Building Worlds in Games and Video: A Q&A with Jeff Chamberlain of Blizzard Entertainment
by Michael Charboneau
Aug 7, 2017
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Building from the world of the popular game Overwatch, Jeff Chamberlain and his team created the animated short “The Last Bastion.” We chatted with him about crafting the video, building virtual worlds, and more.
When playing a game online, you don’t always have time to stop and smell the roses. But have you ever wondered how such detailed, beautiful worlds get made?
Jeff Chamberlain, Vice President of Story and Franchise Development at Blizzard Entertainment, is an expert on just that. He and his team are behind the incredible universe of the game Overwatch and the animated short “The Last Bastion,” which takes place in one of the game’s maps. We talked with Chamberlain about the Webby-Winning video, the challenges and triumphs of digital world-building, and more.
How did you come up with the idea for the video?
The story for Bastion developed fairly quickly and, like most things here at Blizzard, it was a great collaborative effort. Arnold Tsang, Assistant Art Director for Overwatch, created the original concept for the title character. It was a wandering robot of war that had lost its original purpose and found an interest in nature.
For the short, a few of us in the writers’ room came up with the foundation for the story in the last few minutes of another short’s creative jam session. I had to take off work early that day and got fixated on this story. I ended up going with my son for a several hour long walk (luckily, he had fallen asleep in his stroller), and got lost in the challenge of trying to mentally create the whole short shot by shot. When I got home I wrote out a description of what I was imagining and sent it to the crew. Matt Burns had a few great ideas to add and took over the writing responsibilities. It then went to our talented storyboard artists, who created an animatic alongside our Editor, Jake Patton, who continued to improve the story.
As often happens in development, the story evolved in small ways as time went on. In the original version, a young girl and her father stumble across the inert, moss-covered Bastion while hiking in the woods. We saw this moment as a chance to explore how humans perceive Bastion as a dangerous weapon of war. We ended up removing the girl and her father, shifting our focus entirely on Bastion and his bird companion, Ganymede. Through their relationship and how Bastion interacts with the forest, we were still able to explore his dangerous potential and how it would affect the world around him.
Due to events outside of our control, the intended use for this short fell apart and it was shelved. When we decided to pick it back up, Ben Dai was available to take over as director of the project and bring it home. In the earlier iteration, we were limited by running time. This was no longer the case, so Ben, Jake, Matt, and the storyboard team could let the piece breathe as needed. It was much closer to the pacing we had originally intended, and it was probably for the best that the original use for this short didn’t pan out.
The bottom line is that a lot of great creative minds from the game and animation teams collaborated to make what ended up on the screen.
The film won a Webby for Best Writing, but there’s no dialogue in it—what’s it like telling a story with only visuals and sound effects? What were the challenges and advantages?
We knew going into it that the lack of dialogue would be a challenge, especially having a main character who is also unable to emote through facial expressions. We found we were able to get a decent amount of communication conveyed through subtle body movements and various robotic sounds. By limiting the means in which we can convey information, it strips the complexity out of the storytelling and boils it down to the basics. There’s something very liberating about working under those sorts of a restrictions. You know the boundaries you have to work with in order to make it work. The real challenge was getting the audience to relate to and fall in love with Bastion as we had, and we used his insatiable curiosity about nature to accomplish that. We spent a lot of time making sure each of the images of the forest were as beautiful as they could be within the limits of our technology.
Overwatch has a big community of players around the globe—how do you engage with that community, and what role do videos like “The Last Bastion” play in reaching them?
We knew early on that the game itself wouldn’t have a lot of opportunity to tell the story of the Overwatch universe, so we made the decision to develop story through animated shorts and comics. The diversity present inthe game enables us to tell many different flavors of stories. We see “The Last Bastion” as one of these flavors, a story that introduces a unique corner of the Overwatch world, allowing viewers to speculate on Bastion’s past and where his path might lead in the future. The short also helped explore bigger ideas rooted in the game’s backstory, such as a history of conflict between humans and omnics, and how that has affected society in Overwatch.
The film gives a great window into the beautifully rendered world in which Overwatch takes place. How important is it for a game to have a rich environment like that? Do players ever stop to look around at the world you’ve made?
Our shorts often use the game team’s environments with minimal adjustments. They’re already incredibly beautiful in-game, and by using them we are able to easily create shorts that are based in a larger set. This short, however, took place in a part of the forest that doesn’t exist in the game, so we had to build it all from scratch. We like to have our shorts coincide with a map in the game, and at the time the game team was working on the Eichenwalde map. In order to fit the two together we created one shot that shows the castle where the gameplay takes place in the background. It’s been fun working with the game team to come up with ways to use their maps to tell a story. We often find that they’ll put some details back into their maps that reference the shorts.
What does your Webby win mean for you?
We’re honored just to have the opportunity to make these animated shorts. To win an award such as a Webby makes it that much better. It’s always a great feeling to be recognized for something this group has poured so much passion into.
If you fell in love with Bastion and the world Chamberlain and his team created, make sure to check out Overwatch to do even more virtual exploring, and try your hand at one of the top games on the Internet today.