Heroes Never Die: How Blizzard Created the Characters of Overwatch

Blizzard's Geoff Goodman and Michael Chu sat down with us to discuss the different processes used to create the diverse array of characters in Overwatch. 

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Overwatch’s design is bizarre. None of it fits within any molds typically found in team-based shooters. Only a handful of its characters are familiar from other types of video games. It doesn’t even adhere to the same rule sets often observed by multiplayer shooters. And yet it works, and it works well.

Its world is fascinating. Set on Earth in a near-future, cartoonish science fiction universe, its cast stars a wide swath of characters hailing from virtually every corner of the globe and beyond. Winston the sentient Gorilla marches in line with the cybernetic ninja Genji. The grizzled, war-worn Soldier 76 serves to protect healing characters like the matronly soldier Ana and the angelic Mercy. The main character featured on virtually all of Overwatch’s promotional materials is Tracer, a young, peppy British woman with a teleporting ability.

None of it should make any sense. And yet, there’s just enough cohesion between the characters and the roles they each play to make Overwatch itself feel like a fully-developed, multi-faceted team.

“At Blizzard, we like to make unique worlds,” says Senior Game Designer Michael Chu. He points to the fantasy world of Warcraft as an example. “Since this was set on Earth, we decided to pull from different aspects of what makes us unique.”

In addition to featuring a large team, Overwatch is also arguably one of the most effortlessly diverse games currently available. Men and women share an equal amount of space and importance in their roles. Cultures ranging from America to Egypt largely inform the visual design of so many characters. Each character’s body type ranges from athletically slim to large and powerful, and is always framed in a positive way.

“We wanted to reflect the diversity of our world in the characters,” Chu says of the motivations to create such a multi-faceted cast.

Overwatch’s diversity is bolstered by its ability to include cultural influence without it being the sole defining trait of a character. Much like in real life, one’s race, gender, or heritage is an important part of who they are, but it isn’t the governing trait by which their entire identity is formed. Rather, it’s an informant, one essential piece of their whole self. Thus, characters like Pharah and Ana are Egyptian, and much of their design from the styling of Pharah’s suit to their individual eye adornments call back to their heritage. But they’re also fully-formed individuals with their own identities and values, which largely inform who they are. It’s a challenging balance to achieve, but Overwatch continues to impress in its ability to delicately do so.


From Idea to Creation

“There’s no clear-cut path to creation,” says Overwatch Principal Designer Geoff Goodman of the formation of each character. “Characters are formed through multiple ways.”

The Overwatch team has had their hands full with creating this cast, making sure each character is as unique and interesting as possible, while also being balanced to suit the overall game.

Characters like Junkrat and Pharah were designed to suit the archetypes designers originally dreamed up. Chu and Goodman remember the team wanting to incorporate a rocket launcher somehow, which led to the formation of Pharah, a character whose abilities include flying and firing off deadly explosives at her foes.

Junkrat’s look meshes nicely with his personality. An unhinged maniac with no sense of self-preservation, he launches grenades and explosives like toys all over the battlefield, haphazardly blowing objects up and sporting ashy residue on his wicked, grinning face.

In some cases, characters emerged from design concepts or mythology. In others, they were pared down from ideas that perhaps were a tad too ambitious.

Both Goodman and Chu share their thoughts on the development of Hanzo and Genji, the two brothers hailing from Japan who once shared ties with a ninja-like order.

“Early on, Hanzo and Genji were just one character,” Goodman says. The team initially wanted a ninja-type character, but their early prototype proved to be too difficult to implement in the way they wanted it to come through.

Instead, the character morphed into two, influenced by the brothers in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. With the pressure of a legacy to uphold placed squarely on their shoulders, the brothers suddenly developed a compelling and interesting relationship that eventually emerged as both Hanzo and Genji.

Others are more nebulous, evolving slowly as their concept develops. Michael remembers Ana in particular being one of the more difficult characters to create.

“We knew we wanted to incorporate an older female character in the story,” Chu says. “Mostly because that’s not a character type you see in games very often.”

Eventually, Ana proved to fit in nicely with Pharah’s history and background. As a dedicated public servant and defender, it made sense for Pharah to have a mother who had passed that same legacy down to her.

The idea of having a support sniper had also been floated, but developers were worried it would be too closely related to Widowmaker’s role in gameplay. When Ana started to take form, suddenly having a healing sniper made a lot of sense. It not only suited the type of character they wanted to create; it also fed into Ana’s personality nicely.

“She’s been through a lot; she doesn’t hold back on her words or opinions,” Chu says. “She’ll call you out. But on the other side, she’s also very caring and compassionate.”

And thus Ana was created, a character whose sole purpose was to fix up and empower others through her hardened skill with a sniper rifle and knowledge of handling conflict.


