Overwatch is one of the most exciting forthcoming games of 2016, but it emerged from the ashes of a total botch. Blizzard Entertainment was developing an MMO codenamed Titan for years. Players would take control of ordinary people on a futuristic version of Earth, by day you worked mundane odd jobs to stay afloat, but every night you waged covert warfare in bloody, intercontinental deathmatches. It was a brilliant, risky, ambitious idea, christened as the follow-up to World of Warcraft's massive success. Development on Titan started all the way back in 2006, but in 2014, after nearly a decade of expensive revisions and false starts, the game was conclusively abandoned, and lead designer Jeffrey Kaplan had to move on.
"On the one hand you have the team coming off a tremendous failure and being in a very down state," Kaplan tells me, when I meet him at Blizzard's California HQ. "There was a heavy need for redemption and to prove that we could do something great and something awesome."
There's no blueprint for sifting through the aftermath of a massive defeat. Titan defined a lot of lives for a long time. For weeks Kaplan and his brain trust reconvened over the game's discarded concept art and gameplay flashpoints, and slowly assembled a new, more focused idea. Overwatch: a colourful, competitive team-based shooter, which grew directly out of the foundation they laid over the course of those lost years.
"It was a really creative moment across the team, but there's also this pressure that it has to be really good," says Aaron Keller, assistant game director on Overwatch. "I've never seen a team that driven and that energised to make something, and this is only a month coming off of a cancelled project. We were just going."
Blizzard is amongst the most influential video game developers and publishers in the world, but the last time the company established an original universe was 1998 with the original StarCraft. Sure they've cultivated dozens of successful games since then (World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, StarCraft 2, Diablo 3, Heroes of the Storm) but this is the first time they've stepped into a truly different dimension in 15 years. Overwatch owns a snappy, chic, near-future tone set in ordinary places like Hollywood and Tokyo – a long ways from Azeroth. It's the first FPS Blizzard has ever developed, stocked with an emphasis on team composition and MOBA-like character powers. It's fun, straightforward and casual, but it's also a bid for a long future. Blizzard doesn't make games anymore – it builds services.
"The trepidation of a new IP is daunting, but the challenge is what caused us to push extra hard to do it," Kaplan says. "We love the Warcraft and StarCraft series, and you should hear the game ideas that fly around the halls here, but still we're thinking about how great it could be to stand up another universe for Blizzard to explore."
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Blizzard hasn't done things halfway in a long time. Heroes of the Storm, their answer to the super-successful League of Legends and DOTA 2, was featured on ESPN before it even left beta. Hearthstone is a super casual card game that just so happens to make $155,000 every day. Warcraft was a great real-time-strategy game, then an era-defining MMO, and in a few months it'll be a summer blockbuster in cinemas. This company champions a pretty monolithic pedigree. Overwatch is not designed to be a good multiplayer shooter; it's designed to be the best multiplayer shooter. It needs to be approachable, intuitive, polished to a mirror shine, and equipped with sharp, engrossing fiction that can dovetail across mediums and destroy barriers of genre or taste. If things go right, Overwatch will exist for a long, long time.
Recently, Blizzard has been releasing Pixar-like animated vignettes exploring the background of some of the game's characters. The first one is called Recall. We learn about Winston, a spectacled silverback scientist, and his lonely laboratory. It's charming, well acted, and surprisingly melancholy, offering far more nuance and candour than 99 percent of the player base will ever care about. Yes, Overwatch begins as a quirky FPS with no single-player campaign, but Blizzard is always planting seeds.
"The goal, the immediate focus, is to make the greatest hero-focused shooter we can," Kaplan says. "But [the future] is always in the back of our mind. I don't think we'd be making movies like Recall without wondering what the big horizon of the universe is, and what can come past this. We hope players fall in love with it the same way we have."
Things are looking really good right now. Overwatch is still in beta, but it's already established a strong community and an emerging professional scene – crucial to any multiplayer game in development that wants to court the eSports market – and Blizzard has enough of a reputation for excellence that any product from the company is going to spur some attention. But still, there's a chance it might not meet expectations.
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There are a lot of MOBA-ish shooters in development right now, meaning Overwatch has serious competition. Epic is cooking up Paragon, Microsoft has Gigantic, and Gearbox is a few months away from releasing Battleborn. There are these occasional moments where it feels like everyone in the gaming industry has had the exact same idea at the exact same time. When this happened during the MMO craze of the early 2000s, Blizzard won with World of Warcraft; but when May 24th hits they'll be stepping out on Xbox One, PS4, and PC with a brand new setting, a brand new art style, a brand new cast of characters with some brand new ideas. A decade of work, a cancelled project, a latter-day rejuvenation: finally, this is their moment.
"I was talking to the other level designers about this the other day," says Keller. "I asked them, 'Can you imagine working on this project for the next 10 years?' I love thinking about that. It's exciting to think it can have those legs. It's what Blizzard games are about. We want there to be longevity. It doesn't sound stale, or a bad thing at all."
Overwatch is released on May 24th. Find more information at the game's official website.
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