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The Overwatch 2 engineering team takes us through environment states in Overwatch 2 and how the scenarios make the game feel different every time you play.
Hi, everyone! My name is Marco Alamia, and I am a software engineer on the Overwatch team. Since we recently finished working on a new piece of technology for Overwatch 2, we thought it would be a great opportunity to give the community a sneak peek of what goes into creating improvements for a game engine. To assist me in this endeavor, I have enlisted the help of two other developers from the Overwatch team: Bruce Wilkie and Fabien Christin.
The new technology we added to the engine is called Environment States, and it has quickly become our favorite workflow for map creation and design. Although the feature is developed and refined inside the Overwatch 2’s engine and tools, the core idea stems from the mind of our talented lighting artist, Fabien. I asked Fabien to help us understand how he came up with the idea that has now reshaped how the team creates maps, and to walk us through his design process.
Let’s dive into Environment States!
Pitching the Idea
Fabien: Overwatch is set in a bright and colorful world, and much of the character of the game is expressed through its maps. The creation of a map starts with the level designers who invent the entire architecture of the place using big grey boxes to produce interesting and balanced gameplay. The most important thing at this stage is to design a map that’s fun to play! After many hours of testing, it is the environment artists’ turn to transform the temporary grey boxes into carefully handcrafted buildings and environmental assets that will give life to the locations players will travel to.
Alongside the environment, we create the lighting that supports the story that the map is telling. For Overwatch 2, we wanted to create interesting new moods that would entirely change the feeling of a location. Imagine travelling to Numbani and seeing the futuristic city illuminated in a warm African sunset, or landing in a rainy Paris, with all the shops glowing with warm golden lights that invite you inside to eat a croissant until the rain stops.
This is exactly what the Environment States were designed to do. With this new system, we have managed to split all the major components of lighting, sound, and effects into self-contained assets that can be combined like building blocks to create what we call Environment Scenarios. We can share them across maps, and we can also have multiple Scenarios on each map.
Let’s take the example of the fast-paced deathmatch map of Necropolis. You’ve probably played it in its night scenario, which marries the contrast of the cold blue colors of the nighttime with the bright orange of the torches lit around the buildings.
But let’s say we want to experiment with a different scenario, and we decide to try the hot desert colors of Temple of Anubis. With the new Environment States system, all we need to do is take the Environment State from the Temple of Anubis and apply it to Necropolis.
This looks great already! However, we can make it look even better by nudging the sun direction to create more interesting shadows. To do that, we create a new Environment State that will only override the sun's direction, and we place this new “block” on top of the one from Temple of Anubis.
Thanks to the flexibility and ease of Environment States, we can prototype new lighting for our maps within a few hours. Being able to iterate quickly allows us to experiment more, be more creative, and produce more variety for all our maps.
But that’s not all. While the previous examples were mostly cosmetic, Environment States can also be mixed dynamically to develop new and exciting gameplay opportunities. Imagine that you are sent on a mission to Necropolis to restore the connection to an Overwatch satellite link, and while defending against a Null Sector attack, a sandstorm quickly approaches the location and rises all around you! We can make your mission a bit more challenging by adding a new sandstorm Environment State on top of the Sunny Scenario, which will slowly increase cloud coverage and sand effect density.
With this new technology we can create all kinds of weather changes, like thunderstorms, snowfalls, and other exciting environmental scenarios to make the game feel different every time you play.
Let’s go back to Marco, now, and see the more technical side of how Environment States work under the hood.
Implementing Environment States
Marco: Fabien’s vision was ambitious, so we had to design a powerful system to achieve what Overwatch 2 needed for its environments. After some brainstorming, we decided to allow for several Environment States to be present all at the same time, ordered neatly in a stack. This stack could change dynamically, so at any given time an Environment State could be added or removed. The magic happens when the engine looks at this stack and blends all the Environment States together to produce the final environment look. If you have ever used Photoshop, it’s the same as having multiple layers blended together to produce a final image.
The idea is that each Environment State can describe some aspect of the environment itself, such as the wind strength and direction or the sun color. When the state is pushed on the stack, only the provided aspects contribute to the result. For example, this is a stack taken from Lucio’s club in Rio, where an Environment State that changes the camera exposure and color grading aspects is pushed on the stack:
The Environment State at the base provides all the aspects for the map, and the one on top overrides the color grading to produce the menacing and creepy atmosphere of the Diablo area. Environment States can be added and removed from the stack dynamically during the game, allowing for more dynamism and making the maps feel livelier and more energetic.
Under the guidance of the art team and Fabien we have identified several key aspects that we want Environment States to be able to define. For example, post-processing was the engine’s first feature converted into an aspect. Post-processing is a common ingredient of all modern engines; it’s used to apply various filters and effects, like controlling the final image’s contrast, brightness and saturation. Adjusting the image contrast and brightness dynamically depending on what’s happening in the game can make the final image incredibly more vivid and dynamic, and this is now possible in Overwatch 2 thanks to the Environment States technology.
