl with a big gun and an attitude. The developers knew they wanted a ‘cute’ character, one who would fit a new niche in the lineup.
Once they decided on Hammond’s design, the developers honed that into a sharper character. “We wanted to have a cute little hamster, we wanted him to definitely be adorable, but then he’s a fighter,” Tsang explains. “Ever since we tied him into the story of Junkertown and the scrapyard, we wanted him to be ‘yeah, I want to dominate’. Even after leaving Junkertown, he’s out there, taking on stronger opponents. He has to have a little bit of that killer instinct.”
Wrecking Ball’s launch was surrounded by trepidation from the Overwatch developers. “Everyone was like… ‘Is this going to work?’” Tsang laughs. Winston had been the previous ceiling for weird, but Wrecking Ball smashed through that. As Wrecking Ball’s gameplay unfolded and the launch proceeded, he integrated well into the Overwatch world; the gameplay’s unique hook, swinging, and slams ensured that the character managed to work. Wrecking Ball is weird and novel without breaking your suspension of disbelief, which is a win for Overwatch.
Supporting casts and sneak peeks
One problem with building the world of Overwatch is that every new character can make a connection; every new character could potentially be a hero in the eyes of the fanbase. At first, the developers were surprised when fans latched onto what they saw as throwaway characters, but the fanbase taught them that even seemingly trivial NPCs could land well with the fans.
After Antonio Bartalotti was shown off in an Overwatch comic, hype started that he could be the next hero. One fan even showed up in an elaborate cosplay of the character. The next Tuesday, Antonio was shot out of a window and killed by Gabriel Reyes. That constant tension between fan hopes and developer plans exists; every new character, no matter how minor, could be a hero.
For instance, the Queen of Junkertown appears as a voice in the Junkertown map. “We knew we would be seeding something that people would react to,” Tsang says. “A poster here, a spray here, to build the character… It lets us build bigger things later on. What if she’s a hero? We have people theorizing about what she can do and stuff, it’s cool to see.”
Sometimes, characters start from a story role, like the Queen of Junkertown. Other times, they start from a gameplay hook, like Zarya’s shield generator and heavy gun. Sombra started as a hacker with some kind of tendril, but her primary fire and SMG was one of the last parts to be developed around her. Brigitte was developed for the comics as Reinhardt’s squire. “Nesskain made her come to life, and we were like hey, that character’s pretty cool. We brought her back in for Honor and Glory, and we were like… this character’s pretty interesting. We like her.”
When the developers realized they wanted to work on a tank/healer hybrid they had a character in the back of their head. It was a natural question to ask: “What about Brigitte?” Sometimes side characters graduate to heroes, sometimes they remain as a supporting cast member, and sometimes they get shot through windows. The developers know that no matter a character’s end, their beginning will usually spike interest.
A wide world of characters
With some characters being victims, other characters being part of the supportive cast, and others eventually becoming heroes, it’s important to have a wide variety of people (and omnics). “We told ourselves we felt really strongly about female representation,” says Tsang, and that’s reflected in the variety of characters in the cast: Ana, Brigitte, Orisa, and Zarya are all dramatically different characters.
Diversity goes beyond just looks: it includes faction, choices, and perspective. Is Soldier: 76 a good guy? Is he a bad guy? How about Hanzo? How about Symmetra? Despite the gameplay designation, playable characters aren’t always heroes, and they’re not even always good people… but they can be interesting, or relatable, and that’s a compelling hook.
When I asked Tsang what hero archetypes he wanted to explore next, he laughed. “That’s a good question.” he said, and paused. “I don’t know what I can say without giving anything away, but we look at lot of things like different countries, different archetypes. The game needs more villains for sure. We’ve added Doomfist, Moira, and Sombra. We want to flesh out the dark side of Overwatch. We launched with Reaper, Moira, the Junkers… Symmetra, a little bit. There are more archetypes in the evil side of Overwatch we haven’t explored yet.”