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07 August 2017

SDCC ’17 Doomfist: The Design of Overwatch

By // Games

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First, a confession: when I first played the Overwatch beta, it didn’t blow me away. The character design was exemplary, but the gameplay felt limited to me. The lack of single player seemed odd, given how much story had been built for this multiplayer only game, and the rounds seemed too straightforward to carry lasting appeal for me.

That was 20 hours’ worth of Overwatch ago.

Now, I’m a certified addict; Overwatch, like all of Blizzard’s properties (most notably World of Warcraft, the massive multiplayer RPG that perfected the model and was the most popular game in the world for many years) is a beautifully well thought out game. Mechanically, the characters and their various abilities strike a careful balance that allows the ‘metagame’ (the most popular tactical manoeuvres) to shift regularly, and make different combinations of characters interesting and viable.

Perhaps most notable, however, has been Blizzard’s ongoing commitment to expanding the game for free. Since launch, four new heroes have been added (Ana, Sombra, Orisa, and most recently Doomfist), as well as new maps, and new modes. Traditionally, post-release characters come in the form of downloadable content (DLC), available for purchase. While it is appreciated that these characters remain free, it also makes sense for Overwatch’s balance, as every new character shifts the tactical dynamic and barring some players from that would disrupt the in-game ecosystem quite considerably.

Since I’ve been playing, two characters have been released: Orisa, the large defence robot and as of a couple days ago, Doomfist; Doomfist is a character steeped in Overwatch lore and has long been teased in everything from posters to having the Doomfist weapon itself as the cargo to be escorted in the Numbani map, so as a fan favourite character already, it was with great anticipation that I attended the design panel at Comic Con. I was excited to learn more about the character but was pleasantly surprised to instead gain tremendous insight into a game I love, the team that makes it, and the tremendous amount of thought and care that go into ensuring that Overwatch remains a narratively rich game, despite not featuring a narrative in-game.

What follows is a deep-dive into the panel and the design process of Overwatch, both for Doomfist as a character and the game as a whole; it’s hella nerdy. You’ve been warned.

Designing Doomfist

Doomfist, as a name, has been around since the game’s inception, with the designers admitting that picking the line-up was like a fantasy draft: they had so many good ideas that they had to cut a bunch in order to pick which ones to start with and what kind of balance the game needed. Nevertheless, the characters who didn’t make the cut ended up in the lore, with Doomfist appearing in silhouette in an early video, reflected off a screen, which gave the team a base-line for what the eventual character would look like (other than a guy with a giant fist, which was pretty well guaranteed). From there, it still took a year before a final Doomfist concept landed (leading to tonnes of speculation from fans about who would play Doomfist and when the character would drop – Terry Crews campaigned pretty hard to voice him, which would have been rad).

The actual building of the character begins with creating a body form: well this seems obvious from a character perspective, it actually serves a more important purpose in-game of figuring out the ‘hit box’ for the character, i.e. where on the character weapons will hit when fired. This is vital both for the player (since this is a first-person-shooter), and for opponents, who will be trying to target specific parts of the body (like headshots) to increase damage. Doomfist is a big figure, meaning he’s easy to hit; the payoff being he can also be super powerful (or have a tonne of health, as described below).

Next, the team begins to examine the mechanics of what the character can and can’t do: with Doomfist, the initial choice is obvious: Doomfist has a giant fist. So, in game mechanics, what do you do with that, other than just punching stuff? The first option the team explored, to tremendous loving applause and laughter, was that Doomfist could grab and hold characters, using them as human shields and throwing them off maps. This is all kinds of exciting and different, but would be a drastic departure from the main characters and immediately raises new questions: what do the captured characters do while held? How long is the hold? Can other powers disrupt the hold? Melee character Reinhardt already poses many of these questions as does Genji, both of whom have interesting challenges in a game primarily focused on ranged combat.