The fog aspect is another powerful tool in our new system. By changing its parameters, we can drive the fog look and feel, which in turn allows the art team to make the environment evolve visually based on the game mode, players’ positions, or even time. For example, we could make the map spookier for Halloween, or have the fog become thick only around a specific area of a map, or make a sandstorm build over time in one of our new Hero Missions.
We have several aspects that touch upon other visual properties such as the shadows cast from clouds onto the map, and even nonvisual properties like the strength and direction of the wind. Two of the most important aspects that we can change are the Sun and Sky aspects. As the names suggest, these allow us to change some key features of the Environment, like the sun’s position and color, what clouds we’re using, if any, and whether it’s day or night. As you can imagine, this is a very powerful part of the Environment State system because it allows us to change the look and feel of the map in very dramatic ways.
These two aspects (Sun and Sky) leverage one of the most advanced areas of the engine: the lighting system. Lighting is incredibly important for Overwatch 2 because it helps us set the look, feel, and mood for our environments. However, any change to this system can have memory and performance implications, so we must be very careful with what we permit. Luckily for us, we have a great engineer on our team, Bruce Wilkie, who has extensive experience with lighting systems and can help us create something that looks great while keeping our performance at the high level that a competitive shooter like Overwatch 2 requires.
Bruce: So much work and dedication go into the vibrant, colorful visuals of Overwatch. Every time I play a match in one of our many beautiful maps, I am reminded of just how much attention to detail is given to each lighting environment. Sunlight bounces into rooms, floodlights illuminate ruins, and nighttime festivals come alive with colors–these are just a handful of examples of how lighting plays such an important role in the look and feel of our game. When making the engine for Overwatch, we worked closely with the art team to provide lighting features needed to bring the 2D concept artwork into the 3D world–features like light bouncing off surfaces (often called Global Illumination), metals reflecting the world around them, and moving objects lighting seamlessly with static environments. These features require many calculations, which are often far more CPU-intensive than can be done at the frame rates we wanted the engine to achieve. To allow Overwatch to run at high frame rates and still deliver these advanced lighting features, we compute as much lighting information as we can ahead of time, package up the result, and use that data in the client.
Let’s take a closer look at the data we use in Overwatch to enable some of these lighting features. For things that don’t move, such as walls, floors, and ceilings, we build several pieces of data. The first piece of data tells the engine how much lighting is hitting a surface, and what direction that light is coming from. Generally, this data is called a “lightmap,” and different engines will store different “flavors” of data in lightmaps.
In this image, you can see an example of how lightmaps are generated for the surfaces in a map. On the left is a final composite of all the lighting. In the center, just the charting is rendered on the surfaces. Our artists use this view to make sure enough lighting data will be stored for the surface to achieve the visual result they are looking for. On the right, this is an example of how the engine packs together these lightmaps to minimize the memory they take up.
When we shipped Overwatch, we generated color and direction for all light hitting a surface. We use the direction data to vary the color on bumpy surfaces–the more the surface faces that direction, the more color it receives. For Overwatch 2, we now generate three lighting directions, allowing us to vary each of the color channels (red, green, and blue) independently. The result of the extra directions deepens the vibrancy of the ambient lighting, which in turn increases image quality.
For stationary objects, we generate data that tells the object how much of the surrounding environment is visible. Generally, this data is called ambient occlusion. We started generating this data in several maps after we shipped Overwatch, like Paris and Havana. For Overwatch 2, all maps will be generating this data now, increasing the quality of the visuals.
For things that do move, like characters, we generate many sample positions in the world and encode lighting data for each of them–the same type of data we build for stationary objects. When a moving object comes close to one of these points, the object uses that data to light itself. In Overwatch 2, we are generating many more sample positions–especially in the air–which means that moving objects will look better than ever.
If you watched our BlizzConline panel, you saw a glimpse of maps having multiple different lighting environments. For each environment, we want to share as much data as possible to keep our download and install disk size reasonable. The Environment State technology allows the engine to group together multiple lighting environments for a map, allowing for a large part of the precomputed data mentioned above to be shared between those grouped lighting environments. This brings down the data footprint greatly, which means our players do not have to download and install as much data per variation. Higher quality lighting, more lighting variation, and less data–all thanks to the Environment State feature.
Thanks to Environment States, Overwatch 2 will feel more dynamic while improving the workflow of our artists, enabling them to create a colorful world for you to enjoy. Look forward to immersive, globe-spanning adventures with changing environments and stunning visuals in Overwatch 2!
Here are the key details and the full VoD of the Overwatch 2 Behind the Scenes panel!
