This year, Blizzard's blockbuster hero shooter Overwatch turned two years old, and between increasing esports bounties and an ever-growing roster of characters, the shooter doesn't look to be slowing down anytime soon.
So what's powering Blizzard's success with Overwatch? While we can't deny the value of playable hamsters and robots who wear little hats, there's also a lot to be said for the importance of production and leadership that's able to respond to internal and external challenges.
At Blizzcon, we were able to sit down for a chat with executive producer Chacko Sonny and producer Nicole Gillet to discuss how Blizzard is handling challenges ranging from player toxicity to industry-wide labor questions.
The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
A moment ago, you both described Overwatch as having greatly exceeded expectations after it launched. What does Blizzard do when suddenly faced with runaway success?
Sonny: I think the North Star for Blizzard when it comes to managing their product is we are very community-focused, and we will respond to what the player wants. It doesn’t mean that we’re slavishly following every forum post. Rather, it means that we, as players ourselves, have a sense of the energy and the direction that the community has around a product.
So early on, you might remember...I think there was a period of time where there was one competitive season roll that was longer than a week break. It might have been two or three weeks, even. And we saw that it had a meaningful negative impact on the community engagement, just how much people were playing the game and whether or not they felt like they were getting rewards for their playing competitive. And there was a real palpable, concrete lesson there for us. Competitive seasons are critically important for the portion of the player base that is into competitive play. We need to be planning better for the breaks in between them, the changes that we roll into those seasons, and making sure that it goes much more quickly in between the competitive seasons.
"We think that it’s incredibly important from a Blizzard production standpoint to be flexible and adaptable in that way and really respond."
And it also affects things like our cadence around content deliveries. We know roughly or exactly how long it takes to create heroes and maps and things like that. And we want to have a very long view of what we can do for the live game so as we learned in the course of the immediate months after release what the appetite was for those and how frequently we wanted to provide those, we tweaked our release schedule to be able to support that.
Gillet: Well you know, as producers we always like to have a plan, right? But we understand that our strength is adapting our plan to what’s happening. We don’t just put out a game and then go “there it is,” and then just do something else.
Our game is like...it’s living, it’s breathing, it’s organic. So once you put it out you study it, analyze it, listen to all our community input, and then decide what we want to do. So yes, of course we like to have plan but, it’s fun and it’s not a big deal to change it around.
Sonny: Here’s another really good example: Lucioball was kind of a mode that started as an idea, not even as something that was necessarily concretely planned out but like “hey we should go ahead and do that, ok. Tweak it, tweak it, iterate it, iterate it. This seems like it’s gotten a lot of traction,” and now it’s a fixture in Summer Games.
It’s a regular recurring component. We think that it’s incredibly important from a Blizzard production standpoint to be flexible and adaptable in that way and really respond.
What was your experience taking this community-focused approach to improving player toxicity?
Sonny: I think one way to frame it for you is that we on Team 4 understood that this was not even just an Overwatch question; this is a broader Blizzard question. And then on top of that when we look at the Blizzard value of “lead responsibly,” we think of this as a game industry question. But we started with the area that we could influence most directly, which were the core values of Team 4 and Overwatch.
“Play nice, play fair” resonates with us very deeply. As a result, we had the ability to understand what our players were doing in-game, and we had all the telemetry and tools that we put into the game to be able to parse not only their communication in game, the chat, but also the behavior in the game.
And then we had this incredible department we work with -- which I won’t go into too much detail about because we don’t want to give away all of our tactics that we have in combating toxicity -- we felt like there was a an opportunity.
It was largely driven by those guys who looked at it and felt, “hey we have the this technology, this machine learning capability, that can help us automate a bunch of the work that previously was largely manual, human-driven.”
I think we’ve made some headway but we’re very aware that this is an ongoing process and we’re not done, but it’s something that we should always be vigilant about.
Nicole, you said you were in QA prior to becoming a producer. How do you see QA teams helping in tackling player toxicity?
Gillet: I have to say, I’m certainly biased, but I think our QA team is the best in the industry. I think that it would be a large misconception to believe that all they do is just do boops five times a day. We have lots of automation that takes care of that for us so that our QA team can really focus the actual things that humans can provide: insight into the game.