The hold mechanic was also problematic from a narrative perspective: as one of the designers pointed out, he’s Doomfist, not Doom Luchadore. And so, they shifted the focus to Doomfist a fist-fighter. Interestingly, they turned to fighting games for inspiration, setting Doomfist’s moves as you would in a game like Street Fighter: a ranged, sliding punch, a jumping slam, and an upper cut. In the early build for testing, the designers mashed up Farah’s flak cannon with Reinhardt’s fist; but they had to find the sweet spot for range for the gun – not too close or two far. The result is a splash damage ‘hand cannon’, with each knuckle firing a shot from the left hand, with the Doomfist cocked in the right (interestingly, this is actually problematic in-game, as firing the left fist is done from the right trigger and the fist is from the left trigger). The development of that gun, visually, was also fascinating: as seen in the image below, they cycled through several versions, such as a gauntlet, a mounted pistol, an Iron Man-esque hand blast, before finally settling on the knuckle gun, which visually makes the most sense for the character.

Next, the voice director records some sample lines: this serves both as an important way to shape the character and to signal what is coming (Doomfist announces his powers like a Dragonball Z character: “RISING UPPERCUT!”). I think all the fans in the room would happily pay for a track of those early lines…

For the Doomfist itself, they looked at punching the air and sending a ghost fist forward, but it looked dumb, which sadly can kill player interest in a character. So, they settled on a charge-up punch, that also propels the character forward, giving some range to the attack, without the need for ghosts.

With this in place, the character is then set loose in “Dylan’s Playground,” named for the head developer, where the team can test the new powers and animations essentially by repeatedly punching Tracer (so satisfying) and blowing up all the objects in the environment. The team describes it as a Department Store of every asset in the game, allowing them a deeper understanding of what, for example, Doomfist punching his way through a fully-loaded room looks like (spoiler alert: it looks awesome).

The last step is a scale check: Doomfist is a little shorter than Reinhardt, but is a large, bulky character so the initial thought was to make him a tank (tanks are large characters that can take a tonne of damage but can’t deal as much), however that required de-powering the Doomfist itself. Namely, if the Doomfist is a devastatingly powerful weapon, having a hulking, unkillable tank wield it would completely wreck the balance of the game. So, the team took a refreshingly novel approach: a tank-sized striker. Doomfist is capable of causing tremendous damage, but also dies very easily (this is as promised; I’ve melted him in matches with a few sustained hits).

The team had never made a buff character before, so they did a lot of anatomical research (“My screen was interesting for a few days…” the character designer said, blushing). Once they’ve settled this, they sculpt the 3D model, and then paint over the shape to add texture. From there, they adjust the look to fit the Overwatch aesthetic; they want the characters to look like someone you know, but through an Overwatch lens.

When every detail from the macro (the fist has to be shiny, because he’s vain and needs to be able to see himself in it) to the micro (every gear in his fist lines up, “You’re welcome, cosplayers,” one of the designers quipped), the base design of the character is complete. The next step is refining the mechanics.

Mechanics

With the visual and size complete, next comes the mechanical fine-tuning. This can range from visual tips for the player (his knuckles, which operate as the barrels of his hand cannon are a different colour than his thumb, so as not to trick players into assuming they have an extra shot), to clues to opponents as to what is coming (such as Doomfist declaring his power active, or the fist itself glowing as it charges, to signal the attack is coming). Sound is vital to the game design in a way that I as player had never really clocked aside from broad strokes – but this close focus drew my attention to how much I rely on Overwatch’s sound design to understand my surroundings and the action. The initial fist charging sound, for instance, wasn’t distinct enough from other noises in-game and thus had to be altered.

Visual clues are also important for a character like Doomfist, as the added mobility of his leap attack and charged fist can often have him disappearing from player sight. The solution, as with Tracer, is to have an energy trail that indicates direction to the opponent. While these visual flourishes may seem merely cosmetic, they are vital for helping a player track speedy characters and a lot of thought goes into everything from the colour to the width of these trails. For instance, the team had initially planned to have Doomfist, a clear villain character, wrapped in red lightning during his attacks, however this was abandoned in light of the fact that the opposing team is always red (you’re always blue, as the player) and this effect would interfere with seeing enemy names as easily. Thus the lightning became blue and red was banned (except, the panel quipped, for Torbjorn, whose costume snuck by before the ban was instituted).