Overwatch 2 (source)
Game director Jeff Kaplan and a host of Overwatch team members gave players a look at what the game’s sequel has in store for them. Missed the video? Catch up on the latest news from BlizzConline and find out more about what’s coming in Overwatch 2.
Overwatch 2 brings new, iconic locations to life for players to experience as they trot the globe in their efforts to keep the Null Sector threat at bay. One of the locations the team is most excited for players to experience is Rome, a map that marries romantic old-world architecture and emblematic locales like the Coliseum and the Seven Hills with futuristic tech in a uniquely Overwatch style. Players also glimpsed the art deco-inspired New York City of Overwatch 2, a map that mixes a high-tech vibe with the familiar bodegas, fire stations, and mom ‘n pop pizza shops authentic to the city.
PVP ROLE UPDATES
Overwatch 2 brings major updates to PvP, with new maps, changes to traditional roles, and upgraded systems to make the combat experience feel new and different. One update the team is experimenting with is the concept of passives: abilities that heroes intrinsically have based on their role. Passives take on different forms—tanks have knockback reduction and generate less ult charge for enemies shooting at them, damage heroes have a move speed bonus that allows them to flank better, and support heroes have auto-healing that kicks in after they haven’t taken damage for a while. Beyond passives, a revamp to the tank role as a whole is being explored that will give them more utility—for example, giving Reinhardt two charges of his Firestrike and the ability to steer and cancel his charge—and transform them from backline protectors to beefy toe-to-toe brawlers. The updates are still being iterated on and may be changed or not make it to the live game.
In addition, the team has been working hard on updating the feel of combat to make it more visceral than ever. From sound to visual effects to game design, the way players experience combat has been overhauled and modernized to make even the most minor of melee attacks look and feel more satisfying and riveting. One of the biggest upgrades is the new convolution reverb system that has allowed the team to capture the acoustics of an environment and adjust game sound accordingly. Whether players are outdoors, in an urban area, trailing their teammates through a warehouse tail, or in a tight tunnel, the sound of a hero’s weapon reacts to the area around it, creating an immersive and responsive combat experience.
Since Overwatch 2’s showcase at BlizzCon 2019, the team has worked to develop and refine Hero Missions with new technology, updated enemy units, and a branching hero progression system. Hero Missions are a new experience coming to Overwatch 2, expanding on the co-op PvE that players have previously tasted in Overwatch seasonal events. They’re a massive undertaking; for a system like this to really sing, it needs a lot of missions. The team’s goal since the beginning has been to make as many as possible, giving players hundreds of new worldwide assignments to embark upon as their favorite characters. Heroes will bring personality and light story, and missions feature different types of enemies, objectives to accomplish, expansions built into existing multiplayer maps that will take players down new routes they’ve never experienced, and a living environment that gives the world a cinematic feeling.
At BlizzCon 2019’s first demo of the game, the team felt that combat wasn’t engaging enough. They’ve worked hard since to make missions feel exhilarating, crafting a slew of enemies for players to encounter and updating the hero progression system. Players will face down a new and improved Null Sector that developers have spent the past year fine-tuning to be more engaging. Unique enemies like objective units and elite units and responsive attacks amp up the fun during Hero Missions and vary combat to keep players on their toes while they quell Null Sector uprisings around the world. Alongside new enemies to face, updated hero progression allows players to choose from an arsenal of talents to unleash upon their omnic foes. Break established rules, experiment with different skills in an RPG-esque manner, and control the battlefield in novel ways as you explore new abilities and find the build that best fits you.
With the advent of Overwatch 2, each hero will be receiving a visual update that preserves their core essences while showing evolution in their stories. The team revealed new looks for four fan favorites: McCree, sporting his familiar cowboy hat and an updated red serape that’s been given a techwear treatment, along with a longer beard for a more aged look; Pharah, now outfitted in colors that hearken back to the original Overwatch white and blue with a transparent visor; Reaper, looking edgier than ever dressed in a deadly new ensemble complemented by his sleek silver mask; and Widowmaker, whose classic bodysuit and ponytail have been overhauled in a cyberpunk femme fatale style complete with a striking new braided ‘do.
Along with a cavalcade of other content, Overwatch 2 expands upon what Overwatch truly means, bringing story to the forefront with an expansive narrative experience and exploring what happens after the events of “Zero Hour.” Players will learn more about the second omnic uprising and the newly-recalled Overwatch team through story missions, in-game cinematics, a branching dialogue system that brings heroes to life with banter, and lore-rich new maps to explore. Where are the characters in their lives? How will they respond to this new global crisis? Overwatch 2 will take heroes on a globe-spanning adventure, integrating story with gameplay and pushing the bounds of the game’s narrative with new technology and a surfeit of choices for players to make.
The behind-the-scenes segment is available in VOD format right now! To stay up to date on all things BlizzConline, follow along on Blizzcon.com or on the Battle.net desktop or mobile apps.
