The Overwatch closed beta has officially shutdown for the holidays, but what’s a holiday without stories to tell around the fire? I got a chance to speak with Overwatch creative director Chris Metzen and senior game designer Michael Chu, looking for some good stories about the Overwatch universe. These are the minds behind the backstory and lore of Blizzard’s upcoming FPS, and we talked about how Overwatch’s lore might evolve, what they’re thinking when they design a hero, who the mysterious Doomfist might be, and lots more.
As it turns out, we might already know more about the Overwatch world than we thought. “Other than really broad things like the Omnic Crisis and big historical moments, in many ways, we’re kind of making this up as we go,” said Metzen, explaining that they haven’t built out every little detail beforehand. “With this one, I think we’re taking our time and not trying to get too far ahead of it.” That approach has left a lot of room to build on the Overwatch universe—read the full interview below for details on how that’s progressing, and where it might end up.
PC Gamer: Did you envision Overwatch as being multiplayer-only from the very beginning? And if that is the case, why make such a lush background and world right off the bat?
Chris Metzen, Creative Director
Chris Metzen, creative director: This is simplistic but kind of true… when we were initially discussing this game—what project would our team build next?—[game director] Jeff Kaplan in particular really wanted to try his hand at a shooter. He’s a massive shooter fan and has, I think, kind of daydreamed for years about the kind he would want to make. And in particular, I’ve been chomping at the bit all these years to build something like a superhero universe. And in a way, the chocolate and peanut butter came together in the middle, you know? So I think the shape of the game as a shooter was always pretty clear, the essential shape of it at least.
And I wanted to build a big universe idea that could be expanded upon and deepened over time, like I feel our other universes are as well. And we knew that the first primary game expression would be a multiplayer shooter, but at the same time we wanted it populated by characters who had rich back stories and cool characters kits. To me, it’s all the same thing over time. You’re building a universe of ideas that people will stay compelled by, so even though the gameplay may be story-static to some degree, that doesn’t really matter to folks like Mike and I. We’re just out to build a big tapestry of awesome ideas that keep people thinking about these characters, and hopefully in love with these characters, even after you’ve turned your machine off.
Every character has some sort of power or technology that sets them apart from a regular foot soldier.
PCG: You say “like a superhero universe,” and that’s an interesting way to put it. Do you see these characters as superheroes?
Metzen: My primary response to that would be no. We don’t use the word ‘superhero’ a lot. But words like ‘agents’—they’re all agents—doesn’t quite do it either. So less than specific superheroes, I think there’s a vibe you get from the big superhero universes that we’ve all grown up with. And I think we wanted to build a universe that has the infinite potential and possibility and heroism and interconnectedness that you see in the big comic book universes which we’ve all grown up with. I think we’re trying to build a universe that feels like that, if not specifically superheroes themselves. Ultimately it’s a shooter, so you have a lot of exotic weapons and things like that. So there’s maybe more of a paramilitary bent to the Overwatch aesthetic than there is in a bigger comic universe where everyone is running around in capes and tights. But we want to pull as much of that heroism and vibe as we can.
Michael Chu, Senior game designer
Michael Chu, senior game designer: Obviously there’s a big heaping of science fiction in our story and, specifically, that kind of optimistic thing we go to plays really well with this idea of heroes. I would say when we’re developing characters, we like to think about if each one of these characters could kind of stand on their own. I like to imagine, “What if each one of these characters has their own game?” And I think what Chris was talking about was that kind of shared universe comic stories. It’s like we have all these individual characters, we have these great stories, challenges, powers and stuff, and they all have their own little ecology. But then when you mix them all together, they start to have relationships. They start to tackle larger worldview problems. And I think that’s kind of where that inspiration leads.
Metzen: Like Mike said, as we develop each character, we’re trying to develop their backstories in such a way that you could imagine any one of them having their own game or their own TV show or whatever. We’re trying to build a rich tapestry of interconnected ideas, and ultimately, some of the best examples of that kind of world-building are the classic comic universes.
Not every character in the Overwatch World is a hero.
PCG: They are called ‘heroes’—which I know is partly just a moniker, the same way League of Legends has ‘champions’—but there are very clearly characters who are villains. Widowmaker, Reaper, the Junkers—they’re all undeniably bad guys. Why make villains playable in a game about heroes?
Metzen: I think, in a way, we got trapped with the nomenclature we were using early on. I think we always imagined that there would be a smattering of bad guys throughout, right? Just to have contrast. In a funny way, what I was sensitive to when we began Overwatch is I didn’t want to create a franchise that felt binary, you know? Autobots and Decepticons. G.I. Joe and Cobra. Alliance and Horde. Because Warcraft had so been defined by that, and rightly so. I was a little paranoid of getting caught in that trap of good guys-bad guys. I wanted to focus on heroes, but not to the exclusion of having more texture to characters that took you somewhere different. Everybody’s play styles are so different, our vibe styles are different, too. So there’s players that like playing more dastardly characters.