Story

With the mechanics and look finalized, the team turns to story; while Doomfist as concept has haunted the game’s lore forever, they now wanted to flesh it out with details that synch with the look and feel of the character. They admitted that based on the fan reaction, they began teasing Doomfist prematurely building to the most blatant which was the stealing of the Doomfist from the Numbani escort car and the newly destroyed Orisa unit that defended it, punched into a wall (indeed, Orisa’s story is heavily tied up in Doomfist’s, making her reveal before his puzzling to many fans). The goal, the developers said, was to have each map tie heavily into a character; ironically, Doomfist had his level before the character was released. In the end, the double release of Orisa and Doomfist works nicely, as Orisa exists to counter him and visa versa – to the point that Doomfist has cosmetic sprays of their battles. The choice was also made to have had Doomfist defeated by an enraged Winston, as shown in the excellent 2D animated film released to coincide with the characters’ release (the ravenous applause to mention of this, their first 2D film, brought smiles to the developers’ faces and might mean more in future).

But the most important narrative influence Doomfist is already having is to further flesh out the evil Talon Organization; we’ve known for some time that Reaper, Sombra, and Widowmaker all work for Talon, but little information has been available about their goals or structure, but as the game community continues to clamour for narrative, Doomfist as the leader of Talon begins to set a course for Overwatch’s future: in the comic they gave us, Masquerade, we see Doomfist re-seize control of Talon and promise to set off a new war between the humans and Omnics (robots), which is our first real indicator of where the overarching story is going.

For a game that is purely multiplayer, narrative advancement would seem secondary, but the richness of the characters demands close attention and, as evidenced by the overwhelming number of cosplayers, is a need the fans are loudly declaring. Doomfist and his part in the story are a step in the right direction for Overwatch, as was the Uprising event earlier this year. It will be interesting to see what else is coming for the game’s lore.

Playing Doomfist

Full disclosure: I suck as Doomfist. There’s a phenomenon whenever any new character drops that every match is a rush to see who can claim them first (only one player per team is allowed to play a character in most Overwatch games). This means that a) not only is it difficult to get them but b) you feel pressure to be REALLY GOOD with them (which is, of course, illogical, since they are a new character…) My only game with Doomfist so far, I found myself constantly panicking and hitting the wrong button, as his fists are the inverse of their controls (right trigger fires left hand, left trigger punches with his right). The four shot weapon is also the smallest in the game and forces you to rethink your mindless shooting (I lay down a lot of cover fire, usually). He is also damn squishy. When you get hit, you GET HIT as Doomfist; he generates temporary shields a lot, but if you’re under fire, you’re pretty well done. I really like this, despite the learning curve, because it forces you to hit and run – you can commit to an action, but then you’re really committed, as opposed to some other characters who can take enough hits or are mobile enough to escape if needed. I noticed this playing against him as well, which is very satisfying: he deals huge damage, but he goes down fast – a real departure from the big, hearty, but weak hitting Reinhardt. His play-style also fits the narrative of the criminal mastermind: Doomfist lurks around corners, hits you once, then runs behind his compatriots, leaving them to take the damage as he plans his next move. It would have been damn easy to make him a bruiser, but as Masquerade proves, Doomfist is being positioned as a much more clever character than his stature would suggest. Yet another example of Blizzard messing with player expectation, as they continue to build one of the most diverse line-ups in gaming (in everything from race, to gender, to body-type).

How Doomfist ultimately fits into game strategy has yet to be seen, but I have a much greater appreciation now for WHY Overwatch is so good. It’s an incredibly dedicated team (who are clearly fans themselves) who take into account minute details that I hadn’t bothered to consider, and most importantly to a story nut like me, integrate narrative and lore into all facets of their character development.

It’s neat to see a peak behind the curtain at one of your favourite pastimes and this is one of the great unsung joys of Comic Con: you get to put in some face-time with people you didn’t even know you admired and come to better understand what you’re playing, reading, or watching.

And while that’s worth the price of the ticket alone, sometimes you get a giant foam fist too.

Life’s funny that way.

[Special post-script shout-out to the trumpet playing fan who played the panel out to the epic Overwatch theme. Whoever you are, wherever you are, it was a perfect fan moment. You’re awesome.]

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