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Inside the development of Overwatch’s new Workshop feature

The development, present, and future of this new game mode

Blizzard Entertainment

The Overwatch Workshop is the biggest addition to Blizzard’s hero shooter this year, and it gives players the tools to build custom game modes, hero prototypes, and missions. It’s a new mode that transitions Overwatch away from being just a competitive shooter and embraces the spirit of the game’s earlier creative Arcade modes.

Blizzard designers Dan Reed and Keith Miron are behind the feature that changed the way many of us play Overwatch, and Heroes Never Die had the chance to sit down with them and talk about the Workshop, its development, and the modes fans are already cooking up.

[Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Heroes Never Die: It sounds like the Workshop was something that you guys independently spearheaded. What was the process on having the freedom to take a tool that wasn’t very requested, but turned out to be very popular?

Keith Miron: You know, the Overwatch team is a pretty amazing in that we’re all very passionate about the game, and one of the things that we get to do is spend a little bit of time on things that we’re passionate about once a year. It’s a specific time where we get a couple of days to work on something.

So Dan and I had been talking about this for a long time, back almost since 2017, and we took some opportunity to prototype something that we thought might be really cool. We’ve able to do that a couple of times, and get some buy-in from Jeff Kaplan and some other people on the team, then find some time to really work on it in full. It came out of passion, an idea, and then the hard work of a lot of people on the team.

Blizzard games have a long history with custom modes and players setting up their own rules. Were you inspired by the custom games back in StarCraft and Warcraft? Was the history of Blizzard creating these tools helpful to you in the process of creating the Workshop?

Keith Miron: We’ve always been passionate about making sure players have a way to create their own experiences. We’ve seen it in other Blizzard games and we wanted to do something like that in Overwatch as well, so that’s how that started.

Dan Reed: Definitely a big motivation was seeing the passion that players have for Overwatch. We really just wanted to give them a way to adapt and make changes to the game that they thought were interesting and fun. I think it’s part of the lineage of Blizzard, but it’s also the enthusiasm from the players and community who want to see changes in Overwatch.

Blizzard Entertainment

Following on that, something unique about Overwatch is we see a lot of different fans. Fans who are there for the lore and story, fans more on the competitive side. Do you think the workshop is meant to bring players together on this new platform, or is it meant to appeal more to one part of the audience?

Dan Reed: This is definitely meant to appeal to pretty much everyone. Whether you’re a creator who’s into the technical details and you want to make neat things, or you want to experience something that the creators have made — which we hope is the rest of the community — I think everyone can enjoy the Workshop for what it is.

Keith Miron: I think this brings in a whole new set of players who get a chance to be involved in Overwatch in ways they weren’t able to before, like Dan mentioned creators. I think there are some creatives already coming out and getting way more involved because of the Workshop, and as a result players get to partake in the crazy game modes or new abilities or whatever else they come up with. I think it’s one of those things where people might jump in for a little bit and check it out because it’s different. For some players it might be the new way they play Overwatch.

We’ve seen a lot of game modes on social media, Reddit, Twitter. Is there anything you’ve seen that really surprised you? Anything awesome, like a demo that really stands out among all these new creations?

Dan Reed: There’s a lot of stuff on there where I’ll look at it and I’ll think, not only did I not think to do something like this using this system, but I’m not even sure how they did it at first. Just to call out a few that have been really fascinating. We really liked the Lucio trials. Ooh, the hot potato ghost hunt. Pretty much anything by DarwinStreams. The Ana nade tool I thought was really cool. So we’ve just been very pleased by the output in just these few weeks.

Keith Miron: In the few weeks of PTR that we had, some of my favorites was a jet fighter mode where you fly around as an invisible Bastion and have dog fights. There’s a couple of version of Snake that I liked. I think there’s a lot in there that we knew we’d be giving players a lot of tools, but we’re really very impressed with how much they’re willing to do with them already. I can only imagine how much better it’s gonna be a few months from now.

Blizzard Entertainment

The Workshop is a place for players to experiment with ideas and prototypes. Is the Workshop itself an experiment as well? Will there be new features to evolve what players want, or are you planning on letting fans tinker it for a time and see how that works out?

Dan Reed: We’re paying very close attention to the community and the forums to figure out how you want to expand on this. We’re taking a lot of cues from the communities using the tool right now to figure out where this goes from here.

Keith Miron: Yeah. The workshop is a going to be a big part of Overwatch. We want to continue supporting it as we move forward. This is one of those features too that we really are looking at paying very close attention to what the community is doing with it because we have our own things that we’d like to do with the Workshop, but that’s kind of tempered by feedback we’re getting. So we’d like to make sure we’re not neglecting one side or the other. We’re trying to balance future work with that in mind.

A lot of people are planning on PvE content so they can play with their friends, or solo experiences inspired by the Archives event, or even roleplay. What do you think about that as developers and observers?

Keith Miron: We definitely actually talked about the possibility of fans trying to make stuff like that. As it currently stands, we’re just kind of taking a wait and see approach and seeing what players can do with the Workshop. We definitely like everything that players have been doing so far, it’s been really impressive to us. At this point we’re just taking some time to gather a list of what we’d like to do.

