La Ville Lumiere: How Blizzard’s Overwatch Team Built Paris

Arriving on the massive, 28 building strong Blizzard Irvine campus, I’m instantly struck by how much it feels like a theme park. Overwatch PR’s Steven Khoo tells me that they had to get permission from the mayor to build this gated community of developers, librarians, writers and other talented creative staff.

In the main quad, there’s a giant Orc statue surrounded by Blizzard’s core values, like “Play Nice, Play Fair” and “Gameplay First.” At lunchtime, hordes of puppies tumble around on the grass as the cafe serves Blizzard-themed Starbucks and Louisiana Hot Links. The Zerg Rush Frappuccino oozes with a lucid green matcha drizzle.

As I’m toured around the various halls, which include archives, museums, library’s with games and books to borrow, MMA classrooms, AR exhibits and giant statues of Illidan, Tracer and the like, I start to realise how surreal Blizzard’s home base really is. It’s a playground of imagination, a momentous landmark of passion that is difficult to parse in the short few hours I’m given access to it.

You could totally live here if you wanted to, and I imagine some fans would, given the chance. In that sense, I’m also taken by how difficult it must be to leave. In the wake of my visit, a devastating blow struck the company as more than 800 of these passionate people were laid off. Off in the distance, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick reported “record results” for 2018 in an earnings call with investors.

I see families with children giggling and conversing with each other, and groups of developers sitting around tables talking about their work. They talk like lifelong friends. A couple of them look naturally nervous at the sight of the camera one of my press colleagues is holding, but it really does feel like business as usual, despite the melancholy in the air.

I empathise with how difficult it must be to talk to the press at a time like this, when their friends lives are turned upside down. I chose not to ask any questions about the layoffs during my three interviews.

Aside from the fact that I was briefed by Blizzard PR about it, and got the impression that any reply would be a no comment, I realise that I’d only be rubbing salt in the wound. It’s a difficult time for the workers here, and reflecting on it, I really didn’t want to make it any worse. I think we can all imagine exactly how they feel about it, and collecting those emotions to reverberate what we already know feels pointless.

Yet, I’m not here to read the room any longer, as I’m whisked away to talk to the Overwatch team about Paris, the new map currently in testing on the PTR. Paris is coming to the game very soon, and it’s one of the developers best efforts. An authentic homage to La Ville Lumiere, players are pushed from a cabaret to an art gallery, with the Eiffel Tower crowding their eyeline across the Seine.

To best understand where this map came from, and the provenance of some of its most interesting design decisions, I first sat down with Sound Design Supervisor Paul Lackey. I step into a room with wonderful acoustics and meet a charming man who adorns his workspace with global musical trinkets and what looks to be a trusty old guitar.

Lackey tells me that they have six people working on sound on Overwatch and an audio programmer. Lackey was crucial in the creation of the map’s ambience, which is one of its serious highlights. You hear the iconic sirens and church bells as well as people talking over the hum of a bustling city. It’s beautiful and authentic, especially when you really lend an ear to it. Lackey shows me the gritty side of this, from the air tone to the more developed layers of the ambience. It took 889 sounds to recreate Paris, so it was a massive endeavour that has produced something beautiful.

“You know, we could have searched sound effects libraries to find things with French voices in it, but it's so hard to take sounds that don’t really fit and try to make it fit. Also, out of authenticity and respect for our players in that region, you don’t want to put in church bells that aren’t Notre Dame, you know?” explains Lackey.

This led to a lot of communication between the Blizzard Irvine campus and the Versailles office. Versailles hired a field recordist to capture sounds from rooftops, cafes and open markets as well as outside of landmarks like The Louvre to really pinpoint the Parisian soundscape that works so well in this map. Blizzard did the same for the Busan map, where they had a similar working relationship with the Seoul office.

Outside of Paris, most other maps and their respective ambience come from Lackey and his sound team's bank of travel recordings from their vacations and visits away. This means that in maps like Dorado, some of the sounds you hear are from Lackey’s personal collection, rather than being fully fabricated for the game.

It doesn't take long until we’re talking about the fully working piano prop that has made Paris such a viral hit, with covers of songs across the board from Ariana Grande to the Super Mario Bros. theme.

“Right away, we noticed that the tech art team had made the keys articulate. We didn’t expect the keys could move, so I went up and hit it and (gasp) we were like we can’t… not put notes on it,” Lackey exclaims.

“I’m hoping to see people team up, get six players and start doing chords together!”

Luna, the Omnic cabaret singer who delights players in the spawn room also got some lip service. Lackey tells me that getting this right was another global effort: “our writers here wrote poems, and then that was sent to the (Blizzard) Versailles office, who translated it and found somebody to sing.”

The result is a spellbinding performance evocative of Twin Peaks and Kentucky Route Zero. It’s above and beyond, especially for the spawn room. In the future, Lackey and the sound team have prepared Luna so that she can be adapted to react naturally to the players in the spawn room, like greeting Widowmaker before breaking into song. “The hooks are all there, it’s just a matter of catching up with the voice talent.”