We’re trying to develop [each hero’s] backstory in such a way that you could imagine any one of them having their own game.
Ultimately, as the characters kind of come into view—some of them start with a fictional idea, some of them start with a drawing, many of them start with a gameplay paradigm that we want to achieve. Widowmaker ultimately starts with, “Hey, let’s have a ranged sniper.” And I think some of them just lend themselves towards one vibe or another and we didn’t want to say, “Well, there’s no bad guys at all,” because certainly there would be in a world like this. We want to let each character just take the shape it feels like they’re taking. But we didn’t necessarily want to come flat out and pose the franchise as one of those binary things.
Chu: And what Chris was saying about some of the characters, we’ve talked about it in interviews. But I think for some of these characters there is actually a little more going on. They’re not exactly bad guys. I think there’s a lot of room to talk about what is a guy like Soldier: 76? I mean, good guy, bad guy? Like there’s a lot of room to kind of analyze what’s going on. Someone like Symmetra, too. And we’re really pushing for that, too, with a lot of our characters. I mean, obviously, we have some characters like the Junkers who are pretty much bad dudes who are out having fun, causing mayhem. But I think in the middle, a lot of characters exist and are interesting for that reason.
Metzen: Because their character has somewhere to go.
PCG: Do you see certain characters as ‘bigger’ in the world than others? To me, Soldier: 76 is undeniably a more important character than someone like Mei. Do you categorize the characters when you’re thinking about them—like “OK, Soldier: 76 is the main guy and Mei is just backdrop”—or do you just make people?
Metzen: I think more often than not, we’re just making people. 76 is kind of a weird one just because—I don’t know—I have a kind of a personal connection to the character and, in many ways, kind of leveraged him as this fulcrum point with Overwatch. He represents what it used to be at its greatest, but now he’s kind of this broken creature that poses the question of can Overwatch ever come back? Can he ever really come back and be heroic? So he’s a unique mascot-y kind of character. And then there’s characters like Tracer, who’s one of the first characters we really got to know. And while she wasn’t particularly created to be a starring role, if you will, we felt on the team, the more we got to know her and play her, she was kind of like this Spider-Man type character for us. She’s so rad, and it feels good to leverage her in the front of story ideas. We didn’t anticipate that, it’s just sometimes that happens as you get to know characters better and the opportunity presents itself to use them in creative ways.
When we made the cinematic, [Doomfist] was just a gauntlet.
So I think we just made characters to be characters, and sometimes they step forward and their vibe and their back story kind of lends itself to more dynamic use, given where we’re going in the meta. So sometimes it’s not always planned, but we certainly don’t create characters just to be B-level. I think we’re trying to hit it out of the park every time out and create interesting people that players will potentially identify with or be delighted by. Our hope would be that there would be an audience for all of them at some point and bitchin’ stories to tell for all of them, though we’re certainly not planning on all of them to directly link to the ultimate Overwatch franchise story. Not all of them do, and not all of them should. I think if all of these characters or Overwatch agents have some tragic past, then it just becomes formulaic, and we want to allow ourselves enough freedom and space to just develop interesting characters first and foremost.
“The Savior, the Scourge, the Successor” Doomfist banners in the Numbani museum.
PCG: So, obviously you’re announcing things at your own pace, and that’s an important part of storytelling. But I do want to ask about Doomfist.
Metzen: That’s what I heard.
PCG: Yeah, I’ve heard that, too. The gauntlet in the announcement cinematic was Doomfist’s. And then his gauntlet is the payload on the Numbani map, and Numbani is just ripe with references to him. There are banners that say “the Savior, the Scourge, the Successor” and in all of the imagery “the Successor” is always conveniently blacked out. Can you give us any hints about Doomfist? He seems like a very important character in the world that we pretty much haven’t heard anything about.
Metzen: I would just frame it by saying it’s a perfect example of what we were just talking about. We did not develop Doomfist to be any more important to the franchise than any other character, at all. What started to happen with Doomfist, the more we jammed on him, especially—you got the Gauntlet in the announcement cinematic. And then you’ve got the same Gauntlet being taken on the payload in the Numbani map, and then this exhibit [about Doomfist in Numbani]—and we kind of started thinking how fun would it be if the Doomfist character is actually more of a generational hero, like you see in some of the the big superhero universes. Potentially any number of people had been The Flash or any number of people had been a Green Lantern. And there’s kind of this sense of generational identity. So Doomfist was kind of just a fun riff on that. We’ve talked about the gameplay of doing a Doomfist character—again, we have nothing to announce—but we’ve talked about it and how much fun would it be to design that character. So as Numbani took shape as a playable space, we knew that this character of Doomfist would be from here and how fun [it would be] to present the idea as more of a generational [character].
