How Wrecking Ball went from junkyard magnet to mech-driving hamster – an Overwatch ‘Making Of’

By Kirk McKeand, Monday, 23 July 2018 10:11 GMT

Overwatch’s roster is a bizarre band of misfits. Instead of playing as your typical shooter protagonist, here you can become a cyborg ninja, a scientist gorilla, and a teleporting goth. But one question has always been at the forefront of the minds of those creating the game: how far can we push it?

During the early stages of development, there were concepts for all kinds of odd characters. One of the strangest that never made it into the game was Jetpack Cat, a jet-powered feline with a gun and a grudge. The latest addition to the roster, Wrecking Ball, is the closest we’ve come to topping that shelved idea.

A round mech piloted by a hamster called Hammond, Wrecking Ball is a tank hero who’s capable of rolling around the map, grappling onto walls, and using that momentum to smash enemies to pieces. For players, it seemed like he came out of nowhere, but the truth is he’s been there all along.

“From the very beginning of Overwatch, Arnold Tsang, our art director, would just draw all kinds of stuff,” lead designer Geoff Goodman remembers. “We didn’t know what the bounds of the IP were. We knew we wanted Winston at that time, but we weren’t sure if that was the far end.

“One of the things he drew was a whole slew of robots. One was this round ball robot – it didn’t even involve a hamster at the time. We were doing a lot of paper design but we didn’t actually implement anything. I remember thinking that round guy was pretty cool, so we came up with a rough paper design for a robot that could turn into a ball and roll around.”

Back then, Wrecking Ball was just an idea sketched on paper, and that rough design painted a very different picture to how he is today. Not only was the robot not piloted by the hamster, Wrecking Ball was originally a junkyard magnet. One of the planned abilities allowed him to pull projectiles into himself, tanking damage for his team before spitting them all back out at his attackers.

“That was on the paper design so we never really made it,” Goodman explains. “We didn’t even begin prototyping it – it was one of the things that got shelved right away.”

Nobody thought about Wrecking Ball for a long time after that. That is until Blizzard started thinking about creating a new cute character for the roster. There was a little girl with a jetpack, and even a tiny robot monkey that didn’t make the cut. “Then, at one point, Arnold just sent this email around like, ‘Hey, here’s another idea for that ball – a mech with a hamster in it!’,” Goodman remembers.

“It totally took us by surprise. It wasn’t this long, slow iteration period, it was just like, ‘What? Where did this come from?’ I remember Jeff Kaplan was like, ‘Oh my god, yes – we’re doing this’.”

Internally, the idea was a bit polarising. Some of the developers thought the design for Wrecking Ball pushed past the bounds of the world, beyond the scientist gorilla that had previously been the high water mark for the more daring designs.

“There were some people who were like, ‘This might be too far, I don’t know about this one’,” Goodman says. “But most of us loved it right away. We started thinking about the roller ball and we married the two designs, but even then it got shelved for a little bit. We just weren’t ready to make it.”

So Wrecking Ball was sent back to the scrapyard once again, only resurfacing once Blizzard realised the next Overwatch hero should be a tank.

“The core of the character was the whole idea of this ball – could we even have a character who could turn into a ball and [use] physics [to get] around the level, going up and down ramps in interesting ways, and bouncing off the walls?” Goodman recalls. “Do our levels even support that?

“When we originally started, he didn’t even have the grappling claw – he was just a mech hamster who turned into a ball. He had this whole momentum thing going on where if you could build up enough speed through any means, you could crash into people. He has this thing where he can go faster down ramps and that’s what helps make the physics feel to him, unlike other characters who run at the same speed when they go down ramps.”

Wrecking Ball being able to build up deadly speed by any means was shelved once the developer started playtesting and realised it essentially turned on friendly fire for the enemy team, however.