We then got talking about the tonal difficulties of a game like Overwatch. In having to portray an ancient city like Paris and balancing that with the sci-fi sensibilities of the Overwatch lore. Lackey tells me that the sound design philosophy is often “future, but familiar,” in that they represent the future but are rooted in the past.

“We try to take the more aspirational aspects of our locations. These are places you’d want to hang out in if you weren’t being shot at.” Lackey tells me that he often is working on a map and will tab out to check emails or something, and if the ambience is still playing and you don’t notice, that is the telltale sign of a good ambience, something that has happened often with the sound team on Paris.

After a mishap with the phone system (hilariously, Lackey’s call tone is the High Noon sound effect) he talks about a visit to Paris in his youth that he still has a mental reference for. I ask him if it's difficult to deal with the fact that Overwatch maps have to be empty besides the players, so a big part of the workload is masking and chopping up the ambience, pushing it outside of earshot so players get the impression people are just out of reach of the battle.

“It’s a living city but all of the activity is just out of view. So it takes a far amount of massaging the assets that we get. We have to EQ it, put reverbs on it to make it sound more distant.

Lackey’s favourite part of the map is the courtyard by the Seine, as well as the narrow corridors, as you can hear more of the Versailles recordings because everything is close together.

Prior to Overwatch, Lackey worked on the Medal of Honor games and delights in the challenge of working on a game with a more vibrant and varied world. “It’s a more aspirational future. I really had to retool my palate to add colour!”

To round off, Lackey tells me the most crucial elements of sound design in a first person shooter. “The gun has to feel present so it feels close to you. The other thing that’s kinda subtle is when I shoot a rocket or something no matter how far away it is I wanna hear it hit, as that’s what connects me to the world. You have to supply the relevant gameplay information so it doesn’t feel cheap when you die.”

Moving on from Sound Design, I headed across campus to a more standard meeting room, where I was met by Lead Environment Artist Dion Rogers and Overwatch Lead Writer Michael Chu. From the offset, you could tell Michael and Dion were heavily passionate about everything they do.

I asked them about an Easter egg that involves a football, which obscures two stars hidden on the wall behind it, an obvious homage to France’s 2018 World Cup win. The duo explain that this came from somebody on the team  just throwing the idea out there, which painted a great picture of the design philosophy behind map creation in Overwatch.

As I roll through my next question Chu pauses for thought and interjects: “I’m like wait, is that dark, like are we saying that France won’t win the World Cup again?” which sends the room into fits of laughter.

In regards to where Paris came from, Chu tells me that it was always something the Overwatch team were considering:

“Whenever we’re going to make a new map we bring out this list and every time we write down all the places in the world we want to make a map, and our joke when we do these things is we end up picking something that is totally not on the list!”

“However, Paris has been at the top of the list forever, so we were all really excited to make it.”

In regards to the map lore, Paris is a stage for civil unrest in the Omnic crisis, and is clearly a flashpoint for revolution, given away by the graffiti on the walls.

According to Michael, the Omnics have a bit more freedom in Paris: “Kings Row is definitely one of the places where the Omnics and the humans don't get along well. Omnics are more accepted in France in the Overwatch universe, but there are still some issues they’re trying to work out. In London they have an underworld but in Paris they’re mostly accepted, just not quite.”

He notes that the Cabaret would be a place where tourists come, but there’s also “a smoky booth where Omnics are plotting for revolution.”

However, it became clear that the main focus of Paris was not revolution. “We want every map to have this core identity and theme, and actually for Paris it was art,” Chu explains. “We took Art Nouveau and used it to build the bones of this city. Even down to the street art and stuff. We wanted to capture that revolutionary spirit of Paris. It’s this feeling of everything is happening, being vibrant and alive.”

Rogers then explained how they get away from the issue of maps like Paris being devoid of life beyond the warring heroes. “We want to show that the world is lived in. There’s people eating, someone’s left a camera behind. People used to be here, but they took off!”

I make the point that every Overwatch map feels post-apocalyptic, and Chu and Rogers laugh in agreement. “Lately, that’s the thing we’ve been trying to do, put more NPCs into the maps,” Rogers explains. “A lot of work went into Luna to help sell the idea that yeah, there was people around and we want to do that more and more.”

Luna’s cabaret was originally going to be a restaurant, until they were set-dressing the eatery and one of the artists pointed out that it looked like a cabaret. One of the concept artists also has a cat named Luna, which was the inspiration behind the name. The picture Chu and Rogers paint of the creative environment behind this map is inspiring

With the Cabaret, Rogers explains that “You can admire this part instead of just destroying everything. We’re trying to get players for that minute, to give them something to focus on.”

Chu praises Rogers and his team’s work, noting that the aesthetic is so strong that in the cafe, “Even though there isn’t a person standing behind the counter, in your head they’re there.”

I ask them if there is anything players haven’t found yet, and they both make the point that there’s eggs and references in Blizzard World that are still a mystery. According to Chu, the little details are just as important as the big thematic elements and the conventional iconography of a map like Paris.

