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Back at GDC 2016, game maker Blizzard held a panel titled “The Elusive Goal: Play By Sound” about their then upcoming video game set to be released later that year. That game, Blizzard’s first new IP in over 17 years, was “Overwatch”.

A lot has happened since this original foray into their new project. That panel got some initial press, but looking back, I think that specific talk still holds the biggest insight as to why Overwatch ultimately succeeded.

Two considerations on that point: first, let’s define that success. This is especially pertinent with the game’s successful one year anniversary, thanks in large part to Blizzard’s big, in-game birthday event.

A year after its release, this team based, first person shooter is absolutely hogging the gaming world’s spotlight. At last count, over 30 million people are registered to play it. Knowing how that compares to other video games is a bit hard to completely judge, given the different sales strategies of popular online games, but here are some references: Bungie’s sci-fi, action RPG “Destiny” landed just north of 30 million accounts created, while today, the popular arcade game “Rocket League” sits comfortably at around 25 million.

Overwatch’s current user base is astonishing for a fully priced title that’s only a single year into its lifespan. It’s a huge hit, one of the biggest the industry has seen in awhile.

Now, the second thing. I’m here to tell you that the single, biggest reason the game continues to financially persevere and has resonated with so many people is mostly owed to one thing: Overwatch’s sound. Yes, seriously. Listen up.


There are two major ways that Overwatch’s design leads through its audio, and by consequence, succeeds at everything else that it does.

The first way is the ingenious means by which sound isn’t just complement, but allows the gameplay to function. No, not through the catchy, bombastic soundtrack, of which I’ll actually mention very little here, but because of the sound effects themselves. Without them and the way they work, the game would be flat out busted.

The first exhibit is this slide from the aforementioned GDC ‘16 talk:


Blizzard, 2016

Speaking on this topic were Blizzard sound designers Scott Lawlor and Tomas Neumann. Here, they explain the ways Blizzard reverse engineered what they needed their game to do by focusing on the audio first.

While many game designers predominantly lean on visual cues combined with basic audio to convey some, if not most of the things on this slide, Lawlor recounts in this talk how Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan cheekily approached him and challenged him by saying, “I want to be able to play the game practically with the monitor turned off.”

Here’s another measure for how good your voice casting is: when your game’s voice actors put up YouTube videos of themselves simply talking to one another, they instantly go viral.

Imagine being at the helm of a multi-million dollar project where the director decided to prioritize, of all things, the audio. While this is not necessarily a typical move, it does come with some relative precedent.

While audio is usually complementary in many games, competitive, online multiplayer titles have always relied heavily on it. This is especially true in 3D arena shooters such as “Quake” and “Counter-Strike”; The approaching sounds of footsteps, the cycling of weapons or the rattling of reloads are often major contributing factors towards living or dying.

But Overwatch was being planned as an eclectic shooter with many types of weaponry, hence that slide above. With those ambitions, the challenge of how to cue a player became, quite frankly, exponential. How can you tell what's even going on?


Director Jeff Kaplan unveiling early concept art for Overwatch at DICE 2017

Lawlor and Neumann explain in great detail how they pulled it off. First, Blizzard blueprinted a prismatic selection of characters that could hardly be any more different than the last. This is odd for a shooter because serious competitive gamers want to ultimately contend with as few variables as possible, not more.

But complicating their game became, ironically, a genius move.

Functionally, diversifying the cast creates a vehicle for the gameplay to vary in fiercely different ways, depending on which superhero you select and which superheroes you are fighting against. More options equals more fun. Do you want to fly? Build a robot? Be a robot? There’s a style waiting on the select screen just for you.

Then, it allowed the team to assign unmistakable audio cues for each and every gameplay variation the game could muster.

When cowboy McCree creeps up behind you wielding his silver pistol, his uncanny boots and spurs guide your reaction in a totally different manner as compared to when the whirring rollerblades of the DJ hero Lucio glide up to you from the side.

Blizzard took this concept a step further. They created a literal audio chart consisting of what they call “buckets”. These buckets assign audio based off of how important they are for the player to know at any given time in a match.

Each character’s audio is emitted to the player based off of their calculated distance, but crucially, also by their preassigned value. Some things are just more important to hear. (If that same character is on your own team however, you will ingeniously only hear their versions of their sounds at a much lower volume, and more importantly, their voice lines are subtly different.)

One more thing to consider: Overwatch is the first video game to take advantage of Dolby Atmos technology, all through the use of headphones. This allows anyone to hear audio in a surround sound fashion, except presented to you in a 360 degree sphere, as opposed to a quadrant. This can be crucial to success.