Have there been any conversations about official game modes being taken from the Workshop and put in the Arcade, or some spotlight for creations?

Dan Reed: We have absolutely talked about doing exactly that. We have no announcements, but there are conversations happening and we’re very interested in that.

The Workshop wasn’t very requested, but it was a passion project. What sparked that idea for you?

Keith Miron: So actually, Dan and I have been in talks about like giving players a way to do scripting since 2016. We’d chat on and off with different ideas of what we’d like to see in Overwatch. It’s such an amazing universe with so many different heroes and abilities and great content already, so what if you could let them change some of that content a little and use it in different ways?

Dan Reed: We’d already put a lot of work in with custom games, just allowing users to sort of tweak all these different values and all these different things. But we didn’t really give them a way to say when or how these values were set. The next logical progression for that is giving them the ability to decide the context for changing the different settings, and that’s how you end up in a scripting system.

Blizzard Entertainment

Did you see this as an opportunity to get kids into STEM or programming?

Dan Reed: That would be amazing. We would be incredibly honored if there were people getting into STEM because of this. If that turned out to be the case we’d both be very, very flattered.

Keith Miron: We’ve definitely talked about hey, this tool that we’re making is great if it got more people into things like modeling. Maybe Workshop is the first thing they try and they’re like “Oh! This is not as hard as I thought, or this is actually really rewarding for me. I can try to do other things.”

I think providing content creators a way to express ideas in Overwatch is a really great stepping stone. I expect some people will spend a little bit of time in the mode then move on. Other people will get more engaged in the future.

With user-created content there’s always the challenge of content moderation. Were there any specific challenges with that in the Workshop?

Keith Miron: We talked about that a lot because it’s a delicate balance between giving players enough tools to make the content they want to see without giving them so many that they create an experience that other players would find offensive or would require heavy moderation. So we ended up with certain restrictions in place for some of our features.

We have some moderation tools. You can report offensive content that you find. There are measures in place for us to analyze and see how things are progressing and see the trends players are taking. Our hope is that generally people are making content that’s fun, and who wants to play content that someone makes that isn’t fun or offensive? So our hope is that the good content comes to the top and is promoted. Hopefully it becomes a system of community moderation too, where they help us figure out like “Hey, here are the things we’ve reported, we’ve seen these trends” and we can take action as needed.

D.Va’s getting a mini-rework on the next PTR build Blizzard Entertainment

Were there any major hurdles throughout development of the workshop? Were you ever like, maybe this is too complex, maybe it won’t work out?

Dan Reed: I mean the entire development was a challenge. [laughs] It’s quite a bit because you have to consider, what’s the worst case someone can do? We know it’s running on our platform, so we have to give as much freedom as possible while also making sure there’s stability, making sure it fits into the memory.

It’s a lot of not even programming challenges so much as design challenges. How do we make it so people can enjoy this and have fun while not being able to just destroy everything? For me I think the turning point for us was we started on the prototype in 2017 and we had a basic version that let us make a simple game mode where you have to escort Zenyatta to the end of King’s Row against a team of Widowmakers.

We did that prototype and we were like “Hey, this is really neat. There’s a lot of potential here.” When we picked it up in 2018 we had to go through a major redesign because it required a major rewrite on a lot of systems and we were really debating whether we needed to do this or not. We really struggled with how much power we wanted to give the players. Do they need this much power? And in the end we decided to go with it and make the changes to make it a lot more flexible.

So this was a project that had periods of progress and then time on the backburner as well.

Dan Reed: That’s correct. We didn’t really begin the major push on this until December of 2018, but we had been thinking and talking about it for years. We were all very excited but with a project this big and complicated it can take time to figure out the details properly.

A big conversation in the industry has been crunch to meet deadlines on shipping features like these. From the surprise announcement to this conversation, it doesn’t sound like this feature required much in the way of crunch. Is avoiding that a priority for Blizzard?

Keith Miron: We were given plenty of time to work on this. In fact, we gave the time estimates for how long this was going to take and everything and we work with producers to make sure this is landing at the right spot during the year. This has actually been a very good development cycle for us.

We were thinking closely about the scope of the features. We could have obviously tried to do way more than we did with the Workshop, and we decided you know what, maybe for the first pass we come up with something that’s usable and fun but we don’t have to reach perfection on the first pass.

With Overwatch being a live product, we have the benefit of being able to update and support it moving forward. We don’t have to develop it for three years and then ship it. We can work on it enough to get a version out for players, then work with the players to figure out the next steps.

This feature dropped out of nowhere, and I’m wondering what you think about the reaction so far.

Dan Reed: This has been a wonderful experience. It’s been so much fun to watch people react online to this and we’ve been honored and humbled by the amazing stuff put out so far.

Keith Miron: Right before launch we knew that no one really knew what we were gonna ship. I think the way Dan put it is like, it’s the feeling that you’re about to go on stage and the curtains are about to open. You have no idea if it’s going to be empty or packed. We had no idea what the reaction was going to be. I mean, we were hoping for the best. You always hope for the best. But we didn’t know if this was something players were going to latch onto, but they did in a big way, and I think this is really the best we could have asked for from the players.