“Uprising went live in April, last year. We were already working on Retribution, in May.” That’s Overwatch Game Director Jeff Kaplan responding to the question of how long the new Overwatch Archive mission, Retribution, has been in development. Live and currently playable across PC and consoles, Retribution puts players in the middle of a historical Overwatch mission featuring the covert splinter group Blackwatch.
But the notion of this particular mission, this moment in Overwatch history, wasn’t always set in stone. As players got to experience their first slice of interactive story content in the form of last year’s Uprising event, discussions were happening within Blizzard about where to head next. “We were already starting to have ideas,” Jeff recalls. “It was one of those fun moments being part of a development team, where we’re saying ‘This is going really well. We're going to do an Archive event next year. What should we do?’”
Although the name Archives was being kicked around last year, Overwatch Archives only became public with the arrival of Retribution – first teased last week during an Overwatch League broadcast live from Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles. The name Archives refers to key missions that provide backstory and glimpses at the decades of history already established in the greater Overwatch universe. A history that alongside dozens of fully realised and believable characters, meant that deciding on where to head next led to a palpable sense of excitement within the team.
“Everybody was pitching,” Jeff continues. “On which event they thought would be really cool to see. In the end I think that we landed on one of the best ones.”
Retribution takes place in Venice, Italy and sees Blackwatch members McCree, Moira, Genji, and Reyes infiltrate a Talon compound in pursuit of a high-ranking member of the nefarious organisation. In terms of lore it offers Overwatch fans a fascinating and cinematic look at Reaper before he was, well, Reaper. In addition to setting up events that would ultimately lead to the splintering and collapse of Overwatch. In execution it offers an exciting, brisk, and easy to follow co-operative experience where the mission objectives are clear and the cinematic payoff impactful.
Mechanically Retribution is the evolution of PvE content within Overwatch. A team-based shooter designed for PvP, where it has gone on to become a household name across the globe. Thanks to its now with over 35 million players, an annual World Cup that attracts talent from across the globe, and a high profile esports league – fittingly called Overwatch League. The road to creating a co-op mode though, that could stand alongside the core competitive side of Overwatch was a long process. And one that began well before the arrival of Retribution and last year’s Uprising event.
“Halloween Terror 2016 was the first time. That's when we did the whole PvE experiment with Junkenstein’s Revenge,” Jeff tells me. “Before that, we had done some work on playing against AI, which we thought was cool. We knew it wasn't great. We knew it wasn't a compelling experience. Sure, we can teach bots to play the game, but it was never going to be as fun as playing against real people. It really was Halloween Terror, that first year, where we said, ‘Why don't we try something a little bit different. Let's see if we can create this fun new mode’.”
Junkenstein’s Revenge resonated with Overwatch fans almost instantly. Although it’s story was slight and very much in the style of a fun monster-filled Halloween tale, the fact people got to group up as specific heroes and work together fighting enemies and bosses – well, let’s just say it was the perfect way to cool-down after an intense competitive match that went into overtime.
“The challenge, after Junkenstein was that it was very much about waves of characters,” Jeff continues, referring to mechanics of the Halloween event revolving around defending a door from waves of incoming enemies. “You're stationary and there's not a tremendous amount of storytelling happening, in the moment. So, when it came around time for Uprising later that year, we really wanted to up the stakes, and go, ‘Okay. That seemed like a good toe in the water.’ Let us build a lot of tech to get to where we need to get to.”
“How could we create something more ambitious? How could we do a real PvE event that told story, had a full mission flow, and moved fully through a map? I think Retribution is just that next evolution in the series.”
As the next evolution, or step, along the path of Overwatch PvE or story content, Retribution benefits from lessons learned along the way. Although Uprising took the foundation laid out in Junkenstein’s Revenge to the next level, a fully functional mission with objectives and a clear linear path, it wasn’t without issues. “We felt that the pacing in Uprising was a little bit too slow,” Jeff tells me. “You had to stop somewhere and wait to complete this objective that wasn't very clear. For Retribution, we decided that we wanted the pace to match the story. You're killing Talon. You're trying to escape. The pace is kind of pushing you through this level. It’s based on what the story's about. The story is about escape, and then making it out alive.”
“We also learned that we enjoy it more when it's not super cluttered,” Jeff continues. “The story's told through the game. There aren’t any pop-ups, or any floating heads. The heroes are delivering the story in the game. Same thing with objectives. The only time you know they have to go somewhere is because one of the heroes says, ‘Let's get to the drop ship.’ So, you're like, ‘Let's get to the drop ship.’ There isn't a quest marker pointing you to where the drop ship is. You just make your way through the streets. It just feels more natural.”
The other revelation, which may sound obvious now, also took time to get right. And that is leveraging the cast. “In Retribution, we spent a lot of time thinking about what opportunities we could build for McCree, Genji, Moira, and Reaper to have those heroic moments,” Jeff adds. “It would have been easy for us to write AI that was super smart, and never does anything wrong. But then that means that someone playing Genji would never feel like a hero. So, there was a bunch of stuff that we learned about how to make you feel like that guy. You finally get to play a cyborg ninja running around, and we want to help you be that guy.”
A big part of Overwatch development which continues daily, is community engagement. Listening to feedback, whilst understanding and sharing the same passion for the property. Although internal discussions and testing and feedback happens internally there’s a sense of co-ownership with the community that boils down to a love for the game. “We realise that our fans who love Overwatch want more content, and want more features,” Jeff concludes. “Nothing's more exciting, when you're a fan of a game of that moment a new patch drops. And you see the patch going up, and you're like, ‘Ooh, there's something cool!’ Then, you're reading patch notes.”
“Part of our hobby is making games. We like making games and playing games. So, the fact that we get to collect the best ideas from the team and the community - well, that's a cool thing.”
AusGamers attended a special Overwatch Retribution preview event last week in Los Angeles.