2016 has been a colossal year for gaming. We've seen the rise of VR and some stellar releases over the course of the last twelve months, but one of the standout games of the year has definitely been Overwatch, Blizzard's incredibly fun and fast-paced shooter. We've taken a look back at how it became one of the success stories of 2016, tracing its fortunes all the way back to its conception, and doing so has only deepened our respect for the game even more.
The fall of Titan
Overwatch began life as an ambitious MMORPG named Titan, a game that, according to blizzard, would stand alongside World of Warcraft, rather than act as a replacement. The setting for Titan was similar to Overwatch in that it was set in a near-future version of Earth, and visually it was very similar. Development of Titan began in 2007, far before making a shooter was even a thought in anyone's mind, but it slowly fell apart, and six years later the game as an MMO was pretty much scrapped. Though the game's development began with the team that developed Titan, over 70% of the developers moved on to work on other things, one of those being what we now know as Heroes of the Storm.
A few things survived from Titan when Blizzard sat down to start working on Overwatch in its earliest stages, though. The near-future earth setting made it through, along with the pixar-esque aesthetic that is one of the game's most defining features. According to Chris Metzen, Blizzard's senior Vice President of story and franchise development, there are also various parts of Overwatch that "have continuity" with Titan, such as maps or certain other story elements. Aside from this, Metzen stressed that the two games are completely separate entities, and whatever was carried over only represents a tiny part of the full game.
One of the first and most iconic Overwatch heroes that Blizzard created, Tracer, came partly from Titan, as one of the character ideas from the MMO was a character with very similar time-manipulation powers. The initial testing phases for the game used Tracer and an extremely early version of the Temple of Anubis map. From this, they expanded on the concept and brought in Widowmaker, Reaper, and Pharah, and this was the start of the road for Overwatch.
At BlizzCon 2014, Blizzard felt Overwatch was ready to be officially announced. By this time the game had a few heroes and was in a perfectly playable state, and most things about the universe and setting had been nailed down. The way Blizzard announced the game couldn't have been more special - the first any of us saw of the game was a brilliantly made cinematic, and the hype train was up and running.
Much of the development period following the announcement was spent focused mainly on small things. In one interview assistant game director Aaron Keller said that after they nailed the game's core mechanics, Overwatch changed very little. With those first four heroes, the formula was born, and it was simply a case of adding heroes and maps tailored to suit those heroes, and making tweaks here and there. By the time 18 heroes were introduced, Blizzard entered the next phase of development - a closed beta.
The closed beta began on October 27 2015, less than a year before the game's official release. In 2015 the beta ran up until December, and the final three heroes, Genji, Mei, and D.va, were added in a single patch. Adding three heroes at once is something Blizzard has said it won't do again, especially post-release, since doing so repeatedly would disrupt the community and meta too much. Still, starting the public testing phase so far ahead of launch ensured that when the game eventually saw full release, Blizzard's trademark polish was present and accounted for.
The beta restarted in February, bringing in the levelling system we know today, the Control mode, and more maps. The February beta also introduced loot boxes, and loads of smaller balance changes. Overwatch's closed beta was, whilst still very similar to the finished game, an interesting time to play because of the capabilities of the heroes. For example, Bastion used to have a front-facing shield in turret form, making him extremely powerful defensively when set up in certain ways.
The closed beta ended for good on April 25 2016, with the game extremely close to being in the same state it was at release, and Blizzard announced an open beta for May 5 to 10. Not much changed from open beta to release, but it helped Blizzard get word of Overwatch out there (and it ended up being one of the most popular open betas ever, drawing in 9.7 million players across all three platforms).
Release and beyond
Overwatch released on May 24 to almost perfect scores across the board (you can check out our review here), being praised as one of the most enjoyable and versatile shooters to date. On release, there were 21 heroes, 12 maps, three modes, and a competitive season was on the way. Since then we've seen countless updates to the game, tweaking and adding loads of content, and we're not going to see it stop any time soon.
Since May, we've seen two new heroes added to the game: Ana, a healer-sniper with the power to give allies a huge boost, and Sombra, the mysterious hacker who can completely shut down enemies and shields. We've also seen the addition of Eichenwalde, a brand new hybrid map, with Oasis, the next Control map, set to drop any day now. The Arcade arrived in November as well, bringing 1v1 and 3v3 modes playable on Ecopoint: Antarctica, the second map to be added post-launch.
We've had two themed events arrive since release, too, and we're now in the midst of our third event, Winter Wonderland, which has brought tons of new skins, redecorated three maps, and given us a new PvP snowball fight brawl. The first event was the Summer Games in August, which brought in plenty of sport-themed skins and other cosmetics, along with Lúcioball, a Rocket League-like game which involves teams playing football with Lucio's knockback gun. Then we saw Halloween, which gave us loads of spooky content, and Overwatch's first PvE mode, Junkenstein's Revenge, which challenged players to defend against hordes of 'Zomnics' at varying difficulties.
Overwatch has come a long way since its conception, but we reckon that the game is still in its infancy and has a long way to go (games like Team Fortress 2 prove that a well-balanced and lighthearted shooter can have long legs, and few studios can boast a similarly devoted following as Blizzard can). One area that we expect to flourish in the coming year is esports. While it's still early days, we've seen a World Cup and many separate invitationals for big prize money, and as long as players continue to flock to the game, it will only increase in the new year and beyond.
Overwatch has gained worldwide popularity in the short time since its release, and it's showing no signs of slowing down. Blizzard's shooter surpassed League of Legends as the most popular game in Korean PC Bangs back in June, and whilst it has lost this honour now, we're certain it will be a constant competitor for the Korean throne. On top of this, thanks to Blizzard releasing other media for the game, like animated shorts, there is an expansive fanbase of gamers who love the game just for the universe. We've seen some amazing cosplay of some of the heroes, like Reinhardt and Widowmaker, all driven by the sheer creativity of Blizzard's colourful creation.
In terms of new content coming to Overwatch, we'll almost certainly see many new heroes. Plenty have already been teased, for example, the generational character Doomfist, who we'll probably see joining Overwatch early next year. New maps, modes, and balance changes are also guaranteed, as Blizzard are known to continually support their games as the years roll by. It's only the beginning for perhaps one of the most polished shooters of all time, and it wouldn't be a surprise if we see it continue to dominate for years to come.