It's just a few days before BlizzCon, the annual celebration that sees thousands of fans of the company's games pack into the Anaheim Convention Centre for announcements, panels and entertainment. Overwatch's game director, Jeff Kaplan, bounces in his ...and more »
There’s a buzz in the air at Blizzard Entertainment’s Irvine offices. It’s just a few days before BlizzCon, the annual celebration that sees thousands of fans of the company’s games pack into the Anaheim Convention Centre for announcements, panels and entertainment. Overwatch’s game director, Jeff Kaplan, bounces in his chair as he tells me it “feels like Christmas.” But there are no elves at work here, just hundreds of developers collaborating to make a new character to introduce to Overwatch’s players.
At BlizzCon’s opening ceremony, fans will see a meticulous animated short that focuses on beloved cowboy character McCree, and introduces a new face, with red eyes framed dramatically by white hair and a wide brimmed hat. Her name is Ashe, and she’s a no-nonsense gunslinger who commands a gang of outlaws, including her own robot butler, Bob.
Though conceptualised as a story character first, Ashe is just the kind of hero that the community has been clamouring for, with gameplay based on weapon skill rather than abilities. Ashe is all about straightforward shooting with her lever-action rifle, prioritising good aim and reaction time. Other recently added heroes have required careful use of abilities on cooldown timers, like Doomfist’s leaping uppercut punch or Moira’s evasive mobility skill. Kaplan notes that, unlike Ashe, these other characters wouldn’t be out of place in a fighting game or MOBA.
A new Overwatch character is a big deal. Its cast is what sets the game apart from other first-person shooters, fleshed out in comics, short films, and in-game interactions and inspiring a flood of fan art and fiction. Cork boards packed with drawings, internet posts and letters of appreciation decorate many of the office’s corridors. Mascot hero Tracer is a fan favourite, particularly among LGBTQ+ fans after it was revealed in a comic that she has a girlfriend. One pinned-up post celebrates Egyptian jetpack-using hero Pharah and her mother Ana – good mother-daughter relationships are unfortunately rare in games, especially between women of colour.
The people who have come up with Overwatch’s 29 characters have different opinions on what inspires such devotion, but distinctiveness is a big part of it. “They’re larger than life but at the same time we try really hard to humanise them,” says Kaplan. Lead writer Michael Chu says: “We let people embrace their initial, visceral, emotional reaction to a character, and then we start building the relationship.”
Because Overwatch is a shooter and not a narrative-driven game, the people behind it have to communicate characters through actions, animations and sound rather than dialogue and cut-scenes. This makes character-building a collaborative process, rather than the exclusive purview of artists and writers. D.Va, for instance, is a Korean pro-gamer turned mech pilot who defended her home against invading robots, and as an esports champion, her quick reaction speed allows for her to target and stop oncoming fire. This is shown in her animations, joysticks and fingers twitching to protect herself and her teammates from each threat. Even between fights, she shifts and rearranges her hands constantly, always ready to go.
“The design, the way they animate, their expressions, the sounds we add – we’re always trying to reinforce whatever the character hooks are,” says sound design supervisor Paul Lackey. Ashe’s sound quirks include a dinner bell she uses to call down her robot butler.
There is no single formula for creating an Overwatch hero. “The characters come from a combination of art, story, and [gameplay] design,” explains assistant art director Andrew Tsang. Sometimes, he says, they come from “hero jams”, where all the concept artists present their own ideas. Bodybuilder Zarya and climate scientist Mei both originated from this process.
Ashe is unusual, though, having first been created by the cinematics team. Jason Hill, who directed McCree’s short, was initially interested in exploring the outlaw gang, Deadlock, that he once belonged to. As well as wanting several characters that could pique the interest of viewers, he knew he needed a leader who could go “toe to toe” with the charismatic McCree, and created the basic idea for Ashe: “A big wide brim hat … a black duster, big white flowing hair.”
On seeing storyboards, other members of the team began to latch on to the Deadlock gang, and especially Ashe. “I remember the first time we showed it [to Kaplan], he was just like, ‘These could be heroes’,” Hill recalls.
“We were so excited about the character right away,” lead hero designer Geoff Goodman says, explaining that multiple designers presented their own ideas of how she might work in the game. Once the gameplay team realised that she was also the perfect fit for the weapons-based character they’d been trying to create, her position on the roster was sealed.
“Right from the get go I [wanted] a woman to be the leader of this gang,” Hill says. Overwatch’s relative diversity is another reason it enjoys such a lot of love from its community – other video games have set a low bar in that area. Ashe brings the character roster to male-female parity, with 14 of each and one genderless robot. The prevalence of women in the game, as well as heroes of different nationalities, with prosthetic limbs, and the fact that Tracer is a lesbian, are all important to fans.
The general sense I get from my interviewees is that, while inclusivity is one thing to consider when creating a new hero, it’s not always a priority. Tsang says these concerns “influence certain characters more than others” and Chu adds: “When we’re coming up with characters, there’s intention, but then there’s also spontaneous ideas.”
Overwatch’s fans, the people who have produced the art that decorates Blizzard’s walls, also highlight areas where inclusivity and representation are lacking. For example, the female characters, including Ashe, are physically slim – especially in comparison with the male heroes, from the practically spherical Roadhog to the towering, armoured Reinhardt. Goodman says that it’s something they talk about “quite a bit” but he and Kaplan refer me to Tsang, who tells me that “it’s one of many factors that we’re thinking of”.
It is unusual for a multiplayer shooter to have fans who are as invested in the lore of the game as the action. The new animated short gives them plenty to chew on when it comes to Ashe and the many other characters that were introduced. “The thing we’ve heard from the community the most is, ‘We want more stuff!’” Chu laughs. “We’re always asking questions because we don’t fill in all the blanks. We want these questions to be as interesting to the audience as to us.”
Ashe joined the Overwatch roster this week, but she’s already been welcomed by the game’s enthusiastic community: even in the short time since BlizzCon, she has already inspired a raft of fan art.
Games,Shooting games (games genre),Culture