Michael Chu's story of how Blizzard built "the future worth fighting for" through Overwatch


“It began with a simple idea, ‘the future worth fighting for.’” On the last day of GDC 2017, Blizzard Entertainment’s Michael Chu spoke in his session "Thinking globally: building the optimistic future of Overwatch" to share how the futuristic world of Overwatch was created. He explained the steps Blizzard took to create a fictional and futuristic world with which people could relate to, how the heroes were made to possess distinctive traits and stand as the core drivers of the game’s plot, and what message he wished to deliver through the quote, “the world could always use more heroes.”


The guiding principles of Overwatch

Instead of telling Overwatch’s story through traditional narratives, Chu decided to move stories outside of the game and tell them through comics and animated shorts, just like how Warcraft and Diablo’s plots were further enhanced by guidebooks and novels. This has put Overwatch’s heroes on the spotlight to drive the story by themselves while also making their individual characteristics stand out even more. It also gave players an option to choose whether they would like to explore the story or not. Those that only want to focus on the gameplay can just play the game, and those wishing to know more about the stories of heroes and Overwatch’s world can discover more through comics and other forms of media that dive deeper into the story.

▲ It's not an entirely new concept if we look at all these publications from Blizzard.


Chu described playing Overwatch as equivalent to playing with character figures in your hands. The actual stories of those character figures exist in comic books, not the character figures themselves. The same applies in Overwatch. You play the game, but it does not necessarily walk you through the story in detail. However, Overwatch team has allowed heroes to drive the story by putting multiple layers of detail that naturally describe who they are and what story they have to tell. Each hero’s distinctive identity and traits further help players understand the game’s plot, even for those that never looked at animated shorts and comics.


Building the future that people can relate with

Blizzard wished to build an optimistic future, by which it meant a future in which technology has flourished and impossible became possible. Yet nothing is perfect in Overwatch’s world, which makes it resemble an actual livable world. The maps are also based on already existing places and landmarks, making people relate better with each map and make it look more like a feasible future of actual Earth.

There are also Omnics everywhere in the world of Overwatch that live in harmony with humans. The conflict in between Omnics and men, and also the equality and inclusion issue as also shown in the animated short “Alive,” are the same types of problem we are also having in these days, as there has been racial and cultural dispute here and there throughout the history of mankind. An Omnic lynched in the back alley of Dorado and Mondatta giving speech to promote equality are something the players can definitely connect with.

▲ We are suffering from similar issues in modern-day Earth.


The future technologies that are present in Overwatch, such as Symmetra making turrets out of nowhere, are also present without much explanation. Chu said that explanations of technological features are minimized in order to make players focused more on the game itself and care less about how things are done. Blizzard kept it simple so that the players could relate better.


Designing the alternative Earth

Chu explained that, in order for the alternative world to stay strong and solid, it should be relatable and connected to the real world. The maps of Overwatch are based on iconic places that actually exist and are representative of each country and culture. However, they are not perfectly synchronised with the actual world. For example, Overwatch’s Hollywood looks different from the actual Hollywood, but has features and details telling that this is the futuristic Hollywood. Such blend of reality and fiction gives more immersive experience to players and enhance the feel that they are fighting in future Earth as heroes.



Heroes are together the core of Overwatch’s world, and Chu insisted that the team cares a lot about its heroes and will keep making more of them. Then he addressed the issue of how we should differentiate the many heroes that exist in Overwatch. This is where diversity emerges on the surface and establish its position in Overwatch among other values.


Diversity is more than nationality. People relate to characters in ways other than their national origin, and making a hero of certain nationality does not necessarily mean that the hero would become popular in that particular country. Players that love Genji may not like him just because he is a Japanese ninja. They might like him because of his playstyle, or because of his identity struggle as a half machine and half human. Each hero in Overwatch is designed to possess a combination of traits that people can identify with, giving more elements with which people can find interesting or sympathize with.



Elements that boost and solidify each hero’s identity

We can often see in Overwatch how each hero’s personality is translated into abilities and game mechanics. Take a look at Reinhardt for an example. Reinhardt is eager to protect his friends from danger, and this is related with his Barrier ability. His Charge shows that he is always eager to fight and likes to challenge those that attack him, which also falls in the same line with the fact that his role in the game is Tank.


Background story also makes each hero’s story richer and helps players understand why they are fighting. Mei, for example, is the lone survivor of the polar storm that struck Watchpoint: Antarctica. She is fighting to make the world a better place to live with healthy environment, and also to carry on the halted mission and carry on her teammates’ legacy. Every hero has his or her own reason to fight, and the reasons behind that enrich their characteristics.


