About that Sombra Overwatch character, and other things besides
An interview with senior gameplay designer Michael Chu.
Blizzard didn't unveil a new Overwatch hero in its Soldier 76 'Hero' animated short yesterday - didn't do anything of the sort. I wasn't the only one fairly convinced Blizzard would throw back the curtain on a character called Sombra who would turn out to be Pharah's mother Ana Amari, an original Overwatch member whose whereabouts are unknown.
There were all these clues on the Dorado map that the Hero animated short takes place on, you see. Clues like Sombra's name on classified files next to Soldier 76's, and Sombra's name on a newspaper on the Dorado town centre floor. And all the animated shorts before Hero had featured two or more Overwatch heroes going at one another.
But no, Blizzard didn't unveil a new hero. Indeed, senior Overwatch gameplay designer Michael Chu found all the speculation "weird".
"Yeah it was weird," he told me in a swanky London hotel today. "I don't actually know where particularly it came from. I know I read about the French theatre-chain poster thing. The community was really expecting - or had ideas that there might be - a new hero revealed, but no..."
A Blizzard spokesperson told me that the misunderstanding originated in a translation error caused by the video's title; it was misinterpreted as the unveiling of a new hero, when in fact 'Hero' was just the name of the short.
I told Chu that it put me in a Sombra mood and he groaned loudly, like I wouldn't be invited back. Nevertheless it gave us a good jumping-off point to talk about characters and story in Overwatch.
Did you know, for instance, that the amount of time Mei was frozen in an Overwatch cryogenics lab - that she worked in - was 10 years? Because I didn't, and I'm really into Overwatch's lore.
"And we really haven't gotten into it with her at all," said Chu, referencing Mei's backstory. "But it's always in the back of the mind that she's a character who missed 10 years of the world... We haven't really dealt with her interacting with different characters who haven't seen her for a long time. She was gone for 10 years so there's a mystery she has to solve and that's what she's going to do."
He also talked a bit about how it took ages - "I can't even begin to tell you how long and how many revisions" - to settle on Bastion's mini-tank ultimate ability, which was originally a remote-controlled car that blew up ("It was just too much for a guy who's already really good at blowing things up").
On the topic of Bastion, incidentally, and people calling him - it - overpowered, Chu said: "He packs a punch! And I feel like a version in which that didn't happen wouldn't be true to the character [Bastion units made up the devastating front-lines of the omnic army during the Omnic Crisis]. The most we can do is try and educate players on how to [beat him], because honestly, once you have figured out that it's not just a 'running into the meatgrinder', and there are ways to deal with him. It's actually not too hard."
But what I found most interesting were Chu's comments about moving Overwatch's story on, because this is a challenge. The action has to be rooted in some kind of present, some kind of point in time, but does that mean it is also stuck there? Can it be moved on? Or is Blizzard's storytelling limited to backstories and how it all came to be?
"It's interesting because the logistics of this I'm not really sure about. We feel like the Overwatch story in the game starts at 'the world is in crisis, there is no Overwatch, Winston is deciding whether he's going to callback the Overwatch agents and he pushes the button', and that's where the game starts," he said. "We definitely don't want the story to be stuck here in stasis.
"Maybe it's through the comics and the animated shorts; maybe it's through other things we can do with content we add to the game; but we would like to continue to move the story forward. We don't want to be in the phase where it's just 'Winston has pushed the button'.
"But that said, we have 21 characters who are all potentially affected by the state of the present so we also want to go into that, because a lot of the characters have interesting stories there and stories before there."
What about things Blizzard can do in-game to move Overwatch's story forwards?
"We'll have to experiment with this and see," he said. "One thing I've always wanted to do and I really hope that we can is, you know on the Numbani map there's the news ticker? I would love to update the news-ticker. I have some ideas about how we could do it but we'll have to wait and see how it goes."
He wouldn't tell me officially whether Gabriel Reyes, the one-time leader of Overwatch, and then its covert arm Blackwatch, was the masked killer Reaper; nor whether Ana Amari, Pharah's mother, was also killed in the Overwatch headquarters blast that killed Reyes and John "Soldier 76" Morrison. "There are definitely people who think so," was all he would say.
Chu wouldn't be drawn on how many new characters Blizzard is working on for Overwatch, nor what there development timeline is or when they will appear. But he did say, "There are clues to all sorts of things in the game now."
"It's something we've tried to do [to] make it a little more interesting for the players to explore the world and see what's going on. We drop references to some of the things that may be coming in the future, or to other things that we've sort of talked about in the past," he said. "We try and really fill a lot of these details in. Sometimes they can be quite teasing and maybe not entirely satisfying but hopefully people can start to build a bigger picture in their heads."
We did talk a little about Play of the Game, though - a feature I really like. My - and other people's - beef with it is that it's unfairly balanced towards killing multiple people at once, and that some characters are better at that than others. Indeed, some characters really struggle to do that.
"Yeah so there are new categories for Play of the Game," he said. "There's Shut Down and there's Lifesaver. We are trying to highlight not just... obviously Team Kills are great and often the place a game changes, but we really want to try and find those other things so support-heroes etc. can get their moment.
"Obviously since it's programatically derived it's just something that we're refining and working on to get better - we've been tweaking it for pretty much as long as it's existed. Because ideally we want Play of the Game to be the Play of the Game. If you really did The Thing, the prime resurrection or whatever - or because you came in at the right moment and shut down the ult from happening - we want that to be the Highlight. "
In other words, Play of the Game will continue to evolve.
Overwatch launches at midnight tonight on PC, PS4 and Xbox One. Servers will be up and running then.
For all the latest Overwatch hero, map and gameplay guides, visit our sister site MetaBomb