The Balancing Act

Of course, one of the biggest challenges of creating the characters of Overwatch was making sure they would have their own attributes and abilities while also still meshing fairly with the rest of the cast in the game. A challenge, as it turns out, that led to multiple takes and redesigns of key characters.

One of which was Bastion, whom both Geoff and Michael explain went through many different design changes while the team worked out what the robot soldier’s ultimate move would be. Early on, he sprayed grenades all over the battlefield, then later became able to fly into the air much like Pharah. Eventually, they gave the defense hero the ability to bunker down and dole out high amounts of damage into the oncoming crowds.


A Story Larger than a Game

With such a robust mythology and backgrounds for every one of Overwatch’s 22 playable characters, it’s hard not to wonder: why is there no dedicated story campaign within the main game?

“Because Blizzard is very much gameplay first, we wanted that to be the core focus of the game,” says Chu, explaining that balance and the fun of the game itself took precedence over attempting to incorporate any sort of linear narrative.  

But that hasn’t stopped them from building on the mythology elsewhere, through multiple media formats including comics, origin stories, and their immensely popular animated shorts. Through using these different means of storytelling, Blizzard has actually built up a world and mythology larger than the game itself could ever realistically incorporate. Plus, it allows them to be flexible with the different stories they tell and the ways in which they tell them.

There’s also something to be said about the freedom their approach to storytelling has given fans to fill in the blanks, producing fan fiction, art, animations, and other tributes that explore each character in more unexpected--and non-canonical--ways.

Not having a story in the core game also allowed them the flexibility to incorporate small visual touches and convey a sense of the world through the environments. Statues featuring key characters within the game, propaganda posters, and even the architectural design all add up to create a world that feels cohesive and realistic, no matter how distant its core narrative feels.

Ultimately, the main theme of Overwatch is one of hope and heroism. “There will be moments where you see Tracer and Winston working with Widowmaker,” Chu says. “And that’s what we were going for. We wanted to evoke the same kind of feelings as epic superhero team-ups.”


Here to Save the Day

Overwatch's unflinching optimism and quirky personality help sell it as the joyous, complex team-based shooter it has become. Its popularity is palpable, having been released across all major platforms in several countries and topping Twitch as one of the most viewed games of 2016. Its merchandising has taken off. Internet forums, fan art pages, and fiction sharing spaces all feature countless works of Overwatch fan tributes, each portraying specific characters interacting within different scenarios.

It’s hard to look past the characters of Overwatch and write them off as little more than cynical marketing pawns or player avatars. There’s life to each person within the game; they all have a story, a purpose, an origin reflective of many people in the world who so rarely see themselves reflected in the games they play.


Contributing Editor

From The Chatty

  • reply
    October 5, 2016 1:30 PM

    Cassidee Moser posted a new article, Heroes Never Die: How Blizzard Created the Characters of Overwatch

    • reply
      October 5, 2016 1:40 PM

      How Blizzard Created the Characters of Overwatch

      Select TF2
      Ctrl-C
      Ctrl-V

    • reply
      October 5, 2016 2:03 PM

      that's p neat. I don't even play the game but I think I could name all those characters by now because they're all so memorable.

    • reply
      October 5, 2016 2:08 PM

      Mei was created after a particularly bad break-up by a dude who was angry at the world.

    • reply
      October 5, 2016 3:45 PM

      “Because Blizzard is very much gameplay first, we wanted that to be the core focus of the game,” says Chu, explaining that balance and the fun of the game itself took precedence over attempting to incorporate any sort of linear narrative.

      I dunno man, I call bullshit. I think what they meant was:

      "Because we shit canned Project Titan to make Blizzards idea of Team Fortress 3 instead and so we had all this great marketing material on the cutting room floor."

      And the game is good, I just think it's weird for them to say "Yeah we meant to do it that way" because it really doesn't feel like that's what happened.

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        October 5, 2016 3:55 PM

        Doesn't canning Titan reinforce his statement? They canned it because, at its core, it just wasn't fun.

        The bits and pieces that have come out over Titan make it sound like they were trying too hard to make something huge, failed, and then just said "fuck it let's make something fun with all the work we did." That fun thing turned into Overwatch.

        Titan didn't pan out, but that doesn't mean their concepts for Overwatch were any different than what they say.

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          October 5, 2016 4:01 PM

          Also, regarding the storytelling, they had already started doing that with their other three franchises before Overwatch was even announced.

          If anything they cut out what people have been dumping on them for years - their in-game presentation of the storyline.

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          October 5, 2016 4:05 PM

          I guess so, maybe I'm just bitter that they seem to have built a cool world with great characters and then just tossed it all into a blender of meaningless violence. And their answer about why that feels sucky is a cop out for a developer the size and caliber of Blizzard.

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            October 5, 2016 4:18 PM

            I personally couldn't care less. They made something really fun and an FPS, which is sorta new territory for them. I'm sure lots of people just want the next WoW even though there's no guarantees it will be near as good as the original.