Doomfist museum poster in numbani
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But, we have no particular aims to make that character any more foreground in the fiction than anybody else. It was just a fun, creative exercise. So in that way, what you see on that map and what it makes you feel, as of today, is what you see and not necessarily much deeper than that. One day, if we build a Doomfist character, that character will be totally informed by the fact that there were Doomfists before him, if that makes any sense. But of course, I want to reiterate we have not announced any Doomfist character at this time. But it’s just kind of a fun way to chase that character’s identity. You have anything on that, Mike?
Chu: No, I think it’s a really good example. He started as a line in this cinematic, and then these ideas that sort of gain traction and gravity. We’ll jam and a little bit of an idea will come out, then we decide that “Oh, we’re going to do the Numbani map,” and then we’re all like talking about what the map is all about. I remember we spent a lot of time talking about what the point of that map was, and we had all sorts of different ideas. I mean we had a ton. At some point, it came up and it was just like, “Oh, what if it’s Doomfist’s gauntlet?” And then once you have that as a core beat in the gameplay and for the map, then it’s like, “Well, how do we help to tell that story?” And then we have more discussions and we’re just trying to find ways to tell that story and you can see how it kind of goes from something that’s mentioned in the cinematic to a key story beat.
A still of Doomfist’s gauntlet from the announcement cinematic.
PCG: At the time you guys released that cinematic, had you already made the Numbani map? Had you decided that you were going to go further with Doomfist? Or at that point was it literally just a gauntlet?
Metzen: At that point, when we made the cinematic, it was just a gauntlet. I remember we kind of had a writing team at the time as we were scripting that cinematic and Jeff Chamberlain, the director [of the announcement cinematic], really laid a lot of that out. But I’m like, I want to just have almost like a shotgun blast of flavor. So I had riffed Sound Quake and Doomfist, and I just personally enjoy riffing compound noun names if World of Warcraft is any indicator. So I just threw a bunch of shit out to make it sound like there’s all this texture. I guess we’re letting air out of the balloon and looking much less cool, but that was the intent of the flick—to create a sense of a far larger tapestry that we would actually weave together over time. And that’s been my experience with all these game worlds over time. WoW started very, very humbly back with Warcraft 1. It’s really time in this strata of ideas that give a world its real depth and the depth of its details and specificity.
In many ways, we’re kind of making this up as we go … it’s a much more organic way to build a world.
So with Overwatch, we didn’t over-design or over-world-build at all. We’ve tried to keep pace with the number of characters in development at any given time and make sure that the calories we’re burning are specifically useful in rounding out each character in turn and then making connection points. Other than really broad things like the Omnic Crisis and big historical moments, in many ways, we’re kind of making this up as we go and taking advantage of all these little details that filter out and tying up these ends and drawing touch points between them. In a way, it’s a much more organic way to build a world and to broaden its tapestry. For instance, as opposed to on Warcraft and StarCraft—I went crazy on those first games, like building out this big world history. With this one, I think we’re taking our time and not trying to get too far ahead of it so that, again, we and the developers have maximum freedom to chase new ideas and not be overly bogged down by the weight of a franchise that can occur over time. Which, in many ways, is like the anti-WoW.
Before his official reveal, Genji was already a fan favorite—at least in terms of speculation.
PCG: How much are you going to be looking at what the community gets excited about? Like, if the community got really excited about Doomfist’s gauntlet, would you try to make him more of a character? Or do you think you have an idea and you’re going with it?
Metzen: I think it’s always a little bit of both. I think we know what we like. We know what we want to chase. And even on a dev team, it’s not like we always agree sort of like, “Oh, we should do this next,” and the guy down the hall is like, “Ah, I don’t like that one, I want to do this one.” So you’re kind of always jamming and moving in real time and taking the temperature of where people are at. And I think part of that, very naturally, is—sure, we’re looking at the Reddits. We’re looking where people are having Overwatch discussions, and things that are turning them on sometimes surprise us. “Really, they love that? Holy cow, I wouldn’t have thought of that.”
But it absolutely factors into our thinking, and when and where those things that people are turned on by line up with things that we’re kind of already thinking or instincts we have, then sure, I think we’re all ears. And we can be because we’ve allowed ourselves maximum freedom. We can kind of pivot on a dime, and stop, and look at newer ideas as they lie on the ground. I think this freedom and keeping it light allows for that.
