Blizzard worked hard to make you fall in love with Tracer, Zarya, and the rest of the Overwatch roster even before releasing the game, and that was part of the publisher’s plan.
Overwatch is an online shooter with very little overt narrative or plot that players engage with during gameplay, but its cast of characters have already inspired fandom and communities. Blizzard, which is best known for the massively multiplayer online role-playing adventure World of Warcraft, specifically wanted to draw people into its newest world. But, as Blizzard operations executive vice president Gio Hunt explained in a chat on stage at GamesBeat 2016 in Rancho Palos Verdes earlier this week, the company hasn’t made something like Overwatch before. That led to the team responsible for making and marketing the team-based action game to take a different approach than with some other Blizzard launches.
“We hadn’t had a shooter before, so we thought about that a lot,” said Hunt. “We launched it globally on Windows PC and both major consoles at the same time, which was also a new thing for us. Thinking about it being the console and shooter audience, these were parts of the gaming audience we hadn’t traditionally served.”
To broaden Blizzard’s reach while still appealing to its core group of fans, the company tried two new key things prior to Overwatch’s April launch.
“We did a very large open beta across both PC and both major console devices globally,” said Hunt. “In all regions, if you had a PC, Xbox One, or PlayStation 4, you were able to play Overwatch for the better half of a week for free. And we really pushed to create a lot of buzz and awareness around that event because we knew we had a game that is awesome.”
Because of Blizzard’s confidence, it was expecting players to share their excitement about Overwatch with their friends. The plan was that the open beta would spark a world-of-mouth fire that would then burn on its own.
“That turned out to be a very successful way to create awareness about the game,” said Hunt. “That is especially true for awareness outside the core Blizzard community. We had just shy of 10 million people participate in that beta.”
But once the publisher had that buzz going after the end of the beta, it also gave people something to share with their friends in the form of backstory videos that show off the world, characters, and style of Overwatch. These animated shorts feature high-quality art and an irresistible energy, and they come in bite-size chunks that are great for passing around on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere.
“The more traditional publishing model is that you put all of the videos and all of the content and all of the backstory into the box that you then sell,” said Hunt. “We took a very different approach. All of that stuff was handed out to the public and promoted.”
These started coming out months before the release, and it helped generate that early connection between the players and the characters.
“As a result, the community engaged with that content, and they started to learn and appreciate it,” said Hunt. “And, in fact, they even started to contribute to the IP with fan art and talking about it in forums like Reddit.”