To anyone who grew up reading comics and playing video games, Geoff Goodman might have the best job title they can imagine: “Lead Hero Designer.” Goodman’s work is seen in Overwatch, the incredibly popular online shooter game in which two teams of six compete to accomplish a shared objective.
“My job is to come up with new hero prototypes to figure out what we want to play with, and implement new features,” Goodman tells Inverse . “We know a lot of stuff is not going to make it when we’re prototyping, but you want to see what’s cool and what works.”
The game, one of the most popular in the world with its own pro scene, the Overwatch League, and a user base of 40 million players as of May 2018, added its 30th playable character on March 19th: Baptiste.
Among the game’s ensemble of characters, including ninjas, gunslingers, androids, intelligent apes, and super soldiers, Baptiste stands out as a combat medic from Haiti. A former mercenary with a conscience, Baptiste is a “Healer” — a thankless role that has earned its own earworm of a song, “No Mercy” — who is capable of dishing out significant damage of his own. (As a general rule in gaming, characters like Baptiste trade power for team healing.)
“He started as an internal prototype we called ‘Gadget Healer,’” says Goodman, noting that the concept for the new character was based on the idea that Baptiste could deploy devices to aid his team, instead of directly healing them, like Mercy, another character in the game.
As the most recent addition to Overwatch, the inclusion of Baptiste was a choice time for Inverse to learn how Blizzard adds new characters to one of the world’s most-played games. In a word, Blizzard is all about “iteration.”
“Our philosophy at Blizzard is heavy iteration,” says Goodman. “It’s less about, ‘Let me sit at this Word doc and stare for two weeks and present this master plan.’ It’s, ‘Here are some ideas,’ and we implement them quick and dirty.”
But “quick and dirty” doesn’t mean “sloppy,” even if players who are invited to test out new characters tend to think so. “We err on the side of being a little strong [with new characters] because it’s hard to nail balance,” he says. “Naturally the initial feedback, which I expected, was that [Baptiste’s Immortality Field special ability] was overpowered and ridiculous. But I was happy to see, once people started getting in the game, it’s a lot harder to use than it seems.”
He adds, “I like seeing that evolution. We release a hero, and it seems overpowered, and then they start playing it and they’re like, ‘Okay, maybe it’s not crazy.’”
As characters go through the prototype phase, that’s when characters begin to crystallize. While Blizzard always asks the same questions — “What would be cool for the metagame?” and “What are people looking for?” — a character’s origin is never the same.
Sometimes, Goodman says, a character is born out of gameplay necessity. In the case of Baptiste, “We knew we wanted a healer. We knew that long before working on Baptiste. That was the slot we wanted to fill.”
Other times, a character is simply a cool design cooked up by the game’s concept artists. Or, “We start with a character that already exists in the lore. But it’s purely mechanics.”
Inevitably, this leaves Blizzard with a lot of unused ideas. “Doomfist used to have this ‘rock throw.’ Didn’t make sense for him because we wanted him to be a brawler, punch-y guy, but the ability itself was really cool. So we shelve that idea until it comes back because that’s really fun.”
Names are changed a lot, too. In fact, naming characters is one of the hardest parts of the process. “Sometimes what happens internally is he’ll come up with a name, everyone likes it, and then we find out later it’s a trademark we can’t use. It’ll be a month and the team is used to calling somebody something, and it’s impossible to remember the new name.”
One example: The character Pharah was named Mercy, and Mercy was Angelica, until that changed. “Even to this day we catch people referring to Pharah as Mercy,” Goodman says, laughing. “It’s like, ‘Guys, it’s been years!’ It can be difficult.”
What does finalize characters, though, are stories. Many times Blizzard will discover how a character plays just by defining their characteristics: Who they are, and where they’re from.
"Overwatch is a game that represents large parts of the world, so we diversify as much as we can."
“Once you start getting to production, we ask, Who is the character? What are they like? Writers get involved heavily,” Goodman says. “We’ll have a big meeting where we sit down and talk about gender. Overwatch is a game that represents large parts of the world, so we diversify as much as we can. We decide what’s a cool place we haven’t visited.”
Pinpointing a character’s national origin is actually a big deal. “It’s not just background. You’re investing in that part of the world in the story, which is a pretty big decision.”
Originally, Baptiste wasn’t going to be from an evil mercenary group, known in the game’s universe as Talon. But the developers decided to flesh out the group’s backstory, leaving the door open for Baptiste’s own backstory to become richer.
“This leaves a lot more potential for great stories in the future,” Goodman says.
With its 30th character now online, Blizzard doesn’t anticipate slowing down. While the studio hopes to avoid ballooning the roster — “I don’t know if we’ll get to the point where it’s like [multiplayer online battle arena, e.g. League of Legends] games that have over 100 heroes,” he says — Goodman says Blizzard isn’t stopping at 30.
“Maybe there’ll be a time where we feel adding another hero isn’t going to help us as much as adding another bigger feature. Maybe we shift gears at that point,” he says. “Our philosophy is, as long as people are loving the game and enjoying the content we’re producing, we’d like to make more.”