Building Inclusive Game Worlds

by Lydia Bottegoni, Executive Vice President, Story & Franchise Development, Blizzard Entertainment on Jun 16, 2021

I was recently chatting with a coworker at Blizzard about world-building and character-development in our different games, and it got me thinking about how our approach has evolved across our franchises over the years. It was an interesting discussion, and in honor of Pride Month, I thought I’d share our perspective on creating games and telling stories in a way that welcomes and hopefully appeals to a broad spectrum of players.

One of our goals in game design is for our players to be able to see themselves represented in our games. It’s natural to want to immerse yourself in the games you play, and that’s easier to do when you feel the game world is a place where you belong, and are welcome.

BlizzCon attendees

Our mission as a company is to bring more people around the world together through epic entertainment—that’s what drives us as creators, and it’s something we think ultimately brings positive experiences into people’s lives. Creating worlds that are inhabited with characters that our players can understand, relate to, identify with, and enjoy, is critical to achieving our mission.

Fighting for the Future

This all starts with our developers, who come from all walks of life and backgrounds. Blizzard has always “made the games that we wanted to play,” and as our employee base has continued to expand and diversify, the types of games we want to play have continued to expand and evolve as well.

Blizzard employees

The most recent example of this is Overwatch, which features all of the hallmarks of Blizzard gameplay, combined with a bright and optimistic vision of a future Earth that’s inhabited with heroes of different colors, creeds, and sexual identities—just like our employees and our global community of players.

That hero makeup very much fits the overall vibe of Overwatch. As a team-based shooter, the variety of character designs, abilities, and backgrounds helps amplify the experience for our players and provides a constant connection to the story premise of the game. Seeing the dimensions and differences of each hero—such as Symmetra, an autistic woman from India, with the ability to shape reality as a light-bending “architech,” and Doomfist, a Nigerian man with a powerful prosthetic arm and a fixation on strengthening humanity through conflict—steadily reinforces the fact that this is a game about heroes, from different countries, banding together to fight for their common causes.

Overwatch hero lineup

That approach is first and foremost about serving our primary core value of Gameplay First—everything is in service of the game experience. But one of the aspects I really like about it is that it marries the underlying premise of the game world, with a diverse cast of heroes and a vision of the future where people of all backgrounds, races, and other personal traits and characteristics, simply belong. We want our players to feel welcome in our game worlds AND have an extremely good time playing. Overwatch serves as a clear example of that.

Constantly Evolving

In World of Warcraft (WoW), which has grown and evolved extensively over the years, we’ve also looked for ways to broaden representation for our players—both in terms of the greater appearance customization we added with Shadowlands, and also with some of the characters in the game.

While we do our best to create multidimensional characters and avoid defining them by a single trait, such as their sexuality, gender identity, or skin color, I’ve nevertheless found it uplifting to see how warmly players have responded when, for example, we have prominent female characters that are every bit as complex as their male counterparts, or when it’s been revealed that certain characters are transgender or gay. In addition to helping us continue to expand and deepen WoW’s game world, I like to think that these characters also show that diversity—variety in the makeup of our worlds—is welcome and good. 

World of Warcraft Shadowlands

WoW has always been a game designed to appeal to a wide range of player tastes and interests—offering “something for everyone” has been one of its greatest strengths. Whether you want to go on a role-playing adventure, socialize with friends, master the economy, live the life of a tradesperson, battle against other players, collect cute pets, or save the world from malevolent forces, there’s depth for you in all these different elements of the game. The recent efforts to provide more character options and expand customization choices continue that trend and help to create a satisfying and rewarding experience for even more players.

Authenticity is Critical

All that said, it’s vitally important for anything we create—any new scenario or new character we introduce—to feel right and authentic to the overall game experience. Our players can immediately spot things that aren’t authentic, so as the leader of our story and franchise development team, I try hard not to influence the creative process.

Blizzard is fortunate to have talented creators across our franchises, and they’re strongly encouraged to follow their heart wherever it takes them when they’re building worlds and characters. I’m so often inspired not just by the creativity of our teams, but by the depth, knowledge, and global perspective they bring to their work.

Global perspective

One thing that’s been clear across my years in working with different creative teams is that you don’t get good characters by checking boxes. Good characters most often come from the creative spark of the author and are shaped in a way that feels true to the story. For Blizzard, this means that our characters often grow out of the ideas laid out by the author or team of authors, for our different game universes, and how they’re developed from there is driven by the different purposes they serve in the story.

Tying back to our company purpose of bringing more people around the world together through our games, I continue to work to add even more diversity to our creative teams—especially in the areas of storyboarding, directing, and writing, which are where many ideas for our game universes are born. Combining Blizzard’s long-held principles for story development and game design with a diverse base of highly talented creative professionals is a good way for us to achieve the goal of delivering stories that even more players around the world can enjoy.

Listening to Your Audience

We don’t always get it right. And sometimes even though we have the right intent, the execution falls short in the eyes of different members of our game communities. As is the case with many other entertainment and media companies out there, our audience—many of whom are deeply invested in our game worlds—pays close attention to the intricate details of our different settings and stories, and they let us know if they feel we’re off the mark when it comes to a character, plot, or design element.

One thing that’s as true of Blizzard today as it’s ever been is that we are also a part of our audience. As game makers and story tellers, we combine our professional experience with our deep love of Blizzard games and stories, and that often helps us critique and improve each other’s work just as other members of the community would.

Of our audience

Another thing that’s true of Blizzard is that while a single author or team of authors often drives the overall vision for a story, no one person owns or controls the final product. It’s a highly collaborative process that brings together a talented, diverse group of people across different disciplines who are all passionate about creating polished, high-quality experiences and delivering for our players.

Stepping Forward and Stepping Back

Sometimes an author’s vision for a story includes introducing more diversity into the experience of one of our game universes, and sometimes it doesn’t. Given that one of our highest artistic goals is ultimately to deliver an experience that feels authentic and engaging, both approaches are OK at Blizzard and no one here dictates any expectations along those lines.

Pelagos

But if an author does happen to go down the path of introducing a less-represented character type or broadening the overall diversity of a set of characters—whether because it’s interesting and exciting to the author, it’s something that’s important to them personally, or they think it will be more engaging to current audiences—our collaborative process helps make it so that we’re not too precious about any single story element. This means that when it makes sense to do so, we’ll take a step back, do a spot check, and do our best to make sure the representation is treated with the right regard and feels authentic and appropriate both to the story and to our audience.

The Ultimate Goal

The bottom line for us is that Blizzard is heavily focused on making epic, polished games that are accessible and approachable to the widest possible audiences. We think our games provide great entertainment experiences and can help bring people together through those experiences, so we very much want players everywhere to feel welcome and included.

The more we’re able to achieve that goal, the more fulfilling it is to us as creators and as people, and we hope the more rewarding it is to everyone inhabiting our worlds.