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Applying lessons from Warcraft's world to Overwatch arenas

We spoke to Blizzard's Aaron Keller about the design of Overwatch's first-person shooter arenas, and how lessons he learned from designing maps for World of Warcraft still matter today.

As Blizzard prepares to drop a metaphorical and literal 800 pound gorilla on the burgeoning hero shooter genre with the release of Overwatch, it’s been worthwhile to observe how Blizzard’s learning from its previous titles while also building a space in a new genre.

Or more to the point, how does a company known for strategy games and online RPGs make a giant swing for the first-person shooters?

At PAX East, we spoke to Overwatch assistant game director Aaron Keller to learn about his transition from building dungeons and zones in World of Warcraft to designing the battlegrounds of Overwatch.

Some of these lessons proved more obvious, such as using the zone flow of World of Warcraft to help shape objective-driven maps in Overwatch. But according to Keller, everything from how Warcraft players broke navigation to the counterplay mentality of MOBAs drove elements of their new maps. 

Hero classes drive difference

Keller began working with Blizzard on the original World of Warcraft on dungeons and cities, then moved on to working on exterior zones for the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, before moving on to the cancelled MMO Titan and then Overwatch.

In World of Warcraft, he says, player flow through a zone was one of the most essential tasks to master, since the large, exaggerated spaces offered players the opportunity to explore in a million directions. 

“I still felt like I wanted to bring that road mentality over to Overwatch,” says Keller, referring to the so-called “masters of roads” on World of Warcraft who could expertly wind players to tall vistas and new areas.

“I want you to be able to get into the map and see the main road you’re supposed to take.”

This mentality influenced the shape of Overwatch’s objective-driven maps, which tend to play out more like Team Fortress 2 than the perfectly symmetrical killing grounds of Halo or Quake. 

But even with that sense of flow driving the design, Keller says a new challenge for working in these first-person spaces was accounting for the scale of the zones, and how that would affect the possible combinations of shootouts amongst 21 characters with unique abilities.

A character like Widowmaker, for instance, needs long ranges and big sightlines to properly deploy her sniper abilities, while the short-ranged Reaper or melee-driven Reinhardt need tight spaces to take advantage of their abilities.

That’s a long way from the more character-agnostic spaces of World of Warcraft, which relied far more on enemy abilities then physical space to shape the flow of given battle. 

Taking advantage of player exploration

If you played any of the World of Warcraft maps Keller worked on, you’ll probably remember how players would share stories about climbing near-vertical slopes, looking for secrets in old Ironforge and trying to figure out what lay behind some hidden walls.

Keller laughs at those memories, recalling how he and his own team abused a bug where players could inch up slopes and trees by going backwards in the game’s beta. Watching how players push the edge of a zone has influenced his design senses over time. 

“I remember early on, I was restrictive with where I would allow players to go,” says Keller. Some of that carried  over into early stages of development on Overwatch. “In Temple of Anubis, which was our first map, I wouldn’t let you go very high. I was worried about people getting too big of an advantage.”

Keller describes how the opening of Temple of Anubis was built to have a massive choke point out of the opening gate, with two statues of Anubis overlooking the offensive players as they rushed out the opening zone.

“I had a collision ceiling where you couldn’t go on top of them. And Jeff Kaplan, (Overwatch’s lead game director) encouraged me to remove it. I was so scared that snipers would get on top and dominate from up there, and you could get up there as a sniper.”

Keller’s predictions about snipers like Widowmaker or Hanzo making it to the top proved accurate, and he says it did feel cool and powerful to take that position. But his fears were alleviated by one simple realization: it’s a really terrible place to snipe from.

“It had none of the negative implications to it that I was fearing, but it had all of the positive ones,” he says with a somewhat relieved tone. It’s an experience that has driven him and his team to pay attention to where players try to go, even if it’s not somewhere the devs originally intended for them to go. 

Maps as tools for counterplay

But of course, with all the MOBA influence Blizzard has been explaining is baked in to Overwatch, it was worth asking how the map designers are participating in the genre’s emphasis on counterplay--that is, designing moves and characters such that there is a way to deliberately counter another player's move, and then subsequently being possibly able to counter that counter.

Keller opens this discussion by saying though Blizzard’s designed for some deliberate counters, they prefer to avoid any of the hard counters you might encounter in League of Legends

To help execute this, map spaces are often a tool to help balance characters when their power level is going off the charts.

Keller describes work on two turret-based characters, Bastion and Torbjörn, that roped in the map design team to help balance what were considered to be two overpowered heroes at different points.

“We started to realize, first, that we needed to do some changes to the heroes themselves, but second, they were really powerful in certain areas of our game.”

“In the Temple of Anubis, the second point you have to take is one where you enter the temple, so we had to make changes to the entire temple to make these heroes not quite as dominant as they were.”

The freedom to tweak Overwatch's maps and modes to fine-tune character balance is one design tool Keller and his colleagues have far easier access to then MOBAs, in which which players rely on fixed map design the way a star basketball relies on their intimate knowledge of the precise measurements of the court,

These challenges certainly aren’t unique to Overwatch—a few of Keller’s points could certainly apply to Team Fortress 2. But the DNA of Blizzard’s previous work provides interesting map for how the company approaches design problems in an entirely new genre, and shows what major challenges they'll need to overcome in the months ahead.

Whether it’s traversing the plains of Azeroth or rolling down Route 66 guns blazing, Keller and his colleagues seem to have a familiar toolkit to help solve new problems, regardless of genre. 

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