Check out their talk, starting at 49:46, to see an astounding example of all these things in action, all at once:


(In the span of their whole presentation, the two also discuss other techniques such as obstruction versus occlusion, which I encourage you to dig into for even more cool audio insights.)

The importance of all these sound techniques is not just reserved for impending explosions and footsteps, however. Give anybody an hour with Overwatch and you will have all the material you need to teach a Psych 101 class for a day.

Aptly titled “Pavlovian Response” on their slides, the audio team knew the importance of making repetition the mitigating factor for attacks in order to avoid what otherwise might have just been chaos.

Just heard someone say “It’s High Noon”? If you aren’t immediately dashing behind something by the first syllable, you will by the second hour you’ve played.... and every single time you play from then on. That’s because all major attacks are preempted by a marquee audio cue from their respective character.

While it may seem like harmless fun to unleash an exploding tire or giant dragons onto the playing field, the end result would have just been frustration if players had no means for which to cope with them. As Lawlor says, he wants players to think, “At least I had a chance!” This is precisely why the opposing team hears each of these signature catchphrase only when they unleash of one of these attacks. It’s silly and fun, but it also trains you to watch out.

Today, these audio cues are now among the most frequently quoted lines in video game history. Not bad for a basic gameplay device.

It’s character building and gameplay functionality all in one. It’s two birds with one stone.

___

This touches on the second way that Overwatch endures predominantly through its audio. The game features out-of-the-park voice acting. Its cast is truly, genuinely captivating.


The voice cast of Overwatch

Back when Blizzard delivered their speech on audio to game developers (then again to fans at Blizz-Con), all of these characters existed mostly in the abstract. Every character needed to be explained, as nobody yet knew who any of these cartoons were.

Today, that couldn’t be further from the case. Now with Overwatch’s success where it is, you can make a solid case that Blizzard are the best in the industry when it comes to voice overs. (Look no further than Blizzard’s popular card game, Hearthstone, which features spot on voice work for every single one of its hundreds of cards.)

Overwatch’s cast is so good, in fact, you’d think they had all been assembled from previously beloved franchises. Learning the game feels like interacting with a greatest hits album of songs you’ve never heard before.

Put another way, Blizzard has produced their own version of Nintendo’s mascot heavy “Super Smash Bros.”, minus the over three decades of built in advertising - yet somehow just as effective.

Here’s another measure for how good your voice casting is: when your game’s voice actors put up YouTube videos of themselves simply talking to one another, they instantly go viral.

This one of Jonny Cruz, the voice actor for hero Lucio, wandering around BlizzCon talking to other character actors is among the most popular:

Here’s one of Sombra hanging out with Widowmaker in Paris. Here’s another of the actors dancing like their characters. I especially love this one of McCree and Winston talking to unsuspecting players through Overwatch’s voice chat. People cannot get enough.

This is not a given that people will resonate with your cast. One of the very best games of this year, and perhaps one of the greatest game releases of all time, succeeds very much in spite of its voice overs.

Don’t rest on Blizzard’s accomplishment. With dull or generic voices, where would Overwatch be today?


It’s easy to take for granted a year out from its release, but it’s really important to consider that few other titles have ever really attempted this level of designed mayhem. Expect more developers to glean their tricks.

Gameplay audio was a mostly static, straightforward enterprise in the times of early shooter from the 1990s. Game maker Valve reinforced the importance of footstep cues in Counter-Strike, but in it, and many other games to this day, combatants appear predominately similar in scope to one another, making each conveyable threat land on a much smaller spectrum. And there were hardly voice overs. Voices appear in “Team Fortress 2”, the title to which Overwatch owes a considerable deal, but that game features very few of these next-generation sound techniques.


Team Fortress 2, 2007

Maybe its closest (modern-day) cohort is ironically the vocally muted “Splatoon” from Nintendo, which accomplishes some remarkable audio feats in its own right. But even the frenetic sloshings of Splatoon doesn’t carry with it quite as much responsibility to the player as the audio of Overwatch does.

Overwatch is an impressive experiment that has many unique needs. These needs are met not just with great art design, great map making or smart marketing flair, all of which the game has in spades, but stealthly, the game functions so well and has impacted so many gamers mostly because of just how it sounds.


Alan is a feature writer who has contributed to Kotaku, Polygon, Nintendo Life and other gaming sites. He has a background in the psychology of creativity, professional Smash Bros. and over 20 years of gaming behind him. He gets yelled at daily for picking Hanzo in Overwatch.

Twitter: twitter.com/AlanWritesStuff