We have a rumor/potential leak/potential mistake or assumption on Overwatch 2's release window, as the PlayStation Brazil official twitter posted (and quickly deleted) this, caught by Voxel:
The above translates to "2020 will be the year Overwatch 2 comes to PS4, and for that we prepared, we talked to some of its developers, who gave us hot information. Read the Interview". The interview linked is actually from back in November and doesn't actually contain any new info, let alone any mention of a 2020 release, so this may have just been a mistake by someone posting an old interview and misunderstanding its contents. But considering it is an official PlayStation twitter, and we don't really have any idea of a release window for the game, anything is possible.
You can check out more info on the upcoming game in the official What's Next panel recap, and take a look at the gameplay video below:
Here comes the official look at what's next for Overwatch 2, featuring details and information on the new PvP map type, story missions and events, items, hero missions, leveling up your hero, and a lot more!
Check out our BlizzCon 2019 Content Hub for more details!
What's Next (source)
At the “What’s Next” panel led by Game Director Jeff Kaplan and Assistant Game Director Aaron Keller, BlizzCon 2019 attendees learned about Overwatch 2’s all-new co-op missions, the new map type Push, updates to the original game, new heroes, and even some story details.
New PvP Map Type: Push
In this new map type, players will clash to take control of a robot that starts in a central location and “push” it toward the enemy team’s base. Push maps are symmetrical, and the team that guides the robot farthest by the end of the time limit wins the game.
Jeff and Aaron revealed one new Push map: Toronto. The map aims to be a faithful adaptation of several Overwatch developers’ home country, featuring snow, red maple trees, multicultural storefronts, and even a glimpse of the Toronto subway. The map also has a great number of flanking paths; true to Overwatch form, players of this mode are encouraged to coordinate team-play to achieve victory.
In addition to multiple new Push maps, Overwatch 2 will feature multiple new locations for each existing PvP mode.
Story Missions and the Events of Overwatch
Since the original game launched, we’ve learned more about the events leading to the shutdown of Overwatch. Following the infamous Petras Act that disbanded our heroes, new threats emerged: Null Sector, Talon, and others still lurking in the shadows. In the face of global unrest, Winston initiated the Recall, issuing a plea to all former Overwatch agents to reunite and stand against injustice.
In Overwatch 2, the heroes finally answer that call. Story and gameplay come together in co-op Story Missions, where players will be able to have an active role in the next chapter of the Overwatch saga through a series of intense four-player missions. The selection of heroes in each Story Mission is specific to the objective, so players will be able to experience a thoughtfully crafted narrative experience. Story Missions will also feature pre-game and post-game cinematics to further immerse players in the rich world of Overwatch.
The team is also experimenting with items in Story Missions. The items featured in the BlizzCon demo are reusable throughout the mission, and vary in function and rarity, allowing for different approaches for different playstyles. Items in the demo include the Healing Station (restores HP to all players in a radius when activated) and Corrosive Grenade (deals damage while making enemies take more damage from other sources).
Hero Missions: Level Up and Power Up
In addition to Story Missions, Overwatch 2 will introduce co-op Hero Missions, where players will be able to answer the Recall as any of their favorite heroes. In Hero Missions, players will travel to varied locations in the Overwatch universe and level up their heroes by going head-to-head with enemies like Null Sector, Talon, and perhaps even others who have yet to be revealed. Objectives on each map vary, offering hours upon hours of replayable content.
As players level up their heroes by tackling Hero Missions, they will unlock talents: powerful, customizable modifications to a hero’s abilities. One sample talent shown at BlizzCon was Chain Reaction, which enables Tracer’s ultimate, Pulse Bomb, to cause secondary explosions on enemies that are damaged by it.
Talents allow progression for every hero on the roster, giving players the opportunity to branch out, customize their play experience, and feel overpowered as they tackle missions.
Along with the gameplay, Overwatch 2 will feature a complete visual enhancement. Heroes will have a brand-new look, with greater detail and higher fidelity, and a revamped engine allows for more expressive faces and emotive storytelling. The HUD is also receiving an update, making text more readable and the UI easier to parse without intruding on the on-screen action.
Redefining a Sequel
Sojourn, a character you might remember from the Storm Rising event, is one of the new heroes who will be joining the fight in Overwatch 2. We will share more details on Sojourn and other Overwatch 2 heroes in the future.
Current Overwatch players will battle side-by-side with Overwatch 2 players in PvP multiplayer; they’ll also be able to play Overwatch 2 heroes and maps. Additionally, any unlocks that Overwatch players earn on their accounts will be transferred to the sequel, which means players will keep their skins, player icons, sprays, emotes, and more!
We’re really excited for everything Overwatch 2 has in store. Check out the website for more details and stay tuned!