Scott Mercer, a principal designer at Blizzard on the popular team-based shooter Overwatch, wears many hats. More than he gives himself credit for.
While he primarily works on the systems for Overwatch of the competitive and matchmaking variety, he also had a hand in other things. He helped craft the game’s initial tutorial and scripting of three specific heroes: the FPS-centric player favorite Soldier: 76, the cybernetic monk Zenyatta, and the lovable turret wielder Torbjorn. The latter of which, his dabbling in characters, he attributes as “minor things” per his job description. Though he quickly corrects himself. “Well, maybe not so minor.”
Today is Overwatch’s one-year anniversary, a major milestone for any multiplayer-dependent game. And excitement still bustles around the multiplayer title just as it did upon launch twelve months ago, perhaps even more so nowadays. In fact, Blizzard's even celebrating the game's birthday with a special limited time anniversary event, complete with new loot.
For Mercer, he’s just as delighted to work on its many updates today as he was back before the game even launched, when it was still just Blizzard of Diablo, World of Warcraft, and Starcraft fame's mysterious multiplayer shooter. ("I worked on World of Warcraft for a long time and there was an awesome story in that, but the possibilities of Overwatch feel endless," he tells me.) We caught up with Mercer over the phone to chat all things Overwatch: where the game's headed in the coming year, his favorite character, and the challenges and successes the team faced.
USgamer: What would you say have been the biggest successes across Overwatch’s first year?
Scott Mercer: I think we’ve certainly had a lot of them. We’re proud of all the work we’ve done over the last year, looking back to all the different events. I guess the thing that we’re most proud of that we’ve done most recently is Uprising. I think that was a notable event for us, to not only explore past history of Overwatch, but to go back in time and see what that was like. There was a very cool comic that we also released that told a story that people got really geeked up about, seeing the characters back in the day. But it was also cool for us because it was sort of our second attempt, after Junkenstein’s Revenge on Halloween, of doing a more PvE experience. There’s a lot of excitement for continuing to work on that style of content, and overall, we’re super happy with how that turned out.
USgamer: On the flip side, what have been the team’s biggest challenges?
SM: Well, certainly there’s been multiple iterations of the competitive system that we’ve gone through, but that’s pretty natural. [Also] dealing with how to schedule all these events, how to deal with what’s the right cadence to figure out heroes. Every hero release we’ve done so far has been sort of a unique snowflake that we’ve learned a lot about. Not just how to make the hero, but how to release the hero. In terms of like Sombra, the ARG didn’t go quite as well as we hoped, and we learned a lot of lessons if we want to do something like that in the future. Or at the very least, not make the same mistakes that we made before. I mean, there’s a thing that’s natural about releasing all this new content over the last year, taking those lessons forward as we release more content, more maps, more heroes, more game modes, all that kind of stuff for the future.
USgamer: You mentioned that Uprising was one of your favorite events that Overwatch released in the past year, and that definitely showed a change in putting the story actually in the game. Whereas before, it’s been scattered across these different mediums like webcomics. Can players expect more of that type of story-centric content in the coming year?
SM: We’ll see. We’re still trying to work out our plans for the next year or two. We typically enjoy doing that content, and we enjoy cracking open the sort of past, present, and future of the Overwatch story. There will continue to be more comics. There will continue to be more of those awesome animated shorts in the future. Every single time we do [something], it’s its own unique snowflake in terms of the decisions we make around it. And to be honest, we don’t even know ourselves, we’re just trying to figure it out. Everything we release in Overwatch, it’s not just a step forward for the story, it’s a step forward for us as a team as we release this content.
USgamer: Seeing Overwatch add additional lore over the past year with comics and more, there have been big revelations, such as Tracer's sexual orientation, which caused excitement in the fan community. Does the Overwatch team take its fandom into account when developing its lore, or were these character developments already planned at the start?
SM: We’re very aware of it. We try to keep a very close pulse of the community with even little individual things. There are some things where a community will make a suggestion, and there’s certain developments that we’ve already decided to go in a different direction. Like in terms of relationships or backstory or just like little elements. Certainly, what’s exciting for us, is that there is so much speculation around the characters and their stories. There are things that sometimes the community gets actually pretty close to the truth. But we are super aware and we really enjoy interacting with the community, and it’s definitely a source of excitement and inspiration for us.
USgamer: To change gears a little bit, you mentioned that you work primarily on the systems of Overwatch. What would you say is the ideal metagame now, and how have you seen it change over the past year?
SM: It’s actually a very interesting time in the competitive Overwatch meta, especially at the professional level. We went through a phase of heavy tank compositions, and now we’re actually starting to see some teams are still using some heavy tank compositions because it suits their team or works well on the map. Others are using a more like 2-2-2—two tank, two support, two DPS composition. It depends on what they feel comfortable with and what works on the map. And then we’re also seeing three DPS compositions, like Rogue had a lot of success with their team doing that. I think someone even brought out in Korea a three support composition. There's a lot of different possibilities within the meta, and it’s a time when not everyone is sure exactly what the right solution is. From our standpoint, as we release new heroes and people understand the heroes that have been released; as the more they play, [the more they] understand strategies, what works, and what doesn’t, it is definitely developing at a nice pace that is super healthy.
USgamer: This is maybe an unanswerable question for you, but who’s your favorite Overwatch character, and why? Whether you had a hand in designing them, or playing them, or whatever.
SM: This is actually a kind of easy one for me, for multiple reasons that you just indicated. One of my favorites is Zenyatta. Creating him a long time ago the question was “hey, what would a cybernetic monk look like?” And Arnold Tsang, [Overwatch's lead character concept artist,] did this amazing piece of art for him. And everyone was like, "oh yeah, we’re totally doing that." We worked on the design for it, the concept of these orbs that were Yin and Yang—one damaged and one healed. And in his ultimate he became one with the universe. That’s basically the design of [Zenyatta], in a nutshell. And actually, I just enjoy playing him as well. I enjoy playing a lot of supports. The thing about Zenyatta is he is definitely a support that hurts. So you can have a pretty major impact on a game. I think he’s a lot of fun to play, and he’s a lot of fun to work on.
USgamer: What can players expect from Overwatch over the next year?
SM: Certainly there will be more events in the future, whether it’s similar to the ones we’ve done in the past with some new content changed or not. We’re going to be releasing new maps, we are going to be releasing new heroes. We are going to continue to update the game in the future with more content in general. We’re exploring new game mode ideas. One of the next things is, looking at the arcade, the arcade is actually filled with lots of game mode experimentation that we worked on last year. And that’s how we look at arcade, like it’s a place for us to place our crazy game mode ideas and see how it goes in the community, how much they enjoy it. I think you’ll see more of that in the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.