“You’d be playing and the enemy Pharah would knock you back and you’d be going super fast because you were going through the air fast and you would smash into her ally and knock them down,” Goodman explains. “We were like, ‘That was unintended, we probably shouldn’t trigger this by just going fast via any means’. Once we got the grapple claw in there, it changed everything.”

The grappling hook was a big turning point for the character. Not only was it an elegant way to allow the player to build up speed, it also fit so well with the character’s design, name, and even his backstory. Blizzard just needed to figure out how to implement the pendulum physics, and he’d be set.

In Overwatch, each client runs its own physics simulation. If we were playing together and I killed the enemy Reinhardt in front of you, his ragdoll might go flying in a different direction on your screen because it’s all calculated locally.

“We don’t run a lot of server side physics – it can be very expensive to do that,” Goodman says. “At the beginning we were like, ‘How are we going to do this? Are we actually going to start running all our physics on the server or is it going to be a little slice for him?’ Luckily, we got 90% of what we wanted by modifying our current movement, but there was a time when we were experimenting with putting full physics in.”

One of Blizzard’s physics engineers even had a working prototype for running the physics simulation on the server side. It wasn’t used, but Goodman says it has opened up a window to an experimental path Blizzard could mess around with in the future.

“That was one of the biggest things on the tech side, figuring out what we needed and how we can get away with it,” Goodman remembers. “You can see where it gets complicated on the server side, keeping track of cooldowns and everything like that. It’s like, ‘Now you have to keep track of this shard of wood flying through the air’. Maybe not.”

Outside of the technical issues, the biggest hurdle to locking down Wrecking Ball’s design was getting his reactive shield to work well. It might seem like one of the more simple things to implement, but Blizzard got stuck on it for some time.

“We knew we wanted a big, defensive, tanky button you could push,” Goodman says. “We’d been trying to develop this cool movement system, knocking into people, but eventually he’s gotta actually survive and tank for your team. Even though it seems like a simple ability, we were trying a lot of different things to put into that slot. We knew we wanted it to be something that popped you out of the mech because we didn’t want you to roll into people and hit this button while you were still a ball. We wanted to have it so you could roll around, do your thing, then settle.”

Early on, one revision of the ability was internally called Shield Mode – it was essentially Symmetra turrets that beamed shield onto Wrecking Ball. He could toss four out and they provided him with a lot of shield, but enemies could shoot them out. Of course, Wrecking Ball could pop them down in places that made them difficult to hit.

“It was pretty interesting and cool, but it ended up being a little over complicated and sometimes they would fall off a cliff,” Goodman explains. “It ended up being inconsistent so we backtracked a bit. Then we settled on the idea that he was going to be a character that was powerful in a situation where enemies are really clumped together – if you think about a lot of his abilities, that’s how they work now. You land on as many people as possible, it pulls them in together, and that led to us scaling up his defense based on how many people are clumped together, so if you manage to get five or six enemies together you’re nearly invincible.”

Before he was given mines to lock down an area with his ultimate, Wrecking Ball had an ability called Slam. Slam popped you into the air before slamming down, causing AoE damage before suspending the enemies in the air. It kept them there for five seconds, and they could still fire off their abilities but they were like clay pigeons for your team. Once the grappling hook was implemented, allowing you to get into the air whenever you wanted, Slam made less sense as an ultimate and was reborn as a normal ability called Piledriver.

With some of the new heroes, Blizzard creates them as a response to the meta. With Brigette, for example, the developer wanted to add in a healer who could look after themselves in a fight. “In a healer role with her, you’d love to be able to protect yourself and have some counter to Tracer and Genji who are always harassing you, Goodman says. “In her regard it was a little more of a response, but Wrecking Ball isn’t – he’s just a character we really wanted to make.”

Since he wasn’t designed to combat something specific, it will be interesting to see how he shakes things up when he releases this week. How will he impact the meta? Will we see him being picked by professionals? Will he give birth to new, weird, three tank team compositions? Blizzard isn’t sure, but all signs are pointing to one thing – he’s coming in like a Wrecking Ball.

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