Relationships in between heroes have also made Overwatch’s story deeper. The relationship in between Pharah and Ana tells a lot to us. Pharah grew up among Overwatch heroes in the organization’s early days, inspiring to stand among them and fight for justice. The dispute in between Reaper and Soldier: 76 also makes players wonder how their solid relationship was split apart, which acts as an important drive that progresses the story.


Perspective is another element that influences the players’ perception of heroes. Can we say Sombra is a villain just because she is a hacker? Is Soldier: 76 a bad guy, or is he fighting for justice in his own way in dark alleys? Junkrat and Roadhog make a great duo as they wreak havoc on civilized world with their weapons handcrafted from junk. The duo still have distinctive characteristics that differ one from another. Junkrat was born after the radiative explosion engulfed Outback Australia, partially allowing him to maintain a cheerful personality. On the other hand, Roadhog was born more than 20 years earlier than Junkrat. He witnessed his home become an apocalyptic wasteland, the experience partially responsible for his reticent personality. Junkrat and Roadhog are notorious criminals, but those who dug deep into Overwatch's story can understand what circumstances led to their errant behavior. They are not simply bad criminals, but more like criminals whom you can sympathize with.



Authenticity of each character also comes from voice, which is among other features that make the character's personality show through. Chu explained that, while his team tries its best to cast voice actors for authenticity, it is the kind of process that requires resources and luck. The team always looks for a voice actor that can speak the language of the particular hero. For example, when working on the voice lines of Ana, the team was looking for a voice actress that could speak Arabic. Aysha Selim sent her records from Kairo, whom the team saw as the ideal actress for Ana's voice. However, due to Selim living in Cairo, the team had to work halfway around the globe through Skype distortions and time zone differences. "It was worth it," Chu said.

▲ Personality also affects the heroes' tone of speech


On the other hand, the voice actor for Lúcio was neither Brazilian, nor could he speak Portuguese. Chu explained that the team decided to keep Jonny Cruz as the voice of Lúcio because Cruz did a superb job staying true to the character. Chu insisted that, although it is not always successful finding the best voice actor for Overwatch's hero, it is always important to try. He added that one of the most important values of voice actor is to stay true to the character.



Orisa is the hero whose design is based on Numbani's security robots. Overwatch team wished to push the boundaries of what an Overwatch character could look like, and decided to make an Omnic hero different from Zenyatta or Bastion. The team decided to tell the story of a child who believed she could build a hero. That child was Efi Oladele, and the team learned to look at the world through Efi's eyes and tell stories about how she learned to become a hero. Such effort created Orisa, a month-old robot learning about the world and inspiring to protect Numbani.


Flexible storytelling

There are other approaches Overwatch took in terms of story other than moving away from linear in-game storytelling mechanics. Overwatch’s story does stage a series of major events, but the specific time of when such events happen are not necessarily articulated in the game’s plot.
The story begins with Omnic Crisis, which brought with it chaotic dispute to Earth and greatly altered the global society. Then comes the golden age when Overwatch emerges and keeps the world in peace, followed by the fall of Overwatch due to rumors and series of events. Then, years later, Winston decides to “recall” remaining Overwatch agents. This is when we start to play the game and see how the story unfolds.


Chu insisted that he wanted to keep Overwatch’s story flexible and open, so that it could add other smaller episodes within the bigger plot without being too restricted. Such flexibility was what made it possible for Overwatch to further develop its storyline ever since the game was released, through animated shorts and comics. Chu described such process as Blizzard having planted the seed of Overwatch and letting it grow, mentioning the quote by George R.R. Martin:

“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they're going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there's going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don't know how many branches it's going to have, they find out as it grows. And I'm much more a gardener than an architect.”


The world could always use more heroes

Chu summed up his session as he mentioned Overwatch’s first hero, Tracer. Lena Oxton was originally a pilot of teleporting jet fighter Slipstream. An accident occurred, which made Oxton unable to maintain her physical form and disappear for hours, or even days. This symptom, also called chronal disassociation, crippled Oxton until Winston was able to invent chronal accelerator and re-synchronize her with the normal flow of time.


This series of events illustrate how a normal, everyday person was reborn into a hero that could do great things and contribute in making the world a better place. During the cinematic trailer when Tracer retrieved Doomfist’s gauntlet from the boy, she said, “the world could always use more heroes.” Tracer found her own way to be a hero and contribute to the world’s peace, and so did the boy when he punched Widowmaker with the gauntlet on his hand. What Tracer said at the end resonates not only inside the video, but also to the players of Overwatch and all others that dig into Overwatch’s storyline. Not all heroes are born specially, and some work their way through to make this world a better place. You can also be a hero, in this world worth fighting for.

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