“I always want to put like tonnes of references into everything, so I enlisted their (the Versailles office) help for this.” It's clear that there are details that may only be clear to French players, which will be a fun challenge for Overwatch fans when the map goes live on the public servers.

As to why they placed the map on the other side of the Seine, with the Eiffel Tower in the distance, Rogers notes that this was influenced by gameplay. “We want players to see things that draw them towards a place, so placing the Eiffel Tower beyond the capture point means that once you learn the map, you know that when you leave the Cabaret, if you line yourself up perfectly you can see the tower and it draws players towards it. As artists we try to just take the game design and make a natural version of that.”

When asked about whether Paris could be a seasonal event map, Rogers and Chu agree that this could be an interesting setting for that kind of thing. It looks the part already with its fine details and iconic journey through La Ville Lumiere.

They mention that the articulate piano was an organic bit of experimentation, and that they just spent a couple hours trying to figure it out before showing it to the rest of the team for quick approval.

After writing and art, I stayed put and was met shortly after by Michael McInerney, Level Designer on Overwatch, responsible from taking maps from start to finish. He blocks out the levels and tests out how each hero works on a map before it goes live.

“I probably spent like a week in Paris in Google Maps just exploring. Paris has kept its identity by establishing guidelines on how the city can expand. I’d never thought about it before but like, where is the modern Paris?…”

McInerney explains that such a place does exist, but it’s off to the side from the Old Town, the real spirit of the city.

“I thought it was kind of sweet that some of that same philosophy transferred over to the map.”

In regards to working on such a narrow map, McInerney tells me that he loves creating intimate spaces after working on WoW for years, as it gives the team space to build the world. "(Paris) is like Chateau's big brother," he explains, in reference to Chateau Guillard, a lore-laden map set in Annecy.Paris has some fairly interesting flanking routes, which McInerney tells me were fun to design. "Having the river run through was a design decision I wanted in there early. We're always representing these small little areas that you can fight in but making the world feel bigger. As a designer we have a few options, It's like I can put a wall up here and say no you can't go here, but since none of the characters in Overwatch can swim, we can put the river there and the map opens up because of that.""Wrecking Ball can swing over the water and show up on to the point. For flanks, any time that I have an open space like that, there's a lot of cool opportunities.

I ask McInerney about how the map feels built for snipers. During my playtest, I was racking up headshots as Widowmaker whilst my teammates were finding success as characters like Hanzo and Ashe. "I can't say that I favour snipers over other characters but I always love thinking of fun snipe spots. It gives the map a little bit more depth," McInerney explains.Everybody I've asked at Blizzard so far has been excited to see what the eSports players do with the map. The dev team get feedback from the pro players on general stuff but it doesn't impact the map design too much. I make the point that the current GOATS meta is a marmite playstyle, and McInerney tells me that it is a consideration when building a map, but it's not something they dwell on too heavily."Think of the map as a way to showcase the heroes and give them a chance to use their abilities in creative ways, but beyond that, the meta control is more down to hero design."McInerney tells me that when he's making a map, the whole team ensures that they playtest with each character to work out of all of the kinks."We have players from Bronze to Grandmaster and we'll get to the end of a match and talk about it," which leads to further gameplay tweaks for certain heroes, especially if they can't make it over some geometry or feel hard done by thanks to the map's design.

McInerney tells me that he blocked off the palace section at the gate to create a Paris Team Deathmatch game mode, which the Blizzard team have had a lot of fun playing, which they want to provide to players as a custom game in the future. McInerney tells me it works due to "the circular design of the palace, and how distinct the areas look," which leads to natural communication between players as they can flag locations quickly to tell their team where enemies are.One of McInerney's favourite things about Paris is the ice sculpture and waiter you can blow up in the palace. I get the impression that McInerney likes blowing stuff up in the maps he creates.  "He came in there from Retribution and he's offering you a drink and… yeah."

As we wrap up, McInerney tells me about his history in games. Before Overwatch, he was wrapped up in the Quake mod scene, later working on 2003 Xbox title Metal Arms (fun fact, Blizzard own this IP) and then Starcraft: Ghost. As for what he took from his work on previous games whilst designing Paris, McInerney tells me that the same design principles from Quake still resonate 20 years later.

“When I joined the team I had a lot of experience with Quake map editors and Half-Life map editors. One of the first things I did was how I would normally make it with Quake in mind and that map turned out to be Chateau,” McInerney explains.

“When I’m thinking about Paris and stuff, there’s a lot of really basic level design rules that come from Quake that can be translated. It was the first foray into 3D shooters so it’s like the grandfather, you know?”

With that, my time on Blizzard campus wraps up, and after some playtesting, I head out for the long drive back to Hollywood, invigorated by the passion of the developers I spoke to.

Paris doesn’t have a set release date right now, but expect it to drop in the near future.

For now, you can playtest it on the PTR ahead of launch if you own the game on PC. Safe travels!

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