As an Overwatch pitchman, game director Jeff Kaplan has done an impressive job representing Blizzard’s competitive hero shooter to its community and the world. But while it’s refreshing to get insight on game design and the fight against toxicity straight from the horse’s mouth, we’re curious about what the game’s development process looks like from the ground level.
At Blizzcon last weekend, we were thrilled to sit down with lead visual effects artist Rachel Day and lead software engineer Bill Warnecke to talk about life on the Overwatch team from a developer’s perspective. As they explained it, everything from community toxicity to event management to character design impacts each team member’s role, something that’s reflected in Blizzard’s organizational structure.
Here are a few key insights about everything from “Blizzard polish” to why “strike teams” help unite developers on features.
“Strike team, assemble!”
A few days ago, Jeff Kaplan told Kotaku that a “strike team” had been assembled to combat player toxicity in the Overwatch community. According to Warnecke, this is apparently a term Blizzard uses to refer to assembled teams tasked on a given feature, which gives developers of all backgrounds a chance to work collaboratively, and not just with people in their discipline.
“We use a strike team model so instead of saying ‘hey Bill, you have these programmers, they only work together…’ if we’re going to develop a new feature, we’re going to work on Blizzard World (the new map for Overwatch), we’re going to work on Moira (Overwatch’s new support character) we’re going to take automation programmers, our live ops programmers, artists, and we’re going to get them together into one unit to deliver that feature. and that includes…that includes quality assurance.”
When Kaplan discussed the anti-toxicity measures a few months ago, he called out the fact that Blizzard needed to divert work away from other Overwatch features in order to make this community-focused work happen. When pressed, Warnacke wasn’t able to share what features were being delayed in order to make way on this work, but he described it as the same kind of trade-off made in order to focus on new maps or characters.
He was, however, able to share one feature that’s come out of this kind of work. “The number one feature that I’m proud of and really happy to see come out of a pilot program into full production use is notifying and educating players when you’ve made a report that you’re going to know that report mattered. We’ve been spending a lot of her effort trying to improve this problem but if you don’t feel like that’s the case, then we don’t feel like we’ve succeeded then.”
Warnacke goes so far as to credit the unique appeal of Overwatch as being a product of the strike model. On the flip side of the coin, Day says that this model helps her team develop stylized animations and effects without overtaxing the game’s technical abilities. She and Warnacke point to Hanzo’s ultimate ability, which sends a Spirit Dragon rocketing across the map. “It’s a constant balance I think, because … part of the job is to make the game run well as well as play well.”
“So if we’ve overcommitted on too many memory calls or whatever…we try to push things too far and then scale it back to a manageable reason. So when we’re working on new skills for new characters or what have you, we push it to its very limits and then we scale back and make sure that it’s playable and fun and readable.”
Getting that Blizzard polish
Blizzard’s recent successes with players have largely been driven by an intense focus on polish in art, animation, and game design, with innovation and experimentation with gameplay happening after a game’s launch. In Overwatch’s case, Day and her colleagues are partly responsible for the look and feel that makes the game so easy to return to.
With the announcement of Moira, who drains health from foes and restores it to friends, we wanted to know how that polish works on a granular level. According to Day, it’s a mix of constant iteration (even after a product has shipped) and viewing animations and effects through a game designer’s lens.
“An FX artist named Chris Wilson did the majority of the work on her…this was his first character to just completely take on his own. it was really cool to watch him kind of develop his own style into ours,” Day says. “But when we were working on her, you have this balance of healing and kindness and softness and then you have this corrupted, horrible sensation. So having the balance between in the left hand the calm and the healing and you have these motions that are floating and shapes that are very soft, and then in the right hand having this shrapnel. We iterated quite a bit on that because you need to make those feel different.”
These two dynamics blend together in Moira’s ultimate ability, which does damage and restores health with one giant beam of light. “Visually that was very difficult to express too because it’s literally healing and damaging in the same effect. I think we maintained that by having the soft, yellow core and these angry purple shapes going around. So I think it shows the duality pretty well.”
What does “every voice matters” mean when there are hundreds of voices?
When your company is working on multiple games with hundreds of staffers, it’s sometimes possible that cultures around different games or portions of a game can become insular and create a sensation of in-groups and out-groups (it’s something that impacted Visceral’s struggles with EA’s canceled Star Wars game). We’ve heard from Blizzard developers about a “One Blizzard” philosophy meant to help prevent this status quo from settling into the company, and we wanted to know how this impacts daily life.
According to Day, implementing that philosophy has a lot to do with the phrase “every voice matters,” which is inscribed on the statue in front of Blizzard’s Irvine office, and finding worth in what developers have to say, no matter their seniority. In one example, Warnacke discusses the company’s diversity council, which helps drives initiatives around character representation and hiring around the company.
“One of the QA analysts that sits right next to where I am at in the Team 4 area is a member of that diversity council, and I talk to him every day and hear about how it operates,” Warnacke explains. “It’s a small group that leads out initiatives in the company and he’s keeping me informed on what’s happening throughout the company.”
“And so you say it’s not a body of executives trying to make decisions about diversity when we have members in our family at Blizzard that represent that directly, and that means a lot to me.”
For her part, Day says a large part of Blizzard’s success in this front comes from making sure a vertical hierarchy doesn’t interfere with your ability to have a conversation with company leadership. “I think allowing for that and by making people feel comfortable to speak up, they’re breaking down barriers.”
“Nobody says ‘oh we can’t talk to Jeff Kaplan.’ No! Everybody can talk to Jeff. It doesn’t matter. Breaking down barriers is super important.”
As dozens of smiling Blizzard employees strolled about the Blizzcon floor beneath us, it was easy to see what Warnacke and Day were talking about on display. Employees from across the company and from different roles manned gameplay booths, helped out cosplayers and cheered in the stands, just as much there to celebrate the company they work for as the players were.
Like Disney, whose nearby cheerful theme-park empire seemed juxtaposed with the orcs and ninjas wandering the Anaheim streets, Blizzard has long been a company whose creative output and company culture are considered something to aspire to.
As its reach continues to scale globally, it’s relieving to hear that company employees feel empowered on important issues and can draw on a personal drive to deliver its renowned polish. Hopefully what goes right—and wrong—at one of the game industry’s largest companies can continue to be a useful standard for other developers.