So they do competitive play testing for us, they give us feedback on all of our early iterations on things, they’re with us every step of the way. So I think that QA is a huge tool, resource, and partner for production in making sure that we’re understanding the priorities of the community, we’re understanding the priorities of the players, and we’re making the best game that we can.
The process of making online games changes every year, but the changes that are visible every year are the changes that started two years prior. What in your observation do developers need to know about making online games right now?
Sonny: You’ve gotten to kind of the core of what it means to make a game this days. The most important thing for us in Overwatch has been engagement. Engagement drives everything, whether its monetization, whether it’s your ability to iterate on your game by getting feedback.
"QA is a huge tool, resource, and partner for production in making sure that we’re understanding the priorities of the community."
All that comes through things that make people want to play, and spend more hours in the game. Every game has different things that they do to create deep engagement, and for us that North Star has always been incredible characters with deep relatable storylines, with action and gameplay that’s super accessible, but has that sort of deep mastery.
So you see this regular cadence we have of heroes and maps that continue over time. Even for players that may have lapsed, we want them to come back. We hope there are people who see Ashe and, “oh man I got really great at Widow, but I want to come back and play Ashe.”
We hope that that’s an engagement driver for them. Being really clear on what those drivers are, and making sure that your core development expertise is [focused on] those components is probably one of the most important lessons that we have.
The other piece that we say is important for online games is that you cannot think of your game as -- and this may just be of Overwatch, but I’ll say it more generically -- you cannot think of your game as the only part of your franchise. As I think you’ve seen, the way that games kind of succeed or fail more broadly these days is as franchises. And that doesn’t just mean as a series of products. It means the entire world, the universe of products within that IP. So we think of Overwatch as the game, the Overwatch League, the consumer products, the linear media, the comic books, all of those things are part of that business if you think of it just as once piece.
You mentioned Blizzard trying to be an industry leader before. Have the last three months of news from Riot Games, Telltale Games, and Rockstar Games been impacting discussions around the office at all? I’m curious as what your response has been either as people or as team leaders to the fact that more developers are talking about these stories.
Sonny: Sure. So, I think, you know obviously we can’t comment on other companies, but I think we as being part of the industry, obviously we’re super aware of all of these things, and for a lot of us, it was heartbreaking to read. In the case of the issues around discrimination in the industry, that was really disturbing and we were humbled by the courage it took for people to raise that stuff and tell their stories.
We, many of us all, have friends who had friends who had either worked at Telltale or worked there currently, and the initial immediate response was how can we scramble as an industry just through formal and informal networks to make sure we can find places for those individuals who have worked so hard to be able to find new gigs.
Those moments really make me proud of the folks in the industry who have worked to do that. As it relates to sort of work/life balance, I believe it is a core value of Blizzard to find a balance between your work and your home life and your personal life and your passion and your energy and your enthusiasm for creating something.
I won’t suggest that there aren’t times where things are more busy than others but, and Nicole knows this, our job as producers is to do as good of a job as we can to plan to make it such that crunch isn’t required. It’s specifically a production responsibility to do that planning and try and maintain that. It’s core to what Blizzard is and what I think Blizzard stands for. So I think we’re doing the best we can.
Gillet: I think as producers our job is to make sure that our team is well taken care of, and that they’re happy and that they feel pride in their work. I feel that we take necessary steps to make sure that they feel that way and if they don’t, we try to address it.
Lastly, what’s something each of you is looking forward to as making more Overwatch?
Sonny: There are all these things that I can’t tell you about, those are all things I’m super excited about. Oh, I’ll tell you one thing that I’m super excited about that I’ve been at the show for a full day and haven’t had a chance to do. I want to have some Lucio-Ohs. And second, having Lego sets of something I’ve worked on is…
Gillet: It's surreal, isn’t it?
Sonny: It’s the ultimate thing because I grew up, like my first things of making something were making Legos. From when I was the youngest possible age to make things was making things with Lego. So I just cannot wait to try that.