Q: What does a lead software engineer do?
Rowan Hamilton: There’s a couple of engineering groups within Overwatch. I’m in charge of tools and pipeline development. That means I take care of all the software that we use to build the game itself. So we make a level editor, we make tools to let us animate the characters, script the characters, all that sort of stuff. And also, my group takes care of the low-level stuff in terms of actually getting content on to disc and running well, keeping our load times as low as they possibly can be.
Q: Overwatch emerged from the wreckage of scrapped MMO Titan. How much of Titan made it into Overwatch? As in: was any code reused, or was it more a case of “lessons were learned, let’s move on”?
Rowan Hamilton: Definitely more of the latter. Overwatch is a game where we started from scratch on most stuff. Speaking from my area of expertise which is the tools that we use to build Overwatch, we started from ground zero on that probably close to three years ago, and have been working on that pretty solidly ever since.
Q: I know you’re probably reluctant to talk about a scrapped game, but what was it about Titan that wasn’t working? Blizzard certainly knows how to make a world-conquering MMO, and for the better part of its existence, the studio has produced nothing but hits.
Rowan Hamilton: That’s probably not something I can really talk to. The game’s been cancelled and we’ve moved on from it.
Q: Pivoting from developing an MMO to developing an FPS seems such a counterintuitive move, especially as Blizzard had never made one before. How was that adjustment made? Was FPS expertise sought in new hires, or did some in the Titan team just learn a whole new genre?
Rowan Hamilton: We have a lot of experience on the team with first-person shooters – probably a surprising amount to most people. If you look at the composition of the Overwatch team, it’s evenly split. There’s really old Blizzard veterans – guys who worked on Starcraft and vanilla WoW, those sort of games that have been in the company a long time – but the other half of the team is newer blood that have been around the industry a lot and have a lot of experience with FPS games. I’ve got experience with FPS titles, a lot of our gameplay and engineer programmers come from FPS backgrounds as well, and a lot of our artists do too – especially the guys who model our weapons for characters. When we started working on the project, we were pretty confident we could deliver something that would be up to the level of quality we expect from a Blizzard game.
Q: There’s hardly a shortage of competitive first-person shooters, and there are a few giants in that field already. What did Blizzard see that wasn’t being provided by other, similar games?
Rowan Hamilton: I think at Blizzard we tend to look at a lot of different genres and the games we’re playing or that we wish we were playing and see that there’s some value we can add to them. In that FPS space there were a couple of things that we really thought we could bring to the table. One of them was a very tight team-focussed experience. Overwatch is very much about 6v6 combat, working with your teammates to push through objectives and win the game. I think the other thing is just the flavour and the character of the game. It’s very light in tone, the art style is very bright, and the world that it’s set in is near future and has some difficulties, but it’s still a very optimistic version of what Earth could be in 50 or 60 years’ time. That makes for a very fun, light-hearted experience that you can jump in and play. You’ll feel better off if you play a few rounds. Those two points we where we saw we could add something to the genre.
Q: Did any community management experience from the Heroes of the Storm team transfer across to Overwatch? Both the MOBA and FPS genres are known for their toxicity, but the consensus seems to be that Overwatch is a pleasant game most of the time.
Rowan Hamilton: Yeah, definitely. Our designers are always talking to each other across teams, and while the games themselves are very different obviously, there’s a lot of those common lessons about how people play games and what they like about the gameplay that transfer across pretty well. So there’s definitely lessons that we took there. The setting I think naturally encourages people to not be quite so serious and hostile about how they’re interacting with other players in the game. I’ve played a lot since launch and although we’ve got cross-team all chat in the game, I don’t think I’ve seen one occurrence of people being unpleasant to each other. So far the community has been amazing. They’re all so excited about the characters and the game. They see the personalities that are involved and really latch on to them. I think that helps a lot. There’s just a good vibe around the game at the moment.
Q: As you mentioned, Overwatch has such an interesting cast. Was a single player campaign ever considered?
Rowan Hamilton: People always ask us for a single player campaign because they’re hungry for more story to go with these characters that they’re falling in love with. It’s certainly something that we’d like to do, but right now we’re really focussed on pushing the core of what is good about the game forward, and that’s really making the 6v6 team-based experience as good as we possibly can – fleshing it out with more heroes, more maps, that sort of content. We’re always looking to where we can take the game in the future, but that’s not really our focus right now.
Q: Can you give us a brief roadmap for updates?
Rowan Hamilton: All I can talk about right now is: we’ve got our competitive ranked mode coming in hopefully very soon. That’s the next big ticket item. Now that the game has actually launched and the servers haven’t melted and everything looks pretty calm on that front, we’re really 100 percent focussed on getting that ranked mode into the game to give our more hardcore audience something. They’re really hungry for it at the moment. We got a lot of great feedback from the version we had in beta, we’ve taken a lot of that feedback on board, and we’re currently looking at that. We’re now looking at what we want that experience to be, and are iterating ideas and really hoping to get that out soon.
Q: Have you seen any tactical holes yet to be filled by potential new characters? Overwatch seems to have such an interlinking system that introducing a new character must be a fraught with danger.
Rowan Hamilton: I would definitely agree with that. I oftentimes don’t envy the gameplay designers who sit and look at this cast of 21 heroes and all the complex interactions that happen between them – there’s a very delicate balance there. If you insert one new character into this, how’s it going to affect balance across the game as a whole? I can’t really speak to how those guys do it. They’re a very talented team, and I have faith that they’ll find the appropriate place to put in a new character that won’t push anyone else out, but will bring all the other characters up a level.
Q: Blizzard is no slouch when it comes to making cinematics, and everyone wants more Overwatch character stuff. When are you guys gonna announce the Overwatch animated series?
Rowan Hamilton: My god. Tomorrow, I hope?! I don’t know! [Laughs] If I knew I would probably have a hard time keeping it a secret, because I’d wanna tell everyone that something so amazing is happening. But I don’t know.