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Inside the Birth of the ‘Overwatch’ Workshop

The “Overwatch” fanbase is a vocal one. For players investing hundreds of hours into their favorite hero-based shooter, they need to know their opinions matter to Blizzard. Sometimes fans ask to nerf overly powerful character. Others ask for help with curbing toxic player behavior. But some of the loudest fans in the community are simply bursting at the seams with the things they want to see in “Overwatch.” Enter the Workshop.

The “Overwatch” Workshop is a simple game scripting system that allows players to customize rules, features, and maps in the game to their liking. Players can add rules, special conditions, and edit scripts to integrate or replace established game modes. Rules can change a myriad of aspects of the game, such as a hero’s movement or abilities, text displayed on-screen, or even how much damage is healed when support characters work to patch up their teammates.

It’s a one-stop shop that opens up a nearly limitless supply of customization for players of all skill levels, and it was created as a way to help interface and engage with the most important part of “Overwatch”: its players.

According to lead software engineer Keith Miron and senior gameplay engineer Dan Reed, the Workshop was born of the “Overwatch” dev team’s love for its fans, whose passion for the game echoes throughout every bit of feedback they share with team members every single day.

From there, the pair made the decision to further refine their fledging scripting tool in an effort to give members of the “Overwatch” community a way to bring some of their unique ideas for what the game could be to life.

The initial framework for what would eventually become the Workshop was laid when Dan and Keith had discussed ways to improve the Custom Games option already in place. Following a 2017 “hack-a-thon” that encouraged members of the “Overwatch” team to work their own individual projects, the pair created a tool that simplified the same scripting language they use on a daily basis. It was watered down just enough to become accessible even to players without any real coding knowledge.

When the pair shared it with the rest of the team, it became something that Dan and Keith found had a serious amount of potential. They didn’t continue working on it just yet, however. They shelved it until 2018, until a follow-up hack-a-thon where they continued tinkering with the original project. Following a few successful creations, they made the decision to continue working on it as a more serious endeavor.

“One of the goals was to really make something that would both surprise and make something that was surprising us as developers on ‘Overwatch,’ but also the players,” Miron said. “There’s really no end to the amount of creativity the players have been showing us.”

“The Workshop takes some of the load off of us and lets other people have the fun that we get to have all the time, you know?” said Reed. But instead of taking a stance like “here, you do it” with fans asking for new features in the game, creators like Reed and Miron are saying “hey, let’s do it together.”

“We’re all on one side,” said Miron. “We’re making tools and stuff for them. We’re excited. We’ve been listening to a lot of feedback and address it. In turn, they take the tools we create and use them to make something amazing.”

Having such a vocal community that already cared so much about “Overwatch” only made it simpler for players to completely embrace the new mode. From the Workshop’s earliest days on the Public Test Realm (PTR) for PC players up until its official release, fans tirelessly whittled away on their own pet projects, thrilled with the toolset they had been given to bring their ideas to fruition.

“A community started to spring up very quickly. Some people were highlighted as prolific creators and they were generating a lot of content,” said Miron. “Overwatch” fans across the globe have since created aim trainers, a variety of different practice modes and regular game modes, and even a paint program, as difficult as that may be to believe. One particularly creative individual put together an “Uno” game using the “Overwatch” heroes as decorations.

“Some of the crazier things are the most interesting,” Miron said of the creations generated with the assistance of the Workshop’s scripting language. “There’s one called ‘Play in Traffic,” where there are cars speeding by that will kill you. On the surface, it seems like you just have to dodge cars, but the creator put a lot of thought into it. You cycle through heroes, each with a different ability that changes the way you dodge the cars. For example, you can turn into Zarya and use your shift ability to block hits from cars. Or you could play as Roadhog and hook people into cars to keep  them from making progress.”

The different types of modes players have submitted run the gamut between casual affairs and similarly wild creative variations on regular game modes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, certain heroes come up often in more levels than others due to their unique abilities: Wrecking Ball is useful for racing games, and Roadhog with his hook, as seen in “Play in Traffic.”

And while the “Overwatch” team has given players the freedom to make the modes they want to see, they’ve also inadvertently tackled major obstacles in the way of making the game accessible to all, by way of opening up the floor to creators and fitting them with the knowledge they need to succeed.

“When we were looking at making the Workshop, we were ultimately considering a lot of different parts of how they could change [the game] in regard to modifying the way that heroes play,” said Miron. “Players may want to make some heroes easier for a variety of reasons, or make the game less complex and change the rules to be more in line with how they want to play. Mostly, what we really wanted to do was give them as many tools as we possibly could. [Making the game more accessible] is certainly one of the things they could apply those tools toward.”

“There was almost a group of people that wanted to create something, but had nowhere to realize it,” said Miron. “There are people making mods and other concepts, thinking ‘Hey, wouldn’t this be great? I would love to see this idea in ‘Overwatch.’ Now they have a place to do that.”

Miron and Reed are also enthusiastic about the scripting tool potentially inspiring young STEM students, given its relationship to the “Overwatch” team’s actual coding language.

“We definitely talked about it. We thought it could be a very hardcore tool. It would be great if people adopted it and used it to learn, as a gateway to see that ‘hey, this is actually pretty fun.'” To that end, the team added several presets in the custom game system where players can slowly begin learning the tool.

“We made tutorials. Hopefully, they’re the sort of things where people of all ages can get into it and learn about it,” said Reed.

As far as the Workshop’s future? The team is already brainstorming additions that they’re confident fans will love – tempered, as always, by community feedback.

“We don’t have any specific things to announce at this point, but we’re trying to listen to players, see what they want, and respond accordingly,” said Miron. “We’ll continue to improve and adjust the Workshop. We want it to go hand in hand with the community. We have some of our own plans, but we’re also listening to players and obviously, we recognize some of the things that they’d love to see in the game. So we’re very aware of the comments and desires that people have.”

“We’re still learning every day about how to actually do things in the Workshop too,” said Reed. “There are so many different ways to use it that we can’t possibly know everything you could potentially make. I’d love to be one of the guys that learns from community members, like ‘I didn’t know that you could do it that way.’ That’s really exciting for me.”

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