Jussi Jääskeläinen

A Brief History of Overwatch

A short article on the history of Overwatch development, posted on TeamLiquid.net

A Brief history of overwatch

After years of speculation, hype, and rumors, and following a lengthy pre-release period that culminated in a monstrously successful open beta, the release of Overwatch has finally arrived. On May 24th, Blizzard Entertainment unleashed their first new franchise in almost two decades to roaring fan approval and critical success.

With all the smoke from the official launch settling down, now is also the perfect time to take a look back and see how Overwatch came into being. To understand where the game’s blend of team based shooter action comes from, we must first understand two things:

First, there’s a huge success story by a different company entirely, Valve’s Team Fortress 2, a reimagining of a classic mod, and a precursor to the Blizzard title.

Second, there’s one of Blizzard’s biggest failures to date, Titan, the secretive project that eventually gave birth to Overwatch.

When It’s Done: Team Fortress

To say that Team Fortress 2 had a difficult development process would be an understatement. Valve had acquired the rights to Team Fortress all the way back in 1998, releasing Team Fortress Classic for Half-Life in 1999. Bits and pieces of information were released, and the game was originally supposed to come out around the turn of the millennium. There were repeated delays, however, and the project eventually earned a legendary status as vaporware among the shooter fanbase, joining such titles as Prey (eventually released), Duke Nukem Forever (eventually released) and Into the Shadows (never released). Valve’s own Half-Life had been a huge hit, reinvigorating the then stagnant shooter genre, and the company was not content releasing a half-assed product.

After many, many years of waiting, Valve launched Team Fortress 2 in late 2007. Heralded as a sign from the divines, the sequel had originally been envisioned as a realistic team based shooter set in modern times, sharing many similarities with Counter-Strike.

In the end, what was  eventually released turned out to be “the world's #1 war-themed hat simulator”. Released in a world where Halo and a World War II theme had shaped much of the shooter landscape of the early 2000s, TF2 was a callback to the mid-to-late 1990s, back when the myriad first person shooters reigned over the PC landscape as gods. And so, to understand Team Fortress 2, we must understand the game that shaped the competitive multiplayer shooter scene, Quake.

The Rise of the Shooter: Quake

In 1994, id Software was coasting on the success of Doom and its sequel, Doom II: Hell On Earth. After creating the shooter genre pretty much single-handedly, they were hard at work making something new and exciting, and just as groundbreaking as their breakout success. That something came to be called Quake. The pressure was immense, and they had every intention to live up to it.

The company had grand plans to create a massive multiplayer game with persistent worlds and characters. Set in a magical world filled with strange monsters and environments, players were promised persistent characters and maps, and the core of the game was supposed to revolve around an innovative MMO component. For neither the first nor the last time,, promise and expectation did not live up to reality.

In the end, what was delivered in 1996 was more akin to Doom within a proper 3D engine than what would now be considered an MMO. Despite not meeting the ambitious plans (and the hype), Quake turned out to be the gold standard for multiplayer action and became the darling of the burgeoning modding scene that had already begun with the earlier Doom.

Hundreds, if not thousands of mods were released, back then still distributed over bulletin board systems and online forums. One of these mods was Team Fortress, bringing with it objective based maps and different classes. The mod went through many various iterations before settling on the nine classes. Team Fortress grew to immense popularity, with plenty of competitive clan matches, eventually leading to developer Valve buying the rights to the game.

Most importantly, Quake and its mods helped to pave the way for competitive multiplayer gaming. Team Fortress was among the first games of its kind, competitive online multiplayer shooter with different classes, and gameplay based around various map objectives. These early mods laid the groundwork for the genre that eventually spawned Overwatch.

History Repeats Itself: Titan

There’s just one last piece to the puzzle that is Overwatch: namely, Blizzard’s hit MMO and its legacy.

Of course, World of Warcraft was one of the biggest games ever. It was more than just a game, it was an entire cultural phenomenon. With tens of millions of subscribers at its peak, publishers were hungry for this new market. Many companies tried to topple the juggernaut that was World of Warcraft, but it seemed that the only company able to produce the famed WoW killer was Blizzard itself.

Titan was supposed to be exactly that: a newer, better, larger MMO, something even grander than the company’s single biggest hit. But after the success of WoW, the pressure on the company was immense (sound familiar?). While Blizzard remains famously tight-lipped about the project, and since the game was never officially announced, only  bits and pieces are known about the project.

Titan was rumored to be envisioned as a sci-fi MMO set on a future version of Earth, with plenty of player-versus-player shooter action, a huge, ever expanding game world, and an extensive crafting system. Player characters were supposed to have normal day jobs, but at night they would turn to adventuring and fighting.

Like Quake before it, Titan’s development was troubled, and the project kept changing in scope and design. In 2013 the company decided to drastically rework the game, but this turned out to be of no use, and in the end, Titan was officially cancelled mid-2014. It’s widely assumed that Overwatch was salvaged from the ashes (and assets) of Titan; that very same year, at Blizzcon, Blizzard revealed their new franchise to an awestruck audience. The failure of Titan was quickly overshadowed by frenzied anticipation for the promise of that Blizzcon trailer.

And Today: The Resurrection

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of Quake, and the legacy of that title still looms over the shooter scene two decades later. Blizzard’s latest release obviously owes a great deal to the classic shooters, but besides gameplay there are other similarities, too. id’s troubled development of Quake mirrors Valve’s development of Team Fortress 2. Overcoming adversity, and years apart, the two companies nevertheless managed to create games that have stood the test of time, and have shaped their genres in myriad ways.

Both of them, then, mirror Blizzard’s development of Overwatch. What we got in Team Fortress 2 was very different from what was teased back in 1999. What we got in Quake was also very different from what was promised in 1995. Titan went even further, and the entire project was canned, only to be brought back to life as Overwatch. Crucially, Blizzard owned up to their mistakes, and because the project was not really getting off the ground, they decided  to do something drastic.

The gamble has obviously paid off. Overwatch has been an absolutely massive worldwide hit. The amount attention it has garnered has been staggering, and it has managed to use its charms to lure even those who have not been fans of the genre. Merely the sheer number of players means that Overwatch will have a tremendous effect on the genre, and its legacy will live on in the years to come. Not bad for a doomed project.