'Overwatch' Boss Explains That Inclusivity and Hope are its Secret Sauce

Jeff Kaplan talks Ana, Iraq and that Tracer revelation in the hit team shooter

Jeff Kaplan on stage at the 2017 DICE Summit Credit: Blizzard/DICE

During a talk at games summit DICE, Overwatch's game director Jeff Kaplan expounded on some of the ideas that drive his team's super hit, the team shooter Overwatch. Kaplan didn't focus on the game's novel mechanics, though. His talk was all about Overwatch's inclusivity and its generally cheery outlook on the world.

"Diversity is a beautiful end result that you get when you embrace inclusivity and open-mindedness," says Kaplan.

"We've been both praised and criticized for some of our decisions when it comes to diversity, and I think it's really interesting that people think that diversity was the goal of the Overwatch team when it was not. What we cared about was creating a game and a game universe and a world where everybody felt welcome. Really what the goal was was inclusivity and open-mindedness."

He explained that as Overwatch rose from the ashes of another cancelled Blizzard project, MMO Project Titan, what mattered to the team was creating a "bright and hopeful world" set on planet Earth that would be accessible to all kinds of players.

"Even more than the gameplay and art mechanics behind how these heroes worked, we wanted there to be heroes that felt approachable to each person. We all like different things, we're all attracted to different things – that's one of the beautiful things about humanity."

Of course, making a game on our planet comes with thorny challenges, especially when it comes to representation. "Azeroth and Sanctuary and the Starcraft universe are far safer, but as soon as you say someone is from a [real world] location, everybody gets very sensitive. So we've tried to in many ways challenge a lot of stereotypes," says Kaplan. He singled out Ana as one of the most interesting heroes in this respect.

There's not a lot of games featuring older Egyptian mothers who happen to be snipers.

"Ana is particularly interesting to me because she is a sniper, she is an older woman who is a mother and who has a very complicated story with her daughter about whether or not she did the right thing," he says. "There's not a lot of games featuring older Egyptian mothers who happen to be snipers. We want out of our way to sort of challenge this notion. "

He also touched on last year's big revelation about Tracer, the cheeky British hero who has become the unofficial spokesperson for Overwatch. The revelation came in an Overwatch comic book written by Michael Chu, the game's lead writer.

"Reflections happened to reveal that Tracer had a girlfriend at home, not a boyfriend like some people expected," he says. "This is all part of what we on the Overwatch team just think of as, 'normal things are normal.' It's important to show normal things as normal so they become more normal. A lot of people had expected other characters to be representative of the LGBT community and maybe it wasn't Tracer. To us, what was important about Tracer was that she was this badass time-traveling hero, first and foremost."

The team also had this stuff in mend when they were building Overwatch's locations, the maps that would provide the backdrops for its competitive carnage. He gave examples of how fantasy was more important than reality across all the maps, but especially when it came to Iraq.

"If you look at how Iraq has been portrayed in video games for the past 10 years, I would describe it as usually war torn – a place of conflict, a place of little hope. But Overwatch takes place 60 years in the future and we were asking ourselves on the Overwatch team, could we imagine a better future for Iraq? Is it really necessary to show dusty streets or bombed-out buildings anymore? Haven't we seen enough of that not only in video games, but in the world? So can we please imagine a better future for Iraq?"

"So the Overwatch vision of Iraq is that one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world exists in Iraq and it was built by a group of scientists and researchers hoping to make an even better future for people of planet Earth. That was our vision of it."

Ultimately, says Kaplan, the world and heroes of Overwatch no longer belong to Blizzard, but to the fans who carry on the story through fan art, cosplay and fan fiction.