We’re certainly not planning on all of [the backstories] to directly link to the ultimate Overwatch franchise story. Not all of them do, and not all of them should.
PCG: The Hanzo and Genji storyline is almost completely separate from the Overwatch world, up until Genji is saved by them. Do you plan on doing more characters like that, where they’re just doing their own thing and only slightly touching on Overwatch’s larger story?
Genji and Hanzo
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Genji and Hanzo initially began as a single character, but were quickly split in two.
Metzen: I think it depends on the characters and the story itself. Like that one with Genji and Hanzo we had pretty early on, or an instinct of where we wanted to go pretty early on, just based on the character art and our daydreaming about those two in particular. But yeah, I think if the characters call for it, we have certain kind of relationship dynamics that could bubble up. There’s a lot of history between 76 and Reaper, it’s a little more foreground than the two ninjas. But I think we want to chase those when we see them—points of connection that birth a lot of cool story. Whether it feels like it’s foreground or not, the story’s the story, and I think we always want to stay open to those types of things. It doesn’t always have to tie into the core franchise movement of the Overwatch group or not, but it’s cool and we can make those connections happen as well.
Chu: I think also with us starting out and developing this new world, one of the things we want to do is put a lot of tools in our toolbox, a lot of cool stories there that we can start to use. An example just came to mind is when we first came up with a story for Symmetra, the whole idea of the Vishkar Corporation and everything. At the time, it wasn’t super related to Overwatch or other world things. But then when we started developing Lucio, we saw a really good opportunity to leverage that story, and then both those stories connected, and then Symmetra’s background expanded because of that. So that’s a lot of the organic process that we’re going with.
A giant Omnic attacking Sidney, Australia during the Omnic Crisis.
PC Gamer: Why did you choose to set Overwatch at this point in the world’s story? Why not during the Omnic Crisis or while the Overwatch organization was still a booming organization?
Metzen: That’s almost hard to answer. I think some of it was that it just felt right. It felt ‘right-er’, you know? We kind of had a sense of the Omnic Crisis, of a world that had a lot of history behind it, but it was almost like a flight of fancy—almost whimsy—to make the decision. Let’s set it in an era in honor of all this history that’s as open-ended as possible. There’s kind of like three distinct phases; the old history—the Omnic Crisis era—then there’s this golden era where Overwatch is at its height as a global power, and then there’s the ‘now.’ And what’s interesting about the ‘now’ is that it’s informed by all this history, but allows us maximum freedom to create new heroes, bad guys, young heroes that were never part of Overwatch but are nonetheless inspired by its traditions. It just allows us maximum flexibility to create any kind of heroes we want and then creatively weave them into this larger tapestry. So I think the choice ultimately revolved around that, just creating a window of maximum freedom for us as creative folks.
PCG: Do you ever see yourself going back and doing gameplay-related things set in the Omnic crisis or set in that golden age?
Metzen: I think that would be telling. That sounds super fun, and so perhaps. Perhaps one day.
Chu: I think one thing we are doing though is echoing back to a lot of the ideas and the themes of historical events. You can see it on a lot of our maps, and also a lot of our heroes are very informed by stuff that happened in those previous eras.
Soldiers fighting Omnics in Russia.
PCG: So does that mean we’re going to see similarly big, world changing events in the ‘now’ era over the course of Overwatch’s life as a game?
Metzen: It’s hard to say relative to the game. We talked a little bit about that at the [BlizzCon ‘World of Overwatch’ panel] in terms of: “Will maps change over time? Will world conditions change over time? And if so, how do we accomplish that, given that it’s kind of more of a static shooter in its purest sense.” We talk about those types of things a lot, just in terms of daydreaming about it and “wouldn’t that be cool?” I don’t think we have much to really talk about at this time, but we would like the universe of Overwatch to feel like it moves forward over time, certainly.
We would like the universe of Overwatch to feel like it moves forward over time … In many ways, we’re just getting started.
And in a roundabout way of answering that, we’ve said many times—this first game is really just the first shot in what we hope is a long, rich world journey that could be encompassed by many different products. Obviously many different fictional expressions. In many ways, we’re just getting started. So when we think about Overwatch as a big universe, as a big living idea, it’s not necessarily—as we look down the line of years—encapsulated only by this game expression. Of course, I want to say we have nothing to announce or anything remotely like that, but we just see this as the first step in a much larger world.
PCG: So Overwatch 2 through 5 confirmed, is that what I’m hearing?
Metzen: [Laughs] Yeah, uh, no comment.